Ron Gill: The Jazz Advocate
Ron Gill was a guy who thought you could never do too much for jazz. Gill, who died on April 16, 2020, at age 85, sang countless songs in a career that stretched back to the mid 1950s. He also spent 20 years as a deejay, entertaining the Hub in the wee small hours of the morning. And he was a leader in the local jazz community, active with Boston’s Jazz Coalition and later with the New England Jazz Alliance. Gill had energy to spare for the scene he loved.
Brooklyn-born Ron Gill grew up listening to great singers, beginning with Billy Eckstine. He began performing as a high school student in Boston, and sometimes sang with friends who later formed the doo-wop group, the Love Notes. (They recorded a Gill composition, “Surrender Your Heart,” in 1953.) His next singing stop was the Caribbean, with Gene Walcott, “the Charmer,” in 1954-55. He was one of Walcott’s Calypso Rhythm Boys—the group’s balladeer.
Drafted in the mid-fifties, the army assigned Gill to the Special Services, their entertainment branch. Uncle Sam sent him to Germany to entertain the troops stationed there. Gill was still singing calypso (“a little Belafonte thing”), but he was surrounded by jazzmen. He remembered meeting saxophonists Eddie Harris and Leo Wright, and drummer Lex Humphries. Gill added more jazz to his repertoire.
Gill Meets Williams
Back home, Gill, now raising a family, gave up singing for a time to concentrate on his work as a graphic designer with the Polaroid Corporation. But music was never far away. He studied with the influential teacher Eddie Watson, who helped him form the basis of his distinctive style. Gill started performing in 1967 with the trio of the underrated pianist Jimmy Neil. Then he teamed up with pianist Manny Williams, an old high-school pal, in 1968. Ron would sing with Manny’s trio, with Reid Jorgensen on drums, for decades. (Bill Hill was the trio’s first bassist.) That summer, they criss-crossed the city for Summerthing, Boston’s neighborhood arts program. They also played at the Playhouse in the Park, directed by teacher and civil rights activist Elma Lewis in Franklin Park.
It was not a great distance from that “arts for the people” summer of 1968 to the jazz activism that took hold of Gill’s life a few years later. He was among the first members of the Jazz Coalition, the non-profit group formed in 1971 to create a more vibrant jazz scene in Boston, one that served the needs of the artists outside the city’s established mainstream. It was the beginning of something new—a “jazz community” in which all were welcome—and Ron Gill was involved as deeply as anyone.
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