The Troy Street Observer

Ron Gill: The Jazz Advocate

Photo of Ron Gill, 1977
Ron Gill, 1977. Uncredited Boston Phoenix photo.

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.

The Jazz Coalition’s first president, Mark Harvey, told me recently that “Ron was a stalwart in terms of growing the organization and developing its ongoing programs, like the Jazz All Night concerts and the Jazz Celebrations series. He appeared as a performer in those events, too. Ron really was an invaluable member of the core team that guided the Coalition, and without him, its efforts would not have been as robust or diverse.” Gill, in fact, replaced Harvey for a term as president in 1980-81.

Hitting His Stride with Strays

CD cover, The Songs of Billy Strayhorn
The Songs of Billy Strayhorn (WGBH 1001, 1998)

Gill stayed busy as a singer in the 1970s. He was part of a series of memorable concerts with Ran Blake during the Jazz Coalition years. The first, in 1974, mined the late-forties work of Billie Holiday. However, a 1977 concert had a bigger impact on Gill personally. That was Blake’s exploration of the music of Billy Strayhorn, and he asked Gill to sing “Day Dream.” Gill was no stranger to the Strayhorn songbook, having toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under Mercer Ellington in 1974. But that Jordan Hall concert sent Gill digging deep into Strayhorn’s music. Twenty years later, Gill sang Strayhorn’s music in concert, and in 1998 released his album, The Songs of Billy Strayhorn.

Gill continued to sing in the new millennium, capping his career with Turn Up the Quiet with guitarist John Stein in 2009. (Whaling City Sound released the album in 2013.)

For all of this, some of Ron Gill’s fans never heard him sing live, but they knew his voice well. He was a weekend host on The Jazz Gallery on WGBH-FM, playing music through the overnight hours. He started at the station as a fill-in host in 1985, and joined the staff in 1988. Gill remained on the air until 2008, when the station replaced him with a prerecorded show produced on the West Coast. It was an unpopular decision.

Ron Gill had one more go-round as a jazz activist when he became president of the New England Jazz Alliance in 2005. At the time, he told me he wanted to make pin-back buttons for the members that said, “I am a Jazz Advocate.” The Alliance created the New England Jazz Hall of Fame, and Gill oversaw the selection of the Hall’s third member class in 2009. Shortly after wrapping that up, Gill completed his term as president. He retired to North Carolina later that year.

The 30-Year Difference

To the music. Ron’s daughter Shauna posted this terrific 1969 footage of Ron singing Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You.” Gill, like Brown, was a cross-genre singer then, and I wonder if the two ever met. They had the opportunity: they sang six days apart at the Playhouse in the Park in 1968.

And of course, we must hear some Strayhorn, so here is “My Little Brown Book,” from the 1998 album. This was a man with 50 years of song behind him, and although the pipes weren’t what they were in 1969, his phrasing is peerless and his pure pathos is show-stopping. Gill made this song his own.

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Comments

  1. One of the worst decisions ever made in Boston radio was WGBH’s replacing Ron’s overnight shows with much-inferior programming. Ron was a dear friend to me and to jazz, especially in Boston. His contributions to the establishment of the New England Jazz Hall of Fame were invaluable. Thank you, Dick, for the wonderful tribute.
    Please tune in noon or 11 p.m.Wednesday (WETFthejazzstation.org) to hear plays of Ron’s music.

  2. Good friend, fine singer, fun man on every level. Many great times fighting the good, if futile fight for jazz. It’s good to work with older jazzers ( and grow old with them); younger dudes aren’t able to face the futility and “keep on keepin on” We did!

  3. Dick,
    Truly a well deserved tribute to a major artist in the Boston Jazz Legacy. My friendship with Ron began with the onset of NEJA. Ron became President and I was his VP. Got to know Ron as an artist, having attendee his many tribute concerts, and as a totally committed representative of the Boston Jazz Community. We have lost a close friend. He will be missed.

  4. It was a joy to work with Ron on the Strayhorn recording. Spending time with him was always an education in the history of jazz, singers and songs. I was always impressed by how much thought he put into his performances and the presentation of music. Ron was a wonderful colleague and friend that I will surely miss. Thank you for this lovely piece.

  5. Thanks for writing this piece on the excellence of Ron Gill. I was the bassist on the Strayhorn recording. Ron was very happy with the outcome of this. It is a great piece of music and I’m so happy to have learnt so much about how to make music courtesy of Mr Gill.

    • Thank you, Ron, and you were fortunate indeed to be a part of these proceedings. A lasting gift to all of us. And good to hear that Ron was pleased with it as well.

  6. Dick, another spectacular posting. Each story is a revelation for me, because I know so little about the history of jazz. I never heard of Ron Gill. What a talent! Keep up the great work. I hope to see you when the pandemic passes. -Tom MacDonald

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