When Bill Hill was first given the gift of music, he didn't want it. In 1995, while he recovered from hand surgery, a friend gave him a plastic recorder. The instrument, familiar to elementary-school music students the world over, was intended as a simple therapeutic tool to help Hill exercise his hands -- and exorcise some post-surgery blues.
"I tried to discourage her from giving it to me, but she kept on insisting," he says. "It sat on my bookcase for a few years, like a decoration."
But seven years later, Hill can't stop playing with the thing. The simple, nine-holed recorder has become his primary means of self expression and tension release. It's also defied some musicians who regard the minimalist woodwind as an inferior device. In fact, when manned by Hill, the recorder is transformed -- and so is he.
"I play the recorder to separate myself from the stress of life being like it is now," says Hill, a 65-year-old former postal worker now living on disability income in Denver. "I take it everywhere I go, because it's a comfort to me. And it's a good conversation piece. It's better than carrying a gun. You get attention just like somebody packing a pistol, but it's good, positive attention. And people of all ages -- babies, little kids, people older than me -- they all like it."
Hill is hoping that local CD-buyers will like his music, too. Two years ago, he produced an album of recorder music; his plans to release it on disc were shelved when he was injured in a rollover accident in Iowa while driving a friend's kid back to Denver. Now recovered from his injuries, Hill is ready to reveal his masterpiece, which bears the rather unwieldy title Wishing You Love, Peace, Health, Happiness, Strength, Sense, Faith, Hope, Charity, Wisdom, Courage, Patience, Tolerance, Understanding, Virtue, and last but not least, Wealth. (Take that, Fiona Apple.) The disc, recorded before he began performing regularly, features Hill playing eleven blues and jazz standards over a dubbed-in crowd.
"I came up with a dream: a million-seller CD," he says. "If they can sell a million rap CDs of profane, vulgar music, I should be able to sell a million CDs of something soothing and relaxing."
On a recent Wednesday night, Hill carried out his campaign at the Paradox Lounge, a friendly, working-class establishment on South Broadway. Two dozen people filled the front of the bar, listening to a string of acoustic strummers and electrified groups play classic-rock covers and folky fare. Hill stepped onto the stage, pulled his recorder from the side pocket of his painter's jeans and breathed into his first tune, "Bronze Is More Precious Than Gold." An original that Hill penned for his granddaughter, it's a beautiful, airy jazz number, played on the most unlikely of jazz instruments.
The audience, bombarded all night by amplified music and bar chatter, went quiet.
Eyes closed, Hill blew haunting, almost Native American-sounding notes, his fingers floating and falling over the recorder. When the song ended, the audience members -- many of whom had seen Hill perform before -- exploded in roaring applause, as if the home team had just scored the winning basket. Hill smiled, then slipped into a jazzy, wistful version of "Summertime," the melody sounding especially brittle and poignant as it sighed through the recorder with bent blues notes, expert trills and passages of pure, whistled wonder.
"Look how quiet the bar has gotten," a man seated at the bar said. A modern Kokopelli playing a child's instrument, Hill accomplished a minor miracle in the tough open-stage environment: He iced the room.
Numerous ancient cultures have used relatives of the recorder, and the modern-day version has been a staple of classical music for centuries. But its place in modern music has been limited to a few new-age artists, composers and musical ensembles who capitalize on the recorder's blood-pressure-dropping sound. Amateur groups embrace the instrument as a musical focal point for social activity, while others, such as the Littleton-based American Recorder Society, focus on keeping it alive.
One reason the recorder is out of the pop consciousness, says ARS director Brock Erickson, is that "for so many years, it's been used as a tool for introducing elementary-school children to a melodic instrument at an early age. It has that 'not-a-real-instrument' kind of reputation. You play it until it's time to get in the band and play a real instrument."
Hill says he's repeatedly run up against that kind of thinking. "I've heard it expressed to me like that a thousand times," Hill says. "People see me with it and think, 'He must be taking that up to his grandkids.' You get looks." Over the past few years, Hill's attempts to sit in with other groups have been met with plenty of looks -- and much resistance from dubious players. But the few musicians who have welcomed him have been fascinated, he says, and come away with a new opinion of the recorder's potential.
"I've met a whole lot of people I wouldn't have met otherwise, without the recorder," he says. "Some people just walk up and hug me. Beautiful girls and such like that. I'm not a womanizer anymore; I'm living my life right now. But it's a good thing I didn't have this in my womanizer days."
Hill's path to the recorder began in high school band, when he played clarinet. As an adult, he gave up music, got married, fathered two sons, then divorced and fell into a life of partying and chasing women. About ten years ago, he changed his ways, opting for a cleaner lifestyle that revolved around studying the Bible, not nightlife. ("I wanted to quit while it was a choice," Hill says. "Not because I was on my deathbed.") But he also studied his music. He says his devotion to playing has been partially fueled by his desire to right a few wrongs from the past -- namely, mending his relationship with his sons. "I want to be the best man I can be, the best father, the best grandfather," Hill says.
In the early '90s, Hill developed carpal-tunnel syndrome and eventually had surgery on his hands, which only worsened his condition. Soon after, a friend gave him his first recorder. After it lay unused for a couple of years, Hill picked the instrument up. "I hit some notes; I started liking what I was hitting," he recalls. So, apparently, did others. "I was sitting on the tailgate of my old pickup, and some people were listening. I didn't even know it until somebody yelled through a fence, 'What did you stop for?'"
A woman next door also weighed in. "She told me, 'I've been to every window in my house trying to figure out where that was coming from. That's so beautiful.' It just made me feel real good."
Hill's playing does the same for others. A local school for troubled kids used a cut from his CD as a "meltdown" song for students. He makes regular appearances at his church, End Time Christian Center, where he performs versions of "Amazing Grace" and other hymns. After hearing Hill play Christmas tunes for residents of Denver's Bean Towers two years ago, Bruce Buck, a businessman from Fountain, was so moved that he funded the production of Wishing You.
Angelina Onofrio has been similarly moved. A local acting teacher and part-time musician, she's helped Hill learn to work around a microphone and encouraged him to hit more open stages. "What he does is so unique. It's an unbelievable thing," Onofrio says. "It's old jazz and blues music that has the musicality of a saxophone and that soothing quality you only get from that little instrument.
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"I love Bill Hill," Onofrio adds. "He's the most amazing, wonderful, gentlemanly person in the world."
Hill has won over younger audiences, too, by showing elementary-school kids the instrument's potential during visits to local classrooms. Letters from these students attest to Hill's impact: "I never knew anybody could play the recorder like that," one child writes. "When you played I saw a picture that went with the song," states another. "I'm very proud of these," Hill says, holding the stack of letters in his hands. Such responses have inspired Hill to teach the recorder to area children. ("I teach them what they can't get in public school," Hill notes.) But he'll reach adults in more traditional ways: He's placing copies of Wishing You in bins at Twist & Shout, Acoustic Music Revival and a few other stores. (Copies may also be attained by writing Hill at P.O. Box 7101, Denver, 80207.) Hill's got big plans for the disc and his career, both commercially and artistically.
"My hopes are just as high as any other musician. My dream is a big dream," he says. "I got one son who didn't finish college," he adds. "I'd like to say, 'Here, take this; go finish college.' I'd like to be able to pay for my granddaughter to go to college. That's what I want with my money.
"I'm not going to give up if I haven't sold a million before 2005 or something," he adds. "When I sell one, I get elated. Because I know that it's real -- it's a real piece of my dream. It's not just my imagination and me wishing I could sell a million. A million starts with one."