Tommy Gill, a jazz musician who helped launch the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and played uncountable gigs with other local jazz players over the years, died late Thursday. He was 49, four days shy of his 50th birthday.
Gill's health has been precarious in the last few years. He had undergone heart surgery and has struggled with other issues, according to friends and colleagues. At the end of June, he was moved into Hospice care because of renal failure.
Gill was an accomplished pianist who perhaps made his biggest splash in 2010 when he performed his own arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and a group of string players. The concert revealed Gill to be an innovative and ambitious arranger whose musical risk-taking and charisma on stage helped to fuel an extremely enthusiastic response from the audience.
Not long after that performance, Gill retreated from the spotlight into a self-imposed musical retirement.
Thomas Gill Jr. was born in Charleston, studied piano technology at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and worked for some year in New York City for Steinway and Company building pianos.
Gill worked part-time as a piano technician and also gave private lessons. He earned a piano performance degree, studying under Enrique Graf at the College of Charleston, and eventually joined the faculty as an adjunct professor, teaching jazz piano.
Bob Belden, a jazz saxophonist and arranger in New York City, who was born and raised in Goose Creek, knew Gill well. Belden first met Gill when the pianist was 14 and took him to play a gig.
"He had an amazing ability to hear something and figure it out and realize it on piano," Belden said.
The two men, about 20 years apart, played together often throughout the years.
"Every time I came back to Charleston, we'd do a gig over the holidays," Belden said. I even played drums in his trio. Danny Leonard played bass. ... One of the highlights of our career was when we played with Abe White and the Diplomats at the first-ever NAACP convention in Charleston in the early 1980s."
Gill was "devoid of any guile," innocent, always ready to learn, always eager for fellowship, Belden said.
"Musicians were far more integrated than the general society," he said. Charleston musicians are wide-open people for the most part. Tommy represented that. He covered so many bases."
But it is the numerous small-ensemble sets Gill played alongside his friends and colleagues - Quentin Baxter, Mark Sterbank, Charlton Singleton, Kevin Hamilton and many others - that will cement his legacy in the minds of Charleston jazz fans.
Gill was a consummate collaborator, and there seemed to be nothing he liked better than filling in the harmonies of a classic tune or trading eights with his brothers in the band.
Bobbie Storm, a Charleston singer who has known Gill for 27 years, said she'll never forget when she first met the pianist at the Chef and Clef downtown.
"Here comes this beautiful, young, too-handsome man," she said. "He took my breath away. I loved him from the moment his fingers hit the piano."
Gill long-time collaboration with Storm was characterized in part by an unusual sensitivity to the singer's craft, the lyrics, the way the vocal line works, she said.
"He was a singer's piano player. He embellished every note I sang."
The last time she performed with Gill was about a month ago, when he was briefly out of hospice care, but he was weak and "traveling in his mind," Storm said.
Drummer Quentin Baxter called Gill a "soulmate" and one of the first people in Charleston with whom he played jazz, beginning in 1993.
"A lot of my formative years locally, playing jazz music, was with Tommy Gill," Baxter said. "I learned a lot of tunes playing with Tommy. Specifically, a lot of standards."
Baxter also recalled his friend's musicianship at the piano.
"Tommy swung so hard," he said. "When Tommy plays be-bop or plays real swing, Tommy has the thing."
The funeral is scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at J. Henry Stuhr's Mount Pleasant Chapel, 1494 Mathis Ferry Road. Condolences may be sent through Jazz Artists of Charleston, P.O. Box 21756, Charleston, S.C. 29413.
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