BY DOTTIE ASHLEY
When pianist Tommy Gill filled a space - whether a tiny bistro or a 1,000-seat hall - his fingers moved with such dizzying speed that it often appeared as if a higher power had taken over the keyboard.
In a wink, the Charleston native could switch from a swiftly executed version of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk," to the Four Freshmen's lush "Indian Summer."
When Gill died of renal failure Thursday, only four days before his 50th birthday, he left an enormous void, not only among local musicians, but also throughout the Lowcountry.
While in his early 20s, it became clear that Gill should be performing in places such as New York's Village Vanguard, or in L.A. playing on soundtracks for films, or at Capitol Records recording with major bands and orchestras.
However, the unassuming eldest of six, who, beginning at age 16, earned his spending money playing in local restaurants and clubs, would say, "I just want to practice hard, to compose, and to perform music to lift the spirits of the people who hear it."
At age 3, Gill began picking out tunes on the piano, with the help of his mother, Harriott. Then, after graduating from high school, he journeyed to Boston to study piano performance, theory and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music (1983-85).
While at the conservatory, he also trained to become a high-grade piano technician.
"I learned how to tune, voice, and regulate nine-foot concert grands, and, after earning my certificate, was hired by Steinway & Sons in New York," Gill recalled. "My job was to tune pianos to be used in Carnegie Hall for concerts by such stars as Rudolf Serkin and Emanuel Ax."
Gill also began playing some gigs in clubs in the Boston and the New York area, but said, "Sometimes in the clubs with people drinking too much, and often being rude, that made it difficult.
"You have a set of rules and a certain discipline that you have to follow. Within these rules, there is a chance to create something unique. But you can't ever forget the rules are there."
After years of taking classes, part-time, at the College of Charleston, while performing in clubs and restaurants, accompanying stage musicals and concerts, and working as a piano tuner, Gill finally earned a degree in music from the college in 1993.
Once, when he was at our house tuning our Steinway, Tommy ran his fingers lovingly over the keys, playing some bars from "I Loves You Porgy," and said, in a soft voice: "This is what it's all about."
For years, Gill served as the pianist for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, which performs at the Charleston Music Hall, with approximately 25 local and regional musicians.
Of the dozens of times over the more than 20 years that I've heard Tommy Gill make music, the performance that will forever live in my memory was his re-conceptualization of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" which received its world premiere at a CJO concert in 2010.
His arrangement, which encompassed the entire second half of the evening, used the tune "Pure Imagination" from the film, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," as a prelude to Gershwin's trademark bluesy clarinet introduction. Then, throughout the piece, containing his own intricate, dynamic chords, Gill brought to the keyboard a melange of Latin, rock, and swing to make "Rhapsody" his own.
As Tommy's good friend, the late Jack McCray, who was co-founder of the CJO, once said, "Tommy transforms his music into a truly spiritual experience, which makes him, for me, one of a kind."
Dottie Ashley is a former Post and Courier feature writer and columnist.
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