IRA HILL, THE TORCH BEARER
February 4, 2016 by Helen Borgers

Ira Hill singing the title track from his new CD.

19-year-old Ira Hill is the new jazz singer on the scene. He has been officially welcomed by the greatest living champion of vocalese, Jon Hendricks, supported by Cheryl Bentyne, who produced his new album, Tomorrow, and mentored by former Basie vocalist, Dennis Rowland.

His biggest influence, says Ira, is his father, who started his interest in music by listening to Motown and jazz around the house. When he was 14, his father took him to hear Grammy-nominated vocalist Dennis Rowland, who leads a big band in Phoenix, where Ira has lived since he was 7. Ira recounts his life-changing experience:

It was a Father’s Day celebration, with an audience of 300 or 400 people! Before the concert, I went up to Mr. Rowland, introduced myself, and told him I was a singer, too. He asked me what I sang, and I said, “Motown.” After the band’s last number, Dennis said to the crowd. “Here’s a young man who says he sings Motown. We’ll find out.” And, without any rehearsal or anything, I sang “My Girl,” with the Dennis Rowland big band and got a standing ovation!

Ira was thrilled. He knew this was what he wanted to do.

 Ira and Dennis

Ira with Dennis Rowland. Photo courtesy of Ira Hill. 

Dennis suggested he learn to sing jazz. For five years, Dennis has been his mentor, teaching him stage presence, phrasing, how to improvise, how to scat sing, and so on. Ira has also studied with pianist/vocalist Judy Roberts, and with pianist Paul Sherman, both fellow Phoenix residents. In fact, it was Sherman who introduced Ira to the art of vocalese—that is, putting lyrics to instrumental solos. It was also Sherman who put Ira on to King Pleasure’s song, “Tomorrow’s Another Day,” which is one of Ira’s favorites, and from which he got the name for his debut disc.  

His greatest desire is to sing like a horn player, to have an instrumental approach to his solos, in the tradition of the founders of scat singing and vocalese. On Facebook, he found that Manhattan Transfer member, Cheryl Bentyne, was offering a vocal workshop. The Transfer singers are direct descendants of the greatest of scat and vocalese singers, Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks, each of whom recorded with the Transfer. (Jon Hendricks is still an active friend and collaborator.) He registered for the workshop and his father took him to Los Angeles for that weekend.

 Ira and Cheryl Bentyne

Ira with Cheryl Bentyne. Photo courtesy of Ira Hill.

 

Ira in the studio, recording his debut disc, Tomorrow. Photo courtesy of Ira Hill.

Cheryl invited Ira to make a studio recording with some of the best of LA’s musicians, and it turned out so well she ended up producing an entire album, which features John Proulx, Kevin Axt, Dave Tull, and Doug Webb, on piano, bass, drums and sax, respectively. Cheryl sits in, too! She has also been Ira’s entrée into the world of the legendary vocalists, introducing him to her fellow Transfer members (including their late founder, Tim Hauser), Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan, and Annie Ross!

Ira with Jon Hendricks. Photo courtesy of Ira Hill. 

At this tender age, he is not only pursuing a vocal career, he is also studying to complete his degree in Public Administration, which, he says, will help him with the business side of the music profession, and also opens other career doors. For example, he is currently working as an intern in a congressman’s office. He is an articulate and confident speaker, which gives him a definite edge as a performer.

The CD release party for Ira’s Tomorrow will be February 24th at the E Spot Lounge in Studio City. Cheryl Bentyne will guest, and bassist Kevin Axt and saxophonist Doug Webb, who are on the disc, will play as well. On drums will be Ray Brinker (who, among many other stellar gigs, plays regularly with Kevin Axt in Tierney Sutton’s band). And, in a special appearance, Ira’s cousin, Jamael Dean will play piano.  

Jamael Dean, Ira Hill's cousin, featured on piano with Kamasi Washington at Hollywood and Highland. 

Ira is a positive, upbeat spirit and a hard worker. His philosophy keeps him going: “Just practice,” he says, “and don’t be discouraged if you have a bad night or even a bad month. Just keep at it. As long as you love it, you’ll be alright.”

 

On-air personality, Helen Borgers, can be heard on KJazz 88.1 FM from 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. As a jazz broadcaster, Helen has been invited to give pre-concert lectures at various performing arts centers, served on panels in jazz conventions all over the world, and lectured about the history of jazz in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. She has also written articles for international jazz publications and regularly emcees concerts, festivals, and club dates throughout southern California.
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