“Hilton has a clear vision of how she wants to sound as she beautifully plays the Steinway…her piano sound is lush, delicate and highly melodic…. A rich balance of emotions and harmonic colors as well.”
Glide Magazine/Jim Hynes
When I begged for piano lessons at the age of five, my Mom hesitated: she thought I wouldn’t practice. When my two older sisters took piano lessons, they never practiced much, and Mom figured I would do the same. So I taught myself how to play with a little colored keyboard guide and Mom taught me the names of the notes. I learned the usual nursery songs but those got boring, so I started composing my own simple songs with names like “Fairy Dance.” One of my earliest memories at the piano was of my mother asking what I was playing, and I happily said it was a song I made up myself.
Turning eight, I was ecstatic when I found out I would finally get those lessons. It turns out I loved to practice, so I learned quickly. I studied classical and “modern” piano literature for ten years, then headed to college in San Francisco, where I studied with the virtuoso pianist, Carlo Bussotti, described online as “a demanding teacher feared by many students.” For me the piano had always been a passion and creative outlet, but at eighteen I couldn’t envision a future as a classical pianist, so I abruptly dropped out of the program, graduating instead with a degree in art and design. For many years after that, I didn’t play or own a piano.
After college, I kept my creativity active. I worked in photography in Hollywood, then at a design firm as a creative director in the entertainment industry. With my sister Sandra Kirkpatrick, we wrote the popular children’s book, If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today (Price/Stern/Sloan – Penguin/Random House). The time away from the piano, working in art and design, actually contributed to my music skills though. Now I think of composition in terms of color, balance and texture, imagining music as I would a sculpture or a painting rather than as notes or tones.
When I returned to music, it was like coming home again to my first love, but I had to make up for all those years I didn’t play! After being considered a gifted pianist when I was young, it was incredibly humbling to start over. Unfortunately, my performance anxiety had increased, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about the feelings I had or ask for help. So I practiced hard and continually hacked my habits to get better results. It took quite a while to acquire my piano skills again. During that time, I also taught myself notation software to prepare the scores for our recording sessions. Now I really enjoy notating music, and it’s exhilarating to play the piano the way I’ve always wanted to. Performing as a solo pianist and also with my band at Carnegie Hall were important milestones on my path after my previous difficulties.
My Dutch grandfather, on my father’s side, immigrated to the US to teach at Yale, and my Dutch grandmother was a kindergarten teacher whose brother had been a young virtuoso pianist in Holland. My French grandparents, on my mother’s side of the family, immigrated here after my grandfather was exposed to mustard gas and disabled in the war. After he passed away, my French grandmother taught at Reed College to support their four young children as a single mother. I am thankful for the strong work ethic my grandparents and parents modeled for us: Dad was also a university professor while Mom ran her own successful small business. They were always supportive of the talents of their four daughters and stressed that our education and work experience was important.
I’ve had so many extraordinary musical experiences since leaving San Luis Obispo. Growing up in that small California town, we were really out of the mainstream. I never saw professional musicians there, never went to jazz camp, or had any special training before college. Suprisingly, I didn’t even fly on a plane until I was eighteen! Yet, I have since played with the jazz icons of this era and worked with top engineers at the best studios. I feel extremely thankful for these amazing moments and experiences since I returned to a career in music – it has been well worth the effort.
If you look at photos of me when I’m in a recording studio, I always have a really big smile on my face. I love recording new music! For me, this is when the music comes alive for the first time. It can also be stressful to perform and lead a studio session as a producer and bandleader though. The first time I flew to NYC to record, I became overly anxious before a quintet date with Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Jeremy Pelt, and Steve Wilson. I could barely sleep the night before and was not my best when I showed up at the studio. Still, two minutes into the music, my apprehension was gone - I was thrilled, excited, and energized by the incredible musical energy we shared.
For many years I never saw any women working in a studio. I first started recording albums at Chick Corea’s Mad Hatter Studio in Los Feliz, CA and later worked at Avatar/Power Station and Sear Sound in NYC, and then Capitol Studios and The Village Studios in Los Angeles, so I have had a lot of studio time, but it always seemed like I was the only woman there. Lately, I’ve met women engineers and studio managers, as well as instrumentalists, and it’s very cool to see this positive progress.
There is still rampant gender discrimination in music though. Performing art centers, clubs and venues presenting classical, jazz, or opera performances, support music created primarily by men. It is so pervasive that we don’t even realize that we just spent ninety minutes listening to compositions written by men, performed by (mostly) men, and normally conducted by…men! How silly and old-fashioned that is! Women have always been cultural leaders, even if they haven’t been acknowledged as such. When women’s accomplishments are highlighted, they are often only partially noted. We know of Joni Mitchell’s talents as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, but her experience as a bandleader and producer tend to be ignored. Diana Krall is a terrifc singer, but her skills as a pianist, producer, and bandleader are normally overlooked. Why are we so aware of trumpeter Louis Armstrong when his wife, the college educated pianist/composer/bandleader Lil’ Hardin, taught him a bit about music! Women have always had tremendous talents and made cultural contributions and we should be able to experience their artistic views as composers, bandleaders, and instrumentalists.
I am thankful our band had a great tour in early 2020 before the pandemic closed the world. The audiences were so appreciative, making it especially difficult to cancel the tour dates we had for March and April. Canceling the concert for the students of Perkins School for the Blind near Boston hit me hardest. I have been performing for visually impaired students since the beginning of my career, and I was looking forward to sharing this experience with my band. Music has always been so important in my life: if I was blind, I think it would mean even more to me. I have always tried to reach out to the visually impaired students and give them something I would have loved in my childhood – a visit from a real musician. Over the years, I have worked with Perkins, The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Junior Blind of America, and l really love performing for these groups.
Since childhood, I have consistently found great joy in composing - it is a passion for me. I have now composed, performed on, and produced twenty-six albums in the U.S, with two additional albums in Asia. I am thankful that our music resonates so well with jazz fans around the world and for the tremendous support we receive from radio and streaming services as well as media sources and writers. In composing, I always let the music come to me - I never try and force an idea or write to a concept like you would for an assignment. I believe the life experiences we all share can be communicated to others through music, and it’s important to create music for this generation, not continually play music from the past.
I never intended to do all the different things I have done -one thing always led to another. Wanting to compose led me to recording, producing and performing. Having copyrights and recordings led me to start a publishing company and record label. My skills as a creative director have helped me create the albums and books. I view myself as an artist and a creator who works on creative teams with very talented musicians and artists, each of us collectively contributing. Musicians and artists feel successful when we can connect and communicate our shared world with others. It’s a lot of work, but it can be a lot of fun too!
I started my career later because I wanted to raise our family first. Family is very important to me, and I didn’t want to miss out on spending time with our kids. Now that our two children are grown, I get to enjoy more time with my piano, composing, and with my husband too, of course! I never intended for my career in jazz to be an example for our children, but I think it was good to see their mom create new work and a career over time – the same way I saw my parents grow in their professions.
MUSICIANS LISA HILTON HAS PERFORMED WITH
Ameen Salem / bass
Antonio Sanchez / drums
Ben Street / bass
Ben Williams / bass
Billy Hart / drums
Bobby Militello / sax
Brice Winston / alto sax
Christian McBride / bass
Eric Marienthal / sax
Igmar Thomas / trumpet
Jaimeo Brown / drums
Ingrid Jensen / trumpet
Jeremy Pelt / trumpet
Johnny Friday / drums
Greg August / bass
Larry Grenadier / bass
Lewis Nash / drums
Luques Curtis / bass
J.D. Allen / tenor sax
Marcus Gilmore / drums
Mark Whitfield Jr. / drums
Nasheet Waits / drums
Obed Calvaire / drums
Reggie McBride / bass
Rudy Royston / drums
Sean Jones / trumpet
Steve Wilson / saxophone
Tal Bergman / drums
Terrell Stafford / trumpet