On Saturday, trumpeter Travis Hill posted photos on his Facebook page showing himself onstage in Tokyo. “I love Japan,” he wrote. “It’s my home outside of New Orleans.”
But late Sunday night, friends heard that Hill had gone to a Japanese hospital with trouble swallowing and a fever, stemming from an abscess in a tooth he’d had capped in New Orleans earlier that week.
By Monday morning, they were hearing even worse news: that the infection had reached his heart and stopped it.
A news release put out by his publicist said he died at 2:15 p.m. Tokyo time on Monday.
Hill was 28. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
Hill was in Japan on his own, playing with Japanese jazz musicians instead of his usual New Orleans band. It was a trip he had anticipated for months because he’d gone to the Asian country the previous year.
Hill performed with the New Birth Brass Band on the Congo Square Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 24, the first day of this year’s festival.
He complained of a toothache on Thursday, when he played a gig with the Treme Funktet at Vaughan’s Lounge, and then flew out early Friday morning for Japan.
“The fans there worshipped him,” said Cindy Wood, the owner of Vaughan’s Lounge, which had been one of his musical homes for the past few years.
Hill, nicknamed “Trumpet Black” as a child by his cousin, James Andrews, had worked to overcome barriers to become one of the city’s young musical stars.
He was the grandson of Jessie “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” Hill and grew up in one of the city’s most treasured musical families, playing some of his first gigs on plastic buckets and other found objects in his 6th Ward neighborhood.
He played some of his earliest trumpet dates as a round-faced little boy alongside equally young, now-famous cousins Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Glen David Andrews. He played for tips with Tuba Fats in Jackson Square and gigged with the Lil Rascals, Hot 8 and New Birth brass bands.
But as a teenager, he got caught up in what he would later call “bad decisions” and went to prison for more than eight years on an armed-robbery plea.
He used his time in prison to study and read, but he was able to play his horn only a few times. When he was released in 2011, he picked up the horn again, began to eat right and exercise, and soon he was working as a musician again.
In September 2013, Hill began playing trumpet at Vaughan’s in Bywater with the Treme Funktet, led by his longtime 6th Ward friend Corey Henry. The Funktet had begun playing the Thursday night gig that had been Kermit Ruffins’ spot for years.
Whenever Henry was touring with the band Galactic, Hill would take over the spot with his band, Trumpet Black & the Heart Attacks.
“I had Travis every week,” Wood said. “His energy was amazing. He would get everyone moving; he would second-line around the bar. It was getting to the point where his shows were unbelievable.”
The musician is survived by his mother, Dorothy Hill Martin, and a brother, Leroy.
NOTE: The Hill and Andrews families announced a memorial musical presentation by James Andrews in honor of Travis Hill tonight, Monday, May 4, at 8 p.m. at the Ooh Poo Pa Doo Bar, 1931 Orleans Ave.