Story and Photos by Brad Walseth
Pianist Lisa Hilton brought a little warmth and sunshine with her from her native Malibu on Tuesday as she visited the Chicago Lighthouse � a 102-year old non-profit agency that assists blind and visually-impaired people.
Hilton is a talented composer and pianist who has devoted time and energy to helping the visually-impaired by working with them with music. She first began her musical studies at age 6, teaching herself with a color-coded keyboard. By 8, she advanced to traditional lessons and original songwriting, and she studied classical music and modern piano literature through her teens before rebelling against an autocratic teacher. Composer David Foster talked Hilton into playing and writing again, and since 1997, the artist has released ten albums, including 2007's engaging "The New York Sessions."
Hilton was inspired in her teen years by the blues, including the B.B. King's classic "Live From the Cook County Jail" - which in turn led to her playing her own style of Jazz, which mixes classical, pop and blues.
Only her second visit to the Windy City, Hilton expresses a desire to visit more often. "Being from California," she says with a laugh, "I didn't actually realize that Cook County was Chicago. So when I was here last time, I saw a sign that said Cook County, and I said this is it - this is where those blues come from. So I'm thrilled to be here.
"Blues is the music that touches us all," she adds.
Besides being an accomplished and dedicated composer and pianist, Hilton also teaches workshops and art-reach programs designed to inspire teens and young adults to continue in music. Several years ago, Hilton started working with the blind in Malibu, and was later recruited to work with students at The Perkins School in Boston (Helen Keller's alma mater), as well as the Junior Blind of America group.
"One thing I must clarify," she says, "is I am not a special needs educator. I am not a teacher and I'm not an educator. I'm a jazz musician and I love connecting with people in this way. The music touches them.
"People ask me why I do this," she adds. "Well, it's fun!"
The Chicago Lighthouse heard of Hilton's work and invited her to visit the storied institution, which houses the nation's oldest low-vision clinic, an acclaimed school for the blind and disabled, a nationwide computer help desk for blind users, and radio station CRIS. Additionally, the Lighthouse houses and supplies Braille books and materials for visually-impaired Illinois children, and is perhaps most famous for their clock making facility, which supplies clocks for federal government offices.
Hilton was here to spend time with the Chicago Lighthouse's resident musical group, "Vision Quest." This 9 member ensemble under the direction of Harold Hicks has released 2 CDs, plays at all Chicago Lighthouse special events, including the annual dinner, and performs concerts at various public and private functions throughout the Chicago area.
On this afternoon they performed for Hilton and had the opportunity to ask questions and engage in a give-and-take session with the artist. Spirited versions of songs like "Stormy Monday" and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" (complete with 4-part harmonies) were presented, much to the delight of their guest.
The highlight of the day came when Hilton agreed to play one of her songs, the lovely, blues-based "Seduction." As the pianist played, one by one the members of "Vision Quest" began playing with her. The young drummer filled the rhythm part lightly and sensitively, while his fellow percussionist added tasty beats. The keyboardists chimed in, with synthesized strings following the bass notes nicely. Everyone in the room broke out in broad smiles as this wonderful unrehearsed moment unfolded.
"They played my song!" Hilton exclaimed happily.
Hilton clearly enjoys her work in this area and explains that people have preconceived ideas about people with disabilities through an amusing story. "At a blind camp," she relates, "a blind speaker was speaking to a big audience of 200 teenagers, and he asked who was hotter � Brittany (Spears) or Christina (Aguilera), and everybody said Christina because of her voice � because she's got the soul in her voice. Now they had never seen either girl, but they knew her. So I said - okay, they are definitely picking up a lot"
As a crusader to keep young people involved in music she notes the abundance of young and talented jazz musicians, and comments, "There seems to be a disconnect between an industry that wants to say this is what people want to listen to, and this is where it is going and this is what is happening, and what does seem to be happening with tons of young people."
Hilton believes music saved her life. "I think a lot of people would say the same thing," she says. "Where would YOU be without jazz in your life. It seems like it would be so... thin. There wouldn't be much there. The universe is so huge and there is so much to do and learn and experience. It's really limitless."
This dedicated artist and humanitarian has an idea to assist The Chicago Lighthouse in building a dedicated music room for the facility, and also to help them in obtaining Braille sheet music. Could this require Ms. Hilton to return and play a benefit concert for the citizens of Chicago? We can only hope she will share more of her sunshine with us in the future.
Lisa listens to Vision Quest
Lisa plays "Seduction"