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Billy Higgins: 1936-2001
Billy Higgins

Born: October 11, 1936 in Los Angeles, California
Died: May 3, 2001 in Inglewood, California



Master Drummer of Modern Jazz

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman, 2001


Billy Higgins will always be ranked high on any list of the greatest drummers in jazz. He emerged to widespread attention when Ornette Coleman's ground-breaking quartet arrived in New York from California in 1959, and proceeded to create a schism in the jazz world which has echoes to this day. Higgins went on to build one of the most diverse careers in modern jazz, and added his own particular magic to any setting in which he featured.

His activities as a band leader in his own right were limited to occasional recordings and appearances, but his contribution to contemporary music across four decades was enormous. He was virtually the house drummer at Blue Note Records in their highly productive heyday in the early 1960, and went on to amass a huge discography in a host of contexts, stretching from straightahead jazz sessions to free improvisation, and on to collaborations with the likes of the idiosyncratic folk musician Sandy Bull, who died earlier this year.

His list of associations stretched from Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane in the early 1960s through to contemporary stars like Pat Metheny, Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman. His ability to adapt to any style or setting was only part of the reason for his high standing. More importantly, he was able to imprint his own distinctive mastery of time, swing and groove on the music in entirely complementary fashion, without getting in the way of the leader's intentions.

His ebullient on-stage presence and sheer joy in making music always shone through. He was an energising force, lifting and shaping the music with his deft, highly musical rhythmic patterns. As the great trumpeter Lee Morgan once succinctly observed, Higgins "never overplays, but you always know he's there", while another of his satisfied employers, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, observed that "Billy is like a Zen master -- everybody who plays with him gets that ecstatic high".

He began playing drums as a child in his native Los Angeles, and worked briefly with rhythm and blues artists like Amos Milburn, Jimmy Witherspoon and Bo Diddley before joining the Jazz Messiahs in 1953, a band which also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, whom Higgins had met in high school, and saxophonist James Clay.

Clay introduced them to Ornette Coleman, then entirely unknown, and they began working with him on his controversial approach to music, which set aside the accepted swing and bop conventions of improvising over chord sequences in favour of a more radical concept of melodic development, which he later dubbed harmolodics.

Higgins performed and recorded with Red Mitchell in 1957, but later recalled that they spent about three years simply rehearsing with Ornette before anyone finally gave them a gig. That occasion, when they joined pianist Paul Bley at the Hilcrest Club for a week in 1958, was singularly unsuccessful in audience terms, but on the bandstand new directions were opening out for all of the musicians.

Coleman's arrival in New York for a residence at the Five Spot Cafe in 1959 quickly became a sensation, with the jazz world lining up to praise or damn the new approach. Coleman's music made heavy demands on the drummer, and the saxophonist was fortunate in having first Higgins and then Ed Blackwell as his regular drummers.

Higgins quickly established himself on the New York scene, and began to rack up that long and impressive list of associations. The dominant hard bop style of the mid to late 1950s was still pervasive, but was now giving way to a more fluid style of interpretation, while the success of Miles Davis's modal experiments on Kind of Blue and the impact of the so-called free jazz of Coleman and Cecil Taylor opened up new alternative directions for jazz.

Higgins was able to master all of them, but became particularly associated with the musicians who were extending bop in fresh directions. He worked and recorded with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan and Donald Byrd (among many others), often but not exclusively for Alfred Lion's Blue Note label.

The sale of Blue Note to Liberty Records in 1967 and the subsequent rise of jazz-fusion marked the end of an era, but Higgins continued to be in constant demand. He worked frequently with pianist Cedar Walton, and was a co-leader of a band named the Brass Company in 1972-3. He recorded notable albums with Milt Jackson, Art Pepper and J. J. Johnson in the late 1970s, and made occasional records as a leader, mostly for European labels.

He worked with saxophonist Joe Henderson in the early 1980s, and with trombonist Slide Hampton in 1985, a year in which he also appeared alongside Dexter Gordon in Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight. He was part of the great trio which guitarist Pat Metheny assembled for his album Rejoicing (1983), with bassist Charlie Haden, another veteran of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, and was a member of the first version of Haden's Quartet West in the mid-1980s.

He rejoined Coleman in 1987 when the saxophonist reformed his original quartet with Cherry and Haden, both to tour and to record the In All Languages album. He recorded with Don Cherry again during the trumpeter's association with A&M in the late 1980s, making up a quartet on Art Deco (1988) which also included Haden and James Clay. He recorded with Sun Ra during this period as well, also for A&M.

Higgins had returned to live in Los Angeles in 1978, and in the late 1980s he joined forces with poet Kamau Daaood to launch the World Stage, a store front venue for workshops, community activities and concerts, which has supported the activities of both writers and musicians. He used his huge range of contacts to bring major jazz names to the modest venue, and dispensed advice and support to many young musicians. He was also involved in teaching jazz in more formal settings, and was on the jazz faculty at the University of California in Los Angeles. He was awarded a Jazz Master's Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997.

His own musical activities were temporarily suspended by a serious liver disease in the early 1990s, but he returned to playing after a transplant in 1995. That liver had also begun to fail, however, and he was unable to play from late last year. Recent fund-raising concerts and appeals, led by bassist Larry Grenadier, were aimed at helping defray his medical expenses for a proposed second transplant. However, he was admitted to hospital suffering from pneumonia, and died there of the disease. He is survived by four sons, a stepson, a daughter, and a brother.

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All Grace

by Mike Zwerin
Copyright © 2001 Mike Zwerin

International Herald Tribune, May 2001

It's amazing how often the sound of a drummer's name relates to how he swings -- or, in this case, alas, swung. Billy Higgins died last week at the age of 64, while waiting for a liver transplant.

"Billy Higgins" goes like one feathery drum lick. You hear swing of a different nature when you say "Philly Joe Jones" or "Roy Haynes." Go ahead, say it: "Billy Higgins." And good drummers usually look good behind their kits. The way they hold and move their head and body relates to the swing they fabricate. Looking good, as Miles Davis said in a hornblower context, is half the battle.

Higgins came out of what is sometimes called the "black West Coast jazz school." This includes Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus and others. Somehow this "school" seems to have been marked absent in most history books. The term "West Coast jazz" came to mean Chet Baker, Stan Kenton, Art Pepper and other white musicians who played as though they had just spent the day getting as black as possible on the beach.

No, that's not fair. It's not even true. White is black and vice versa and there are many shades between. Believe it or not, though, it was generally speaking the most prominent perspective at the time. In recent years, critics have found it necessary to apologize for other critics having ignored all the great black players on The Coast in the '50s and '60s.

Bassist Charlie Haden was generally considered a token white in the black school. Higgins and Haden were the generating force behind Ornette Coleman, a "black West Coast" altoman out of Los Angeles, who, in the late '50s, with (black West Coast) Don Cherry on Pakistani pocket trumpet completing the quartet, developed the first major new sound since early bebop in the mid '40s. There was no chordal instrument. This was considered revolutionary although it came directly out of the quartet fronted by two "white west coast" hornmen -- Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. Baker was from Oklahoma, Mulligan grew up in Philadelphia. So much for West Coast schools.

Mostly the revolution consisted of freedom. Either way, the Ornette Coleman quartet quickly moved east. Shortly after they opened for an extended engagement at New York's Five Spot Cafe in 1959, Leonard Bernstein famously jumped on the postage-stamp stage to embrace the leader. This was fresh and liberating music. It can best be heard on a six-CD box called Beauty is a Rare Thing, The Complete Atlantic Recordings.

In the collection's notes, Coleman is quoted as saying: "When I met Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins and Don Cherry, they were into bebop...When we got together [they found that] the most interesting part is, what do you do after you play the melody? That's where I won them over." In what came to be called "free jazz," after the melody soloists then went out vaguely in the same key or mode or tempo or not even and made up their own rules as they went along. At first not many listeners could follow it, let alone musicians. The Higgins-Haden tandem was generally under-appreciated at the beginning. It was an anchor with just enough give that everything else became possible. While constantly moving it around, they were inventing new time to tend. The swing was straight out of the Swing era by way of Kenny Clark and Ray Brown. But at the same time not very straight at all.

One visual image that remains of that quartet is three cool guys wearing shades plus Billy Higgins with his forever smile. And what a smile that was -- as clean as the "ping" on his ride cymbal. No flies on Billy Higgins.

He was a master cymbal-caster and with his unusual wrist control his stroke produced a minimum of overtones. It was possibly the cleanest "ping" in history. There was an absence of heavy-metal hanging over between pings. It was sort of like a submarine ping, but above water and on a clear day. Very few drummers have been able to play so hard and soft at the same time. He made every band he played with sound like him. And he played with a lot of bands.

As Coleman moved on to more ambitious and experimental creations, Higgins went backwards in an avant garde sort of way, making traditional musicians sound more modern. Many superficial listeners who had written Higgins off as just another avant garde drummer were astonished when he began to get the first call from bebop virtuosi like J.J. Johnson, Hank Mobley, Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon. Starring as Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight, Gordon started out with Tony Williams in his band. Williams was pretty much drummer of the day. Fast, flashy, a star, he was winning all the drum polls. Nevertheless, although not without embarrassment, Gordon asked Tavernier to hire Higgins as his drummer instead because he would feel more comfortable that way. It was done, and he did.

Higgins had a liver transplant in 1996. It turned out he would need another. In the meantime he was well enough to work for a few years with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who soon began to get more positive reviews, sell more records and feel a whole lot better about his music and his life at the same time. Call it coincidence if you like.

Speaking over the phone from his California home on Sunday, Lloyd said: "Billy made the world a better place. How could he smile like that with all the injustice everywhere? He was somehow able to rise above all that. Sometimes I used to get short of breath playing with him because it was so much fun I didn't want to miss a second. Billy Higgins was all grace."

Mike Zwerin
Mike Zwerin is the longtime jazz correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, and author of Swing Under The Nazis, Cooper Square Press.


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With 2 reader comments, latest May 30, 2001