Monday, October 31, 2011

Tribute 1: Billy Higgins

The Great Billy Higgins
These days, aspiring jazz drummers check out, in no particular order, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jeff Watts, Brian Blade, Bill Stewart, and Eric Harland(there used to be a hilarious Jazz Robots video about Harland but I'm unable to locate it.). And maybe they check out Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Ralph Peterson, and Lenny White. One drummer I think gets left out of the curriculum is Billy Higgins. Playing the drums musically means playing good time and serving the music; Higgins did just that, which is why he played on 700 recordings as a sideman. You may know him from Cedar Walton's Eastern Rebellion:
However, Higgins played on many of the pivotal Ornette Coleman recordings, as well as tons of classic Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, and Hank Mobley recordings. Lee Morgan said of Higgins, "He never overplays, but you always know he's there." Higgins' ride cymbal beat is fairly identifiable: it's more straight in the eighth notes than somebody like Jimmy Cobb or Ben Riley(two other underrated drummers in the jazz edumacational world).

My favorite Billy Higgins appearances are the following odd mix: Herbie Hancock's "Takin' Off", Charles Lloyd's "Hyperion With Higgins", Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder", John Scofield's "Works For Me", and of course any of the Eastern Rebellion stuff.(I like the stuff with George Coleman and Bob Berg.)

Cedar Walton, WITH a shirt on....
I was fortunate to have one opportunity to record with Higgins. Years ago, Higgins was a guest on a recording by vocalist Vanessa Rubin, who I had been working with steadily for a number of years. Rubin had gotten the great Cedar Walton to write some arrangements for the album.(Which was another cool experience; getting to meet Cedar Walton. Rubin and I went over to Walton's apartment in Brooklyn to check out the arrangements. I was struck by the fact that Walton came to the door shirtless, because the air conditioning was on the fritz and it was a muggy New York City summer. I thought back to my first hearings of Walton and learning many of his great tunes, never expecting to meet him in the first place, and never thinking I would meet him at his door shirtless. Walton sat at the piano, played through his arrangements, and then said, "Why don't you give it a try?" That's the New York Pressure for you: where else do you meet the greats and then have to sit down in front of them and play?)

Two things that were really amazing about that session (at least concerning Higgins. What was also amazing was when the producer of the recording, John Clayton, during a break in the action, picked up Richie Goods bass and flawlessly fired off the double bass excerpt from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Impressive, to say the least). One was that Higgins never looked at the charts of Walton's arrangements, but after one run through, had all the hits nailed. I suppose all those years of playing with Walton gave Higgins a sense of where the music will most likely go. I suppose musicians who play together for 30 years are like an old married couple, finishing each other's sentences.....

The other thing that was amazing to me was when Higgins started singing. Again, during a break, I was messing around with Cedar Walton's waltz entitled "Clockwise". Higgins ran over to the piano and started singing these marvelous lyrics, very operatically, and doing an elegant dance around the studio. I was really impressed. I asked Higgins, " Who wrote those amazing lyrics?" He replied, " I did. Just now....."

Here's an interview with Higgins, who passed all too young while waiting for a liver transplant:

And here's a clip of Higgins with Pat Metheny:


  1. Yeah, more power to Higgins! And what about Billy Hart, Paul Motian, Jon Christensen, Daniel Humair, Ed Blackwell, Milford Graves, Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, Big Sid Catlett, Aldo Romano, Joe Chambers, Grady Tate, Tony Oxley ...? It's rather sad that the up-coming jazz players do know so little about their heritage - and it's not just the drummers ()
    Tom Gsteiger, Switzerland (

  2. Higgins had one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. Among musicians, only Dannie Richmond exuded as much sheer joy in playing on stage.

    Here's something I wrote about seeing BH with Charlie Haden's Quartet West:

  3. Excellent recipke! I've commenced making my personal clothes soap only lately - as well as find it irresistible -- try not to use a pretreatment bottle of spray : They're Straightforward ingredients that i'm likely to give vid test!!! Thanks for posting this!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.