Billy Higgins, jazz drummer
Born: 11 October, 1936, in Los Angeles,
Died: 3 May, 2001, in Inglewood, California, aged 64
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 Sixties, 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 Sixties 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 recalled that they spent about three years simply rehearsing with
the saxophonist 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 Fifties 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
Seventies, and made occasional records as a leader, mostly for European
He worked with saxophonist Joe Henderson in the early Eighties, 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-Eighties.
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 Eighties, 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 Nineties, 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, where he died of the disease.