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Eddie Higgins: Elegance And Confidentiality

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He demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge, not only of the repertoire, but also of the styles, ranging from Dixieland to hard bop.
This article was translated into English and was first published on meer.com.

The story of a refined pianist, feted as a sideman by the greats of international jazz and an authentic star of the Japanese record scene.

The Ascent

I met pianist Eddie Higgins on three separate occasions—the first time was in 2006 at a concert at the Teatro Piccolo Regio in Turin (Italy). Thin, reserved, extremely polite and helpful, with a weak and slightly hoarse tone of voice that was all his own: this was Eddie. The concert in question was for solo piano and the repertoire he chose ranged freely through the jazz classics. Hearing him play I immediately understood that what Eddie gave of himself as a person he poured into his music too: a gentle touch, elegance in the construction of the introductions and in the rendering of the endings, no virtuosic excess but refined harmonic choices. The lengthy career of this man and his collaborations with the leading international exponents of jazz had left an indelible mark on his way of interpreting and making music, enabling him to toggle between the most disparate styles, if necessary, with a certain nonchalance.

Edward Haydn Higgins was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1932. His mother taught him the rudiments of music until he moved to Chicago, where he studied at the Northwestern University School of Music.

It was in the Chicago of the '50s that the young Higgins was musically weaned. Here, for more than twenty years he would play in the best jazz venues of the city as a solo attraction or as an orchestra leader, a constancy sometimes rare in a jazz player. Among the many established venues that gave him work were the Brass Rail, where he played with Jimmy Ille's Dixie-jazz band, the Cloister Inn and Jazz Ltd., the Blue Note and the Preview Lounge.

For about twelve years beginning in May 1957, (the original engagement was to be for two weeks) he left a very important mark on the historic London House, on the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, playing in his definitive trio with bassist Richard Evans and Marshall Thompson on drums. It was here at the London House that Eddie listened to and had the pleasure of playing with some of the great stars of that period: Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans and George Shearing (who had recently composed "A Foggy Day in London House").

The albums that Higgins recorded in those years were many, both as a leader and as a sideman for artists of the caliber of Coleman Hawkins, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Lewis, Freddie Hubbard and Al Grey. It was from this point in his career that his name began to circulate in the world of jazz, with Eddie becoming a highly sought-after pianist in the most varied of formations.

The first album that bore his name on the cover was The Ed Higgins Trio, released on the Replica label in 1957. It featured his first trio from London House. It was recorded by one Bill Huck in the repurposed garage of his house in the Chicago suburbs, which he had converted into a studio where he recorded a type of organ music then in vogue. Huck had some success selling the music he produced, until he turned to jazz: After the recording of Eddie and a few other jazz records he went bankrupt and the studio closed its doors.

Eddie's big break came in 1959 when he played at the Playboy Jazz Festival, in Chicago in a quartet with Coleman Hawkins. The year after our meeting in Turin, when I pressed him to tell me about his experience with Hawkins, Eddie revealed the curious details of that distant day. He told me that the Chicago Stadium stage was round and divided in half by a curtain, so that no sooner had one group finished its set, the next could let rip without pause, having already set up behind the curtain. It was enough to simply rotate the stage 180 degrees on its axis. Fifteen minutes out from their performance slot, Hawkins still hadn't arrived from the airport. Finally, with five minutes to spare, he showed up on stage impeccably dressed and with his sax in its case. He took out a bottle of whiskey from a travel bag and drank a fair amount of it. Eddie introduced himself to Hawkins and asked him if he wanted to play anything in particular, given that they were about to start. The answer was a shrug, a grunt and another gulp of whisky. Quickly, Eddie settled on a few songs while Hawkins seemed to be totally indifferent. Due to start and seeing that the sax was still to be assembled, Eddie gave the signal for "All The Things You Are" with the famous Charlie Parker intro. What appeared in front of them, once the stage had completed its rotation, was an audience of some 19.000 people. Once their set was over, Hawk packed up his sax, walked past the other musicians and made his exit. The incredible fact is that he never said a word but played divinely. Accompanying Hawkins that day was absolutely electrifying for Eddie.

Then 1960 arrived with, in Eddie's words, one of his most brilliant studio sessions. By chance he was invited by a local journalist to record at Chess Studios (also in Chicago) with Al Gray as leader on trombone and several members of the Count Basie Orchestra. The result of those recordings was The Thinking Man's Trombone which contained the hit "Salty Papa," made famous precisely by Eddie's piano intro.

Around the same time he recorded a memorable album for Vee-Jay Records, (Expoobident), with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Clifford Jordan on tenor sax, Art Davis on bass and Art Blakey on drums. In an interview conducted in the wake of the album's success Eddie related that he had no interest in going on tour with Art Blakey despite Art's invitation. Unfortunately, unaware of this episode and not having asked Eddie for an explanation at the time, I will never know the reason for that 'great refusal.'

In 1961 it was the turn of the famous session with Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Jymie Merritt on bass and Marshall Thompson on drums. Higgins also composed the piece that gave the album its title, , a contribution that ensured lasting recognition in terms of royalties. "Wayning Moments" is a splendid summary of the minimal musical trends of the post-Kind Of Blue" period, and a theme that owes much to the linearity of "All Blues."

From September 1962 to March 1963 Higgins traveled the length and breadth of the eastern part of the United States with the great trombonist Jack Teagarden (more commonly known on the scene as 'Big T'), finally landing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That tour was immortalized by an LP with a very particular gestation. One night at the Beach Club Hotel a fan brought along a tape recorder and set it on a table in front of the band. The device was equipped with a small, unprofessional ceramic microphone; its owner asked Jack if he could record the evening, promising in return to send a copy to the band. A few months later Eddie received the tapes. They sounded horrible, distorted and loaded with hiss. Since the microphone was placed in front of Teagarden, only the trombone and piano could be heard, while Maynard Gamble's bass and Barrett Deems' drums were almost inaudible. It was like hearing music through the end of a drainpipe, Eddie would recall. As it happened, a copy of the tape ended up in the hands of Ed Burke, an avid fan who had released several big band LPs and a few private tapes on his Fanfare label. This is how Jack Teagarden Sextet In Person At The Beach Club Hotel (1963) saw the light of day, much to Eddie's disappointment.

The Reflection

The move to Fort Lauderdale in 1970 signalled a new phase for Eddie, who thereafter would return more and more infrequently to cold Chicago to play in local jazz clubs such as Back Roo, on Rush Street or the Jazz Showcase. His first solo album dates back to 1978, the result of the fusion of two previous LPs entitled My Time Of Day and Dream Dancing. While Bill Evans was about to conclude his artistic and human experience, Eddie, after having absorbed all his elegance, rejected it in this refined work which paves the way for a more mature pianistic course.

In fact, the '80s proved to be a springboard for his career. His first trip to Japan dates back to 1980, where for about four months he played in various hotels in Osaka and Niigata and jazz clubs in many other cities. He also recorded an album for Toshiba Records released under the title Sweet Lorraine. |For Eddie, Japan represented an ideal place to live and play, so much so that he described it thus: "Great audiences, good pianos, splendid trains and subways and above all excellent food." Speaking of food, during a dinner break in the recording sessions for the album, the producer, hoping to pay homage to his American guest, had him brought a very special Kentucky Fried Chicken, not knowing how much Eddie hated fast food and loved typical local dishes instead.

Meanwhile, even the golden stay in Fort Lauderdale bore fruit from him. Eddie often played at Bubba, an elegant restaurant that staged jazz from 1978 to 1982. These were the best years of Higgins' career as he was able to engage with world-class musicians in beautiful surroundings. Among those who graced Bubba's were Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Joe Williams, Stan Getz, Joe Pass, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. Also at Bubba's, Eddie often shared the stage with the legendary multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.

In 1988 he married the singer and painter Meredith d'Ambrosio, who partnered with him on a significant number of albums for Sunnyside. From that time the couple began a series of uninterrupted travels in Europe, but above all in their beloved Japan, where Higgins had become a real star of the jazz firmament, with significant sales of his records on the Venus label.

Eddie would continue to record lot of material through the '90s and beyond, alternating different formations and playing an extremely varied repertoire.

The Man

I would like to add some personal color to this brief portrait of Ed Higgins, based as it is not on interviews or indirect sources, but on events lived together.

As I have already mentioned, I had the opportunity to meet Eddie in Turin and then, an honor not granted to everyone, to have him as a guest at my house twice.

These two moments occurred respectively in March 2007 and in April 2008. A series of circumstances had meant that a mutual friend, a singer by passion, chose my home—as it was equipped with a piano and suitable recording equipment—for a home-recording of ballads accompanied by Eddie. The interesting thing was obviously being up close with a great musician who was free to express himself in such an intimate setting. This opportunity highlighted for the listener all the artistic nuances and the approach to his instrument that created Eddies' signature sound.

In the two sessions, we recorded about thirty songs chosen by the singer and communicated immediately to Eddie, who proved versatile not only in their execution in the suggested key, but often in the transposition of the same song, remaining impassive when faced with improvising in the the most 'uncomfortable' or unusual key. The first version was almost always good, without hesitancy or flaws.

The result was an essay in mastery, versatility and indescribable craft. What was striking—and something I had already noticed in the concert in Turin—was the use of a formula in the solo attacks and in the endings which bore witness to the fifty years of jazz history that he had lived through and which is also clear in the recordings made after the '90s. Even if he was playing in an informal way, Eddie took great care of the solos, trying not to slip into any repetition of models that he might have acquired. He sometimes constructed almost exclusively harmonic improvisations, or improvisations with subtle chordal variations.

He demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge, not only of the repertoire, but also of the styles, ranging from Dixieland to hard bop.

A little known fact: during the first recording session, one of the songs chosen was the standard "Autumn leaves." The singer told Eddie that she would interpret it in French while keeping the original structure of the song intact; having chosen the key and sung the first words on the melody of the verse, Eddie interrupted and claimed that he had never heard that song. Amazed, we soon discovered that in almost sixty years of career, and after having interpreted the piece hundreds of times, he had never once performed this standard in its original version. Consequently, he was convinced that "Les feuilles mortes" consisted solely of the refrain.

Eddie left us with one unreleased piece: once the sung pieces were finished he still wanted to record one that he had composed in those days in the hotel and which was entitled, perhaps provisionally, "April in Turin." I don't know that he had the time to edit it properly and that's why I jealously guard what I consider his artistic testament.

He died the following year, on August 31, 2009 at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale of cancer of the lungs and lymphatic system. His ashes were scattered on Cape Cod, southeast of Boston.

Essential discography

As leader
  • 1986: By Request (Solo Art)
  • 1990: Those Quiet Days (Sunnyside)
  • 1994: Zoot's Hymns (Sunnyside)
  • 1996: Portrait In Black And White (Sunnyside)
  • 1997: Haunted Heart (Sunnyside)
  • 1998: Speaking Of Jobim (Sunnyside)
  • 1999: Time On My Hands (Arbors Records)
As sideman
  • 1958: Relaxin´ With Sandy Mosse with Sandy Mosse (Argo)
  • 1959: Blowin' Up A Breeze with Coleman Hawkins (Spotlite)
  • 1960: Expoobident with Lee Morgan (Vee Jay)
  • 1960: The Thinking Man's Trombone with Al Grey (Argo)
  • 1962: Wayning Moments with Wayne Shorter (Vee Jay)
  • 1963: Jack Teagarden Sextet In Person At The Beach Club Hotel with Jack Teagarden (Fanfare Records)
  • 1981: What's New con Sonny Stitt (High Definition Jazz)

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