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Billy Higgins

Billy Higgins is an NEA Jazz Master

Billy Higgins was reportedly the most recorded jazz drummer in history, and certainly one of the most beloved. Higgins was one of the most musically sensitive jazz players around, with a light but active swing. His style did not draw attention to itself and could not be described by mannerisms; his musicianship simply raised the standard of every band he played in. Although he did release few records under his own name, Higgins was in great demand as a sideman, providing sensitive accompaniment in a variety of settings.

Higgins was born in Los Angeles, on Oct. 11, 1936 and began playing drums at the age of 12. Early in his career he played with R&B bands including those of Amos Milburn and Bo Diddley. Other early affiliations included singers Brook Benton, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

He was soon involved in jazz, playing with other local musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, James Clay, and Walter Benton. In 1957 he was in the quartet led by Red Mitchell which also included pianist Lorraine Geller and tenor saxophonist James Clay. This band recorded for Lester Koenig's Contemporary Records label, on what was Higgins' first record date. But he soon left to join Ornette Coleman's new band, with whom he worked steadily in 1958 and 1959. In New York in 1959 he appeared with Coleman at the controversial Five Spot concerts, in a band which also included Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. Later that year he joined Thelonious Monk and in 1960 was with John Coltrane. By then he had become one of the most in-demand freelance drummers on the scene, particularly on many Blue Note sessions.

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