On April 22, less than two weeks before he died in Los Angeles while awaiting a liver transplant, the great drummer Billy Higgins was the subject of a "Love-In" in New York intended to raise funds to help cover his medical expenses. And there certainly was love - and hope - in the air, as well as a lot of wonderful music, as a stellar lineup of Higgins' associates and admirers gathered at St. Peter's Church in midtown Manhattan. Alas, few of us present at the high-spirited concert could have known just how soon Billy Higgins would be gone. One of the most important and prolific drummers of the past forty years, Higgins was also one of the most popular individuals in the jazz world, renowned for his generosity and ever-present good humor. The high esteem and affection in which Higgins was held were reflected in heartfelt performances by artists like Ron Carter, Cedar Walton, Eric Reed, John Hicks, and, in an unannounced appearance, Wynton Marsalis, who played the heck out of a slow blues with pianist Mulgrew Miller. Other highlights included the rousing opening take on Hank Mobley's "Up, Over and Out" by the Billy Higgins All Stars, led by trumpeter Don Sickler with Kenny Washington ably filling the drum chair; moving solo piano from seldom-heard master Chris Anderson; the Eric Reed Quintet's romp through Lee Morgan's "Speedball," which Higgins originally recorded with Morgan in 1965; a sing-along and fund-raising plea courtesy of the great bebop pianist Barry Harris; a roof-raising drum solo from Andrew Cyrille; and some tough tenor sax from Bill Saxton that had the crowd dancing in the pews. Writer Ira Gitler reminded the audience of Higgins' remark that "you don't choose your instrument, your instrument chooses you," adding that "when the drums chose Billy Higgins, they chose a winner." And Stanley Crouch, himself a former drummer, called Higgins "a source of purity in the most exalted sense."
All in all, an inspiring and joyful evening of music and fellowship in support of one of the good people in jazz - and one who will be sorely missed.