Billy Higgins: Master Drummer of Modern Jazz


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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 1960, 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 1960s 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 performed and recorded with Red Mitchell in 1957, but later recalled that they spent about three years simply rehearsing with Ornette 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 1950s 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 1970s, and made occasional records as a leader, mostly for European labels.

He worked with saxophonist Joe Henderson in the early 1980s, 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-1980s.

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 1980s, 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 1990s, 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, and died there of the disease. He is survived by four sons, a stepson, a daughter, and a brother.

Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: [email protected]

Photo credit: Photography by Hamilton

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz.
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