Billy Higgins, 1936–2001

The Perfect Drummer, Exactly Right and Exactly Like Himself

Is it spring or the waning days of autumn? The festivals are getting underway, so it must be spring. Yet it feels like a shivery October in the realm of jazz mortality, as every passing week brings news of another loss, beginning late last year with Milt Hinton and continuing with Jack McDuff, Norris Turney, Lou Levy, George T. Simon, Les Brown, Buddy Tate, Ike Cole, Billy Mitchell, and two radiant beacons of the modern jazz movement and all of American music, as players and composers, J.J. Johnson and John Lewis, who spoke for them all when he remarked, "Everybody wants to be in the image of God. That's why I play jazz." Unlike many of their predecessors, they at least made it past 70. Billy Higgins, who died May 3 of liver and kidney failure, did not, which is one reason his passing hurts, even though he had been ill for years and was awaiting his third liver transplant. The main reason, of course, is that he gave so much pleasure. When you walked into a club where he was playing drums, you knew you were going to hear good time and have a good time.

Drums do not present time as simple four-to-a-bar tapping, which you can do with your foot. They clothe the elementals of tempo and meter in an elaboration of sound and pulse. At their best, they are richly colored and intensely musical, and can generate an emotional gravity to equal any other component in the performance. If in 1934, Sonny Greer and Jo Jones had traded jobs, the music of Ellington and Basie would have evolved much differently. Even when we are fixed on the soloist, seemingly oblivious to the drums, we are in their thrall, which is why bad drummers are so insidious—they do not allow us to ignore them. Great drummers don't either, of course, except when they want us to forget they are there, at which time they become merely the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the very air we breathe.

Shortly after I left college, I experienced a drums epiphany at a place called Boomer's, where Cedar Walton and Clifford Jordan had a quartet. I was given a seat hugging the right-hand side of the stage; the drummer's left ride cymbal hung over my head. I figured I would try a number, and leave if necessary. I knew Higgins's work from records—Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean—but had never seen him and did not think any drummer could be inconspicuous or quiet enough to make that kind of proximity endurable. An hour later, I left in a state of elation, and the thing is: At no time was Higgins inconspicuous or quiet. He was—no other word will do—beautiful. He didn't get in the way of my hearing Cedar, soloing on the other side of the stage, yet I was always aware of the glowing sound of the cymbals and snares, the way he made them mesh in cross-rhythms, as though they were made not of metal and canvas but of something pneumatic and plush.

A few weeks after my first Voice piece appeared, in 1973, I was asked to write liner notes for a Jimmy Heath album, Love and Understanding, and was pleased to see Higgins at the date. Later, Jimmy told me about the new pieces written for the session; one was called "Smilin' Billy," composed, he explained, "for the love of the way Billy Higgins plays and for his love of music and of playing." Now this was at a time when, for many people, the title was less likely to recall an old comic strip (Smilin' Jack lost his wings that very year) than a type of behavior (smiling) considered unbecoming for an African American male. I mentioned that Louis Armstrong, two years dead, was still getting pilloried for it, but Jimmy laughed and the nickname stuck. Higgins always looked kinetic behind the traps, smiling, almost laughing, eyes sparkling, flashing his hands like a quick-change artist having the time of his life. This was true up to the end, at reunions with Coleman and at the annual two-week December gig at the Village Vanguard with Walton and McLean.

Back at the Heath date, though, I was still coming to grips with my evening at Boomer's, because I wrote, "He has developed a clean and personal sound on cymbals and snare that rivals Kenny Clarke's and is one of the few drummers of any generation who plays with the taste and restraint that allows a listener to sit right by his traps and not be deafened." Clarke was an obvious forebear, though Higgins had also studied with Ed Blackwell, an earthier player whose contrapuntal patterns influenced him, as did his melodic tuning, which in turn suggested Roy Haynes, who brought a virtuoso shine and bass drum anchor to the modernist techniques devised by Clarke. But Haynes and Blackwell are about syntax; they bring an original language to trap drums. Clarke and Higgins, for all their influence (Clarke's was decisive for a generation), make themselves known through their shimmering sound and immense poise, no matter how hard they drive.

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