Billy Higgins, 1936–2001

The Perfect Drummer, Exactly Right and Exactly Like Himself

Higgins is on one of the 1960s' key jazz hits, Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," and yet no one associates him with its hit-making beat, partly because he didn't latch onto it, hoping for some kind of commercial crutch. Even when you listen to the record, Higgins is easily the freest spirit of the three rhythm players, swinging the vamp without chaining himself to it. He plays alternately on and against the backbeat, always with a liquid freshness that enlivens the beat when it would have been so easy to cheapen it. Maybe that's why he is often overlooked in discussions of the great drummers of that period. When you hear Tony Williams or Elvin Jones, you feel you are in the presence of genius. With Higgins, you feel you are hearing perfection, which is neither as sexy nor as easy to talk about. In his book Different Drummers (1975), Billy Mintz transcribes and analyzes the playing of 19 percussionists, Higgins not among them. Yet the last sentence of his text, after a paragraph in which he recommends his favorite jazz and rock artists, reads: "Listen to everything with Billy Higgins playing drums because his time is so swinging that it just floats along."

The nature of his swing is panstylistic. Of course he didn't change horses to ride "The Sidewinder"—this is an artist who initially became famous playing free jazz with Coleman (he recorded with Cecil Taylor in the same period), who aided Rollins in navigating the straits dividing free and not-free, buoyed Dexter Gordon to crests of invention, and in every instance sounded exactly right and exactly like himself. He could play a written part as well as anyone—McLean's brilliantly cornered "Melody for Melonae," for example; or cross the ts on a rumble crafted especially for him—Morgan's "One for Higgins," for example; or fashion cool breezes—Charlie Haden's Silence, for example. His brief solo on the latter's "Conception," built on a basic march pattern, is riveting yet wittily self-effacing. But he was also a relentlessly driving accompanist, and perhaps the greatest miracle of his playing is how beautifully and calmly swinging he sounds even when he's playing to beat the band. The flip side of the Sidewinder LP offers the blues waltz "Boy, What a Night," in 12, a meter that can easily generate inflexible triplets. Higgins is loose and infectiously zealous. Joe Henderson, Morgan, and Barry Harris turn in splendid solos, as the Cheshire Cat hovers over them all.

Higgins, who was born in Los Angeles in 1936, started on the drums at five. Still in his teens, he worked with Don Cherry in the Jazz Messiahs, a band led by James Clay that was inspired by the Davis-Rollins sessions, and sat in with the area's leading beboppers (Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards) and r&b bands (Bo Diddley, Amos Milburn). In 1956, he met Coleman, who astonished everyone, one way or another; Clay took his tenor to Ray Charles's orchestra for a quarter century, while Cherry, Higgins, and Blackwell, who had known Coleman for several years, were drawn to the altoist's ragged cry and glancing tunes. With Blackwell ensconced in an r&b band, Higgins made the Hillcrest engagement, recorded with Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century), and took the historic leap to New York. Even those who scoffed at Ornette recognized Higgins as an extraordinary drummer after seeing him at the Five Spot or hearing him on "Ramblin'," "Una Muy Bonita," or "Focus on Sanity." But things went badly. Higgins was busted for drugs and lost his cabaret card; Blackwell, who had skipped bail with his wife after they had been imprisoned in New Orleans on a charge of interracial marriage, took his place.

Higgins would reunite often with Coleman over the next 40 years, turning in one of the most memorable performances of his life at the 1997 Coleman triptych at Lincoln Center, with Haden and Kenny Barron. But by then he had also morphed into something unexpected—the much coveted, unofficial house drummer for Blue Note records, and one of the most recorded musicians of the era. In later years, he worked with David Murray, Charles Lloyd, Hamiet Bluiett, Harold Land, Art Pepper, and many others, in addition to countless engagements with Walton, and, last year, the most unexpected gig of all, one under his own name, dedicated to the Blue Note songbook. Pepper, before he and Higgins fell out over a bassist, called him the greatest drummer who ever lived. He wasn't really. It just seemed that way whenever you listened to him.

A memorial tribute to Billy Higgins will be held Thursday, May 17, at 10, in the Main Space at the Knitting Factory.

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