Billy Higgins, 1936–2001


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.

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.