Higginbotham, J.C. 1906–1973
J.C. Higginbotham 1906–1973
Called “one of the best trombone soloists in big band jazz” by the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, J.C. Higginbotham played in some of the leading swing orchestras from the 1920s through the 1950s. He was a featured soloist on some of legendary bandleader Louis Armstrong’s finest recordings. During the 1960s and 1970s his career continued with smaller groups, including his own band as well as Red Allen’s band. The trombonist possessed a “huge sound, confident range, and pawky tone,” according to Jazz: The Essential Companion.
Higginbotham, also known as “Higgy” and as Jay C. Higginbotham, was born Jack Higginbotham in Social Circle, Georgia, near Atlanta. He hailed from a somewhat musical family—two of his brothers also played brass instruments, and he was the uncle of songwriter Irene Higginbotham. As a child Higginbotham played the trumpet until his sister gave him his first trombone, the instrument he would go on to master and become famous for playing. By age twelve he was already performing on the trombone in public and starting to attract the attention of the blues and jazz community.
He worked in his family’s restaurant in Georgia while playing with the Atlanta–based Neil Montgomery Orchestra in 1921, and later played with pianist Harvey Quiggs. Higginbotham worked outside the music scene for a few years, moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend tailoring school, and then took a job as a mechanic at General Motors. In 1924, however, he returned to music, playing with Wes Helvey’s Band and Wingie Carpenter’s group, and formed his own band during the same time.
Among various vaudeville troupes, tent shows, and jazz bands, Higginbotham toured in the “Ragtime Steppers” show with pianist Eugene Landrum’s Jazz Band in 1925. He was then chosen on a recommendation from Wingie Carpenter to play with drummer Eugene Primus’s Band in Buffalo, New York, for seven months. He then left Primus, but remained in Buffalo and worked with a band led by pianist Jimmy Harrison.
Higginbotham arrived in New York City in 1928, and sat in on sessions at the Savoy Ballroom with Chick Webb and with drummer Willie Lynch’s band. He soon was in high demand for what the Biographical Dictionary of Jazz called his “gutsy extrovert style, robust tone, and forceful attack.” He was spotted by Luis Russell and joined Russell’s orchestra in a residency at Club Saratoga until 1931. It was in Russell’s group that Higginbotham met his lifelong friend, Henry “Red” Allen. Louis Armstrong was leading Russell’s orchestra at the time, and Higginbotham played on several of Armstrong’s recordings during the era, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Bessie Couldn’t Help It,” and “St. Louis Blues.” He also recorded two tracks on which he led the orchestra under the name “J.C. Higginbotham and His Six Hicks.” Higginbotham was a featured soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1932 and Benny Carter’s group in 1933.
At a Glance…
Born Jack Higginbotham on May 11, 1906, in Social Circle, GA; died on May 26,1973, in New York, NY.
Career: Jazz trombonist. Played in Cincinnati, OH with Wes Helvey’s band, 1924–25; played with Eugene Primos and Jimmy Harrison in Buffalo, New York, 1926–27; moved to New York City, 1928; played with Luis Russell, 1928–31; with Chick Webb, 1931; with Fletcher Henderson, 1931–33; member of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band (later known as Lucky Millender’s Orchestra), 1934–36; member of Luis Russell’s band again, under the direction of Louis Armstrong, 1937–40; played extensively with Red Allen’s sextet, c. 1940s; led his own group in Boston and Cleveland, early 1950s; played with Red Allen in New York, 1956–63; toured in Europe with Sammy Price, 1958; played in Scandanavia, 1963; played with Armstrong, 1964; played Copenhagen, 1965; performed at important jazz festivals, late 1960s–early 1970s.
Awards: Voted Best Trombonist, Down Beat reader’s poll, 1941–44; Gold Award, Esquire magazine, 1945.
In 1934 he joined the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, led by Lucky Millender, later called Lucky Millender’s Orchestra. He returned to Fletcher Henderson’s group in 1937.
Louis Armstrong asked Higginbotham to rejoin Luis Russell’s band in 1937, and the trombonist rejoined the legendary bandleader. Russell was by this time playing strictly as Armstrong’s backing band. Higginbotham left when Armstrong’s manager dismissed the entire band three years later. He found a home as a co–leader with Red Allen’s small jump band for the next seven years, playing in New York in such clubs as the Café Society, Kelly’s Stables, the Garrick Lounge, Chicago, and Jimmy Ryan’s. He also played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet at a 1945 New Orleans Jazz Foundation Concert.
Higginbotham’s activities during the late 1940s and early 1950s are unclear, but he worked mainly in Boston, sometimes leading his own group, and playing occasionally with Joe Thomas and Rex Stewart. Those close to him recalled his heavy drinking during these days; one friend remembered Higginbotham traveling with two cases ... one for his trombone, and the other for his bottles of whiskey. Higginbotham also wrote an article titled “Some of my best friends are enemies,” for a national magazine, describing how segregation affected black musicians in the era before civil rights. He played in Cleveland and Boston in 1955, and resurfaced in New York with several appearances at Central Plaza in 1956.
Higginbotham led his own group and then rejoined Red Allen in 1956, playing with him in New York’s Metro–pole jazz club until 1963. He appeared at the Great South Bay Jazz Festival as a member of the Fletcher Henderson reunion band in 1957. Higginbotham and fellow trombonist Elmer Crumbley took turns playing on Sam Price’s 1958 European concert dates, and he was featured at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963. He rejoined Armstrong for a time in 1964, and played in Scandinavia in 1963 and 1965. Higginbotham led recording sessions for the Sonet record label in 1962 and for Jazzology in 1966. He recorded several solo tracks during this time, including an album with guitarist Tiny Grimes titled Callin’ the Blues, which caught the ordinarily boisterous trombonist sounding “unhappy and forced,” according to Jazz: The Essential Companion.
The trombonist bounced back, however, and the 1960s and 1970s saw him playing at clubs and important jazz festivals. He led his own band in the 1960s at New York clubs such as Freedomland, Room at the Bottom, and the Purple Onion, and played a number of shows with trumpet player Joe Thomas, then returned to Georgia in 1966 to record an album. Illness and a hospital stay that lasted several months in 1971 marked the end of the great trombonist’s 50–year career. Higginbotham died on May 26, 1973, in New York City. Although he is among the artists and musicians who have yet to be inducted, Higginbotham is featured among the exhibits and archives in Georgia’s Hall of Fame.
Big City Blues, History.
Callin’ the Blues, Prestige, 1958.
Higgy Comes Home, Cable, 1966.
1929–1940, Best of Jazz, 1996.
Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 1987.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz, Da Capo, 1985.
Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, Prentice–Hall, 1982.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, Ltd., 1998.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 20, 2002).
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