Drummer Billy Higgins, who died on May 3, 2001, of complications related to liver and kidney failure, will surely endure as one of the most respected, influential, and beloved musicians in jazz history. Rising to fame in the late 1950s as a member of the groundbreaking Omette Coleman Quartet, Higgins helped take jazz in a new direction. In the 1960s he served as the unofficial house drummer of Blue Note Records, playing with artists ranging from Sonny Rollins to Dexter Gordon to Herbie Hancock. Although he recorded few sessions as a leader, Higgins played on more than 700 recordings during his career in a host of musical contexts. “Higgins had cat-like reflexes, and he knew the art of dialogue,” recalled Down Beat contributor Ted Panken. “To witness him—smiling broadly, eyes aglim-mer, dancing with the drum set, navigating the flow with perfect touch, finding the apropos tone for every beat—was a majestic, seductive experience.”
Not only is Higgins remembered for his contributions to the free jazz and hard bop styles, but also for his unfailing humanity and dedication to teaching jazz to younger generations. Working continuously since initiating his musical career in the 1950s, Higgins spent most of the 1980s and 1990s in Los Angeles, where, in addition to performing and recording, he became involved in a variety of programs and activities dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz.
In the late 1980s, with poet Kamau Daáood, Higgins founded the World Stage—which regularly hosts workshops in the arts—in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park. Here, Higgins could be found every Monday night teaching his weekly drum class to students from all segments of the community. Higgins focused a great deal of his attention toward the children. “They should bus children in here so they can see all this, so they could be a part of it,” Higgins stated in a 1999 LA Weekly interview with Greg Burk. “Because the stuff that they feed kids now, they’ll have a bunch of idiots in the next millennium as far as art and culture is concerned,” he added. “I play at schools all the time, and I ask, ‘Do you know who Art Tatum was?’ ‘Well, I guess not.’ Some of them don’t know who John Coltrane was, or Charlie Parker. It’s our fault. Those who know never told them. They know who Elvis Presley was, and Tupac, or Scooby-Dooby Scoop Dogg—whatever. Anybody can emulate them, because it’s easy, it has nothing to do with individualism. There’s so much beautiful music in the world, and kids are getting robbed.”
Like the children he taught, Higgins, born in 1936 in the Watts district, grew up in Los Angeles and started playing drums at the age of five. Early on, Higgins realized without a doubt that he wanted to pursue music, and he took instruction from master drummer Johnny Kirkwood, who worked with Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington, among others, and lived near Higgins in Los Angeles. In those days, jazz was the
Born on October 11, 1936, in Los Angeles, CA; died on May 3, 2001, in Inglewood, CA; children: sons Ronald, William Jr., David, and Benjamin Higgins, daughter Ricky Wade, and stepson Joseph Walker.
Began playing drums at age five; played drums for the Jazz Messiahs, early 1950s; member of Omette Cole-man’s group, 1958-60; worked with countless major players, including Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Mal Waldron, Milt Jackson, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Pat Metheny, David Murray, Sun Ra, 1960s-1980s; released first albums as a leader, Soweto and The Soldier, 1979; co-founded the World Stage, late 1980s; became faculty member at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), 1997.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Instrumental Composition (with co-composers Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter) for “Call Sheet Blues,” from 1986 film Round Midnight, 1988; Jazz Master’s Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1997.
standard music in the neighborhood, and Kirkwood would take Higgins with him to hear all the local bands. The elder drummer also served as an encouraging father figure to Higgins, who, though he received unfailing support from his mother, spent his childhood without a father.
When not in school, Higgins spent countless hours practicing his drums and listening to music alone. Significant influences included records by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Higgins used to listen with fascination to these sessions and try to emulate what the musicians were playing. As a result, Higgins later noted, he began to think musically, applying the melodic situations to the drums. Oftentimes, Higgins would play in duo with a saxophonist, all the while imagining a piano and bass player in his head. “You have to play a certain something to give the saxophone player the illusion that something else is going on,” he told Karen Bennett in the Wire. Rather than merely accompanying the imaginary instruments, “I would play as if I were those instruments.”
By his teens, Higgins was already an accomplished drummer, sitting in with some of the area’s leading bebop players, most notably Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards, and with R&B bands, including Bo Diddley, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Amos Milburn. Meanwhile, at Jacob Reese High School, Higgins met trumpeter Don Cherry and alto saxophonist George Newman; with Newman doubling on piano, they formed a group called the Jazz Messiahs, enlisted a bassist from New York named Pee Wee Williams, and toured up and down the West Coast. Around 1953, Texan saxophonist James Clay, who went on to play with Ray Charles’s band for 25 years, joined up and introduced the other band members to Omette Coleman, at the time an entirely unknown saxophonist who would eventually become an innovator of avant-garde jazz.
Soon thereafter, in the mid-1950s, Higgins began working with the saxophonist on his new and controversial approach to music, wherein Coleman set aside the traditional conventions of improvising over chord sequences in favor of a radical concept of melodic development. Following three years of rehearsing, Coleman, Higgins (now the saxophonist’s regular drummer, as initial drummer Ed Blackwell had returned to his native New Orleans), and others finally secured their first gig, joining pianist Paul Bley at the Hillcrest Club for a week in 1958. Although these initial performances proved unsuccessful in terms of audience appeal, they nonetheless showed that new musical perspectives were beginning to take form.
Subsequently, Higgins appeared on Coleman’s early recordings, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, then moved to New York with the saxophonist for an infamous residence at the Five Spot Café. “That was how I got to New York,” Higgins recalled to Bennett. “Omette had a lot of original music, and you couldn’t do nothin’ in Los Angeles, so Percy Heath, John Lewis and Nesuhi Ertegun got us into the Five Spot. Certain people dug the music, certain people didn’t dig it, but I wasn’t concerned with that then, because I was trying to learn what was going on. What people said or thought never bothered me, because they didn’t have anything to do with what I was doing.” Higgins remained with Coleman at the Five Spot until 1960, when Blackwell came back into the fold. However, both drummers appeared on Coleman’s famed album Free Jazz, and Higgins would reunite periodically with Coleman for years thereafter. He later played on Coleman’s 1971 set Science Fiction and 1987 album In All Languages.
Now firmly established on the New York scene, Higgins made numerous associations with other leading players and was able to master myriad styles, from straight-ahead jazz and hard bop to the experiments of Miles Davis and the alternative free jazz of Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Higgins worked with countless major players. He recorded with, among others, Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Mal Waldron, Milt Jackson, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Pat Metheny, David Murray, and Sun Ra. He led his own sessions as well, including Soweto and The Soldier in 1979, Bridgework 1980, the solo set Mr. Billy Higgins in 1984, and 3/4 for Peace in 1993.
“Often we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency,” said Lewis Nash, as quoted by Panken. “But the greatness that we attribute to Billy, in addition to his mastery of the drums, comes from his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality.” Since becoming a Muslim in 1977 and returning to Los Angeles in 1978, Higgins, who found in Islam the discipline to overcome a long-standing heroin habit, dedicated much of his time to giving back to society. Besides founding the World Stage, in January of 1997 Higgins joined the Jazz Studies Program at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) as a faculty lecturer, teacher of percussion jazz ensemble, and private drum instructor. That same year, he was awarded a Jazz Master’s Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In addition to drums, Higgins occasionally sang and played guitar and, in 1986, appeared in the all-star band behind Dexter Gordon in the Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight. In 1988, along with co-composers Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, he won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition for “Call Sheet Blues” from the film soundtrack.
In the early 1990s, Higgins’s health began to decline, and he was diagnosed with a serious liver disease. He required his first liver transplant in March of 1996 and underwent another surgery just one day later after the first transplant failed. Willing himself to recuperate, Higgins was already performing by the following year. Then, in the months preceding his death, Higgins’s health further deteriorated, and the jazz community showed its support through fundraising concerts intended to help defray the costs of another liver trans plant. While waiting, however, Higgins contracted pneumonia, was admitted to the hospital, and died at the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California, of kidney and liver failure.
Soweto, Red, 1979.
The Soldier, Timeless, 1979.
Bridgework, Contemporary, 1980.
Mr. Billy Higgins, Evidence, 1984.
3/4 for Peace, Red, 1993.
Billboard, May 19, 2001.
Down Beat, November 1996, p. 15; April 1998, p. 10; July 2001, pp. 18-19.
LA Weekly, December 17-23, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1997, p. F20; August 13, 1999, p. 25; January 14, 2000, p. F39; May 4, 2001, p. B6.
Variety, May 14-20, 2001, p. 73.
Village Voice, May 16-22, 2001.
Wire, February 1990; June 2001.
“Billy Higgins,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=B7q6tk6kx9krg (December 3, 2001).
“Billy Higgins: Master Drummer of Modern Jazz,” All about Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/news/article.cfm?ID=617 (December 3, 2001).
"Higgins, Billy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/higgins-billy
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