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Billy Higgins: Transcendent Soul

Billy Higgins

There was a buzz in the air at Avery Fisher Hall a year ago last July, a kind of mass tingle of expectation that I have only witnessed twice before-once at Miles Davis’ celebrated ‘comeback’ gig at that same hall back in 1981 and again involving Miles when he shocked the crowds at Montreux in 1991 by playing the music of Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain with the combined George Gruntz-Gil Evans big band conducted by Quincy Jones. This time, the buzz was for Ornette Coleman who was reuniting with his original bandmates Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.

Every jaded critic in town was waiting breathlessly for this gig, like anxious children at Christmas time waiting on line at Macy’s to sit on Santa’s lap. Some had to pinch themselves to make sure they weren’t just dreaming. And these three jazz heroes (sans their late comrade Don Cherry) delivered, far exceeding everyone’s expectations.

I remember Billy Higgins-looking extremely thin and frail after recovering from not one but two liver transplants to save his life-immersing himself in the music behind that soulful Cheshire cat grin. Caught up in the spirit of the moment behind the kit, he was young again, strong again, transcending time and pain in a miraculous fashion. When that first set ended, he practically had to be helped to walk off the stage. But Smilin’ Billy, as Jimmy Heath dubbed him, came back for a second set with Ornette and Haden, along with special guests Kenny Barron and Wallace Roney. And the music transformed him once again; proof positive that music is indeed a healing force.

One year later, this past summer at the Umbria Festival in Perugia, Italy, Billy was back at it again with Ornette and Haden and special guest Lee Konitz; healthier, stronger and more inspired than ever. But the humble Higgins takes it all in stride.

“Yeah, it was wonderful, man,” he says of his most recent reunion with Ornette. “Whenever we get a chance to play together it’s really a blessing. You know, the music was great and it’s just good to be back playing right now.”

There’s a whole lot of folks who are glad to see Billy Higgins back on the scene and dealing with the same dancing pulse, uncanny responsiveness and positive vibes on the bandstand that have marked his playing since he joined the great Ornette Coleman Quartet of 1958, shortly before their extended landmark engagement at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City. Many of these friends and colleagues gave heartfelt testimony to the great drummer at a tribute in January of 1998 held at Merkin Hall in New York. As part of the ceremony, Higgins was presented with the Phineas Newborn Award for Excellence. Presenter James Williams expounded on Higgins’ contribution while offering a few personal reminiscences:

“What he does, everybody wants to hear,” says the pianist who had hired Higgins to play on his 1982 Concord album, The Arioso Touch. “Obviously, he has impeccable time and swing. His pulse has such clarity to it. His beat has a smile on it. He uplifts everyone on the bandstand. He makes us all play over our heads, whether it’s a veteran or a young player just coming onto the scene. The bandstand is lifted off the ground when Billy is playing. It’s like being in a church service, like hearing Aretha [Franklin] singing gospel or Ray Charles singing a blues. It’s hard to put into words. He makes us all sound great.”

Williams had admired Higgins from a distance, savoring a treasure trove of Blue Note recordings as a teenager, until he finally met the great drummer in 1976. “He came to town with the Heath Brothers and I got to meet him at the Jazz Workshop,” he recalls. “I was 24 at the time and in awe of him. He didn’t know me but he was so encouraging and he took time to answer all my questions. After that initial meeting, I dreamed of being good enough to play with him one day.”

Williams met Higgins again when he was touring with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. “And he remembered me as that little kid asking all those questions. And he said, ‘See, I told you…you was going to do something.’ He’s always encouraged young musicians that way. He’s radiated across the generations and has affected more than just jazz musicians. The whole vibe about him radiated like some kind of musical messiah, which of course he is. I hold him in the highest esteem. Everybody who has ever played with him, whether it’s Pat Metheny, George Coleman, Joshua Redman, Cedar Walton, or myself, should fall on their knees and say, ‘Thank goodness I was in the presence of Billy Higgins.’ And I’m sure they do.”

“Musically, what makes him special is his time feel,” says drummer Tony Reedus. “It’s a different thing from a lot of other people’s approach. It’s his touch. It’s like he’s putting down this pallet of air and all you have to do is get on top of it and just ride over it.”

“From a drummer’s perspective we can talk about his cymbal beat and so many other things,” says Carl Allen, “but what’s most important is he brings a freshness to the music. When you hear him play, when you feel him, you really experience his compassion for the music. His consistent high level of devotion and respect and love that he has for this music always comes through in his playing.”

“He just knows what to do, simply put,” adds pianist Harold Mabern, who played with Higgins on some Lee Morgan Blue Note sessions from the ’60s. “And, of course, his personality carries over into the music. He’s always very happy. I’ve never seen Billy Higgins with a frown on his face, on the stage or off the stage.”

A magnificently flexible player and a master of finesse, Higgins is able to adapt to any musical setting. And he doesn’t operate on any kind of musical hierarchy. All gigs are created equal to Smilin’ Billy. “It’s all the same to me,” he says. “All of them are beautiful, you know? I try not to put myself into that category where I have to play like this or play like that. I respond to the human being and each one of them has a different way of doing it. So it’s just levels of music and the people that are playing it. When you know somebody and you have a deep feeling for certain people, it comes out in the music. It’s really a meeting of the minds.

“That’s why jazz is so beautiful, man,” he continues. “When you connect to some music like that, it’s different than just playing something to appease somebody. It’s like putting on a brand new suit of clothes. Everything fits right and you feel good about it. And I try to do that every night.”

When Higgins hits the bandstand these days, whether it’s in the company of Ornette Coleman, Freddy Cole, Cedar Walton, or his own West Coast quartet, it’s with unparalleled focus and conviction. “The immediacy of his intensity is what I notice about Billy’s playing,” says longtime colleague Cedar Walton. “As soon as his performance starts, it’s in full gear. There’s no waiting around for him to warm up, so to speak. You could say he transcended the technical part of playing so he can just give his whole focus, his whole being over to the performance. I guess we all want to achieve that as musicians. You wanna get past your technique and go right spiritually into the performance and be able to have will to contribute totally. And Billy has done that.”

Carl Allen can personally attest to Higgins’ quick-start capacity on the bandstand. “I was playing at Bradley’s with Geoff Keezer and as we were playing I would hear this voice in the background: ‘Alright! I hear ya, baby! Uh-huh. Yeah, OK.’ I didn’t really pay it much attention but it continued. Suddenly, I noticed there was another stick on my ride cymbal. Of course, I immediately turned around and in a split second I have to determine if I’m gonna knock this guy out or am I gonna graciously remove myself, not knowing who it was initially. You know, I just saw a stick and I didn’t see a person because he was behind me. Of course, when I realized that it was Mr. Higgins, I graciously removed myself from the set. And man, I tell ya…with no exaggeration…I sat there and cried like a baby. And I’m not the most emotional cat, man, but I sat there whimpering and slinging snot and wiping my nose on my shirt sleeve. And everybody’s coming up to me like, ‘Man, what’s wrong man? Is everything cool? What happened?’ But I was crying out of joy, man, because to see how much he elevated the music was just amazing to me. And I’m talking about all of this taking place within the first chorus of him playing. I’m not talkin’ about four tunes later at the end of the night, I’m talking about what he put into one chorus. That’s how much he elevated the music…that quickly! That’s the sign of a true master, that ability to make everybody else sound much better than they would without them. Art Blakey had that ability and Higgins has that ability too.”

Jazz giant Sonny Rollins, who recorded On the Outside with Higgins in 1963 for the Bluebird label, recalls one memorable gig they did together around that time that speaks of the drummer’s unstoppable musicality. “One night we were playing Washington, D.C., and for some reason Billy didn’t have his sticks…left ’em on the plane or something. So we were ready to go on. The drums were there but he didn’t have any sticks. And he was actually able to do something with his hands and somehow get through the set.”

Rollins is quick to add, “He’s a tremendous drummer and a very positive personality. It was a pleasure having the opportunity to play with him and I hope he continues to be around a long time. Everyone was so concerned about his health a couple of years back but I hear he’s back to normal now. It’s one of the happy things that’s happening in the world, that he’s made the recovery and he’s back on the bandstand…one good thing that’s going on in this screwed-up world.”

According to pianist Walton, who played a week in July with Higgins at the Village Vanguard, Billy is playing better than ever. “He’s come a long way. He had a long recuperation period from the liver transplant and the complications while he was waiting on the liver…he hurt his back in the shower, which only complicated matters. But he came through it. Now he’s just about totally recovered, especially his playing. He’s so inspired and so happy, so grateful to be playing again.”

Even now, post-operation, he’s playing as if his life depended on it. “I always feel like it’s one thing to want to play music but it’s another thing when you have to. That’s a whole different agenda. And it’s just like a natural thing. You’re compelled to do it just to live.”

He describes his current state of health as “day to day,” while adding, “but I’m able to function. And that’s great. I’m just thankful to be playing again. And I’m gonna keep on going.”

For Higgins, music has always been much more than just playing the drums. “I think it is for everybody that really gets that deep into it,” he says. Higgins has been dealing on that deeper level since the late ’50s. After all these years he’s still mining the mother lode. And in spite of his recent adversity, physically and emotionally, he’s come through it all with a smile.


Billy Higgins has two kits, each a standard set with seven pieces (snare, bass drum, two toms, three cymbals). One is a Remo kit, the other is a custom kit made by Richie Goldberg.

Originally Published