I first met Hilton before I was musical director for Tito Puente. We recorded some albums together. He played on my records and I played on his. He was one of the best not only jazz players, but Latin-jazz players I have ever known. He was magic. We used to play “We’ll Be Together Again” with just piano and flute. That’s one of the numbers I remember the most, especially now that he’s not with us.
Unfortunately something happened in New Orleans that we don’t know about. I met the mayor of New Orleans when I played a tribute for Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I talked to him about the situation and said that, on behalf of the musicians, we’d like to know what really happened to Hilton there.
It was a great loss. Hilton had such a great sense of humor. When he played it was like going to the top of the mountain. His ability to comp and support soloists was incredible. He could play in unison two octaves apart on the piano and play the same thing on the left hand and right hand. It was amazing to see and hear. He could keep the rhythm thing on the left hand and play an incredible solo on the right hand, a la Eddie Palmieri, whom he was influenced by. When we weren’t playing, we’d talk about all kinds of things. We’d talk about Tito, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and music in general. That’s what musicians do. Then we’d tell jokes.
Time goes by so quickly. During my lifetime, we have seen so many great people die. I am sure that he and Ray Barretto are in the hands of God where they belong. This weekend there was a big show up there in heaven. The promoter was God and the bouncer was Jesus Christ!
I have such fond memories of Hilton. I still think he is going to call me. Dizzy once told me, “Remember never to forget and forget never to remember.” Tito Puente said, “If you’re tired, stay home. If you can’t walk, sit down. If you can’t drive, don’t go. But if you’re gonna play, play.” And that’s what Hilton Ruiz did. He played. As far as his legacy in jazz, I think people will find Hilton to be one of the best.
I loved him very much. We were the best of friends. I really miss him. On behalf of all the musicians who ever played with him, God bless him.