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Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins: The Seekers

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins
Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins

With brow furrowed, Charles Lloyd chooses his words carefully. The lanky saxophonist mixes the hip music lingo he has absorbed since his teenage days working the Memphis R&B scene with a spiritual vocabulary learned as an adult. Seated in the ample, sun-lit living room of his California home, his eyes narrow and wander to the window, peering out over the Pacific. He is speaking of musical explorers, of health-care problems, of deep and abiding friendship.

Lloyd is speaking of the late master drummer: Billy Higgins.

“Let me tell you something: He had the dance-the dance of life. He was a beautiful soul who graced this planet and made it a better place. You know the same sun shines everywhere, but its manifestation in some places is stronger. Billy’s spirit was so like that, so all-embracing. I feel him more than ever, but at the same time, I feel protective or something.”

He pauses. The story Lloyd tells a bit haltingly-of how his career intermittently overlapped with Higgins’ and how their lives deeply intertwined-touches on matters far deeper than sessions and tours. The two were close friends, musical collaborators, sharing the drummer’s last years before his death in May 2001. Lloyd terms that five-year period “my last finishing school,” the long-delayed return to a continuing education and friendship that began when the jazz life was new to both.

“I arrived in Los Angeles in 1956 to go to college at the University of Southern California,” Lloyd says. “There was Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry and Ornette [Coleman] and a beautiful alto player, George Newman, that people have never heard of. And there was Billy.

“He was a year older than myself. I was just 18 when I met him, if memory serves me right, at a jam session. All over the country at that time, there was this community of seekers-Charlie Parker with Diz [Gillespie] and Max [Roach] and all of that in the late ’40s, early ’50s. That was our religion, so to say. There was this instant bond, and we used to play all the time together. It was beautiful.”

At times, the Lloyd-Higgins saga seems almost screen-ready, a life-spanning buddy movie: two friends tight in L.A., slowly building careers, achieving reputation and growing apart.

Lloyd first became known as a sideman with Chico Hamilton, then Cannonball Adderley, then as a leader, falling under the spell cast by John Coltrane’s modal explorations. Lloyd’s sound seemed driven by the same searching quality, as he fronted a band featuring legends-in-the-bud Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett. His 1966 live album Forest Flower proved a career-defining hit, earning him the rare acceptance of (and commercial rewards from) a younger, rock-oriented audience.

Meanwhile, Higgins first drew national regard in 1959 as part of Ornette Coleman’s explosive arrival in New York City, followed by stints with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean and Hank Mobley. He came to be known as “Smilin’ Billy” for the joyful ease in his drumming and his happy, bandstand face. His popular, tasteful propulsion put him in the studio constantly, and his name on album after album: Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off. Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. Dexter Gordon’s Go and Eddie Harris’ The In Sound.

Their careers progressed on parallel lines, moving from success to excess to substance abuse, to getting clean, to facing life-threatening illnesses, to pursuing a spiritual course. Their paths crossed infrequently over the years, and yet for decades, with little conscious effort, their bond held fast.

In 1993 the two met in a session and clicked again. Higgins took to calling Lloyd “Akhi” (“my brother” in Arabic) while the saxophonist remembers, “I spontaneously started calling him ‘Master Higgins’ because he just-he had mastered time and space!”

In what appears to be his last interview, conducted for National Public Radio in January 2001, Higgins spoke of Lloyd:

“Our relationship has been on the good side for a long time, you know. We’ve always been close during the years-but see, about seven years ago we kinda became tighter. So we’re playing together like we never stopped, [and] it’s always been great to play with Charles. In fact I’m getting ready to go up there and visit him.”

That visit ultimately yielded Higgins’ final musical statement, a series of solo and duo recordings cut in the saxophonist’s home-in the very room in which Lloyd now sits. Small wonder the saxophonist is given to pause.

The music from that session-recorded in January 2001 and released by ECM as Which Way Is East-serves as a bittersweet reminder of an enduring friendship, and a bookend to a brilliant musical career. Yet as Lloyd says, the album was never intended as the drummer’s swan song: “We didn’t know that it was going to be the last time that we could do this.”

But before Lloyd gets to talking about “when Billy left town” (his way of referring to Higgins’ passing) he winds back the clock, back to Memphis.

When I was a little kid they’d say “Little boy, what are you gonna be when you grow up?” I said, “I’m gonna play the drums.” They said, “No, no, no, no. What do you really want to be?”

-Billy Higgins, NPR interview, 2001

“Like Higgins experienced in Los Angeles, I had that same thing growing up,” Lloyd says of growing up among future jazz musicians. “I grew up with high school players like Booker Little, he was my best friend in [Manassas] high school,” Lloyd says. “And Frank Strozier, great alto player, George Coleman and Harold Mabern. They were a few years older than myself, but we all went to school at the same time together.

“Even at a very young age I’d go to hear [Duke Ellington’s] band and [Count] Basie’s and Billy Eckstine and [Lionel Hampton]. Those were the bands that would come through Memphis. I was about seven, and my mother would take me backstage because I was so moved by the music.

“The guys in the band would always say, ‘Lady, don’t have this boy be a musician. Have him be a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief, because this stuff is too hard.’ And they were right-but it was my calling. There was nothing I could do about it.”

It was the early ’50s, and Lloyd was nine years old when he took up the alto saxophone. Within two years, he was sitting in with a number of local blues-based groups that formed Memphis’ thriving, competitive music scene. “At a young age I played with blues guys. Those were the only gigs [open to me]; there weren’t jazz gigs. Howlin’ Wolf, who was incredible-to this day I’m moved by him. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker and B.B. King.”

Then epiphany struck, coming from the horn of another alto player. “In Memphis my mentor was Phineas Newborn, and he turned me onto Bird. I saw the connection: Bird coming out of Pres [Lester Young]-Charlie Parker was like our J.S. Bach!”

Reaching college age, Lloyd took his dream west, to “go to school during the day at a conservatory, and I couldn’t wait to get out to play with guys who had a similar commonality of musical conceptions and taste,” he says.

“When I moved out to California, there was a rich community-and I had that same thing in Memphis. We felt like we existed all over this country and we could find each other in any of the towns we would travel through. Like we knew as youngsters that we were seekers. It was a Holy Grail thing.”

Lloyd’s circle included other improvisers bound for glory. “I had this group in college [University of Southern California] with Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro, the pianist Terry Trotter and Billy Higgins.”

Higgins stood out. “He was like an old soul. He arrived with this incredible nuance and just such joy. He was coming out of Max and Kenny Clarke. And the church. His mother brought him up. At five years old he was already playing the tambourine and stuff in church. So we all had that kind of experience and there was this depth of something that was always there.”

No matter the level of their talent, Lloyd and Higgins had to scuffle at the start, working whatever gigs they could grab, often gigging together.

“We were still kids when we used to play downtown. There was this place in the Mexican area called the Million Dollar Theater, and they would bring in these groups, like [Chile’s] Lucho Gatica, a sort of Frank Sinatra of South America. We would play in the pit band, and Billy, he’d go ramblin’-he’d play these Latin beats and stuff, and incorporate everything in it. They would have these conga players, and he would observe everything. I guess that’s the universality of it all. He could touch you no matter where you came from.”

By the late ’50s, professional jazz opportunities soon parted the two: Lloyd joined Gerald Wilson’s orchestra, while Higgins cofounded the Jazz Messiahs with Don Cherry and James Clay, and eventually hooked up with Ornette Coleman. Then came the call of the road (and for Lloyd, seeking a wider range in his sound, a switch to tenor sax).

“Higgins went in ’59 to New York with Ornette, and I left here in ’60 or ’61 with Chico Hamilton because I had replaced Eric Dolphy, who had gone on to play with Mingus. We were both young men who got in the fast lane, went away and changed our lives.”

By the early ’60s, they were gigging regularly and had become East Coasters.

“We both lived in New York, and I wouldn’t see him often but when we did we would do drugs together. At a certain point he didn’t want me to do that and he just would stay away from me, because he got very much deeper and deeper into it. We would see each other, and it would always be warm, but he was occupied, you know.”

Lloyd takes a breath, disengaging from his timeline. “If you’re looking backward or forward you’re missing the elixir of these miraculous moments of music.” Asked to expand the thought, he offers his version of Higgins’ “greatest hits.”

“Obviously you’d have to have him playing triple time on [Coleman’s] ‘Lonely Woman’-that’s worth the price of admission. And you’d have to have him playing Lee Morgan’s ‘Sidewinder.’ Those records he made with Dexter and with Barry Harris and with Newk-Sonny Rollins-the maestro. I heard him with Trane. That’s beautiful stuff. [My 1999 album] Voice in the Night with Dave Holland and John Abercrombie. That’s some deep stuff. We did “There Is a Balm in Gilead” [on The Water Is Wide]. Check that out some time. It’s just tenor and drums. Billy’s never stumped for what to play.”

Can Lloyd nominate a favorite Higgins recording?

“I can’t. It’s like asking me about Lady Day. Some people want early period Pres or something. I love all the stuff. With Billy, I’ll take the whole thing.”

Lloyd resumes the history: He disbanded his quartet in 1969, choosing to leave the music business altogether, and moved back west. Meanwhile, Higgins remained in New York, still drumming and still using drugs.

And still their connection survived.

“We always had that expansion of heart between us, but couldn’t get to that right then,” Lloyd says. “We both had work to do. He had a house in Brooklyn; he worked in that house and got himself straight. I went to Big Sur and also got myself straight.”

To Lloyd, “work” meant healthy living and a deep, spiritual search. Influenced by his Native American grandmother Sally Sunflower Whitecloud, the saxophonist studied Sufism and Buddhism, eventually allying himself with the paths of Ramakrishna and Vedanta, which taught the harmony of all religions. Back east, Higgins got clean, became a Muslim and eventually made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In the ’70s, Higgins became a mainstay of Cedar Walton’s group, one of the leading hard-bop bands of the era, and by 1979 had resettled in his hometown. Motivated to share his knowledge, Higgins helped found the World Stage, an educational and performance space devoted to music of all cultures, in a humble Leimert Park storefront in L.A.

The ’80s saw Lloyd remaining spiritually focused. Impressed by a French pianist who had searched him out, Lloyd reemerged to assist young Michel Petrucciani’s career. After two years of international tours, the saxophonist again retreated, then suffered a near-fatal stomach disorder while climbing the hills near his home.

In 1989, fully recovered and refocused, Lloyd returned for good, signing with Munich’s adventurous ECM label and inevitably meeting up again with Higgins.

“When Billy came back to California after all the years in the East, I was still in Big Sur. He had worked on his spiritual life, and so had I. We were really blessed with that twice-born notion of, how to say it? Living in spirit and knowing that the Creator is the reason we’re here.

“In ’93 I was invited to make a record called Acoustic Masters [for Atlantic]. Billy played on it, and Cedar Walton and Buster Williams. When we met back up it was as if there was still only now. There was that same childlike innocence-and we had the benefit of the fast lane, of experience. The passage of time didn’t have anything to do with it-there were no gaps. We bonded so strong that Billy started calling, saying, ‘OK, this is it, Akhi. We have to play together. What do you want to do now?’

The happy reunion continued slowly at first, interrupted by a life-threatening problem.

“I did several dates in 1994 and 1995 with Cedar, Billy and [bassist] David Williams. In August of 1995, Billy and I were going to do a special trio project in the Middle East and Europe with Dave Holland, but by that time Billy’s health was in serious decline.”

Though Higgins was substance-free, his liver was irreversibly damaged and had to be replaced. In 1996, a donor was located and he was operated on in March. Still recovering, Higgins attended his own tribute in July in Oakland. It drew a top tier of West Coast jazz talent, including Lloyd, Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, George Coleman, John Handy and Cedar Walton.

With little pause, Higgins returned to work: performing with his own group, with Walton, with Ornette Coleman, with Jackie McLean. From 1997 on, Lloyd used him exclusively. When health issues interceded, Lloyd called Billy Hart. Still, the saxophonist remembers Higgins was recharged.

“He was like a teenager again. I suppose after his transplant we just pretty much played together all the time. Throughout the last several years, we played in New York. We played all over the world. People would say to me, ‘God, when he plays there’s this incredible-he just raises the music.'”

The pairing was catalytic, each distilling what distinguished the other. Over the years Lloyd’s tenor saxophone had developed a marked meditative quality that was still deeply blues-flavored, while Higgins’ approach had become one of economy, suggesting rather than stating the groove (usually a funky one). Together they meshed with seamless ease, sharing a soft lyricism on slow traditionals or freer, upbeat originals.

Voice in the Night (1999) was their first album under Lloyd’s name (with bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie) followed by The Water Is Wide (2000; with Abercrombie, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier). Both titles received critical praise and Higgins’ role-often adding little more than a shimmer to music that prized stillness-was singled out. “The subtlest of pulses… [and] delicate propulsiveness,” lauded London’s Times; “[Higgins’ and Lloyd’s] understated but obvious rapport is among the album’s great virtues,” wrote the Washington Post.

“I remember we were getting ready to do a take of ‘Dorotea’s Studio’ [from Voice in the Night], and Billy was looking up at the ceiling. I said, ‘What’s happening, Master Higgins?’ He said, ‘I’m trying to think what to play here.’ I’d never seen him do that. He said, ‘OK,’ and played this incredible march. Here’s this little Spanish song, and he played dut-dut-dut. It was just swinging, just dancing. That’s what he does-he just comes up with what’s needed.”

Higgins’ renewed lease on life found him touring often with Lloyd: “When we traveled, Billy’s luggage would be weighed down with a mobile pharmacy of medicine he had to take daily. And his copy of the Koran.” Higgins then returned home to a full schedule of session work. Along with his World Stage duties, he took on stints as an educator at UCLA and CalArts. Lloyd urged him to take a break and travel the 90 minutes up the coast to the saxophonist’s home near Santa Barbara.

“For years we’d been encouraging him to visit because we have a guesthouse and he could stay there. Billy had wanted to come up and chill out following his transplant, but he was always busy. He was touring with me-he was committed to that and people always wanted him for something. He would say, ‘I’m gonna get up there, I’m gonna get up there.'”

Perhaps because of the hospitalization or a furthering of Higgins’ spiritual expansion, Lloyd noticed the drummer cryptically speaking of departure. “We were sitting in the back of a car on the way to a concert in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and he said, ‘You know for the last two years the physical thing is all gone. I can’t do this anymore from a physical level-it’s all spirit.'”

“Higgins and I have both looked over the edge with near-death experiences and there is a bond between us.”

–Charles Lloyd, Star Tribune (Twin Cities), 1999

In late 2000, Higgins’ health began to deteriorate again. Friends and fellow musicians banded together to raise donations and to ensure that the drummer negotiated the tricky waters of public health care. Lloyd and his wife, Dorothy Darr, closely monitored his progress, visiting the drummer to elevate his spirit. Lloyd recalls Higgins requiring little assistance in that department.

“He smiled through it all. I would say, ‘How are you, Master Higgins?’ ‘Beautiful,’ he would say, ‘because the sun is shining today.’ You know he was like that. He’s on the bed, featherweight, lighter than cotton fiber.”

Music was the subject still motivating both.

“Even right up to the end he kept saying, ‘Akhi, you know we got to keep working on this music.’ And I’m saying, ‘You know, Master Higgins, are you gonna get off this bed and keep working on this music with me?’ And he would say, ‘I didn’t say I would be there, but I will always be with you.'”

In January 2001, Higgins finally accepted Lloyd’s longstanding invitation. “His nephew brought him up in this big van and then unloaded it all. This room was filled with instruments. He had all his instruments out. You couldn’t move-we had stuff everywhere!”

An acoustic guitar, Indian hand drums, a Syrian “one-string,” a tuned wooden box played with mallets, various African percussion and, of course, a trap set. Higgins seemed determined to express himself in every way possible, with instrumentation few sessions called for and few jazz fans were aware of.

“He always carried his guitar with him, [but] a lot of people never heard him play it. And he could sing, he could play all these instruments. Sometimes we would do that in concert, but we wanted to take it further. He said to me that we had an ‘inside thing.'”

Similarly inspired, Lloyd pulled out a battery of instruments-tenor sax, piano, Tibetan oboe, taragato, a range of flutes, a variety of percussion-even reaching back to the horn he had packed away years before.

“I hadn’t played my alto in 35 years or so. When I was a kid I was an alto player. Then I went to the tenor because I could have the bottom, I could have more range. So the full circle was when he came up here with all of his instruments-somehow I knew I had to have all of my instruments. I started playing the alto, and he went berserk. He said, ‘That’s your secret weapon!’ The weird thing is when I play the tenor now I take it over to the alto [range],” he laughs. “Yeah, it’s a paradox.”

The drummer spent a week in Lloyd’s home, hanging and playing. The tapes rolled everyday, preserving an outpouring of solo and duet performances, many moments videotaped by Darr. Before Higgins packed up and left, loose plans for the tapes-how to release the music, what to call it-were discussed.

It was good they did. Within a few months, as Lloyd prepared to tour overseas without the ailing Higgins, he received word the drummer had been admitted into a South Central hospital with pneumonia.

The conversation becomes stilted.

Lloyd and his wife take turns telling of Higgins’ final weeks, as they visited the increasingly somnolent drummer in his hospital room. “It’s a long sad story,” Lloyd says. “It breaks my heart.”

“I wish we could have done more,” adds Darr. “We spoke to Billy almost every day, and along with Rebecca Martin [Larry Grenadier’s wife] had a key role in raising funds for his recovery.”

Day by day, hope loomed for a rebound, for transcending restrictive HMO rules, for transferring Higgins to a hospital where the doctor who had operated on him before could again attend to him. But on May 3, 2001, after a series of organ failures, “Smilin’ Billy” passed away just as Lloyd returned home from Europe.

The news hit hard. From the days that followed, one memory still brings Lloyd solace.

“When Higgins left town, Max Roach called me: ‘How you doing, Charles?’ And I said, ‘Oh Max, it’s rough, he and I were so close,’ and I start crying. I couldn’t handle it. He called back the next day, he said, ‘I’m coming.’ Here he was 77, he gets on a plane from New York, flies to Los Angeles, I meet him, we go to the funeral. So I said, ‘Max, did you always like Billy’s playing? When did you start liking Billy?’ He said, ‘Straight through. I loved him always.’ I offered Max hospitality. He says, ‘No, I just came to pay my respects.’ He got back on the plane and went home.”

Two years passed. Lloyd began to pick through the recordings with Higgins, sharing selections with a few band members and friends.

“I thought the experience was too personal in a way to share with folks. I would listen to the music and I would get teary, you know. Geri Allen, Larry Grenadier and Billy Hart, they would all say, ‘Oh man, you got to release this.’ But Geri looked at me straight, really close and said, ‘You have to release this music. People need this music now.’ I’m not so presumptuous, but she’s such a sincere, beautiful soul. So the music will be shared now.”

Which Way Is East is a two-disc survey of Higgins’ last week of music-making, much of it improvised on the spot. It’s intimate and informal, a series of stylistic and texture-driven moments, as world rhythms meet ethereal mood-pieces and avant-garde jazz. A spirited tenor-drums duet (“Perfume of the Desert”) precedes a nasal-sounding Tibetan oboe propelled by hand-drum (“Benares”) followed by Higgins playing bossa nova-style acoustic guitar, singing Portuguese then scatting (“Amor”). His vocals serve as one thread through the journey, linking Brazilian ballads, African chants, Arabic prayers and even a delicious down-home blues (“Blues Tinge”).

Is Higgins really singing in all those foreign tongues?

“Well, Billy is singing in Arabic on some tracks and there are names and Arabic words in some of the other songs. Aziz, an African friend of Billy’s, heard ‘Oh, Karim’ and ‘Ya, Karim,’ and said that the accent is hard to define, but it sounds very authentic. And of course, Billy studied Arabic and the Koran.”

Lloyd solos on a few free-jazz pieces (“Sea of Tranquility,” “Through Fields and Underground”), and often the two come together, matching their opposing personalities (especially “Hanuman’s Dance,” one of the session’s gems), Lloyd’s moody solemnity complemented by Higgins’ lyrical bounce.

The titles tell the story of the spiritual sensitivity shared by the two: the philosophical slant (“Being and Becoming,” “Prayer, Sanctuary”) and natural focus (“The Forest,” “Wild Orchids Bloom”), the Eastern influence (“Oh, Karim,” “Advaita”) and rootsy sensibility (“My Lord, My Lord”). Lloyd explains further:

“We had some discussion about titles while Billy was here-most of his titles are self-explanatory. As for the collective sum of the titles-it is about the journey-it is about the whole thing. The journey within and the journey without, the personal and the impersonal.

“Same for the title of the recording. It could be directional as on a compass, or it could be a state of mind. I like to leave the interpretation of an album title to the poetry of the mind of the listener. But it is always good to have your bearings, to know where you are and where you are going. Knowing which way is east can only help in that regard.”

Lloyd is proud of the album and happy it’s out now, another tribute on the heels of the 2001 album Hyperion With Higgins and preceding a solo tour to cities “where the promoters were farsighted enough to book the duo in 1997,” as Darr explains. And to ensure Higgins’ presence at these dates, video footage will be shown that caught the recording process, showing the drummer in African garb and bubbly, if gaunt.

For Lloyd, the album is one more musical nod to fellow seeker he first met as a teenager. It also reflects his own spiritual station today:

“Here’s the interesting thing. This recording was made before Billy left, in January of 2001. I’ve made a lot of music since then, and he’s still in my music, man. My research has brought me to the realization that ‘all this is that’-one ineffable, unchanging spirit. I could play you some music I just recorded a week ago, and Higgins is right in there.”

The Gospel According to Higgins

Hey man, I’m tellin’ you, that’s a whole suite right there! That’s two guys, just two guys sittin’ on top of the mountain. You talkin’ ’bout the journey’s end? The journey’s just beginning.

-to Charles Lloyd, after recording the music for Which Way Is East, 2001

Stay in tune!…Drummers and all musicians have to train their ears from the cradle to the grave. The music changes, and you have to respond to it. One way I train my ear is to mess with the acoustic guitar when I can, because it’s a pitched instrument, and you can take it anywhere.

-conversation with Lora Rosner, Modern Drummer, Feb. 1992

Anything you do…you submit to the point of where it’s not coming from you-it’s going through you. Like the drums, they say what’s right. You get false beats that are not the right ones. But you see, there’s many ways to tell a lie. There’s only one way to speak the truth.

-NPR interview, 2001

I really enjoy hearing other people play. But first the most important thing is to get a “sound” out of your instrument. I don’t like to fight the drums. If you’ve got to fight them, then it’s a physical chore to play them. I try to get a little “air” with the instrument, space and air.

-conversation with Charles M. Bernstein, Modern Drummer, Feb. 1983

“Right now” has its own space, its own intent. To keep the music fresh you got to deal with right now and you can’t even think ahead. ‘Cause if you think ahead you ain’t gonna be here.

-NPR interview, 2001

Praisin’ Billy

Among the shaggy-dog stories told by musicians on the road, there’s the one about Buddy, the small-town barfly who bets his bartender that he knows everybody. Everybody-even the pope. After an extended buildup, the two end up in Rome where-lo and behold-the pontiff calls him by his first name, gives him a bear hug and drags him onto the balcony above the Basilica. The punchline has a Japanese tourist below ask his wife, ‘Hey, who’s the guy in the funny hat with Buddy?’

Everybody remembers Billy. The circle of players and fans still touched by Higgins-his music and spirit-seems as endless. Here are the words of a few.

Steve Lacy

“Finesse. He had the greatest finesse that I’ve ever heard. He had a perfect feel for tempo, a wonderful sense of dynamics. He was right out of the tradition of Jo Jones but was really up to date.

He used to come over to my house-my loft, in those days-and we would jam, but I had no drums there. So he would play a big metal ashtray I had and a suitcase! And he made the most beautiful music out of those two items-better than almost any other drummer on a set of drums!

The last time I played with him was on the Monk Tentet tour in Europe, shortly before he died. That was a wonderful experience. He lifted the whole band-a ten-piece group-up.”

Kevin Eubanks

“In the jazz world you know about everybody in a pretty short amount of time. It’s a close-knit community. I started playing with Higgins some time in the ’80s. And the group was with Richard Reed, Billy Pierce, James Williams and myself. We played a lot of gigs.

Whenever I played with him it always felt like there was room to do things. But at the same time, if you did too much you’d know it right away. Somehow he just made me feel aware when I was overplaying. There are particular individuals that paint the music and at the same time keep the time moving ahead, not always driving the beat home. They spread the responsibility of keeping the time. Billy was more like the other instruments. It’s a very delicate balance that he just seemed to have naturally.

As he aged I think that it was just a natural evolution for Billy to have such grace. From Ornette to the stuff he did with Bobby Hutcherson and on my own Shrine album, he seemed to evolve into leaving spaces, instead of playing through the space. If he only needed one little punch on the bass drum, you only got one. Instead of ‘ding-ding-da-ding, ding-dah-ding’ through the whole thing-it would flow.

When we were offstage, he would be cracking up. You’d always be laughing. Even during the show, he’d have a kind of radiance, and you could see its effect. He’d be taking an unaccompanied drum solo, and the audience would have giggles going on. But it’d be within the music. It was still musical, and it was still swinging. It was still Billy.”

Cedar Walton

“I remember most fondly the trio or quartet performances where he didn’t need any time to start-his drumming was already at its peak. A lot of drummers need a few choruses to get set in the tempo, in the mood, in the groove. Higgins was immediate.

He had his own style-we used to refer to it as a ‘New Orleans flavor.’ He was a great admirer of the guy who succeeded him [with Ornette], Ed Blackwell, who was from New Orleans. Billy loved Ed, Art Blakey and especially Kenny Clarke.

I remember having dinner with Billy and Kenny Clarke in France. We didn’t talk about music that much, but I know Billy must have been in heaven being with this guy he adored.”

Jack DeJohnette

“Billy was always laughing, smiling when he played. He had a joy and a drive about his playing that made the players feel good. Actually I once played melodica with him. It’s different to listen to a drummer when you’re actually on the stand with him. He was always consistent and musical, no matter what: fast tempos, slow tempos.

I also heard him sing and play the guitar. He had a beautiful voice. He could sing Brazilian music. He had a quick musical ear.”

Jimmy Cobb

“Smilin’ Billy. He was always smiling. I remember he had this thing when he played guitar and sang like it was Portuguese, but its was gibberish [laughs]. If you didn’t know, you thought it was Portuguese!”

Brad Mehldau

“I remember the first time in particular, when I came to New York in 1986 while I was still in high school, and heard Billy Higgins with the Timeless All-Stars, that great band with Cedar Walton, Ron Carter on that gig, Harold Land, Curtis Fuller and Bobby Hutcherson. When I heard the shimmering of that ride cymbal, and felt his beat up close like that, I got it.

Billy was one of a handful of drummers who actually defined a ‘feel’-a rhythmic sensibility that people immediately associate with him and no one else. It’s hard to say what his outstanding features are because he was such a truly holistic musician-it’s the whole package. But one often zones in on his ride cymbal, because it’s very unique. The eighth notes are more ‘straight’ than other drummers, almost not dotted at all. But it swings harder than anything.

His drumming defines a whole sound in records that we love from the ’60s-mostly Blue Note. But I also associate it with Ornette Coleman, and with Pat Metheny. So what I notice with him is the adaptability of his playing to so many situations, and the strong identity of his musical spirit that comes through nonetheless.

I think the force of Billy Higgins’ rhythm spreads out into other music besides jazz and will continue to do so. It was already happening in his lifetime, although I don’t think people who were feeding off of him were necessarily aware of it. Take something like trip-hop, or what used to be called acid-jazz. The mechanical rhythms generated often sound like one-dimensional facsimiles of something Billy Higgins would have done. They try to achieve the elasticity and expansiveness of his beat, by varying the dotted placement of the accents in their grooves.

Of course there’s no substitute for the original, for the human experience. And the circular quality to his playing in relation to the soloist, constantly weaving around each player, perpetually interacting with them-that’s another thing about Billy Higgins that you could never sample.

Although he wasn’t physically 100 percent by the time I got to play with him, he still carried that energy with him. When he died, I was aware that one of the real creators was gone now. There would never be a replacement.” Originally Published

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.