Internationally acclaimed Afro-Cuban pianist Hilton Ruiz died yesterday at 3:51 a.m. in New Orleans’ East Jefferson General Hospital. He had been comatose in the intensive care unit since May 19, when he was found along Bourbon Street with massive head injuries. He was 54.
Ruiz enjoyed a long, dynamic career. Born in New York City on May 29, 1952, he began building his musical resume at an extraordinarily young age. At eight years old, Ruiz played Carnegie Hall and was a guest on the Sandy Becker television show. At nine, he took part in an accordion symphony and gigged with various Latin bands as a teenager. In addition to studying jazz with Mary Lou Williams, Ruiz received training in both classical and Latin piano styles. His musical expertise was eclectic, extending far beyond Afro-Cuban music into bebop and blues. During his career, he played with other musical notables such as Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, Frank Foster, George Coleman, Charles Mingus, Clark Terry and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
From 1974-1977, Ruiz was Roland Kirk’s main pianist and appeared on Kirk recordings including The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color and The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man. On his 1993 work Manhattan Mambo, Ruiz skillfully placed bop-influenced improvisation atop infectious Latin rhythms. Ruiz’s later work as a leader includes 1994’s Hands on Percussion (featuring the late Tito Puente) and 2003’s Enchantment.
Ruiz also made a foray into film music, contributing tracks to the musical scores of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989 and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty in 1999. Ruiz was scheduled to play at the Ottowa Jazz festival, where fellow Latin jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera will perform in his absence.
“He’s one of the few musicians on the scene that is equally at home in both the jazz genre and the Afro-Cuban genre in a complete sense … He really can play the blues, too. For real,” longtime friend and trombonist Steve Turre told the Associated Press. He continues later, “There’s a lot of people who dabble with both worlds. But very few can authentically deal with both. And he’s one of them. That’s your rarity.”
Ruiz is survived by his daughter and wife, who share the name Aida.