Jazz Con Class Radio

The Great Billy Higgins

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When discussion concerning greatest drummers of Jazz take place there is little mentioned about Billy Higgins. That’s to the casual Jazz listener but not to those who know more. By knowing more, I mean those who have heard more Jazz than others and especially the ones who are fans of the Avant-Garde/Free Jazz era, as I am. There was no other drummer in that era with more impact than Billy Higgins. By no means, am I trying to prove or suggest anything concerning the subject of ranking or am I comparing his ability with any other drummer of that era with quality in mind. It’s more about the influence he had with the ones around him and specifically, in the improvising department. As we all know, improvising is abundant in Jazz and makes it stand out more than any other music. Billy Higgins was inspirational and opened more avenues for ALL the musicians around him by expanding their horizons and in a more energetic manner. You want to talk about “COOL” Billy Higgins was all “THAT”, just listen to all the music he was involved in. And in the same breathe, one can clearly hear his drum set quiet down, compromising and influencing his fellow musicians to play their best. Here are a couple examples:

With Lee Morgan (“You go to my head”):

[audio: http://jazzconclass.com/examplesongs/You Go To My Head.mp3]

With Ornette Coleman ( “Focus on Sanity”):

[audio: http://jazzconclass.com/examplesongs/Focus On Sanity.mp3]

And here with Sonny Clark (“Midnight Mambo”) you see a perfect example on how he sets up and amplifies all the other musicians. Leading the band but as usual, in an unselfish manner. He even adds a powerful mini-solo at the end of the song, great stuff! The more you hear Billy Higgins, the more you understand how amazing he was and how much impact he had on the development of Jazz. Enjoy!

[audio: http://jazzconclass.com/examplesongs/Midnight Mambo.mp3]

His Biography:

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.

 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 Ornette 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 aglimmer, 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 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.”…….Learn More

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