Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Nearly all of the thousands of sessions Billy Higgins recorded contain swinging jazz at its highest level. Equally at home alongside Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon and Lee Morgan, Higgins' sustained relationships with a wide range of performers makes listening to a chronological collection of his recordings a virtual history of postwar jazz.
Billy Higgins was born on October 11, 1936 in Los Angeles, California. He began playing the drums at the early age of six or seven. While still in his teens, Higgins performed with local jazz musicians such as Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards, and rhythm and blues musicians Amos Milburn, Jimmy Washington, and Bo Diddley. This early exposure to both jazz and rhythm and blues instilled in Higgins a penchant for creating an often-minimalist swinging groove that could be at home in either style.
While in high school in the mid-1950s, Higgins formed a group with saxophonist James Clay and trumpeter Don Cherry named “The Jazz Messiahs.” Shortly thereafter, the band was introduced to Ornette Coleman, and they joined forces to begin working on Coleman’s intriguing, divisive brand of harmony and melody.
In 1956, Higgins was simultaneously working in one Charles Lloyd’s early groups with Scott LaFaro and Bobby Hutcherson, and performed with pianist Red Mitchell through 1957. In 1958, he performed a highly contentious yet musically celebrated run of dates led by pianist Paul Bley at the Hillcrest Club in 1958, which featured Coleman, Cherry and Higgins as his backing group.
Of all of Higgins’ early groups, it became quickly apparent that Coleman's group was bound for greater acclaim. Word of the Coleman Quartet quickly spread to the east coast, and their arrival in New York City in 1959 marked the beginning of a new era in modern jazz. It would also mark a new era in Higgins’ life, as he would call New York City his home until the late 1970s.
Coleman, Cherry, Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden formed the first pianoless Ornette Coleman quartet, when Clay bowed out of the Coleman group to join the saxophone section in the Ray Charles band. This quartet was heard on the simultaneously genre-busting and genre-creating Change of the Century and Shape of Jazz to Come. “Ramblin’” and the drum-feature "Forerunner" are examples of the early Coleman group from Change of the Century. The classic "Lonely Woman" from Shape of Jazz to Come, provides listeners with the magnificently dichotomous relationship between the vociferous Coleman melody and the classic Higgins groove.
Ed Blackwell took over the Coleman quartet’s drum chair when Higgins lost his cabaret card due to a drug charge in 1961. Due to the intense amount of musical attention received by the early Coleman quartet, Higgins took the opportunity to begin freelancing with various bebop, hard-bop and free jazz artists in New York. Higgins was in high-demand, and became one of the most sought-after and often-utilized sidemen for Blue Note records in the 1960s.
Interestingly in Higgins’ career, and somewhat unique to the jazz world, were the multiple sustained relationships with varied artists he developed from the 1960s onward. While most jazz drummers performed a run of shows and a few recordings with an artist and then moved on while only occasionally reuniting, Higgins’ musical relationships with Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean and Cedar Walton were all extended affairs that led to at least eight or ten recordings with each artist.
Musicians were plainly drawn to Higgins’ ability to master the nuances of all subgenres of post 1940s jazz, and as the music developed, so did Higgins. This growth can be exposed by listening to some of Higgins’ various collaborations in the early to mid 1960s, from free-jazz focused recordings with Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy to the following bebop/hard-bop recordings: "Driftin'" from Herbie Hancock’s 1962 debut, Takin’ Off,“Dearly Beloved” from Sonny Rollins’ Ornette-influenced Our Man in Jazz "Three O'Clock in the Morning"from Dexter Gordon’s Go!, “You Go To My Head” from Lee Morgan’s The Gigolo, and the classic rhythm-and-blues, boogaloo-inspired Lee Morgan classic, "The Sidewinder."
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Higgins continued to expand his wide-ranging recorded output by regularly appearing with Hank Mobley, Cedar Walton, Archie Shepp, Art Pepper, Clifford Jordan, and Milt Jackson. In 1971, Higgins reunited with Ornette Coleman for his Broken Windows and Science Fiction sessions.
In the 1980s, Higgins worked with Sun Ra, Joe Henderso on Mirror, Mirror, a quintet session with the unmatched rhythm section of Chick Corea, Ron Carter and Higgins), reunited with Coleman-alumnus Charlie Haden for a trio session with Pat Metheny, Rejoicing, and Haden’s own Quartet West.
Relocating back to Los Angeles in 1978, Higgins supplemented his performing career in the 1980s and 1990s with work as an educator. He joined the faculty at the University of California – Los Angeles, and also led Monday evening percussion workshops at the World Stage, a venue in the Cranshaw District of Los Angeles that he opened with poet Kamau Daaood. The purpose of the venue was to provide a rehearsal space, venue, and community center for artistic youth in Los Angeles, and featured classes led by Higgins, Daaood, and pianist Barry Harris. In 1997, he was named a Jazz Master by the United States' National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's top honor for jazz musicians.
Higgins was diagnosed with liver disease in the early 1990s. After a 1996 liver transplant (and an immediate second transplant after the first transplanted liver failed to function), Higgins’ recovery was successful enough for him to return to playing in the late 1990s. Late in Higgins’ career, he continued recording with collaborators new and old, including Charles Lloyd, Joshua Redman, Freddie Hubbard and John Scofield. Don Cherry having passed away in 1995, the remaining members of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet - Coleman, Higgins, and Haden - reunited for many festival performances in the late 1990s and 2000.
As the twentieth century came to a close, Higgins’ liver and kidneys began to deteriorate once again. After many fundraiser events to assist in payment of his medical bills, Higgins passed away on May 3, 2001. He was survived by his ex-wife Mauricina Altier, sons William, Ronald, and David, and brother, Ronald.
Known as “Smilin’ Billy” to many of his friends due to his constant joyful appearance while behind the drumkit, Billy Higgins offered an artful, classy alternative to overly-aggressive jazz drumming. Whether performing relaxed swinging grooves with Dexter Gordon or Lee Morgan or intense free jazz with Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman, Higgins thoughtfully balanced the front-line and rhythm section with his soulful groove. Technically able to perform the blistering coordination patterns of an Elvin Jones or Tony Williams, Billy Higgins only presented his technical prowess on occasion – often preferring to lay down a solid groove and enhance the quality of jazz played by the other members of his group.
His style was part bebop, influenced by the 1940s masters from Kenny Clarke to Shadow Wilson, and part rhythm and blues, evidenced by his deep, cymbal-dominated groove and regular decision to play jazz rhythms with both his ride cymbal and snare drum simultaneously. Higgins made any band he played with swing effortlessly, without overpowering his soloing bandmates or underwhelming his cohorts in the rhythm section. “Master Higgins,” as Charles Lloyd often referred to him, always knew just what to play.
Discography: As A Leader:
As A Leader:
Soweto (1979), The Soldier (1979), Bridgework (1980), Mr. Billy Higgins (1984), Essence (1985), 3/4 For Peace (1986), Once More (1995), Billy Higgins Quintet (1997)
With Ornette Coleman (Selected):
Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958), Art of the Improvisers (1959), Change of the Century (1959), Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960), Broken Shadows (1971), Science Fiction (1971), To Whom Who Keeps a Record (1975), In All Languages (1987)
With Dexter Gordon (Selected):
Dexter Gordon (1961), Go! (1962), Clubhouse (1965), Gettin’ Around (1965), Generation (1972), Tangerine (1972), Bouncin’ with Dex (1975), Other Side of Round Midnight (1985)
With Lee Morgan (Selected):
Sidewinder (1963), Blue Breakbeats (1963), Search for the New Land (1964), Infinity (1965), Rumproller (1965), Charisma (1966), Delightfulee (1966), Rajah (1966), Procrastinator (1967), Sixth Sense (1967), Sonic Boom (1967), Carimba! (1968), Taru (1968)
With Jackie McLean (Selected):
Vertigo (1959), Fickle Sonance (1961), Jackie McLean Quintet (1962), Let Freedom Ring (1962), Consequence (1965), Dr. Jackie (1966), Tune Up (1966), Hipnosis (1967), New and Old Gospel (1967)
Additional Recordings (Selected):
Presenting Red Mitchell (Red Mitchell, 1957), Tenor Titan (Sonny Rollins, 1957), Like Sonny (John Coltrane, 1957), At the Blackhawk (Thelonious Monk, 1960), First Session (Grant Green, 1960), Cell Walk for Celeste (Cecil Taylor, 1961), Evidence (Steve Lacy with Don Cherry, 1961), Takin’ Off (Herbie Hancock, 1962), Sonny Meets Hawk! (Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, 1963), Straight No Filter (Hank Mobley, 1963), Caddy for Daddy (Hank Mobley, 1965), In Sound/Mean Greens (Eddie Harris, 1965), Turnaround! (Hank Mobley, 1965), Stick-Up! (Bobby Hutcherson, 1966), Get Up and Get It! (Richard “Groove” Holmes, 1966), Hi Voltage (Hank Mobley, 1967), Cedar Walton Plays Cedar Walton (Cedar Walton, 1967), Reach Out (Hank Mobley, 1968), Attica Blues (Archie Shepp, 1972), Breakthrough (Cedar Walton with Hank Mobley, 1972), Time and the Place (Jimmy Heath, 1974), Firm Roots/Highest Mountain (Clifford Jordon, 1975), On Stage Vol. 1, 2, 3 (Clifford Jordon, 1975), Old Folks (Walter Bishop, Jr., 1976), Summer Knows/Yesterday’s Thoughts (Art Farmer, 1976), First Set (Cedar Walton, 1977), Soul Believer/Bags’ Bag (Milt Jackson, 1979), Landscape/Straight Life/Tokyo Encore (Art Pepper, 1979), Mirror, Mirror (Joe Henderson, 1980), Rejoice (Pharaoh Sanders, 1981), Farewell Keystone (Bobby Hutcherson, 1982), Rejoicing (Pat Metheny with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, 1983), Live at Sweet Basil Vol. 1, 2 (David Murray Big Band, 1984), Trio Vol. 1, 2, 3 (Cedar Walton, 1985), Quartet West (Charlie Haden, 1986), Blue Delight/Somewhere Else (Sun Ra, 1988), Oracle (Hank Jones with Dave Holland and Billy Higgins, 1989), Bolivia (Freddie Hubbard, 1990), Public Eye (Roy Hargrove, 1991), My Horns of Plenty (George Coleman, 1991), St. Thomas (Sweet Basil Trio, 1991), Acoustic Masters, Vol. 1 (Charles Lloyd, 1993), Wish (Joshua Redman, 1993), Cream (Pat Martino, 1997), Cyrus Chestnut (Cyrus Chestnut, 1998), Voice in the Night (Charles Lloyd, 1999), Water is Wide (Charles Lloyd, 2000), Hyperion with Higgins (Charles Lloyd, 2001), Works for Me (John Scofield, 2001),
Contributor: Eric Novod