Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Higginbotham, J.C. (Jay C., Jack)

J.C. Higginbotham brought a uniquely bombastic element to jazz trombone playing, making a career as one of the Swing Era's most memorable musical architects. Higginbotham was one of the first to apply wide lip trills and upper-register glissando techniques to the jazz aesthetic, always adding excitement to the bands with whom he played, including Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb and Louis Armstrong. His signature bluesy wail was captured in hundreds of recordings over the course of his career.

 J.C. Higginbotham

Jack Higginbotham was born in Social Circle, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, on May 11, 1906. He was the youngest son of Charles and Tempie Higginbotham, having one twin brother and 12 older siblings. He moved to Atlanta to attend boarding school at Morris Brown, where his older brother Garnett was a college student. After J.C.'s sister Eutris bought him his first trombone, Garnett - himself a trombonist - taught him the basic mechanics of the instrument.

Higginbotham took to the trombone and quickly developed a strong proficiency on the instrument. He began playing at age 15 with the Neal Montgomery Orchestra on hotel roof gardens. Soon after, Higginbotham moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he began vocational training to become a tailor. He returned to Atlanta a year later to finish his education at Morris Brown in Atlanta, but made his home in Cincinnati upon his graduation in 1924. Once there, he worked as a mechanic at a Cincinnati General Motors plant, and gigged at night with Wesley Harvey's band, a territory band that also included trumpeter Jonah Jones.

 J.C. Higginbotham

One of his bandmates, Wingie Carpenter, left the area to play in Buffalo, NY with Gene Primus, and recruited Higginbotham to join him in 1926. Once there, Higginbotham left to join another Buffalo band led by pianist Jimmy Harrison. In 1928, he relocated to New York City, where he made a name for himself alongside Henry "Red" Allen in the Luis Russell band. He also quickly established himself as an excellent studio musician, as is evidenced by his 1928 recording with King Oliver and His Dixie Syncopators, "Slow and Steady." Higginbotham also recorded with Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and others during his early years in New York.

Luis Russell provided the band where Higginbotham shone most brightly as a soloist. Examples of this work include "St. Louis Blues," recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1929, and "It Should Be You," featuring Red Allen. "St. Louis Blues" especially features Higginbotham's flexibility and unique use of lip trills.

Higginbotham's solos also take advantage of his impressive upper-register "chops" with frequent high-pitched, loud and expressive outbursts. Higginbotham manages to achieve this style, however, without coming across as blasting or out of control. It is this controlled excitement and virtuosity that made Higginbotham one of the most well-respected jazz trombonists of the era.

Higginbotham described the Russell band as "the swingingest band I ever played with," but the group's exhausting performance and touring schedule led him to leave in 1931. Around that time, one of Higginbotham's favorite trombonists, Jimmy Harrison (not to be confused with his former employer, the pianist) passed away after a brief stint with Chick Webb. Bassist Elmer James recommended that Higginbotham replace Harrison, and he was hired for several months.

He left Webb to join Fletcher Henderson, considered at the time to be the top African-American jazz group. His association with Henderson lasted until 1933, when he joined Lucky Millinder and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. He left to briefly rejoin Fletcher Henderson in 1936. By this point in his career, Higginbotham had established himself as one of the most in-demand jazz trombonists; he had also developed a close relationship with trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, with whom he began working in the Russell bands. In 1937, Higginbotham and Allen rejoined Russell to perform again with his group, which had recently been taken over by Louis Armstrong.

Allen and Higginbotham played in Armstrong's band until 1940, when they finally decided to make a go of it with their own group. They formed a sextet which earned the prestigious residency at the Cafe Society in New York City, and continued at numerous club and concert venues throughout New York, Boston and Chicago. The group lasted for seven years, and both Allen and Higginbotham maintained busy careers as studio musicians. Examples of Higginbotham's work as a sideman during this period include recordings with Artie Shaw, The Metronome All-Stars, Sidney Bechet and many others. Allen and Higginbotham also recorded a series of five short music films, known as "Soundies:" Count Me Out, Drink Hearty, House on 52nd Street, Mop, and Crawl, Red, Crawl.

In April 1947, towards the end of his work with Allen's sextet, Higginbotham attracted a great deal of controversy for a letter published under his name in New Masses, a leftist New York City newspaper. Entitled Some of My Best Friends Are Enemies, the piece features a long and articulate diatribe by Higginbotham criticizing the "Look How Liberal I Am!" whites such as Mezz Mezzrow who spent their time with Higginbotham and his fellow African-American musicians. He suggests that these so-called "friends" were not seeking out friendships with African-American musicians; rather, they were looking for an atmosphere of irrespensibility and an absence of moral restrictions. Of course, Higginbotham resented the implication that his world was devoid of moral values.

For the rest of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, Higginbotham led his own small groups in the Dixieland-revival format around Boston and Cleveland, Ohio. He returned to play with Red Allen's group again at the Metropole Theater in 1956. He continued to play mostly with Allen from then on out, including a fantastic 1957 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in which he was joined by fellow trombonists Jack Teagarden and Kid Ory. Higginbotham also appeared on a number of the episodes of "Art Ford's Jazz Party," which aired in 1958. He toured Europe with Sammy Price later that year.

Higginbotham also continued his prolific recording career, working as a sideman with Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart, the Henderson Reunion Band, and of course Red Allen. Examples include Allen's collaboration with Coleman Hawkins in 1957, in which Higginbotham joins them on "I Cover the Waterfront" and "S'Wonderful," as well as "Ain't She Sweet," recorded with Allen in 1957. Higginbotham's signature sound is largely unchanged, but he does develop a more rhythmically sophisticated vocabulary to contrast with his blues-inspired effects.

He left Allen and the Metropole to continue his own career as a lower-profile bandleader, first in Cincinnati and later back in New York City. He led a group for a tour of Scandanavia in 1962 that led to another album released under his name later that year. Higginbotham performed again at Newport in 1963 and 1964, and recorded again in 1966. One of his last musical engagements came in an appearance on Art Hodes's television show, Jazz Alley, in 1969.

Higginbotham passed away four years later, on May 26, 1973. His long and productive association with Red Allen and many others has left behind a mountain of recordings in which his bright, energetic tone and exuberant upper-register phrasing makes his solos instantly recongnizable. These recordings attest to his confidence, style and pioneering work in establishing the trombone as a soloistic instrument in the Swing and Dixieland styles.

Select Discography

As a Leader:

JC Higginbotham 1929-1940 (Best of Jazz, 1996)

An excellent overview of Higginbotham's career that features some of his best solos, many of which are duplicated in the recordings below.

With Henry "Red" Allen:

Henry "Red" Allen 1929-1933 (Classics 540)

Henry "Red" Allen 1933-1935 (Classics 551)

Henry "Red" Allen 1935-36 (Classics 575)

Henry "Red" Allen 1944-47 (Classics 1067)

Higginbotham's career is featured alongside Allen in this series of recordings. The last CD especially features some fine Higginbotham solos, including "The Theme" and "Dear Old Southland," the latter one of the rare examples that demonstrates Higginbotham's impressive ballad playing.

As a Sideman:

Fletcher Henderson 1931-32 (Classics 546)

Henderson's band always featured top trombone talent, and Higginbotham was no exception. "Sugar Foot Stomp," "Low Down on the Bayou," "Blues In My Heart" and especially "Casa Loma Stomp" all feature Higginbotham as a soloist.

Luis Russell 1930-34 (Classics 606)

Some of Higginbotham's best early work came with Russell: "Song of Swanee" and "Feelin' the Sprit" are two examples where Higginbotham is featured.

King Oliver 1928-30 (Classics 607)

Higginbotham appears on a few of these early Oliver sides, some of his first recordings as a studio musician.

Louis Armstrong 1938-39 (Classics 523)

These recordings document Higginbotham's work with Armstrong in the Luis Russell orchestra.

Sidney Bechet 1940-41 (Classics 638)

Bechet was one of the many stars that asked Higginbotham to record with him during the peak of his career in the early 1940s.

Artie Shaw 1940-41 (Classics 1167)

An example of Higginbotham's productive work as a sideman, he appears on the last four tracks of this Artie Shaw Compilation from 1940-41.

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez