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Billy Higgins; Influential Drummer, Teacher, Co-Founder of World Stage

Obituaries

May 04, 2001|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Billy Higgins, a legendary drummer who was one of the most recorded players in the history of jazz, died Thursday at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood. He was 64.

Higgins was admitted to the hospital recently, reportedly with pneumonia, which was believed to be the cause of death. He had been in failing health for some time and was awaiting his second liver transplant. He received a new liver about five years ago, but that organ had begun to fail.

In addition to his firm standing as one of the top names in jazz, Higgins was a strongly influential figure in the local arts scene as one of the founders of the World Stage, a storefront performance space and teaching venue in Leimert Park. Higgins was also on the jazz faculty at UCLA.

In a musical career spanning five decades, Higgins was the most active drummer in jazz, playing and recording with the likes of John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Milt Jackon, Charles Lloyd, Pat Metheny, Lee Morgan, Art Pepper and Joshua Redman. He had a longtime association with pianist Cedar Walton and was involved with the first edition of bassist Charlie Haden's innovative Quartet West.

He first came to prominence as a jazz figure as a member of saxophonist Ornette Coleman's free jazz group in the 1950s, which also included Haden and trumpeter Don Cherry.

As a member of the classic group, Higgins' work received less attention than the "free" blowing of Coleman and Cherry. Yet it was Higgins' impressibly swinging, persistently groove-driven drumming--along with the sterling work of bassist Haden--that laid the foundation for the Coleman group's free-jazz flights of fancy.

That group became the flash point for the start of a decade of envelope-stretching activities in the jazz world, carried on by the Coleman Quartet, Coltrane, George Russell, Charles Mingus and Albert Ayler, among numerous others.

The opening night of the Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City in 1959--an evening that crowded the room with every available jazz musician and aficionado--was one of the legendary jazz events of the time. To say that one had been there was a bit like saying, a decade later, that one had been at Woodstock.

Higgins, who roved freely through jazz after leaving the seminal Coleman ensemble, adapted to the changing tides with ease, in part because of his effervescent manner, in part because his capacity to drive a rhythm section with an irresistible sense of swing was beyond genre. In action, whether playing a stretched-out free jazz piece with Coleman or a straight-ahead gig with Milt Jackson, he constantly brought the music to life. And this quality, along with his constantly grinning, ebulliently enthusiastic presence, made him one of the most in-demand drummers of the past four decades.

"Billy fits into any situation," vibes player Bobby Hutcherson once said of Higgins. "He always listens and responds to what you're doing."

Saxophonist Lloyd called him incredibly influential.

"Jazz is the music of wonder, and he's the personification of it," Lloyd told the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago. "He's like a Zen master. Everybody who plays with him gets that ecstatic high."

Born in Los Angeles, Higgins started playing drums at the age of 5. He was 14 when he met Cherry in school, and the two did some West Coast roadwork with saxophonist George Newman as the Jazz Messiahs in 1953.

The next step, in 1955, was rehearsing and ultimately working with Coleman, whose radical approach was stirring up much controversy in the local music community.

Higgins went to New York with Coleman in 1959 but left the group a year later. By 1964, Higgins was getting considerable session work on the Blue Note label. He remained in New York for the next 15 years, working for some time with legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins and beginning an association with Walton, which would last nearly a decade.

Higgins moved back to Los Angeles in 1978 and continued his busy performing schedule.

In the late 1980s, Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood opened the World Stage as a place where writers and musicians could hone their craft. Funded by donations and community support, the space is open throughout the week for workshops on various musical or literary subjects. On the weekend, the stage hosts jazz performances that draw crowds from throughout the city.

Higgins was a highly visible presence at the World Stage, using his cachet in the jazz community to bring in top-flight performers to teach workshops that attracted young and old alike. Performers such as Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Barry Harris and Geri Allen would stop in to offer their expertise during off hours while touring Southern California.

Higgins, an approachable man with a great generosity of spirit, also mentored a new generation of jazz performers coming out of the World Stage including the groups Black/Note and the B Sharp Jazz Quartet.

He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master's Fellowship in 1997.

Active until the last few months, Higgins commented recently on the sense of joy he found in music.

"I don't realize I'm smiling but I'm just feeling rich and having so much fun," Higgins said. "I feel blessed to play music and it's also an honor to play music. You've got a lot of people's feeling in your hands."

He is survived by his sons Ronald, William Jr., David and Benjamin Higgins, all of Los Angeles; a stepson, Joseph Walker, and a daughter, Ricky Wade, also of Los Angeles. He is also survived by a brother, Ronald Higgins of Palmdale.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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