For this writer, any gig that included drum master Billy Higgins was a must-see. I can’t think of another musician who consistently embodied the principle of playing with an in-the-moment, creative attitude while always attending to the function at hand. Although Higgins joined me on several occasions at WKCR, we never did an in-depth interview, so I can’t post a face-to-face conversation, But four days after his death, I had an opportunity to host a memorial broadcast at which a cohort of his peers and acolytes — Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash — came to the studio to talk about the master, their remarks juxtaposed to taped interviews with Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, and Winard Harper. I incorporated some of their remarks in an obituary that ran in DownBeat.
In recognition of Higgins’ 75th birthday, I’ve posted that obit below, followed by the uncut transcript of the conversation.
“Seeking Light Through Sound”:
Billy Higgins, whose consistent brilliance at the trapset and unfailing humanity made him one of the most beloved figures in jazz, died on May 3rd at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California, of complications resulting from liver and kidney failure. He was 64.
Perhaps the most recorded hardcore jazz drummer of his generation, Higgins made consequential albums with — among many others — Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, James Clay, Paul Horn, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Cecil Taylor, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Simmons, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Hank Jones, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman and Charles Lloyd. And from 1975 until not long before his death he toured and recorded extensively with the Cedar Walton Trio alongside bassists Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams.
Higgins was born in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1936. He received early master classes in rudiments and aesthetics from Johnny Kirkwood, who had played drums with Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington, and he kept those lessons in mind as he analyzed contemporary recordings of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. In high school in the early ’50s, he workshopped with Cherry and alto saxophonist George Newman; in 1955, they joined forces with saxophonist James Clay, a recent arrival from Texas, in a working band called the Jazz Messiahs. Clay knew Ornette Coleman from Texas, and introduced his young cohorts to him; during this time Higgins became close to Ed Blackwell, and when Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1957, Higgins began to work with Coleman.
Higgins joined Coleman for his epochal Fall 1959 New York debut at the Five Spot, and appeared on Coleman’s seminal early recordings Something Else!, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change of the Century and — alongside Blackwell — Free Jazz (later he played on Science Fiction  and In All Languages ; he continued to perform with Coleman until the summer of 2000). He was soon one of New York’s most in-demand drummen, impressing all camps for the relentless swing, supreme taste, and creative ethos he brought to every performance. In 1960 he made the first of dozens of Blue Note sessions, stamping his distinctive feel — an organic homebrew of second-line rhythms, fly-like-the-wind swing propulsion, primal church backbeats and African talking drums — on a sampler’s feast of boogaloo classics like Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”
Andrew Cyrille described the Higgins effect during a drummer’s roundtable conducted on WKCR during a 33-hour memorial broadcast: “There was his touch, the way he tuned the drums, and his great showmanship, but what I loved most of all was Billy’s beat. It seemed able to fit any person’s style. His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline, and it had all different sizes and weights. It was so elastic and relaxed from the inside, and it would give and take and expand. I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.
“He was a very educated drummer, who knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play. His polyrhythms were amazing. Higgins was a risk-taker. The element of surprise is the essence of jazz, and he was one of its great exponents.”
Higgins had cat-like reflexes, and he knew the art of dialogue. To witness him with his vonce working — smiling broadly, eyes aglimmer, dancing with the drumset, navigating the flow with perfect touch, finding the apropos tone for every beat — was a magnetic, seductive experience. As Ralph Peterson put it, “This man was in his bliss every moment that he played the drums, and that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.”
As Lewis Nash remarked: “Often we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency. But the greatness that we attribute to Billy, in addition to his mastery of the drums, comes from his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality.” Higgins focused incessantly on spiritual matters after 1977, when he became a Muslim; he found in Islamic tenets sufficient structure and discipline to overcome a long-standing heroin habit. He spent the remainder of his life giving back. After moving back to Los Angeles, Higgins founded the World Stage, a community center on Deegan Boulevard in Crenshaw, near Leimart Park, devoted to the study and performance of jazz. The club’s logo: “Seeking light through sound.”
Billy Higgins Memorial Broadcast (WKCR, 5-7-01) – (Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash Live in the Studio; Taped interviews with Billy Hart, Lewis Hayes, and Winard Harper):
One thing we can note about Billy Higgins is the tremendous consistency of innovation and creativity and imagination and commitment with which he approached every musical situation. I can never remember hearing him off. Ralph Peterson, who is the first of our numerous Billy Higgins drum brethren of various generations…
PETERSON: Disciple. He was truly the teacher and I am still the student. He continues to be the teacher through the legacy he’s left. Consistency is one of the things that amazed me about him, his ability to maintain himself regardless of the musical context he was playing in. It was just incredible.
What was your first exposure to Billy Higgins’ music and when did you first have an opportunity to see him perform? Because seeing him was a very special thing.
PETERSON: Well, I first discovered Billy Higgins’ music through my educational experience at Rutgers University. I was not a jazz baby when I got there. So I first heard Billy Higgins on a Lee Morgan record called The Procrastinator.” The relaxed feel; it amazed me how he could generate so much energy and forward motion, but still stay relaxed. And then when I met him, we were at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival. I had seen him play a couple of times in New York, and one of my favorite stories is… I enjoyed Billy most at Bradley’s, when there was no drums in the club and Billy would pull out a pair of brushes and snatch the phone book from behind the bar, and swing the duo — now a trio — under the table with just a pair of brushes and a New York telephone book. To possess that much musicianship and invention and brush facility, to be able to play a full night of music… Because once he started playing, no one wanted him to stop. So it was like a master class every time yu were near him. And he was very warm, he was very friendly, he had a very loving spirit.
Then when I saw him play the set, again I was reminded of the importance of enjoying what you do. Because his moniker, “Smiling Billy” Higgins… I mean, this man actually truly enjoyed every moment that he played the drums. Deepak Chopra talks about finding your bliss. He was always in his bliss when he was playing the instrument. And that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played. I can remember him in Sweet Basil playing a 5- or 10-minute solo with just the found of the brush waving in the air. You could hear…
You could hear a pin drop.
PETERSON: You could hear a pin drop. I wanted to use the Art Blakey saying, but this is radio, so I can’t. You could hear a pin drop on cotton! You know what I mean? And it was amazing, the sound, the invention that he was generating.
An interesting story… He didn’t know me very well. I was in Japan with OTB, and my daughter was maybe 3 months old. And she, in her inventiveness, rolled out of the loft bed one afternoon while I was away. Being the concerned father, without giving it much thought, I’m ready to pack my bags and go back home. And it was Billy who reminded me how soft the bones of a child are. He said, “Don’t worry about it. If your lady says she’s okay, she’s okay. She probably hit the floor and bounced. And then we laughed, and that was okay. Him and Lou Rawls did a lot to settle me down. Because it was my first trip out. I had met so many people at that festival, and Billy was one of the most accessible of the mindboggling superstars who were at the first couple of Mount Fuji festivals.
I miss him. We didn’t have an ongoing communication and relationship. But whenever I saw him, he was always concerned and pleasant with me, and I always tried to hear him when I was in New York.
Could you talk a bit about what Billy Higgins contributed to the vocabulary of the drumset? What will he be remembered for in terms of his approach to drumming and how he helped to advance the vocabulary?
PETERSON: He advanced the vocabulary by representing the highest examples of the combination of drive, swing and relaxation and dynamics — appropriate dynamics.
It was like he was beyond style.
PETERSON: Well, in a sense, he had become a style. To me, he was an icon. He was a pillar. I was taught you can only go as far forward as you’ve been back, and you heard him talking about meeting Buhaina and Philly Joe… When I listen to Higgins and Roy Haynes, what I hear is the marriage of the drive of Buhaina with the delicate dance of Roy Haynes, and combined and synthesized through Billy Higgins’ own experiences that made it unique. He also played with a really deep snare drum, which I love the sound of.
And also assimilating the totality of second line rhythms through associating with Edward Blackwell and blending it into the jazz mainstream in a singular way. Maybe that’s what helped him be Billy Higgins with Ornette Coleman and Cedar Walton and any situation he came into.
PETERSON: Well, his flexibility. His flexibility was testament to the depth of his musicianship. He could play second line, he could play the boogaloo feel, because he understood that the boogaloo feel came from second line. And with that understanding, you can do more with the rhythm than just sit there and play backbeats. There’s a deeper understanding about what goes on.
[MUSIC: w/Lee Morgan, “Stopstart” (1967), then a taped interview with Billy Hart follows]
You’re about four years younger than Billy Higgins, and your professional career started about a year after he came to New York with Ornette Coleman, so I’m wondering when you first recall hearing him and what impression he made on you.
HART: The first time I heard him was on the Ornette Coleman record. It took me a long time to hear him in person, but I was already moved by the Ornette Coleman record. Then after that I heard a Donald Byrd record which is the first record I ever heard Herbie Hancock on, and I’m still to this moment influenced by that record. There were certain patterns he played that were uniquely his own. I mean, anybody could have played it, but it’s the combination of how he put it together that made me think that he had an extraordinary mind. Well, it was genius as far as I was concerned, like Elvin or Max. It was something that was simple, but nobody else would have thought to do it, and it worked perfectly for that kind of musical situation, which was to become more important in the years to come, with the Coltrane band and the way we play today.
What do you mean by that kind of musical situation?
HART: I don’t want to be too academic about it. But there are certain kinds of chord progressions, let’s call them vamps, that are used as a bridge between musical thoughts. That’s not like the common bridge. In other words, a lot of times you’ll have an area, a motif or a vamp, and the common thing is to play some Latin thing over it.
So he found ways of making those sorts of progressions flow and swing.
HART: Oh yeah, but in a totally unique way that swung, that musical significance that we refer to as swinging, which has a musical significance that causes euphoria. Depending on how you want to relate to it, you can go into some deep meditative thought pattern or you might just jump up and start dancing.
He could make you focus on him just because what he did was so vivid.
HART: That’s right. He was like any other kind of prophet. He used words that you understood, but the message was so clear and so profound that it was awe-inspiring.
When did you finally get to see him play?
HART: I guess after I moved to New York in 1968. That’s when he was playing a lot with Art Farmer and Jimmy Heath, not so much with Walton in those days… Well, he was beginning to play with Walton, because Walton was in those bands. Like, Jimmy Heath and Art Farmer together had a band, then they had one separate, then… Just those kinds of things. And Lee Morgan. I moved there just as he was finishing up with Morgan. When there was a lot of things happening in Brooklyn with Freddie and Lee…
How did hearing him play in those situations correlate with what you’d heard on records?
HART: I heard everything that I’d heard before, and I moved more to hear it in person. But to see his body motion and actually hear it live, you could see that the textures he used, the way he actually touched the instrument was with the grace of a great dancer, like a great tap dancer like Bojangles, or a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov. He just had this amazing touch on the instrument. If he hadn’t played with any of the wisdom I mentioned before, you would still be moved just by the sound he would get out of the cymbals or the snare drum or the bass drum or the tom-tom. His knowledge was beyond his age. It was like he had been here before or something. It was like if somebody lived in 3000 and came back to this time and played. He seemed to have total knowledge of what this thing is.
And having observed in the flesh and on recordings over the subsequent three decades, in what ways did his concept and playing grow and evolve? In a palpable way, as opposed to what happens to people as they get older and wiser.
HART: That’s an interesting thing. There’s guys like Miles, who you didn’t realize how far ahead he was until you realized, when he was with his third rhythm section, the one with Tony and Herbie, that he was actually playing that same way when he was with Red and Philly Joe. You just didn’t realize how advanced it was. And the same thing with Higgins. I’m sure Higgins progressed, but as the rest of the world began to catch up with him, you began to realize how advanced he had always been. I was a younger guy, so I was basically ready to jump from Max to Elvin to Tony. But now I realize that the bridge between Elvin and Tony for me is Higgins. There’s an understanding of what the drums do and the purpose for having the drums in the first place, for what the drums do, not only for the music but for people, just for humankind, that goes back even before the invention of the drumset… Higgins seems to have been very much aware of that. I don’t know how subconscious it was, but in his playing he seemed to be very much aware of that, and he was a very important process in the evolution of the instrument. I’m trying to think about how I can say it in another way. As we move more towards a world view of music and of drumming, as we are more and more interested in the South American rhythms as an evolution from Africa through South America to here, as we get more advanced or more progressive or whatever, we realize we are really going back and studying all those musics from before. And Higgins’ contribution seems to be some kind of innate awareness of that in advance.
To paraphrase, you’re saying that he’s united many different strands of rhythm, or maybe he got in some sense to the primal or universal rhythm in his playing. And his playing did seem universally applicable to any situation.
HART: Yeah, that’s why.
From Ornette Coleman to very straight-ahead, tradition situations. Anything that involved some swing.
HART: Well, you call it swing, but what I’m saying is it’s a rhythmic sophistication that causes a euphoric reaction, and on a folk level that reaction can go anywhere from sensual feelings, to partying, to dancing, to actual meditation… That positive feeling can actually cause healing. I sincerely believe that’s one of the main purposes for rhythm, if not for music period, to cause that kind of healing effect. Higgins seemed to be very much aware of it. The thing is so profound, that a bunch of us talk about it. It might have been something that he inherited from his parents or his grandparents. I think he talked about his mother and his grandmother in certain messages that he got in relationship to that kind of thing.
Could you give some personal reminiscences? You became friends.
HART: I would like to think so. I certainly adored him. But if I was his friend, then there were so many other people because he was so friendly. I would say, “Well, Higgins, can I help you, man? What can I do?” He’d say, “Just your friendship is sufficient.” Basically, he just showed me things. He talked to me about things. He talked to me about things about the drums and about music that if you came in late in the conversation you’d think he was talking about religious and spiritual kinds of things. He was moving. He was like a prophet, like Coltrane. He actually said things that will stay with me for not only how I play the drums, but how I live my life for the rest of my life.
One thing we can imply is that there’s a griotic quality in the way Billy Higgins passed on knowledge.
HART: He seemed to know the whole history of the function and the purpose of rhythm. He seemed to have that in his head…or in his body. Because I never heard anything he played that didn’t mean anything. It seemed like everything was in perfect place, like he had already pre-composed it, although we know that it was totally extemporaneous. It was like he could quote profound historical reasons for a positive way of living with every beat.
You also mentioned his connection to second line rhythms, and of course, he learned a great deal from Ed Blackwell when he was young and later was friends with Vernell Fournier.
HART: I didn’t know about Vernell so much. But he seemed to have embodied the New Orleans wisdom or knowledge or legacy without having grown up there or having been born there. It seems as much part of him as if he’d lived there.
[BY NOW, JEFF WATTS AND LEROY WILLIAMS WERE IN THE STUDIO]
Jeff Watts, you’re about 40, came up in the ’70s and ’80s, when your jazz consciousness was formed. When did you first become aware of Billy Higgins music via record and when did you first see him play?
WATTS: I first began to collect jazz records around 1978 and 1979, just obvious things like Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. By a certain point I was able to identify people like that and Roy Haynes, but every once in a while I would get fooled, because I would hear a drummer who would have a certain sound in his cymbal beat that had like a street thing in it, and it was kind of reminiscent of Art Blakey but something was different about it. [END OF SIDE] I kind of became able to identify his style just through a process of elimination, just through seeing the range of things he was able to do. I think a lot of the things that are going to be said about him are going t be a bit redundant, as far as unique touch and his spiritual quality and the way he could conjure up things that are African and play beats that… Like many of the great jazz drummers, they would tend to put a personal stamp on things from the Caribbean and Latin America, find their own ways of playing Latin music that would in turn influence the Latin drummers. Things like that, and the boogaloo beat he played that’s unsurpassed that I think people will be sampling twenty years from now — if they’re still doing that stuff.
But I didn’t see him much until I came to New York, and seeing him is a whole nother trip, because you see how he goes about doing his thing. The ease and the economy of motion he had… Probably the closest thing for me to seeing someone like Papa Jo Jones, someone that I never got to see in person — that ease with the instrument.
Whenever you’re trying to learn about this music, at least the way my mind works, I’ll try to put things together and get a combination of this and that. But after seeing the breadth of his wisdom and his career, I’ve started to recognize someone who had a very organic relationship with life and with music. Even though he had a lot of specific information under his hands and in his mind, at the moment when he interacted with the music it was like an environmental thing. Whatever he was in the middle of, he would just find something really special for that music, something that you couldn’t just figure out. A lot of is experience, but a lot of it is just having a very natural relationship with life and with people. You’d see how he interacts and talks with people that I’m sure he never met before, but he would just be like a regular brother and very-very cool.
Leroy Williams, you came to New York in the late ’60s, after coming up in Chicago, and you and Billy Higgins moved in similar circles. What was your first exposure to his music, and what do recall about the regard in which he was held amongst New York drummers and musicians at the time you arrived?
WILLIAMS: I heard Billy on records when I was living in Chicago. It had to be in the ’50s. When I came to New York, I was introduced to Billy through Wilbur Ware, who was an old friend. Billy was living in Brooklyn at this time. We used to go out there and play. Chris Anderson was staying out there at the time, and Wilbur and Billy, so we used to go out there and play, and talk about music to a smaller degree. Billy and I never did really talk about music. Billy had a way of just saying little things, “Did you hear that?” “Did you get that?” “See what I mean?” But we didn’t really go into the music, about any paradiddles, any bam-bam, drum stuff. It was just being around Billy. We had a nice rapport.
I remember one of the first times I met Billy we were talking about Chicago, and Wilbur was telling Billy, “Now, Leroy’s a church boy, you know.” Billy said, “I know. I can tell by the way he plays, he is.” Billy said, “I am, too.” So we always got along fine. Most of the time me and Billy talked, it was about spiritual things. Not so much about the drums. We knew that. But it was another level we used to talk. Every time we’d talk at length,, it would be in that area.
And knowing him over the years… One point Billy Hart made and what is well known about Billy Higgins is the way in which he incorporated second line rhythms. Did he ever talk about his assimilation of Ed Blackwell or Vernell Fournier into what he did.
WILLIAMS: Like I said, we never did talk too much drum talk. Billy was one of those guys who absorbed things, and he’d grab stuff out of the air like most of the great people. Some people just can do that, and he was one.. So we never really talked about comparing drummers.
From your perspective over 30 years, did you notice an evolution in his sound? His growth as a musician. Billy Hart’s impression is that he almost came out fully formed in a certain way, and played with such tremendous consistency over his forty years.
WILLIAMS: I’m sure he grew. Everyone grows. I’m sure he grew.
PETERSON: One of the marks of a true master, like Leroy Williams, is the ability to teach without teaching and to teach by example. Thinking back through my relationships with other master drummers, they were also master teachers, because there was never this technical drummistic discussion about how to play the instrument. You just kind of shut your mouth and watched them, and your questions were answered before you could even form them.
The other thing is, the notion that he arrived wholly perfect in his approach: Well, the depth of his mastery comes in the span of time and music that he covered, and the consistency, where the music around him seemed to be changing radically, but all these musicians kept coming to him for this consistency which had to be changing with the music. But it wasn’t anything stark or radical or abrupt. His ability to subtly adjust and conform to a change in musical direction is not something every drummer can do. It’s not easy. And to do it and maintain continuity of self…
WILLIAMS: To me, Billy played the same way. But you grow within what you play. But the same… I don’t care who he played with, whether it ws Ornette, Monk, Dexter — he played the same way. The beauty in that is he was so whole and strong in his thing. It was cool. Like Ralph said, people just came to him because he had that good beat, swing and taste. And that can cover all of it. Billy had that all the time. But he grew as a musician and he grew as a person.
WATTS: I can’t add much to that. We’re all saying basically the same thing. But it sounds like he had found the keys for getting inside of music. If there was some kind of equation, he had like a universal equation for getting inside of some music — period. Just like they’re talking about him teaching without getting into specifics, teaching by example… One example I have of that which is profound, without getting into specifics… He was working somewhere, probably Sweet Basil… I was kind of checking out his drums a little bit after he played, and I started to touch upon the tuning of his tunes. I wasn’t really trying to get specific. But the thing that he said was really deep. He said, “Well, when you tune your drums, just make them sound like a family.” How deep is that? You can’t get no heavier than that, especially with something like the drumset, which is all these different instruments that are put together to make one sound, and then sometimes it’s like a choir, sometimes it’s like a melodic line, sometimes you’re trying to sound like a bunch of people playing. But just to take all these different instruments and make them sound like they go together and that they belong together, without getting into specifics, “Oh, this is a minor third” and this is like that and “I loosen the bottom head.” Just as long as they go together.
[BH, “Mirror, Mirror”, HIGGINS-CEDAR INTERVIEW, then “Alias Buster Henry”]
[ANDREW CYRILLE and WINARD HARPER ARRIVED AT THE STUDIO]
Andrew, did you go to see Ornette Coleman during his initial engagement at the Five Spot?
CYRILLE: No. Actually I played at the Five Spot with Walt Dickerson and Austin Crowe and I think Eustis Guillemet opposite Ornette, but the drummer was Ed Blackwell, and I think Jimmy Garrison played bass.
But it was ’61 when Jimmy Garrison was with Ornette.
CYRILLE: That’s right, and [Charles] Moffett was playing drums. I think I had gone down there when he first came to New York, and the place was abuzz with musicians talking about the pros and cons of what they were hearing. That’s when Ornette had his plastic saxophone. I didn’t speak with him then. I just listened to the music. I met him personally some time after that, at Cedar Walton’s house.
When did you become aware of him as a significant tonal personality in the music?
HARPER: That happened over the years. When you first hear somebody, you hear them for the first time, because there was a certain magic going on with that music, and he was an integral part of what was happening. But as I heard him over the years, I understood the breadth and depth of his musicianship. It was just fantastic.
To me, very often, drummers keep bands together. You can tell a great band through listening its drummers. Great drummers make a great band sound perhaps even greater. And he was somebody who really infused what he knew about music and about drumming into the music of Ornette Coleman. I was impressed. I was impressed with the whole thing, and him being a part of it. I had never heard anything quite like that. So just observing him and listening to him, it took me someplace else.
I’d like you to describe his stature among New York drummers in the ’60s and ’70s.
CYRILLE: Well, since I was part of that history with Cecil and Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray and Beaver Harris and cats like that… Billy was one of us as far as the avant-garde was concerned. He could swing, too; that was the other part of it. That piece “Buster Henry” shows how he could play freely and just follow the sound. You heard that in the rubato passages, and then when the signal was given, when he played those four-bar introductions and went back into the metrical melody… He was gifted in that respect. So as far as the New York drummers were concerned, he was just one of the cats who was doing what we were doing at that time.
Both schools of the New York drummers.
CYRILLE: Both schools. Exactly. I’d see Billy all over the world in different places, and he was always very respectful. He’d come and listen to me, he liked music, etc., and he’d comment on some of the things I’d do. I remember him sitting in on stage when I was doing a duet with Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, in England one year. I remember another time I went over with Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins, and he and Cedar came into the club to listen to us play. Very respectful.
I remember him most for something that was done not too long ago for Dennis Charles, when a group of us drummers assembled to play in tribute to Dennis, and Billy was the conductor of the choir. We drummers don’t get an opportunity to play with each other too much; I wish there could be more of that… [END OF SIDE] …Warren Smith and Jimmy Hopps came by, and I played with the group. He conducted the band. We decided what we were going to do before we went up to play, and he said, “Okay, we’ll do this-this-that, when one drummer stops we’ll do another thing, when another stops, we’ll do this — you go first-second-third.” It was very organized. And it was just beautiful to be able to play with him, not only just listen to him. That was a treat.
If you were to describe to somebody the dynamics of his approach to the drums, what would you emphasize?
CYRILLE: Probably a lot of the things that were said already, because there’s probably a common denominator among us who play drums who understand some of the things that go into the science and the art of playing. Number one, to me, that I loved about him was his beat. He had that beat that seemed to be able to fit any person’s style, and he would listen, of course. To me, sometimes drumming is like a person being a tailor. You fit somebody to the max with some clothes. You make them look better than they are… [EVERYONE LAUGHS] You just take them someplace else. He was just one of those kind of people. That’s the way he played. His touch, the way he tuned the drums. Plus he was a great showman also. He could get up there and do some stepping. Not only would he attract you with the music, if you closed your eyes he was still magnetic, but if you opened your eyes, that was something else again.
As a civilian, I can attest to numerous situations where without him doing anything overt to call attention to himself, I’d find myself watching him play time. Just isolate on that and you could be fine for an hour!
CYRILLE: Yeah. His time was just about impeccable. His independent coordination. His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline that you could hang clothes up on, and it would have all different sizes and weights. It was right there. So I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him. He would just give and take and expand. It was so elastic and so relaxed from the inside. It was like sleeping on a mattress that was heavenly!
[BH, “Hocus Pocus” & “Molly”]
[I PLAYED A TAPED INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS HAYES]
You and Billy Higgins were practically the same age, and your careers started at about the same time. You were in New York before him. I’m wondering when you first became aware of him as a drummer and the impression he made upon you when you did.
HAYES: Well, we’re about a year apart. I first became aware of Billy Higgins when he was appearing with Ornette Coleman, and they were appearing at the original Five Spot. I went down several times. And Billy Higgins impressed me. The music he was playing was something I wasn’t too familiar with at the time. Ornette is such a unique person, and Billy was swinging right through it and with that good feeling that he had when he first came to New York with the group. I was very impressed with him. So we became friends, and we stayed friends from that time ever since.
What would you say was distinct about his playing vis-a-vis the general vocabulary of drumming in 1959-60?
HAYES: I would say his ability to use the facilities that he had so well. He had a certain sound that’s so important, a distinctive sound that was his own. He was very creative, and he really loved to play. You could always tell that was Billy Higgins playing drums when you listened to him in person and when you heard him on recordings.
You’re talking about his touch.
HAYES: His touch and the way he used the facilities that he had.
How would you describe the set of influences that he incorporated into his own singular sound?
HAYES: I don’t know who influenced him exactly. But we had opportunities to practice together several times, when we both lived in Brooklyn. This was in ’59-’60-’61, something like that. Billy had his way of doing things, and we enjoyed each other’s playing a lot. A period of time went by, and then when he was appearing with Lee Morgan and I was appearing with Freddie Hubbard, we had some battles of the band in Harlem at Count Basie that were very interesting. A lot of people came and were aware of it; that was a lot of fun.
How would you describe the evolution of his sound as he got older? People say he always had a wise-beyond-his-years quality, extreme maturity musically even at a very young age.
HAYES: He did. And to me, Billy never changed that much. The way he sounded when I first heard him with Ornette and the way he sounded with Cedar Walton… And him and Cedar played together for many years, and David Williams on bass. He sounded pretty much the same. He had so much creativity that he made everyone that was in his presence hear his drum style and what he projected. He put smiles on everyone’s face. When Billy was smiling, he made the audience smile and naturally the guys in the group were smiling.
I would just like to say that Billy will always be here, because of that sound he left, so he always will be appearing on records, and we never will forget Mr. Billy Higgins. I’m glad that I had an opportunity to know him and be his friend while he was on this side. Like Cedar Walton said to me one time, if Billy couldn’t play, he’d rather be in another place anyway. So I’m glad that Billy was here and we all had an opportunity to experience his personal feeling that he brought to this art form.
[RESUME LIVE WITH LEWIS NASH]
Lewis, as a younger musician, when did you first hear Billy Higgins and what was your first opportunity to see him play? What were your impressions at the time?
NASH: I think the first time I heard Billy on a record was on the Eddie Harris recording that had “Freedom Jazz Dance.” [The In Sound] That was the first time I heard him to my knowledge. After that, the first time I heard him in person was when I was working with Betty Carter and was on my first tour of Europe, and we had gone to a festival in Stockholm, Sweden. Billy was there with some type of all-star group. That was the first time I had a chance to meet and talk to him. The way it happened was interesting, because I didn’t know he was there, and we had gotten to the hotel and checked in. I walked around town a little bit, then I came back to the hotel and I was walking back to my room, and I was passing by this other room next door to mine, and was practicing on a practice pad. I knew chances would be that it was someone I might know or would like to know, so I got my courage up and went in and knocked on the door, and lo and behold, Billy Higgins opens the door. He said, “Come on in! Come on in, young brother.” Then I went in, and he had his practice pad and everything, and I introduced myself and told him I was working with Betty Carter. He immediately made me feel like I was in the presence of someone I had known my whole life. I think that’s the feeling everyone has given on this broadcast, and what I heard on the radio on my way here, is how welcoming and warm Billy was.
I’d just like to say that the greatness that we attribute to him is something which comes from the feeling he gave. Oftentimes we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency or how they play n instrument or whatever. But with Billy, in addition to his proficiency on the instrument, it’s his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality which makes people call him great. I think that is really a wonderful tribute to him.
If you were to step back and look at him analytically, as a scholar of the drums, how would assess his contribution to drum vocabulary?
NASH: That question has so many facets to it. He’s definitely a link to roots for me. I guess that’s one way of looking at it. But at the same time, very modern, very fresh and very in the present moment. When I think about how I personally hear Billy, or how I heard him when I first started listening to him, I would hear a ride cymbal beat that I could only describe as wide. I know the drummers know what I mean when I say that. And although I never got a chance to meet Kenny Clarke personally, his ride cymbal beat reminded me of Klook’s ride cymbal beat, and it had that same kind of dancing and forward momentum and all that.
He had that connection to that root, and then the way that he would play the Latin-influenced things or the boogaloos was very…the only word I can think of is organic, primal… Very rooted. And when you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things, because you know you’re rooted. I think Billy probably had that feeling, and he was able to go in so many directions because of the rootedness of his playing.
WILLIAMS: I agree totally. Billy had that. And that’s what all the great people have. Once you have the foundation, then you can do anything. You can play anything, because everything is “okay, bring it on, bring anything on.”
In the phone interview with Billy Hart, he commented that he saw Billy Higgins as a link between Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. What’s interesting is that there are certain people who young drummers cite as the influences on whom the building blocks of vocabulary are built — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams. They all love Billy Higgins, but they might not necessarily cite him as in that list of people. Yet his influence seems to have been just as great. Which perhaps goes back to your comment about the feeling he projected.
NASH: It’s hard for us to find the words for us to really describe that part. One way I could say it is, we talk about Smiling Billy, but for me, even before I met him, in listening to records, not seeing him smile, I had the same feeling. It’s not that the smile itself is making this happen. It’s what he’s doing, and he is infused with the spirit of joy and everything so he has to smile. But you feel that without knowing that he’s smiling while he’s actually doing it, or you don’t have to see him smile to feel the joy that his playing gives you.
WILLIAMS: Well, the feeling is the most important element in the music, and Billy had that. Not everyone has it. A lot of drummers, piano players, bass players…everyone doesn’t have feeling in the music. That’s what made Billy Higgins great. Aside from all the other things, he had the right feeling. He had beat, swing, taste, all of those things. Those are a lot of things to have in one person. Some might have this, that or the other, but it’s rare when you can find someone who has all those components. And he loved to play. He loved music. And that’s the other ingredient. He loved to play.
CYRILLE: I would say he was a very educated drummer also, because he knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play. He knew what to play on the drum to give the music a certain kind of shape, a certain kind of feeling, a certain kind of weight, a certain kind of lightness sometimes. I could tell, too, from listening to him that a lot of his technique and a lot of things he played came from Max and also came from Philly Joe Jones in terms of his phrasing — and then there was Billy Higgins also. I think Ralph Peterson spoke about Art Blakey. All of us studied all of the masters, and sometimes you can hear direct quotes. And sometimes I would hear quotes from Philly from people like Joe and Max, but of course they would be with how he would deliver.
I like these analogies with sports, etcetera, how a cat might use a baseball bat to get a hit. You might use somebody else’s technique in order to hit the ball to left field or do a bunt or whatever, or you might do all of that. So that meant he had to study and he had to experiment with that kind of stuff in order to get it down so that he could do it. It seems to me that there was hardly anything that he couldn’t do, because he was cognizant of the instrument, the science of drumming as well as the art.
Did Billy Higgins ever talk to any of you about the impact Edward Blackwell had on him in the ’50s?
NASH: I never had a talk with him about that. But with what Andrew just mentioned about Billy having to study and dissect what had happened before him drumistically speaking, there is a similarity. I remember talking to Blackwell, and he did mention, along the same lines Andrew is talking about, how he loved Max Roach. It’s obvious. You can hear it. But he really made it a study and a science. Probably, since they were both playing with Ornette during a certain time and they heard each other, they might have talked, but I can’t say if there’s anything specific that Blackwell influenced Billy to do.
Jeff, you said before that your early impression of Billy Higgins was that he brought out a certain Africanness in his feeling. Could you extrapolate more thoughts on that quality in Billy Higgins’ playing?
WATTS: A lot of the things that come out in drumming are byproducts of what the music requires. So I think a lot of the way that the drumset has been changing and maturing over the years is kind of like American drummers and drummers around the world also, but just trying to get back to various aspects of West Africa and things like that. So when you’re trying to get a comparison between his attitude about the drums and Ed Blackwell’s thing about the drums, the parallels that they may have with regard to that specific style are demands that were created by the instrumentation and the music of Ornette Coleman, just to be able to converse on another level harmoniically from the drums, implying from rhythm harmony and direction and things that are components of African music.
There’s a wide variety of things he was able to do. I’m just going to be redundant. A lot of it is force of will, having the strong spirit he had. I doon’t know how to break it down…
CYRILLE: Keeping with what Jeff said, the polyrhythms he would play were just amazing. Blackwell played a lot of polyrhythms also. But Higgins was a risk-taker. He wasn’t afraid to go after something. So you go after it, you make it; sometimes you don’t; but you keep on trying. To me, his creativity was in the fact that he did take these risks and he would come up with these things. I’d go watch him play, and he’d start playing something on the rim of the drum, and breathe-in, breathe-out, etc. He’d go for it. Just do some stuff that you wouldn’t expect. Just the element of surprise. That’s really what was so great about him, and all the great drummers also. That’s in a sense what the essence of jazz is all about — the element of surprise. What is this guy going to do next? And he was one of the great exponents of that.
NASH: The beauty of it is that you know you’re witnessing something happening in the moment, that he’s not preconceiving it, he hasn’t worked it out. He sometimes wouldn’t know where it would be going, and he’d just be going. So you’re following him as he’s finding out where it’s going to go. That’s exactly right on the money about that.
CYRILLE: That’s where the fun comes in.
WATTS: The intention is… Especially when you know him a little bit and watching him play, you know that the intention of the whole thing is very-very pure and very-very sincere for creation and for beauty and things like that.
NASH: I thought he had great reflexes, in responding to what was going on at the moment. He would do just the right thing to enhance or really put something over well. He knew exactly what to do. It might be a cymbal crash really loud at just one spot, or it may completely drop out. He just knew what to do. His timing was incredible..
He always seemed to read the soloist’s mind; before they got where they were going, he’s be there.
WILLIAMS: Billy could hear, and that’s very important in music, especially drumming but in all music — to listen. Billy had that. You listen before you act. All the great people are great at that.
CYRILLE: But in addition to that, it’s what you see in your mind as you are listening and how you fill those spaces up. A lot of times, we as drummers fill in the spaces. Cats play a line, then they stop for a minute, and you give them something to keep moving, give them a little push. And those little pieces of music that he would put in, moving from one phrase to another, were also very magical and wonderful.
WILLIAMS: Like they say, it’s not how much you play; it’s what you play.
CYRILLE: It’s what you play. And a lot of time cats say, “Man, I’m gonna cop that, I like that…”
WILLIAMS: But they would play it in the wrong spot!
WATTS: And then that touch becomes important again. So that he would be able to hear across the band and hear what’s happening. He was one of those special people, like a lot of the great ones, capable of getting that maximum intensity, but at a low volume or at the volume he chose so that everything he was effective.
[MUSIC: E. Harris, “Love For Sale”; “Molly”]
WATTS: I’m going to tell a very brief version of a story. I was at a music festival in Vancouver, Canada, and he was playing with Cedar Walton and Charlie Haden in a trio in an old theater. I think they were playing some standard at a tempo about that fast, and Charlie Haden toook a very long solo over the standard. Billy was just playing time with the brushes very softly behind him, for a long time, with a very big smile. This is something that from another musician would almost come across as a gimmick, but just knowing how my man was about music… He played the brushes very-very soft, then eventually the audience took their attention away from, and he’s sitting there with this smile, and you can hear the brushes SH-SH-SH… Eventually people started to really check him out, and after a while he wasn’t even playing. He was sitting there smiling, making that noise through his clenched teeth. It was like theater, and it was so hip. It was also swinging very-very hard, too. Just that he could project that. And I was sitting in the balcony, in the rear of at least a 900-seat hall. It’s just something about who he is.
But I’m very honored to pay any kind of tribute I can to him. His music will liveon. He was a beautiful man, a beautiful person, and I’m proud to have known him, and God rest his soul.
NASH: There’s not much I can add, except to say that I’m also very happy to have had a chance to be around him, to talk to him, to learn from him, to sit under him while he was playing at Bradley’s, the Vanguard, Sweet Basil or wherever it might be, and to be able to take whatever I got from him and continue to grow, to use that as part of my food, so to speak, and nourishment in the music. I will continue to pray for his development. I believe sincerely that we continue to develop as souls once we leave this plane, and I hope that he’s reaching even newer heights, wherever he is now.
WILLIAMS: I’m glad you called me to come on. At the benefit they had for Billy a couple of weeks ago, I bought a t-shirt with Billy’s picture on it, and on it they had a bag with Billy’s logo for his club in California. I’d never seen the logo and I’d never been to the club. But on the logo it says “Seeking light through sound.” I thought that was Billy all the way. “Seeking light through sound.” So I want to leave that for Billy.
CYRILLE: I always used to see him, and I would always say “Hug the Hig.” I’m just so happy that I had so many opportunities to meet him and to hug him. He was a great, great drummer, and I used to call him the Swing-Master. That’s one of the things that I’ll always remember him for, in terms of his ability to swing. He enhanced my life just by being the person that he was and from the music that he gave me. I listened and I’m still learning from some f the things he’s done. I could perhaps try to incorporate some of those things into the music that I play. Because it’s rich. Jewels. So all I have to say is, “I’m glad Billy Higgins was is here among us to give us so much, and he will always be with us. Even after we’re gone, he’ll still be here.
[TAPED INTERVIEW WITH WINARD HARPER]
You became quite close to Billy Higgins and he was somewhat of a mentor to you. What was your first knowledge of his playing and musicianship before that time?
HARPER: Actually, I came into contact with Billy’s playing at an early age. Both my brothers play trumpet, and some of the first drummers I heard were Max Roach, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins — all that work Billy did with Lee Morgan. So his playing was already in my head early on.
What seemed to you distinctive and special about his playing?
HARPER: The main thing that always stuck out to me about Higgins was his spirit. As a person, you always look for things or find things that are kind of in yourself to latch onto. His spirit was something that struck me as the something that I also saw in myself.
That feeling came through the records, through every beat he played.
HARPER: Right. Well, that was the biggest thing about him. Everybody will talk about him and assess the things he’s done, what made Higgins what he was, was his spirit.
Let’s continue with the circumstances of you meeting him and becoming friends.
HARPER: By the time I left Atlanta and came to D.C., and started playing a lot of the jam sessions and things around town… I had never really seen him play at that point (I was 18 or 19), and a lot of the people around D.C. who I had the opportunity to work with said “Your playing reminds us of Billy Higgins.” I said, “Oh yeah?” I knew I’d listened to him a lot from the Lee Morgan records my brothers had. Then finally, a few months later, he came to town and played the One Step Down, and the proprietors at the club wanted me to meet him and introduce us and tell him what they thought about me. And at the same time, Higgins needed some drums to play. So I got the opportunity to loan him my drums, and he played the drums there at the One Step, and that’s how we met.
Talk about the evolution of your friendship. Was he a mentor to you? Would he give you hands-on information? Was it more philosophical and spiritual?
HARPER: I think our relationship was more on the spiritual side than anything. Like I said, that’s the biggest thing about him, was his spirit. In meeting him, i saw some things that was similar to myself. Then by the time I got to New York and I was working with Betty Carter, sometimes we would be on the road and we’d be in the same city, he’d be working with Cedar or somebody, and Billy would come by and pick me up and take me to prayer service. At the time I wasn’t really interested in anything. I was studying different things. I had also done some studying of Islam, but I didn’t know that much about it. And Higgins was the biggest introduction for me, because I felt like he embodied everything that would be a good example for someone. So he’d take me to prayer service and we’d talk about it. Maybe a couple of years later I ended up taking jihad and becoming a Muslim, and that was the biggest thing. Then we would get together and make prayer together, the prayer service. That was a big part of his life.
Did he relate the rhythms and phrases and vocabulary he played to tangible aspects of his spirituality, within Islam?
HARPER: Yeah, kind of a little of everything. Because he was the kind of person who would see things within everything he did. A lot of his spirit in his playing also came out of his family background. From talking with him, his mother was a very spiritual and religious person. She told me sometimes they would have gatherings at the house, and she played something as well. So that rhythm, too, was something he grew up with and it came out in his playing.
Can you talk more about the way your relationship evolved over those years?
HARPER: As I said, when I was on the road, he’d come get me, him, Carl Burnett, whoever else we’d be hanging out with… We’d be hanging out and we’d all end up going to prayer service. Then I guess out of my interest in the spiritual things we just kept at it. We got to the point where he would come over and have dinner with my family, play with my kids, talk to my family about Islam, and we stayed close from that. Then we’d get together sometimes and play the drums and trade ideas. He’d show me stuff and say, “I thought about this, I’m thinking about this.” It just evolved. We became good friends t the point where whenever I got to L.A., as soon as I got off the plane, that was usually my first move, was to call Higgins and go over to his place that they have over in Leimart Park, World Stage. That place over there, if nobody has ever been, that’s a nice community. I wish we had a Leimart Park everywhere. It’s a place that when they first took me over, when you rolled up the street, You could hear African drums over in the park. There would be some brothers playing the djembe drums.. There’s like a dance troupe and African drummers. It’s like a little plaza. And across the street from his place was a place where they have African dance and African drummers. It’s almost like an arts community. And when it’s not happening over there, it’s happening over at Higgins’ place, the World Stage. He’d have everybody in there playing some sort of instrument. Drums… I went by one night, man, and kids were in there, their parents, their grandparents, and everybody was playing something, and taking turns and just having a ball. It was a very community kind of thing which would take you back to the African roots, and made you think about the villages and everybody participating and everybody being there dancing and singing and playing.
So he had a very functional approach to music.
Did he ever talk to you about his influences, the people who inspired him and whose vocabulary he built on?
HARPER: A little bit. Out of questions that I would ask him, I knew that he had a relationship with Ed Blackwell. Billy was around the music very early evidently. I remember from doing some rehearsals with Dexter Gordon — and from Billy confirming it — that Dexter dated Billy’s sister at one time. He used to be there on the porch I guess wooing Billy’s sister, when Billy was a little kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old.
So he was born into the music.
HARPER: He was definitely always around it, from what I understand.
I thought an account of your last conversation with him might be a good way to conclude this conversation.
HARPER: Like I said, Higgins’ spirit was just so strong. I think that’s what really stands out about him, is that he was full of love. Everything he did was full of love, and he made you feel comfortable. I remember the first time he needed a transplant, I had my band out working in L.A., and I would go by the hospital everyday. When you went into the hospital room, he almost made you feel like you were the patient. Because you’d come in there to see him, to cheer him up, and it ends up being the other way around. And I remember calling him up for one of the last conversations we had.. I said, “Look, is there anything I can do for you? You need anything?” “Best thing you can do,” he said, “is play the drums.”
[MUSIC: Cedar Walton, “Ironclad”]