Tag Archives: Billy Hart

For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007

Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years. In 2012, Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro; two years ago, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for the 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.

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Billy Hart Blindfold Test:

1.  Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For  me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the  piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.

2.  Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)

Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.

3.   Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)

[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.

4.  Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)

The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe?  Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!

5.   Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)

Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.

6.   Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play. Off the record, I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski.  I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums.  I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.

7.  Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)

My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey.  4½ stars.    [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.

8.  Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)

Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes (that’s off the record). But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.

9.  Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.

10.  Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)

Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.

11.   Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)

This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant?  The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course. Off the record, I went to college with Tolliver at Howard, and I never think of Tolliver as having those kind of chops. I know he can play, he’s one of my favorite trumpet players, but for a minute he almost sounded like Freddie! I said, “Who is this who’s picking it up on that level?” Now, I know he loves Freddie, but I didn’t know he could get that close to it. That’s off the record.

12.  Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)

All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. This is off the record, too. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.

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Filed under Billy Hart, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazz Times

A Drummers Memorial Roundtable on Billy Higgins on WKCR, May 7, 2001

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 [1971] and In All Languages [1987]; 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.”

–Ted Panken

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.

HARPER:  Right.

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"]

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The Pile (#5): “Sixty-Eight” by Billy Hart, In Residence at the Village Vanguard This week

Any Billy Hart sighting in the clubs of NYC is an event worth remarking upon, and this week’s run at the Village Vanguard with his working quartet of Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, and Ben Street is no exception. On his current release, Sixty-Eight [Steeplechase], Hart convenes a first-class ensemble of individualistic young improvisers (Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mike Pinto, vibraphone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Chris Tordini, bass) to interpret inside-outside repertoire from the first half of the ’60s by Eric Dolphy (“Number Eight,”  “Serene,” “Out There”), Sam Rivers (“Cyclic Episode,” “Beatrice”), Mal Waldron (“Fire Waltz”) and Jaki Byard (“Mrs. Parker In K.C.”) as well as Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason (could I Give)” from Science Fiction, and originals by Tepfer and Palmer.  As is Hart’s custom, his playing is consistently compositional in intent; he leads by facilitation and suggestion, creating felicitous environments for the solos, which are consistently interesting and spring organically from the ensemble.  Which makes it all the more fun when the old master does let loose, as on “Mrs. Parker” and Tepfer’s “Punctuations.”

Over the years, I had the honor of conducting several  conversations with Billy on WKCR, and in 1998 I had the opportunity to write the liner notes for an exceptional date entitled Oceans Of Time [Arabesque], with Chris Potter and John Stubblefield on saxophones; Mark Feldman, violin; David Kikoski, piano; Dave Fiuczynski, guitar; and Santi Debriano, bass.  Of the title track, I wrote: “Hart orchestrates and arranges the family whistles of his mother and father, who were from Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, respectively.  ‘When my mother wanted me to come downstairs to eat, or if she clapped her hands and I was at the playground, she had a whistle she’d use, and so did my father.  My mother was a Jimmie Lunceford-Count Basie fan, while my father was more of a Duke Ellington-John Kirby fan.  My mother always thought that the music he liked was a little too far-out for her — she liked music that really grooved.  They took me to the Howard Theater when I was little, and I remember shows by Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and the singers who came through with those guys.  In the last year or so I’ve thought how interesting it is that both my parents had family whistles, and I included this as a song to remember not only my mother, father, and brother, who are all gone, but members of my drum family who have left us in the last few years, like Steve McCall, Eddie Moore, Daoud Freddie Waits, Mel Lewis, Ed Blackwell and recently Tony Williams.’”

That was 1997. Circa 2011 Hart  has produced yet another date that evokes what I described then as his “uncanny ability to look steadfastly to the future while forgetting nothing of what he’s learned during four decades [now five decades] in the Jazz business.”

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I wrote:

As an eminent pianist put it to me the other day, “Who doesn’t like Billy Hart?”  He’s just one of the hundreds of musicians who value the 56-year-old drummer’s penchant for finding an idiomatic tone to suit any function without cliche, his ability to play the trap drums across the entire spectrum of contemporary improvisation with authority, sensitivity and invention, earning him first-call status for a wide array of  live gigs and recordings.  To wit: Between 1962 and 1980 Hart served lengthy tours of duty with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Eddie Harris, Pharaoh Sanders, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz; a partial list of credits during the past twenty years includes the large and small ensembles of Frank Foster, Gerry Mulligan and Clark Terry, with Mingus Dynasty, the collective group Quest (Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Ron McClure), and the working bands of diverse progressive improvisers like James Newton, Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell and Charles Lloyd.  As I write, he’s working with Toots Thielemans for a week at New York’s Blue Note, and he’ll join the Ray Drummond Quintet at the Village Vanguard in a few weeks.

Hart’s visibility and importance as a sideman could overshadow the sophisticated aesthetic he displays when he has time to lead a band, how strong a compositional drummer he is.  These qualities are fully apparent on Oceans of Time, his fifth recording which, like the previous four, sounds unlike anything recorded contemporaneous to it.  As on the previous sessions, Hart employs an all-star group of individualistic, virtuosic musicians who probably would not play together otherwise, meshing their distinctive personalities through the intense dialogue he creates.  The compositions reflect Hart’s predisposition to play beautiful melodies within elaborate, contemporary structures; on each performance he functions as an idea-generator, a rhythmic fulcrum, developing thematically an intricate web of patterns and timbral relationships.

Hart hasn’t had a liner note since the 1976 Enchance (*****, Downbeat), so here’s a mini-biography for those who’d like to know how he got from there to here.

William W. (“Jabali”) Hart, born November 29, 1940, grew up with the ethos of versatility in a Washington, D.C. abrim with music.  He studied some piano as a child, and took up drums in a local drum-and-bugle corps at around 11. “Being from a Black community,” he recalls, “when you played in a drum corps, right away it had to swing.  Instead of having a book of Sousa marches, these cadences, as they were called, were passed down to me from the elders who had been in the corps before me — and they all had this kind of swing.  When rehearsals started, the kids came out and began to dance behind this marching band stuff; I immediately began to relate to the drums like that.”  Soon he had a drum set, and at 15 years old, “when all I knew how to play was these marching rhythms,” he met Buck Hill, who lived next door to his grandmother. “Just by fate I happened to meet him.  He saw me with my drumsticks in my pocket, and he handed me two 78 rpm Charlie Parker records.  They consumed me immediately.”

Not long after the chance meeting, Hart began playing for real at rehearsal sessions led by Eddie Warren, father of bassist Butch Warren, elder brother of guitarist Quentin Warren.  The latter, best known for his Blue Note recordings with Jimmy Smith, “used to come and listen to me practice outside of the basement without letting me know.  He suggested me for a rehearsal gig at Eddie’s house with the violinist Stuff Smith.  Once I took the drums out of the basement, it seemed like I could hardly ever get them back in.”  During high school, Hart served a comprehensive apprenticeship with rhythm-and-blues bands in local dancehalls and cabarets; later on, in the Howard Theater house band under Charles Hampton’s leadership, he backed the likes of Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Smokey Robinson and numerous others.  He and fellow McKinley High School graduates Reuben Brown and Butch Warren were the house trio at a local room called Abe-Art’s for nine months, backing Buck Hill on weekends; later he worked with singer-pianist Shirley Horn’s trio, and played Brazilian rhythms at Charlie Byrd’s club with people like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and Bola Sete.

Always the serious listener, Hart heard and emulated the numerous drummers who passed through town with Pop acts, particularly New Orleans Second Line extenders like Idris Muhammad with the Impressions, Clayton Filliard with James Brown, and Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer with the Ray Charles band.  He’d see Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey and Louis Hayes when they were resident, and checked out accomplished Washington drummers like Charlie Buck (who preceded Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s first big band), Harry “Stump” Saunders, (“many guys would come to town without a rhythm section; Stump was the guy who would play with them”), Ben Dixon (“the epitome of one of those D.C. guys who could play with anybody; he was a composer who took solos in odd time signatures”), Jimmy Cobb (“I used to try to play just like him”), Buddy Mack Simpkins and Grady Tate, as well as contemporaries like Jimmy Hopps, Joe Chambers, Eric Gravatt, Bernard Sweetney, Hugh Walker, and Mike Smith.

Is there a Washington, D.C. style of drumming?  Hart thinks so.  “There was a definite dramatic way of swinging, where the music must swing and groove, be funky and soulful at all costs, or whatever word or emotion you want to use,” he asserts.  “Washington drummers tend to almost overemphasize that; they have a certain shuffle rhythm in their playing.”

Whatever the case, Hart’s impeccable backbeat drumming led to consecutive steady jobs with Jimmy Smith’s and Wes Montgomery’s crossover-oriented groups of the mid-’60s.  Throughout that time, he was looking for ways to extend improvisation.  “My grandmother was a concert pianist, Marion Anderson’s first accompanist; she had turned me on enough to the standard European repertoire for me to be attracted to the next contemporary step, like Stravinsky, Bartok and Messaien, and even Stockhausen and John Cage.  I’d be walking around listening to the stuff, while everybody is sort of thinking, ‘Boy, he’s pretty strange’ — particularly for a drummer.  Also, by the time I’m hitting the scene, remember that Ornette has already hit, and Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor.  I had gone to Howard University with Marion Brown, who went to New York, and comes back dressing differently, talking about, ‘Look, man, there’s different stuff going on’ — which he knows I’ll be interested in.  He said, ‘I know you like Elvin and Tony, but there’s a cat there named Sonny Murray that you really want to know about.’  Later, going through Chicago with Jimmy and Wes, I encountered Gerald Donovan, known as Ajaramu, a drummer associated with the AACM, who turned me on to Thurman Barker, Steve McCall, and Alvin Fielder, who were working with textural, timbral approaches — what Rashied Ali told me Coltrane called ‘multidimensional’ playing.”

After Montgomery’s death, Hart played a couple of years with the late Chicago reedman-sound scientist Eddie Harris, who encouraged stretching out within the groove. “Eddie liked an advanced Pop-rhythm concept, and helped me be more authentic with it.  His Bebop concept was clear and powerful, and his swing was so smooth, funky and soulful.  He sort of reminded you somewhere between Lester Young and Miles Davis on the saxophone.  He really helped me.”  Next was Pharaoh Sanders, where “for the first time I was able to really use the things I had learned from my relations with the AACM, and get into so-called ‘free playing,’ the new vocabulary that came from drummers like Rashied, Sonny Murray, Milford Graves and Andrew Cyrille.  I brought a lot of my experimental intentions into the Mwandishi band.  I think Herbie Hancock was one of the beginners of playing something I think will end up being called ‘World Music,’ expanding Jazz to be a World Classical Music, a concept starting with Jazz.  That band demanded some knowledge of African music, some knowledge of Indian music, and of course, all the American traditions, as much as I could have known at that time.  With McCoy I had to learn how to articulate in a clear, definite way the textural stuff I had put together with Pharaoh combined with the advanced grooves I developed with Herbie.  With Stan Getz I had to project that kind of intensity just as clearly at a much softer volume and get my traditional swing (or Bebop) vocabulary fully together.”

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Blindfold Test: Paul Motian About Ten Years Ago

It’s been a thrill to get to know Paul Motian — who ends his MJQ Tribute week at the Village Vanguard tonight –  a little bit over the last 12-13 years.  He joined me on numerous occasions while I was at WKCR, and I’ve written three pieces about him — a long DownBeat feature in 2001,  a verbatim WKCR interview on  the now-defunct jazz.com website, and the blindfold test that I’ll paste below. We did this in the Carmine Street apartment of a friend of Paul’s (I could kill myself for not remembering his name right now, as he’s a nice, extremely knowledgeable guy and facilitated the encounter). This is the raw, unexpurgated pre-edit copy.

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Paul Motian Blindfold Test:

1.    Keith Jarrett-Peacock-deJohnette, “Hallucinations”,  Whisper Not, (ECM, 2000) – (5 stars)

I’m familiar with all the players.  I don’t know who it is.  It’s not Bud Powell, obviously. …For a minute, I thought it was Keith Jarrett. [JARRETT GRUNTS] Okay, it’s Keith.  I know who the drummer is, but I can’t… I could guess and say it’s Keith’s current trio, with Jack DeJohnette and Peacock.  Five stars.  They sounded nice, man.  Good players.  Taking care of business.  I haven’t heard Keith play in that style since I don’t know when.  So for a minute I was thinking that maybe it’s a really early Keith Jarrett record from when he was going to Berklee in Boston or something.  I did think that.  I met him when he was playing… Tony Scott called me up.  He said, “Hey, man, I’ve got a gig for you at the Dom,” which was on 8th Street.  I went down there with him and Keith was playing piano.  That’s when I met him.  I said, “Wow, the piano player is great.  Who’s that?”  He said, “Keith Jarrett.  I just discovered him.” [LAUGHS] Henry Grimes was playing bass.  And I played with him that night.  That’s when I met him.  But I thought that might be early because… Well, it took me a minute to recognize DeJohnette. [What didn't you recognize?] Sort of his style of playing and not the sound.  From what I heard from the sound, I didn’t know who it was.  It sounded familiar, but I didn’t know who it was. [Maybe he wasn't playing his drums.] Could have been.  I’m pretty much going to give five stars to everybody.  I think everybody sounds great.  Why not? [But if you don't think something sounds great, it would devalue the stuff to which you give five stars.] Okay, that’s all right.  If I don’t give something 5 stars, does that mean I have go and buy the record?

2.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino”, Plays Carla Bley (Steeplechase, 1991) [Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums] – (5 stars)

[AFTER A FEW NOTES OF IMPROV]  That’s Paul Bley.  I wish I knew who the bass player was.  That’s “Ida Lupino.”  Paul Bley, five stars, man.  Why not?  He sounds great.  I don’t think it’s me on drums, but it could be!  I don’t know if I can get the bassist.  Charlie Haden and I played with Paul Bley in  Montreal.  I’m wondering if this is that!  Those ain’t my cymbals. [You played with the bass player.] [AFTER] Wow.  Man, I left Bill Evans to play with Paul Bley.  And when he heard about that, he was very happy.  At that time, there was a lot happening.  I’m talking about 1964.  There was a lot going on in New York.  The music was changing, there was some interesting stuff, and things were heading out into the future.  And I felt like I was stuck with Bill and that it wasn’t happening with Bill out in California.  So I just quit.  I left the poor guy out there.  What a drag I was.  I left the guy on the road like that.  My friend, my closest friend and companion and musician. [But you had to go.] Yeah, I wasn’t happy.  I came back and got into stuff with Paul Bley. [Can you  say what it is about Paul Bley that makes you recognize him quickly?  Is it his touch?]  Well, it’s everything.  It’s the sound.  Mostly sound, I guess.  Style, touch, everything.  [So you knew it was Jack DeJohnette because of his style, but with Paul here you knew...] No, I was more sure about it being Paul than I was sure about it being Jack.

3.    Scott Colley, “Segment”, …subliminal (Criss-Cross 1997) [Colley, bass; Bill Stewart, drums; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Bill Carrothers, piano) -  (5 stars)

[ON DRUM SOLO] Nice drums, whoever it is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  It’s 5 stars.  But I don’t know who it is. [You have no idea who the tenor player is?] No.  The first two or three notes I said, “Gee, maybe it’s Joe Lovano, but it’s not.  I feel like I should know who they all are.  But I don’t. [LAUGHS] I like the tune.  What’s that tune called? ["Segment."] Oh.  I think I played that tune. [LAUGHS] [Yes, with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden.] No wonder.  Wow.  Nice. Nice sound, the drums and everything. [AFTER] Potter?  No kidding.  That sounded really good.  Very together.  Nice sound.  I liked the sound on the drums, the way they’re tuned.  I liked it.

4.    Joey Baron, “Slow Charleston”, We’ll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) [Baron, drums, composer; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Bill Frisell, guitar; Ron Carter, bass] – (5 stars)

I have no idea who this is, but I still want to give this five stars.  They’re all playing, they’re good musicians, and it’s great! [LAUGHS]  Nice groove. [Any idea who the guitar player is?] No.  I like it, though. [AFTER] I didn’t know Frisell could do that.  He played with me for twenty years.  I didn’t know he could do that.  See, I don’t know if I would ever recognize Joey anyway.  It’s good for me to find out stuff about these guys.  I can put it to good use!  I haven’t heard Arthur Blythe much at all.

5.    Warne Marsh, “Victory Ball”, Star Highs (Criss Cross, 1982) [Marsh, tenor saxophone; Mel Lewis, drums; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass] – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Warne Marsh.  There was one particular night at the Half Note playing with Lennie Tristano, with Warne playing… He played some shit that night that was incredible!  I’ll never forget it.  That record came out a few years ago.  Tuesday night was Lennie’s night off, and we played with no piano player or a substitute piano player, and that night it was Bill. [Any idea who the piano player is?] The way the piano player was comping, for a minute I said, “maybe it’s Lennie Tristano,” but it’s not.  Everybody sounds so good!  It’s great.  I have a feeling the piano player is going to surprise me.  Five stars.  I should know who the drummer is, but I don’t. [AFTER] Wow.  I am surprised at Hank Jones.  He usually plays with more space.  It was a great experience playing with Lennie Tristano.  I had a great time.  It was a period in my life when I was playing with a lot of people, and that was a little different than what I was used to doing, and it was very enjoyable, man.  I was playing almost every night.

6.    Satoko Fujii, “Then I Met You” , Toward, “To West” (Enja, 2000) [Fujii, piano, composer; Jim Black, drums; Mark Dresser, bass] – (5 stars)

It’s worth five stars just because of all the study the bass player had to do.  There are more players playing now than when I got to New York, and at a good level.  What I’m trying to say is that the music I listened to in the ’50s and stuff came from that time, and you listened to Prez and Bird and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday and Max and Clifford Brown and Bud Powell.  I could recognize any of that in a second.  Now there are so many players and so many good ones.  One thing that’s… I heard a few things in the piano sound that I know it’s a digital recording, which kind of bugs me.  I still hear that kind of tingy thing… I’m almost 99% sure I can tell when it’s a digital recording or whether it’s a CD, or whether it’s an analog recording from an old LP.  I mean, there’s a solo Monk record I bought when CDs first came out.  I played it once and threw it away, man.  It sounded like an electric piano.  Five stars.  One time I was playing at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and we were playing opposite Stiller and Meara.  Stiller came up to me afterwards and said, “You guys are really brave with the music you’re playing, that you would get out in front of an audience and play that music.  There’s a lot of heart in that, and you’re really brave to be doing that.  I feel that’s five stars for these guys, with what they’re doing and where they want to take the music. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of her.  I love what they’re trying to do.

7.    Ornette Coleman, “Word For Bird”,  In All Languages (Harmolodic-Verve, 1987) [Coleman, alto sax, composer; Billy Higgins, drums; Charlie Haden, bass; Don Cherry, tp.] – (5 stars)

Ornette.  Sounds like Charlie on bass.  Blackwell on drums.  Oh.  Higgins, I guess.  Well, Charlie for sure!  Couldn’t miss that.  That’s not Cherry either, is it?  It sounds like he’s playing the trumpet!  It’s not that tiny pocket trumpet sound.   It sounds like a regular trumpet.  Now that I’ve stopped and thought about it and listened, it’s Cherry, all right.  Five stars.  More if there are any.

8.    Lee Konitz, “Movin’ Around” , Very Cool (Verve 1957) [Shadow Wilson, drums, Konitz, as, Don Ferrara, tp, composer;  Sal Mosca, piano; Peter Ind, bass]  – (5 stars)

[I want you to get the drummer on this.] [LAUGHS] I recognize the beat. [SHRUGS] Lee Konitz.  It’s got to have 5 stars right there.  It’s always great when a drummer can play the cymbal and just from the feel of the beat make music out of it.   With the trumpeter, I hear something like that, I hear a specific note, and I see a person’s face that I recognize, but I don’t know who it is! [LAUGHS] That means that I know who it is…but I don’t. [LAUGHS] The style is recognizable.  It’s beautiful.  I KNOW that drummer.  Can I guess?  how about the piano player being Sal Mosca?   Oh, Jesus.  Is the drummer Nick Stabulas, by any chance? [AFTER] Wow!  I hung out with Shadow, but… [LAUGHS] No wonder there was so much music in just playing the cymbal!  You dig? [LAUGHS] That’s great.  That means the trumpet player might be Tony Fruscella, someone like that.  Someone like Don…what was his name… [It's Don Ferrara.] Yeah, so there you go.  I don’t think I ever played with Don Ferrara.  Is the bass player Peter Ind?  So it’s an older record.  Shadow was one of my favorite drummers, and to hear him play now after so many years and to see all the music that he played, just playing a cymbal!  Shadow was a motherfucker.  20 stars.  Shadow Wilson.  Shit.  That’s Shadow Wilson on that Count Basie record, “Queer Street,” where he plays that 4-bar introduction.

9.    Billy Hart, “Mindreader”, Oceans of Time (Arabesque, 1996) – (5 stars) [Hart, drums; Santi DeBriano, bass, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Stubblefield, tenor saxophone; Mark Feldman, violin; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano]

The piano and drums sound like they’re in tune with each other.  I’ll try to take a guess and say that bass player is Mraz. [It's the drummer's record.] Yeah, I figured that out.  I didn’t say anything, but… He’s the one who’s out front.  Whoever did the composition and arrangement, it’s great.  It reminds me of back in the ’60s when we were doing stuff with Jazz Composers Orchestra.  This sounds like it could be something that came out of that.  But this is more complicated somehow, more written stuff.  There’s a lot of people involved, and it’s very good.  So who’s the drummer?  Nice drum sound.  Nice tunings.  Very melodic.  Nice ideas.  He deserves some credit, man, a big organization like that.  There are a lot of good drummers out there now.  I don’t know who it is. [This drummer is close to your generation.] He sounds like he’s been around the block a few times! [LAUGHS] [AFTER] I would never recognize any of that.  The vibe is great.  The record is great.  Good for Billy.  Five stars for sure.  Look at all the work that went into that.  That was great.

10.    Danilo Perez, “Panama Libre”, Motherland (Verve 2000) [Perez, piano; Brian Blade, drums, Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

If the drummer isn’t Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, I’m not going to know them.  Five stars just because of the way they’re fucking with the time.  It’s not Pat Metheny, is it?  He sounds familiar, too! [Well, there's 2 degrees of separation of everybody in jazz with you.] I like people who play with dynamics.  You don’t hear it very much!  Another reason for five stars.  I think I’ve played with this guitar player too.  Are you sure I hired them?  Another thing about drums… I don’t know who the drummer is, but on recordings, did you notice how Billy Hart was so much in front, and now this guy is mixed so far back?  I guess I’m not going to get this either.  It sounds so familiar, man! [AFTER] Kurt Rosenwinkel keeps improving.  He started with me ten years ago, and now he’s out there on his own, he’s got his own band and everything.  He’s writing nice stuff and playing better.  I recorded with Danilo Perez way back, but I wouldn’t recognize him.  But that’s why the guitar player sounded so familiar.  I should have known that sound.  I said that sound was so familiar!

11.    Joe Lovano-Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Ugly Beauty”, Flying Colors (Blue Note, 1997) -  (5 stars) [Lovano, tenor saxophone; Rubalcaba, piano; Monk, composer]

Someone said that this was the only waltz that Monk ever wrote.  Okay, let’s figure out who this is.  Okay, Lovano. [But you've also played and recorded with the pianist.] Oh, Gonzalo.  I recognized Lovano.  But when I was in England recently on tour with an English band, and I walked into the club to set up, and they were playing a CD, and I heard the saxophone and I heard it for two or three notes, and I said, “That’s Lovano.”  The engineer said, “No, it’s not.”  I said, “Oh yes, it is.”  “No, it’s not.”  “Oh, yes, it is.”  And it wasn’t.  I don’t know if I would have recognized Gonzalo except for the fact that I knew Joe had done a duo record with him.  Man, five stars.  Are you kidding?  Everything’s going to be five stars.  I can’t renege now.  Joe’s great, man.  So’s Gonzalo.  They sound nice together.

12.    Joanne Brackeen, “Tico, Tico”, Pink Elephant Magic (Arkadia, 1998) [Brackeen, piano; Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez, drums; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

“Tico, Tico” in 5/4 time.  Five-four, five stars!  No idea who the drummer is.  Maybe I should listen a little bit! [AFTER] That was interesting.  They deserve five stars for sure.  Was it Al Foster?  I’m just guessing. [Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez.] I’ve never heard of him.

13.    Ralph Peterson, “Skippy”, Fotet Plays Monk (Evidence, 1997) [Peterson, drums; Steve Wilson, soprano sax; Brian Carrott, vibes; Belden Bullock, bass] – (5 stars)

“Skippy” by Thelonious Monk.  I was going to say Steve Lacy, but no, it’s not his sound.  Five stars just for playing a Monk tune! [AFTER] I would never have known them.  The treatment was okay.  It seemed like they just went straight-ahead and played the tune.  That’s a hard tune, man.  Even anybody to attempt that tune deserves five stars, for Chrissake.  Steve Lacy says all you have to do is know how to play “Tea For Two” and you can play “Skippy,” but I don’t believe him.  I said, “Man, ‘Skippy,’ that’s a hard tune.”  He said, ‘Well, it’s ‘Tea for Two.’”  I tried to sing “Tea For Two” along with it, but… [LAUGHS]

14.    Bud Powell-Oscar Pettiford-Kenny Clarke, “Salt Peanuts”, The Complete Essen Jazz Festival Concert (Black Lion, 1960) [start with 3:46 left] – (5 stars)

That’s “Salt Peanuts” and it was a nice drum solo, but I don’t know who the players are. [You played with one of them.] You keep saying that!  I guess it wasn’t the drummer.  It probably was the bass player.  I don’t know the piano player.  I guess because of the live recording, the sound wasn’t as great as it could have been. [Play "Blues In The Closet."] This is the same piano player?  Almost sounds like Oscar Pettiford.  I played with him in 1957 at Small’s Paradise for a couple of weeks.  I went down south with him with his big band to Florida and Virginia.  1957, man!  Wow, that was something else.  Mostly black cats; Dick Katz was playing piano and Dave Amram was in the band.  Jesus, maybe it is Bud Powell.  Is it?  So it’s a later Bud Powell.  The drummer is Kenny Clarke.  That’s the same people as on “Salt Peanuts”?  That’s not really Kenny Clarke’s drum sound. [Maybe it wasn't his drums] It didn’t sound like it.  It sounded kind of dead.  Max Roach got a lot from Kenny Clarke.  All those cats got shit from Sid Catlett, too.  He was a motherfucker, Sid Catlett.  Five stars.  Oscar Pettiford, man!  After I was playing with Oscar, he split and went to Europe and was playing there, and I got a telegram from his wife saying “Oscar sent me a telegram and said I should call you and get in touch with you, and you should go right away to Baden-Baden, Germany, and play with Oscar.”  I was playing with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note.  I couldn’t get up and leave.  There was no plane ticket!  But he liked me.  I was quite honored.  People said, “You played with OP?  Man, he’s death on drummers.  How are you doing that?”  I had at the time 7A drumsticks.  After one set one time, Oscar came over and looked at my drumstick and started bending it.  He said, “Man, what the fuck kind of stick is that?  Go get you some sticks!”

I think it’s great that there’s really quite a few good young players on the scene now.  It’s quite encouraging.  I think it’s good for jazz.  There may be a lot of them around.  It’s great.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Vibraphone