Billy Higgins is a modest human being who is proud to be part of jazz history. If playing is an extension of an individual’s personality, then that statement has no better empirical proof than in the presence of Mr. Higgins. When listening to him play, one is struck by the extreme positivism of his musical statements. This writer found him to be a thoughtful person who is considerate of others, and exudes self-confidence that can best be described as warm.
The tree of jazz has many branches and its roots run deep. Billy Higgins’ drumming is an integral part of that organism. His artistry has contributed to jazz for close to thirty years. In 1958, he joined the Ornette Coleman Quartet. This group’s recordings and live performances literally turned the world of jazz upside down. Pianist Cecil Taylor on the East Coast, and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins on the West Coast, almost single-handedly laid down the foundation of what was to be known as “free jazz.”
However, don’t be fooled; Bill Higgins’ musicianship goes beyond any singular musical categorization. He is, in the purest sense, a jazz musician. Billy is a knowledgeable and capable player who can play in many contexts. The names of people he has performed with reads like a list from a Who’s Who in modern jazz. In sum, he has three important qualities that best describe what jazz drumming is all about: individuality, taste, and the ability to swing.
CB: Could you please tell the readers some pertinent facts about your background?
BH: I was born in Los Angeles in 1936. I went to school at 49th Street and George Washington Carver in East L.A. Later, I moved to Watts and lived the rest of the time there, and went to Reese High School. I played with people like Teddy Edwards, Don Cherry, and George Newman. In 1959, I went to New York with Ornette Coleman. After that, I played with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and I spent about three years with Sonny Rollins. In New York, I’ve also done a lot of recordings.
CB: Do you have any idea how many recordings you’ve made?
BH: I don’t know, I never counted them. I’d say, maybe, two to three hundred.
CB: How old were you when you started to play the drums?
BH: Five years old.
CB: Was it the usual thing with banging the pots and pans around the house?
BH: Yeah, but then the people in my neighborhood were musicians and my sister was a dancer. She used to work in pictures like Stormy Weather. Bill Robinson taught her how to dance. There was always music in my family.
CB: Didn’t you play in R & B bands before you worked in jazz?
BH: Yeah, I did.
CB: Was that because there wasn’t much work for jazz musicians?
BH: In order for you to work, that’s what you had to play. At that time, there was so much talent around playing jazz. There were guys who had been playing all their lives. And they were still trying to get gigs.
CB: Who were some of the people you worked with in R & B?
BH: Brook Benton, Arthur Wright, and Jimmy Witherspoon.
CB: Didn’t you also work with Bo Diddley?
BH: Yeah, a long time ago.
CB: What did playing in R & B bands do for your conception of playing?
BH: Well truly, it was just the feeling of the music and participation. But I was always trying to play something else anyhow. I know that’s what everybody does, but when I started playing, I was trying to play jazz. So when I played R & B, there really wasn’t that much enjoyment in it for me.
CB: You mean it was more like a job to you?
BH: In a way it was a job. But I learned a lot because the feeling of playing was good and just learning how to play with people.
CB: Do you remember the best advice you ever got in regards to drumming? Was there anyone in particular that stands out?
BH: Yeah, a couple of people. Johnny Kirkwood, who always told me to listen. And Teddy Edwards gave me some very good advice about brushes.
CB: I’m not familiar with Johnny Kirkwood.
BH: He was someone who could teach you something as a person and about life at the same time. He didn’t just tell you to do this and that, but by example. It’s very important for a young person to see that, because sometimes they don’t.
CB: Seeing older musicians in varying situations is very important for young players.
BH: Right. Sonny Greer once told me something. He said finesse is very important on the drums. Because you can always relate to music if you use finesse.
CB: Were there any approaches or instructional material that
helped your playing?
BH: No, more than any approach it was the experience of playing with people and watching other drummers. At the time I was coming up, there was a lot of camaraderie.
CB: You have a delicate touch and yet you can really kick a band. How and why did you develop your touch?
BH: I’ve always wanted to hear what everybody else was playing.
CB: And if you play too loud…
BH: You can’t hear. I really enjoy hearing other people play. But first, the most important thing is to get a “sound” out of your instrument. I don’t like to fight the drums. If I’ve got to fight them, then it’s a physical chore to play them. I try to get a little “air” with the instrument.
CB: Do you also mean space?
BH: Yeah. Space and air. There’s something about all instruments. The drums are a vehicle for all instruments to bounce off of. Elvin plays real hard, but that’s his sound, and that comes from within. So that’s his conception. When he plays, he gives all the other instruments a certain sound. Everybody’s got their own sound.
CB: Who are your biggest influences and why?
BH: Kenny Clarke for sound and conception. Max Roach for melody and always playing the right thing at the right time, and Art Blakey for feeling and conception.
CB: You once mentioned in an interview that Frank Butler was also an influence.
BH: Frank Butler. He’s unique and very good. A lot of people never really got to hear Frank. He’s a natural musician. And Lawrence Marabel is another favorite.
CB: A lot of people might not be too familiar with either of those drummers because they were popular around the West Coast in the ’50s.
BH: Lawrence was one of the first guys I ever saw who could really play that style [bebop]. When I was a kid in Los Angeles and would go to dances, Lawrence would be there playing. He really influenced me a lot. Today, he’s one of my closest friends.
CB: When you play, you always look extremely happy. I also noticed that there were a couple of figures you played and some physical movements that reminded me of “Papa” Jo Jones. Was he also an influence?
BH: Probably he was unconsciously. I never really got to see him that much until I got to New York. I used to see him on film. In fact, I know his son better than I know him and he’s a very good drummer. But Papa Jo was so influential, you could be influenced by him by listening to other people.
CB: Frank Butler was not only a big fan of Papa but was also influenced by him. As I recall, Papa Jo said that Frank Butler was one of …
BH: The greatest drummers in the world. Papa Jo was another drummer who got a “sound” out of his instrument and he plays brushes so beautifully. Brushes are a lost art. Well, not really, but there aren’t many people who play them anymore.
CB: One of the similarities I’ve noticed about some of the drummers who have influenced you, particularly Kenny Clarke, Frank Butler and Lawrence Marabel, is that they all utilize the snare drum quite a bit when they solo.
BH: I remember when I used to hear Lawrence, he wasn’t playing anything but a snare drum and a bass drum. I also remember when I heard Klook [Kenny Clarke] on some records, that’s all he ever used. A long time ago I used to use that set up. When I got the tom-toms that was a different story and then I had to relate to those. You have to come up with a sound with only a bass drum and a snare drum. Like you play a little on the snare drum and then turn the snares off to get a tom sound and then use your bass drum.
CB: When you’re only using bass drum and snare drum…
BH: You’ve got to come up with something. And of course, you had to carry them around.
CB: At the present time, why do you still use the small four-piece jazz set?
BH: That’s the way I feel comfortable, and I’ve been playing on those sizes a long time.
CB: What are your thoughts about the melodic aspects of playing the drums?
BH: Max Roach and Blackwell. But Blackwell’s got another kind of conception about playing. He’s rough. Extra rough. But Max and Philly Joe Jones, they’re both melodic. Whatever the form of the song that’s going on they have a very high level of conception of the rhythm. They can stop it, turn it around, slow it up, extend it, but you still get the essence of what’s going on. They approach the instrument like a horn player.
CB: Is that more or less the way you define melodic playing on the drums?
BH: Yeah. The thing about it is that most of my influences come from other instruments. I used to listen to Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Milt Jackson for that kind of conception. You listen to people like that and figure out that you can also imply melody on your instrument. The drums are the hardest instrument to get music out of. You can play a lot of rhythms and a lot of other things, but it’s the hardest because you don’t have that much to work with, so you’ve got to be thinking that way.
CB: Your left-hand figures remind me of the way piano players comp. I noticed that particularly when you played with Ornette and that band didn’t use a piano player. How did you develop those types of figures?
BH: When I first heard Elvin Jones I went out and got his records. In other words, I heard him first on records before I met him. I had every record he made, and at that time he had made only four or five records. His conception—I said, “Wait a minute! Without a piano!” That means you’ve got to play the role of the piano. Plus I’ve been very fortunate to play with some excellent piano players. So if you play with somebody every night, then you do get something from them.
CB: How important was bassist Red Mitchell in your career?
BH: Very important. I made my first record with him.
CB: Wasn’t the name of that album Presenting Red Mitchell on Contempory Records? And if I’m not mistaken, wasn’t it released in 1958?
BH: Yeah. Red’s a dynamite human being. Very dedicated. I played with him and Lorraine Geller [piano]. We played together a long time.
CB: Can you describe your relationship with Ed Blackwell?
BH: I heard Blackwell when I first heard Ornette. He impressed me so much because I had never heard anyone play drums like that.
CB: In what way?
BH: It was his conception. When you hear people play they either sound like somebody else or they give you the impression that they have an original conception. At that time, I hadn’t heard anyone else incorporate all the drums into playing rhythms. Total rhythm. He wouldn’t play on the cymbals all the time, because he could play on the drums and the bass player would still be playing and it would make sense.
CB: Do you think one of the reasons he approaches the drums in that way is because of his New Orleans heritage?
BH: It’s New Orleans, but still, I never heard anyone from there play like that. I’ve heard New Orleans drummers play with a certain feeling, but Blackwell’s very individualistic. I’d put him in the realm of Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. All those cats got their own style. As soon as you hear them you know it! And you do that without saying to yourself, “That might sound like so and so.” It’s like they found their target and what anybody else does might influence them a little, but they already got their feet on the ground. But Blackwell, he’s good.
CB: Some people have stated that Blackwell was your teacher. Was he, or was it a friendship?
BH: It was a friendship. I admire Blackwell so much, and I learned so much from being around him and listening to him. Plus again, it goes past the drums to the point of what kind of human being he is and his conception. Particularly at that time, because before I met Ornette I was playing different. He had been playing with Ornette and there was something about his and Ornette’s conception. After playing with Ornette, I could see how Blackwell got into certain things. Both of their approaches made each of their conceptions grow.
CB: Yet you made the first recordings with Ornette rather than Blackwell. How did that come about?
BH: That’s because Blackwell was in New Orleans. Ornette was writing a lot of music. We started playing the music together and learning.
CB: How much direction or freedom did Ornette give you?
BH: Ornette never said anything but, “play your heart out!”
CB: In other words, Ornette left the parts up to the player’s discretion.
BH: Right, he left it up to you. When somebody has that much confidence in you, well, you have to come up with something.
CB: One can assume from what you’ve just said that if Ornette and another player had empathy, then everything after that fell into place.
BH: That’s what people are supposed to do. You make me do something and then I make you do something. It’s give and take.
CB: It must have been wonderful to have that much freedom to express yourself.
BH: Well you know, it was the way he wrote and the way the music was. It was a natural thing. He was just so wide open. Whatever you wanted to do was okay. If you didn’t feel like playing, you didn’t have to play. He said, “If you can’t think of nothing to play, then don’t play.”
CB: Did he, at any time, give you charts?
BH: No. It was like him, Donald and Charlie would look at certain things. We didn’t have any music on the bandstand. That was a nono! Once you start playing together, a whole lot, you start breathing together and then it becomes natural. It’s like speaking to your wife, or whatever; it’s something that becomes part of you, and it becomes so natural that it’s no mystery.
CB: Who was the most challenging musician you ever worked with and why?
BH: Most of them are challenging. It’s hard to say which one. I’ve gotten down to the point that it’s not any one person. It wasn’t the musicians, it was the music. The music was always the challenge, regardless of who it was.
CB: Cedar Walton, the late Sam Jones and yourself worked together quite a bit as a rhythm section called The Triangle. Could you describe the interaction that you all shared?
BH: Heaven. Pure Heaven! That was really a beautiful experience. It helped me grow. Sam Jones was a beautiful man, plus his conception and everything about him. I’ve learned so much from him and Cedar. It was so easy to play with them. All you had to do was sit up there and the drums would play themselves.
CB: In 1968, I read a record review that critiqued you and Cedar Walton. The critic stated that the empathy you had with Cedar bordered on ESP. Do you have any thoughts on that statement?
BH: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! We played together so long, and played so many different types of music. There, again, it had been a relationship. As far as Cedar and ESP, that comes over a long period of association. His conception and mine kind of fall into place. He always has a high form of excellence in everything he does. Cedar is a complete master of the keyboard. He’s very thorough and his writing is a certain kind of way and it’s effortless for him to read other people’s minds. That’s also part of music as far as playing together. I’ve had some really beautiful moments playing with him and Sam. It’s hard to put into words.
CB: With the right people and the right musical connection the…
BH: Magic happens.
CB: Have you ever felt like you’ve been left on the sidelines as far as getting recognition for your contributions to jazz drumming?
BH: That never really bothered me. I think I get a lot of recognition. What really bothers me is that the music doesn’t get the recognition. That’s a different story. If the music gets the recognition then the musicians will get it too. In a sense, I think I’ve gotten more recognition than Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Clarke, and I think that’s a drag! It’s only because of the times and the media.
CB: Would you also agree that the availability of the records has something to do with it?
BH: Yeah, you know what I mean. As I said before, we need a higher level of recognition for the music and all the people that have played jazz. There are some people playing the music who can play their hearts out and nobody knows about them.
CB: It seems that it’s always an uphill fight for jazz.
BH: But it keeps on going because jazz is beautiful and it comes out of this country. It’s a shame about the lack of recognition. I was just talking to Harold Land and I was telling him that I was walking down the street and they were piping out jazz in front of a department store. It was such a joy to walk past there and hear that.
CB: Instead of Muzak.
BH: Right! And then you turn around and everything you see is beautiful. Jazz presents such a high level of beauty.
CB: Can you describe your contribution to jazz drumming?
BH: The first thing that I’m thinking about is that I’m able to play music and be a link in the chain. Jazz is a family. It’s a blessing just to be in that link and be a part of it, because there are so many and it’s a big family.
CB: In regards to drumming, do you have a philosophy or a set of values that are important to you?
BH: I’m just trying to keep up the tradition and be able to spread the music, and at the same time, try to better myself if I can.
CB: To rephrase what you just said, do you find it easier to better yourself when you’re playing?
BH: Yeah, cause it’s hard. Music ain’t easy. You have to constantly tune yourself up spiritually in order to stay on a certain level. We always speak of the intellect and that’s part of the spirit. But, sometimes people forget that you also have to tune up your spirit like you tune your mind up. In order to do that you’ve got to stay in touch heavily with the Creator, because if you don’t it will be about something else. I just hope more people become aware of that. It’s a means to an end that keeps going because there are so many cats who played before us. Jazz is an art that started so long ago and it’s still going on. You’ve got drummers like Kenny Washington who works with Johnny Griffin. A young guy; a kid. It makes me feel good to see this cat because he’s got his head screwed on right. He’s serious and he can play. Kenny’s a very advanced little cat.
CB: Then you’d say being aware of tradition is important.
BH: Being aware of tradition is important and doing your homework. Also check out everyone from Baby Dodds to Tony Wil Hams. Listen to all those cats and listen to other instruments. Listen to Bird and learn all the forms of the music. Even when you practice, learn the forms of the music. There’s a really beautiful tune, Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Now that is a beautiful vehicle to practice with.
CB: Do you mean practice to the record?
BH: No. Practicing to records is one thing, but set the drums down and try to hear or play the composition yourself. Sometimes we approach the drums so drumistically that if you don’t have anybody to play with, you can’t play nothing.
CB: Or it ends up sounding like a bunch of “chop” exercises.
BH: Yeah! If they tell you, “Okay, play some music,” you should be able to get down and play a composition like a piano player. You have to think composition.
CB: Are there any projects that you would like to do in the future?
BH: I ‘d like to play with a nice drum ensemble. I did that once with seven drummers and seven bass players. It was nice. Different instrumentations are nice if you hook them up. It’s nice to be able to let everybody express themselves like they want to, instead of playing a role. Sometimes, drummers have to play a role all the time.
CB: Do you mean the famous “time-keeper syndrome”?
BH: That’s cool too—that’s beautiful if you incorporate what you do inside the music and make it better. But what I mean is, sometimes the drums are put in the background too much. There are a lot of drummers who have a lot of ideas, but it never comes out because they don’t get a chance to do it until they get with each other, and maybe then they can do something. Or if they get fortunate to get with a band, then they’ve got a vehicle if it fits what they want to do. Then they can grow. Growth and development are very important because in a sense, it seems like the drums have gone backwards instead of going forward—and in other ways, they’ve been going forward. But, as a whole, you’ll hear a lot of people with differing conceptions. If they had more freedom they could do more.
CB: Do you see any future trends in drumming, like more percussion music?
BH: I never thought of it as percussion. Percussion ensembles yeah. But I’m just speaking about the trap drums. The rest of it has a certain place, because you have African drums. In Africa, they have a conception that everybody is trying to get to now. They already did it. What they are trying to incorporate now, they watered down too much. But, you can take that same conception and put it on trap drums. But it’s got to be an individual conception. You can listen, then you find out what you want to play and play it. Sometimes, people will say to you, “No, don’t do that,” and you’re going to stop. But what you did was alright, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’ve probably come across that yourself.
CB: Plenty of times, and it wasn’t because I was necessarily wrong. Sometimes it was because I didn’t fit that particular musician or group’s conception.
BH: You should also check out all kinds of music from different countries and put it in with your own conception. Because it’s all valid. If it wasn’t valid it wouldn’t be there.
CB: The other night Todd Barkin, owner of the Keystone Corner in San Francisco, introduced you as “the Universal Soldier.” What does that term mean?
BH: Because I’m travelling all the time. Most of the time I’m on the road, which is beautiful because I get to go places and play. That’s the only way I can stay at the drums every night.
CB: Are you satisfied with the way your life is going?
BH: I’m so happy that I’ve got the blessing to play the drums and so that covers everything. I’ve got my health, and I thank the Lord for blessing me, because I’ve been through some funny things in life. And to get to the point where I am now, it’s just good to be able to play, to look at life and different situations and it’s not a hassle. There’s always going to be some hassles, but no big ones. Nothing that I can’t overcome. Just so I can get to my instrument, play, and bring music to people. That’s because people need music.