The Great Facilitator
by Marvin Patmos
This music was the very definition of futuristic at the time. But Higgins’ playing was laced with humanity and reflected a deep understanding of what came before—elements the drummer would be cherished for by players and audiences alike for decades thereafter, and that placed him among the most recorded and important timekeepers in jazz history. These traits included a beautiful groove, an angular swing, directness, earthiness, and a uniquely personal sense of joy.
Higgins was born in Los Angeles on October 11, 1936. He began drumming around age twelve and was influenced by players such as Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, and Frank Butler. Higgins later said that listening to other instrumentalists, including pianists Art Tatum and Bud Powell and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, was more influential on him, due to those musicians’ unusual conceptions on their respective instruments.
By his late teens Higgins was playing around the L.A. area with R&B groups, including one featuring rock ’n’ roll architect Bo Diddley. His gigs began to expand into jazz circles, and by age twenty-one he was working with bassist Red Mitchell’s quartet, with which he made some of his earliest recordings. Billy also supported tenor saxophonist Stan Getz at the Black Hawk in San Francisco and recorded the Cal Tjader/Stan Getz Sextet album.
It was around this time in the late 1950s when Higgins first started rehearsing in L.A. with Ornette Coleman’s quartet. Along with Coleman on sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, and Charlie Haden on bass, the drummer appears on the groundbreaking albums Something Else (1958), The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), and Change of the Century (1960). Following a move to New York with the group, Higgins would record again with Coleman at the end of 1960, in the unusual context of a double quartet. With two rhythm sections playing simultaneously (Ed Blackwell was the other drummer), the album Free Jazz extended Coleman’s ideas while helping to inspire an entire subgenre of jazz. On the record Higgins plays with drive, and the way he and Blackwell alternately collide and conjoin in rhythm remains intriguing today. Higgins would exit Coleman’s quartet soon after, although he would perform and record with Ornette on occasion in the years to come.
Meanwhile, Higgins was quickly developing a name for himself as a go-to jazz drummer. Gigs and recording dates increased, and Billy had the chance to play with many of the greatest artists of the day, including John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. For six years starting in 1961, he appeared on many significant jazz releases. In fact, he became an unofficial house drummer for Blue Note Records, recording a dozen or more albums each year and playing a major role in the label’s success during its glory days.
Higgins also began developing ongoing relationships and appearing on key albums by trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonists Hank Mobley and Dexter Gordon, and alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, among others. One of these albums in particular, Morgan’s The Sidewinder, became a full-blown hit. With its distinctly laid-back, hip-shaking groove, the title track was a runaway smash, selling out its initial pressing, appearing in jukeboxes, and popping up in television shows and commercials. On the swinging, funky, earthy tune, Higgins provides a unique feel that simultaneously pushes while laying back in the pocket. With this success, he was called on to perform in a similar vein on subsequent albums for Morgan and other artists, playing a substantial role in developing both the groove and popularity of soul jazz.
By the end of the ’60s Blue Note had been bought, and while the label continued, Higgins moved on. Now a seasoned and well-developed player, he could swing hard, play funky, and navigate the free-jazz ideas that had grown throughout the decade. He made his way freelancing, engaging in further recordings and live shows. During the ’70s he developed particularly strong and lasting relationships with pianist Cedar Walton as well as with tenor saxophonists Clifford Jordan and George Coleman. In 1979 the first album under his own name, Soweto, appeared; a handful more would follow over the years.
Relocating back to California in the ’80s, Higgins continued to freelance with a great number of musicians and would be tapped to back some of the emerging young lions of jazz as they began recording. During this time he also cofounded the World Stage, a performance space that encouraged musicians of all levels. The drum circles he led there developed a legendary status.
In the late ’90s Higgins once again garnered wide acclaim, this time backing a longtime friend, reed player Charles Lloyd. A quartet album and two quintet long-players stood out among Lloyd’s many releases, as did a two-CD set of duets between Lloyd and Higgins, Which Way Is East. On these tracks Higgins plays drums but also moves to guitar, hand drums, and various world instruments along the way. They were the last recordings he would make; Higgins passed in May 2001 from liver failure.
In Billy Higgins’ impressive career, the drummer helped dozens of legendary musicians realize their ideas and inspired many more with his joyful, dancing approach. Whether the vibe was driving, swinging, straight ahead, abstract, or in the pocket, musicians relied on Higgins’ mastery of feel and easy ability to lift the music. When discussing their work with the master, his comrades inevitably recall Billy’s playful, generous spirit.