If he wanted to, Higgins could brag a lot. He helped change jazz history in the late '50s as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. In the '60s, when he was the virtual house drummer at Blue Note Records, he performed with almost every legend, from Sonny Rollins to Dexter Gordon to Herbie Hancock. Since then, it seems, anybody putting together a group for a jazz album has ended up using another drummer only if Billy Higgins wasn't available. There's something in the way he coaxes a beat along with just a few touches of a cymbal, creating an atmosphere that makes other musicians feel they can juggle anvils. And his grin, the kind that makes you think God just told him the most divine joke, is almost as important as his skill: Hey, it says, this music is fun.
But Higgins doesn't really need to brag about all that, since other people are always doing it for him. The rising pianist Brad Mehldau, remembering how his own East Coast friends ragged him for moving to L.A., tells how he hit them with an irrefutable retort: "Sometimes I get to play with Billy Higgins." And now, with all the still-applicable musical superlatives pretty much used up, the praise is turning toward the drummer's other virtues -- his character and his enrichment of the growing off- Crenshaw arts scene.
VAN GRAY AND RITA DANDRIDGE ARE TAKING A breath of crisp winter air outside Leimert Park's World Stage, where Higgins is conducting one of his weekly Monday-night drum workshops. Inside, a dozen people ages 7 to 70 are wailing on congas, bongos, shakers and what-all, generating a groove that could lift you out of your shoes. Gray, a well-traveled former professional skinsman who first saw L.A. in 1940 and has been attending the workshop regularly for a few months, recalls how he first encountered Higgins.
"I was down here, and my car was messed up, so I had to catch the bus. I was saying I had to leave early, and Billy said, 'Go ahead and stay, I'll give you a ride home.' Never met him before in my life. And even after I got my car fixed, it was 'Need a ride home tonight, brother?' Any band anywhere in the world would be honored to have him play with them, but to talk to him you would never know that, because he is the most humble . . ."
". . . the most generous spirit," picks up Dandridge, a woman in her 30s who's been adding her beats to the casual ensemble for a couple of years. "He's someone to try to emulate if you want to try to grow spiritually."
Back in the small storefront space, whose walls are covered with images of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Horace Tapscott and the like, Higgins strolls between the rows of folding chairs, listening, stroking Latin accents on a cowbell with a drumstick. Then he quells the proceedings for the moment.
"Now it's sounding together," he says. "The sound is a family. Everybody got to get fed." He moves unhurriedly, thin from the hepatitis C that knocked him out of circulation for a while three years ago, when he had two liver transplants.
How's he feeling? "All right. I ain't running no track, but . . ." He shrugs off the subject. Obviously, his health hasn't sidelined him. It's a week later now, and he's in the World Stage's upstairs office, squeezing in an interview before the drum workshop. His voice is thin but authoritative -- it fits the 63-year-old man he is. His windbreaker is buttoned up to the chin, and he keeps his hands in his pockets a lot. When the weather's cold, so is the World Stage. No climate control here.
Shown an LP of a 1958 gig featuring Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley and himself, Higgins is not much pleased. "I never got paid for that," he says, like he's said it many times before. "Good music, though."
When it's suggested that his listener-friendly drumming may have been a major factor in procuring any kind of acceptance for Coleman's revolutionary music, all Higgins wants to talk about is how much he learned from the previous drummer, Ed Blackwell. Praised for his own talents, he turns the spotlight on underacknowledged L.A. musicians such as Bill Henderson, Harold Land and Buddy Montgomery. Asked about his place in the jazz pantheon, he's not ready to enshrine himself.
"I've been fortunate to be in a situation where most of the people are so much greater than myself -- Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, all those people. It was always a learning process." Only the slightest hint of ego surfaces when he says, "If I couldn't do it, then I'd be defeated. I've got the tools to do it. I never did question my tools."
Tools, eh? He makes it sound like he tripped over his ability in a vacant lot. And at this particular moment, he has to put those tools to use as a teacher. At the door, a bunch of kids are yelling, "Billy Higgins! Billy Higgins!"
"They need a place to play, a place to work things out," he says. "Otherwise they don't know how it is to play for an audience." The kids are the first segment of each drum workshop. One by one they come up on the little stage, bang around on the drum kit for a few minutes, take a bow and get their applause. The first boy, Samson, is only 4, but like the others, he's got spirit. Another small boy doesn't want to leave the drums once he's up there. He gives the cymbals a climactic whack, gets up to leave, then turns around and smashes them again. Wheels to leave again, turns back and whacks again. Finally Higgins has to shepherd him to the stage front. "Take your bow," he says with a firm smile. One kid drummer, about 8 with long dreadlocks, stays to jam with the adults and his father, a conga player, till 11.
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YOU CAN'T FEEL TOO BAD ABOUT THE BOY MISSing sleep on a school night: The World Stage, in existence for 11 years now following its inception under Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood, isn't exactly a pool hall. It's an establishment where, on any given day of the week, you might encounter a poetry workshop, or a singing workshop, or a seminar in music theory from someone like bop-piano eminence Barry Harris. "There's not too many places around the country where you have a whole block with nothing but culture," says Higgins of this much-publicized stretch of Leimert Park. "They should bus children in here so they can see all this, so they could be a part of it.
"Because the stuff that they feed kids now, they'll have a bunch of idiots in the next millennium as far as art and culture is concerned. I play at schools all the time, and I ask, 'Do you know who Art Tatum was?' 'Well, I guess not.' Some of them don't know who John Coltrane was, or Charlie Parker. It's our fault. Those who know never told them. They know who Elvis Presley was, and Tupac, or Scooby-Dooby Scoop Dogg -- whatever. Anybody can emulate them, because it's easy, it has nothing to do with individualism. There's so much beautiful music in the world, and the kids are getting robbed."
People who come Higgins' way, though, retain their shirts and leave bearing cultural gifts. The reason might have to do with some of his own early experiences. "Ornette was incredible," he says. "He had a way of making it work, whatever you had. With Ornette, it's just 'Let's play.' There are no wrongs and rights. You give your heart. It all depends on how wide-open you are."
Open, like a door.