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Billy Higgins, 1936–2001

Photo by D. Darr

Billy Higgins didn’t need to play drums or even be present to make his influence felt. When Yusef Lateef’s Eternal Wind and Randy Weston performed at Cal State L.A. a couple of Saturdays ago, at a time when Higgins was suffering from the pneumonia and liver/kidney failure that would result in his death May 3 at Daniel Freeman Hospital at the age of 64, you could hear his name whispered everywhere in the audience. The musicians had been talking together about Higgins, too. Without making any specific reference, Dr. Lateef played a dark piano-and-voice rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that reminded everyone how thin the ranks of jazz masters have grown. As for Weston, he seemed almost embarrassed at the enthusiastic applause that greeted his flowing, unbroken piano career encapsulation; a frequent partner of Higgins in bygone years, maybe he was mentally redirecting the love to another recipient.

“Billy Higgins was a magnet, an energy for a rebirth of musical activity in L.A.,” says Adam Rudolph, a percussionist in Eternal Wind who, upon arriving here with Don Cherry in 1979 (and remaining), was added to the multitude who experienced Higgins’ generosity. Higgins’ attitude, he says, was similar to that of many other messengers: “There’s a realization of humility. The music doesn’t belong to them. There’s just something that calls them.”

Friends and admirers have been playing Higgins’ music at coordinated times of day to lend spiritual support; benefits and fund-raising campaigns have been proceeding for some time in an effort to raise money for a third liver transplant and to save Higgins’ home — in recent years, his illness greatly reduced his ability to respond to the usual overwhelming demand for his services.

In January, Higgins did manage to pack a load of instruments — not just trap drums but also the many world-derived string, wind and percussion instruments on which he was proficient — up to Santa Barbara, where he joined old friend saxophonist-flutist Charles Lloyd for several days of informal duetting and recording. (The two had most recently collaborated on a series of beautiful ECM CDs, of which the third, Hyperion With Higgins, will be released later this year.)

“Walking with Master Higgins has been a great benediction in my life,” says Lloyd. “He’s a man of God; I’ve never seen him do no ugly. He knew well the cancer of America, and he just went his way. To the music, he brought the nuances — his ramblin’ and elevation and nowness.”

Lloyd recalls a duo concert a few months ago featuring himself and pianist Bobo Stenson in a 13th-century abbey in Le Mans. When he dedicated the performance to Higgins, Lloyd says, “The audience went berserk. And as we played — all of a sudden you could hear all these drums.”

Greg Burk's fall 1999 interview with Billy Higgins is available online.