The Water Is Wide

When word came late last week of jazz drummer Billy Higgins’ passing, a hush fell over jazz lovers in the MT offices. The man of smiles and eternal swing was gone — like the tingling of a delicately brushed cymbal that hangs in the air one exquisite minute and then fades away. Higgins, 64, succumbed to kidney and liver failure at a hospital in Inglewood, Calif. — a casualty of the disease that made him get a liver transplant in 1996.

Jazz has been the spawning ground for so many of our heroes, and this turn-of-the-century business has been particularly hard on its masters, with a whole roster disappearing in the ’90s. Actually, it’s when drummer Art Blakey passed in 1990 that I really started thinking about the musicians I had been looking up to since high school. Until Blakey checked out, I’d been just listening along like a happy fool, buying records, catching a precious club date or concert whenever I could: Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Lester Bowie et al. But the old Jazz Messenger — leader and mentor to the likes of Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard — brought home the mortal reality when he left us behind.

Funny, just about the time that I was flipping out over the explosive bop of the Blakey-Morgan Messengers (1959), young Billy Higgins was moving from Los Angeles to New York for a six-month debut gig at the Five Spot Café with the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Coleman (alto sax), Don Cherry (pocket trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass) and Higgins (drums) were soon knocking down and then rebuilding everybody’s sense of blues intonation, swing and tears, with an imperial quart of pandemonium mixed in for the wallop.

That Five Spot stint risked inciting more than one riot. Older musicians lined up with the civilians to brood upon the seductive raw sounds (some called it raw sewage) being made by these virtuosic Young Turks. Mingus appreciated them: “It’s like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer.” But Miles was disturbed: “Hell, just listen to what he [Coleman] writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside.” And Dizzy had his doubts: “Are you cats serious?”

But John Lewis saw Coleman as an extension of Charlie Parker, and Jackie McLean loved the quartet: “The new breed has inspired me all over again.”

On any of the sides cut by the Coleman groups for Atlantic from 1959 to 1961 (collected in the sublime box set Beauty is a Rare Thing), there’s a solid, bio-logical, body-moving pulse that won’t let you not understand. Catch the way Higgins and Haden drive such tunes as “Una Muy Bonita” and “Lonely Woman” — hear Higgins’ lovely brushwork on “Peace” and his incredibly dancelike cymbal solo on “Ramblin’.” These young men were in love with beauty wherever they could find it, reimagine it and dispense it.

Higgins would be replaced in the quartet by the magical mallets of the more African-sounding Ed Blackwell, but not before he impressed musicians far and wide with his subtlety and a bouncing drive that couldn’t be denied. Soon he was recording one session after another for Blue Note Records in the ’60s, backing up Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon and others, turning everything he touched to pulsing gold.

After long associations with pianists Cedar Walton and Hank Jones, stints with Harold Land and an eventual reunion with Coleman, Higgins finished his time in this vale of energies as the drummer on two beautiful ECM recordings with Charles Lloyd, Voice in the Night and The Water is Wide.

The latter, released just last year, features Lloyd (tenor sax), Brad Mehldau (piano), John Abercrombie (guitar), Larry Grenadier (bass) and Higgins in exceptional form. Throughout a dozen titles — including “Georgia,” Duke Ellington’s “Black Butterfly,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” and “There is a Balm in Gilead” — the feeling is quietly philosophical, with a tone of anticipation directed outward from an inner sanctum. On the traditional, almost mournful title track, Higgins makes tender love to his set, his brushes like October leaves scratching lightly against a windowpane, a last sound before parting.

The family of Billy Higgins — four sons, two daughters and a brother — honored him this past Monday morning, May 7, at a private Muslim ceremony in the Inglewood Park Cemetery. May his music spread loveliness and joy forever.

The Hot & the Bothered was written and edited by George Tysh. E-mail him at [email protected]
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