Returning the Gift

Drummer Billy Higgins started his remarkable career backing up R&B musicians such as Amos Milburn and Bo Diddley around the LA area before embarking on his jazz path with the Jazz Messengers (led by Don Cherry and saxophonist James Clay) and Dexter Gordon. But it was his association with Ornette Coleman, starting in the mid 1950s, that electrified the jazz world and made him a force to reckon with. His first recordings, with Coleman and Red Mitchell, were released in 1958. In 1959, he performed with both Coleman in New York and Thelonious Monk in San Francisco, and from that point on, he never stopped recording or touring.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz calls Higgins "one of the most widely recorded drummers in jazz": he has participated in more than 700 recordings with, among others, Steve Lacy, Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd, Jackie MacLean, Mal Waldron, Clifford Jordan, Cedar Walton, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, David Murray, Don Byron, Pat Metheny, and Charles Lloyd. As leader, he recorded Soweto (Red, 1979 OOP), The Soldier (Timeless, 1979 OOP), Bridgework (Contemporary, 1980 OOP), Mr. Billy Higgins (RIZA, 1984 OOP), Essence (DMP, 1985 OOP), 3/4 For Peace (Red, 1994 OOP), Once More (Red, 1995 OOP), Billy Higgins Quintet (Evidence, 1997 OOP), and Mirrormirror (Verve 314 519092-2). He also performed and and briefly appeared as an actor in the film 'Round Midnight.

He has been lived in Los Angeles for the greater part of the last 20 years or so—apart from extensive touring activity. He is known there, and throughout the country, as a generous and supportive mentor to an entire generation of players.

Higgins' playing style embraces the seemingly contradictory concepts of restraint and abandon—his sophisticated, loosely swinging style is muscular and propulsive, but never overwhelming. As jazz musicians say, "He's got big ears"—and his tuneful accompaniment makes a strong argument for the lowly trap set as a melodic instrument.

I was therefore distressed to receive the following message from Joe Harley, who forwarded it from Charles Lloyd—Higgins' longtime friend and musical collaborator:

"Unfortunately, Billy Higgins is very sick again. Five years ago he received a liver transplant which was miraculous and has served him well. In recent months the new liver has showed signs of severe damage, and Billy has been told that he will need another transplant. He has been in and out of the hospital since the end of October and has been unable to work. This has not only been very hard on his music-loving spirit, but his ability to generate personal finances has deteriorated with his health. Billy gives everything he has to his community and those around him who are in need.

"He will go in for a final evaluation on February 5, before being put on the transplant waiting list. Those of us who love him through personal association or through his music are pooling together to try to help him cover his medical and living expenses. A benefit was held in Los Angeles to raise money to support his unbelievably high medical costs. Until another benefit can be organized, we are hoping to gather Billy's friends, supporters, and fans together to help at this very crucial time.

"His contribution to music is far more than we could ever put into words, as most of you all know . . . please show him your support at this time of crisis. Send whatever amount you can, made out to Billy Higgins. Any personal message will be forwarded to him and all donations will be consolidated and sent to Billy on a weekly basis.

"Please send your support to:

"Forest Farm Music + Art
PO Box 5816
Santa Barbara, CA 93150"

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