UCLA Obituary: Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins, a legendary jazz drummer and a member of the faculty in the UCLA Jazz Studies Program, died May 3 in Inglewood, Calif. He was 64. Higgins joined the UCLA faculty as a lecturer in January 1997 and taught a percussion jazz ensemble and private drum lessons.
"Billy Higgins was a true master musician who loved to share his music with others," said Kenny Burrell, founder and director of the UCLA Jazz Studies Program and a distinguished jazz guitarist. "His approach to the students was always how to make the music come alive with honest, personal expression. Billy was a complete musician who understood all of the inner workings of jazz music [and] was therefore able to help a variety of Jazz Studies students no matter what instruments they played."
Higgins performed on more than 700 recordings, making him one of the most recorded drummers in jazz history. He began his musical career in his native Los Angeles. He met trumpeter Don Cherry while still in school and, along with other musicians, they formed a group called the Jazz Messiahs in the early 1950s.
A few years later he met Ornette Coleman and became part of Coleman's free jazz group. Higgins performed on Coleman's first records, starting in 1958. In 1959 he went to New York as part of the Coleman Quartet for an extended engagement at the Five Spot Cafe. The group's appearance there is regarded as a highly influential moment in jazz history and is credited with sparking a decade of innovation in jazz. He left the group in 1960 but participated in reunions with Coleman over the years, and played on Coleman's monumental "Free Jazz" album.
His ability to adapt his sense of swing to any genre kept him in demand throughout his career. During the next three decades, he freelanced with some of the most illustrious names in jazz, among them John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Milt Jackson and Joshua Redman. He became a regular member of Cedar Walton's trio in the 1970s and played with them into the late 1990s. He also performed with the Timeless All-Stars and the Hank Jones Trio. In addition to playing the drums, he sometimes sang and played guitar.
Higgins appeared in "'Round Midnight," the critically acclaimed 1986 film, and worked frequently with the film's star, Dexter Gordon, as a member of the 'Round Midnight Band. He won a Grammy Award in 1988 for best instrumental composition for "Call Sheet Blues" from the film, sharing the honor with co-composers Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He released two American albums, "Mr. Billy Higgins" and "Bridgework."
Based in Los Angeles during most of the 1980s and 1990s, Higgins was involved in a variety of activities devoted to the promotion, preservation and growth of jazz. In the late 1980s, he and poet Kamau Daa'ood established the World Stage, a performance and teaching venue in Leimert Park in Los Angeles that nurtures and provides instruction and rehearsal space to young musicians from all segments of the community. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master Fellowship in 1997.
Higgins is survived by his brother, Ronald; his sons, Ronald, William Jr., David and Benjamin; his daughters, Ricky and Heidi; and his stepson, Joseph Walker. A tribute concert will be presented in Royce Hall on Saturday, May 26, at 8 p.m. For further information, please call (310) 825-5706.