Billy Higgins – A lithe, graceful man, he appeared to play almost unconcernedly, arms moving in arcs … Video

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11.10. – Happy Birthday !!! A desk editor on this very newspaper – a long time ago, and in a different climate – once challenged a proposed jazz feature of mine with the incredulous query: “How can you possibly write 500 words about a drummer?”

The objection was coming from the incredulity of high culture as to the place of musical bit-part players, but it could just as easily have been popular culture incredulity too. Gags about drummers – their presumed crassness, unmusicality and general absurdity – have been amiably prevalent in the rock and pop world too.

Billy Higgins, the Los Angeles-born drummer who has died of kidney failure aged 64, was the kind of performer who despatched all that dismissive mythology single-handed – and he could deliver some thoroughly dazzling percussion information single-handedly too, though pyrotechnical displays were not his idea of a good time. When Higgins is described, words like “warmth”, “love” and “joy” often wing by . These were not fanciful associations but occasioned as much by Higgins’ appearance on a bandstand as by the astonishingly light, airy, dancing manner of his playing.

Few jazz drummers have ever looked as relaxed onstage or as much in their element as Higgins. A lithe, graceful man, he appeared to play almost unconcernedly, arms moving in arcs, the blur of the sticks on the cymbals taking on a plastic malleability. His fluid, caressingly subtle cymbal beat, a soft surge of sound that on its own would confound every cliche about unsubtle drummers, and which could lift the most laggardly of soloists into inspiration, was legendary on the jazz circuit for 40 years. But almost the best-loved feature of Higgins’ presence in any ensemble was that broad smile he seemed to wear virtually without pause in performance.

Higgins was celebrated for his associations with some of the greatest figures in jazz – Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins among them – but it was for his membership of Ornette Coleman’s quartet in the early 60s that he is perhaps most highly regarded. He was already on the map when he joined the iconoclastic saxophonist – he had worked with r & b bands including Bo Diddley’s, and with singers Brook Benton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the mid-1950s. But in working in the jazz Messiahs with trumpeter Don Cherry, and in joining bassist Red Mitchell’s group in 1957, Higgins entered the high-profile world of the Los Angeles jazz scene at a time when the West Coast’s music was being celebrated for its growing independence from New York.

This was to ratchet up several notches, and not necessarily to the satisfaction of all jazz fans, with the arrival in LA of Texan saxophonist Ornette Coleman in the mid 50s. Coleman began private workshop sessions with Higgins, trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden; explorations which led to the birth of the Ornette Coleman Quartet.

Coleman regularly used New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell first, followed by Higgins; the two alternated in Coleman’s bands throughout the 60s and 70s, with Higgins loose-limbed and mercurial, Blackwell fizzy, clipped and staccato, but both furnishing the alert, adaptable swing Coleman’s intuitive music-making required. Higgins appeared on Coleman’s early Los Angeles recordings in 1958-59, went with him to New York on Coleman’s first appearance there, then left to work with quartets led by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane in 1960.

Two years later, Higgins was with Sonny Rollins, and then – with saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley, trumpeters Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan, and the young and fast-evolving Herbie Hancock – on a stream of session recordings for Blue Note that were later to become classics. Higgins was also present at the first recordings of two soul-jazz landmarks that were to resurface as anthems in the acid-jazz boom of two decades later – Hancock’s Watermelon Man and Morgan’s The Sidewinder.

Higgins was active as a drum teacher over the past 25 years and also began a trio association with the former Art Blakey pianist Cedar Walton in 1966. He was also co-leader (with Bill Lee and Bill Hardman) of the Brass Company in 1972-73, but it was with Walton that many younger musicians first encountered the drummer’s elegantly inspirational work. The partnership with Walton continued into the 1990s, when Higgins’ health problems began to disrupt it.

Through the 70s and 80s, Higgins was a popular drum choice for a wide variety of jazz leaders, from Milt Jackson, Art Pepper and JJ Johnson to Pat Metheny. With all of them, and as long as he was making good music, he usually looked like a man in paradise while seated at the drums.

He is survived by four sons and two daughters.

Val Wilmer writes: Billy Higgins played music with love. As he told me when we first met: “You’re not supposed to rape the drums, you make love to them as far as I’m concerned.”

The Brooklyn house where he lived in the early 1970s was one of my first ports of call in New York. The huge room, decorated with pictures of Malcolm X and African women, was always sunny and welcoming and so was he.

I generally arrived with a bottle of vodka. That wasn’t for Billy, he was cleaning up his system, it was for me and the gang – women neighbours, saxaphonists Claude Bartee and Hank Mobley, bassist Wilbur War and a dynamic blind pianist named Chris Anderson. Sometimes my friend Terri Quaye came with me – she would play Billy’s drums while he played the bass – and as the music and banter flowed I’ve never had such fun in my life.

Everyone who knew Billy had fun. Everyone wanted him as their drummer, too, and he was blessed for choice. A musical egalitarian, he believed in sharing, and on moving to California, passed on what he had learned by working with children whenever he could.

• Billy Higgins, jazz drummer, born on 1936; died May 3.

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