Yesterday, I posted this in the technique section under the thread "Jazz Dynamics". But I thought it would be more appropriate here, to give tribute to this great, underrated player. I'm also going to edit it a bit to describe a few remembrances of the first time I saw Billy:
The best example/lesson in low volume intensity I've ever witnessed was watching Billy Higgins play at The Willow Jazz Club in Ball Square, Somerville, MA. This was in the fall of 1985 and at the time, I wasn't familiar with any of his work, though I’d heard his name before as an artist to be reckoned with. He had flown out from LA to play with a 15 year old Alto Sax prodigy named Christopher Hollyday. The band lineup that night was all top local players: John Lockwood on Bass, John Medeski on Piano, Chris Hollyday on Alto and his brother Richard on Trumpet.
Now he had shown up with only hi-hat cymbals, 2 rides, a snare, sticks, mallets & brushes. In the corner of the stage was a tiny 4 piece set. It looked like a kid's drum kit, and people were wondering when the amateur hour band was going to pick up their equipment! It turned out it was a Remo pre-tuned student set and as there was no other drums forthcoming, it started to look like Billy was going to make do with it. So I would learn another lesson: it really didn’t matter what you play on. By the end of the night every drummer in the audience would have bought one. ;-)
Billy began setting up this little set and then accidentally dropped his snare onto the cradle of the stand. The bottom head made a ‘pop’ sound after hitting one of the prongs, but fortunately wasn’t punctured. If that did happen I was prepared to drive home and get a replacement. Anyway, after he set up, I wanted to get as close as possible to the stage. I ended up sitting about one foot from his hi-hat with a friend of mine on the other side. I had some reservations for a moment. Then I thought, "Hey, my ears might get blown out, but at least I'll get to hear some great playing up close". Although, I still had no idea what was in store. Then a surprise: Alan Dawson stopped by briefly, scanned the room and went over to talk to Billy. It turned out that the Remo PTS was on loan from him, since it was a last minute gig. There happened to be about ½ dozen of his former students there and while I think he was pleased we came out, he kept a poker face, walked passed us, didn’t say a word and left.
From the moment the band started, and throughout the night, Billy’s sticks never once
came up more than 2 inches, even for accents and crashes. Most of his playing was in a range about ½"-1" off of the cymbals, and when he switched to brushes it wasn’t to play quieter; it was just because he heard a different sound in his head. And he set the band on fire
! The way he lifted each player, his infectious attitude, and the way he integrated every note of his playing into the total sound was like nothing I’d experienced before. He had a constant smile; I’m talking the entire
time he played, which at first seemed a bit silly or insincere. But after a few minutes of playing, you could feel this overwhelming joy spread through the whole club. Occasionally, he’d make a soft vocal coo, especially when Chris Hollyday would play some Bird-like run. Most of the time, when a drummer is described as a “painter”, it’s a bit of a cliché. But Billy improvised masterpieces of rhythmic and tonal art that were beautiful enough to be standalone pieces and supportive enough to draw the most inspired performance from everyone on that stage. Nobody spoke above a whisper between tunes and after the 1st set I had the chance to talk to him at the bar. “Sounded great!” wasn’t going to cut it, but I ended up saying something equally as awkward. I blurted out the following to him: “I felt like my brain was being massaged”. He just went, “Ooh…hmmm… Do you play?” I said, “A bit” and then he asked if I were in school or studying with anyone. I told him who I studied with a few years back and he said, “I know Alan”. Then I asked him if he had any advice for young drummers. He said, "Play every day"
The 2nd set topped the 1st one, and the whole time an NBC camera crew was taping it. It was to be shown later that week as part of a human interest story, something like: “15 year old prodigy who sounds like Charlie Parker meets Billy Higgins”. (At that time, John Medeski was not well known outside of jazz circles, so it only showed him and the others in passing). But by the end of the 2nd set, the camera crew said they’d stop taping and the club owner asked if we wanted to hear them play more. Everyone cheered (even the crew!) and the band proceeded to rip on standards until about 3:30 AM. This after hours set was pure magic and we all left with a high-positive energy, knowing we’d seen something very special. Plus, our hearing was intact!
Anyway here’s a taste of Billy’s playing with Hank Jones on Piano and Dave Holland on Bass: