Billy Higgins, one of the finest, most innovative and prolific drummers in jazz, died on May 4th in Los Angeles, while awaiting a liver transplant. He was sixty-four.
Higgins was admitted to the Daniel Freeman Hospital a few days earlier to be treated for pneumonia. He had undergone a liver transplant five years ago, but fell ill again late last year and on February 5th he was put on the waiting list for another one.
Higgins was born on October 11, 1936 in Los Angeles and got his start playing R&B in his hometown. After meeting trumpeter Don Cherry in the mid-Fifties, the pair set about changing the face of jazz.
Though he recorded with a number of jazz’s biggest names, Higgins’ legacy is best defined by his stint playing with Cherry on Ornette Coleman’s genre-shaking late-Fifties recordings, which are credited as the birth of free jazz: Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958), Art of the Improvisers (1959), Change of the Century (1959), Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1960).
Over the next forty years, Higgins would continue to work with Coleman as well as drumming for a who’s who of jazz frontliners in a variety of genres and soundscapes, including Donald Byrd, Don Cherry, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, Herbie Hancock,