Live Jazz: KPFK 90.7’s First Annual Hero Award Tribute to Billy Higgins at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Tony Gieske

You wouldn’t figure that an event honoring the late Billy Higgins would have drawn a full house to Catalina’s on a Sunday night.

Billy Higgins

We here in musician-creamy Los Angeles understand that Higgins — always smiling! — was the go-to guy if you wanted to record with a cat who was there mainly to help you.  A sideman.  His name was never the biggest one on an album cover.  That spot would go to someone like Max Roach, or Art Blakey, or Elvin Jones.

True, Higgins, who died 10 years ago, did headline with his friend Ornette Coleman back in the late 1950s.  But more often his name inhabited the small type on albums such as the ones with Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean, Pat Metheny, Hank Mobley, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, David Murray, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins, Mal Waldron, and Cedar Walton.

But you had to be deeply dyed in the jazz wool to think of him as the star he actually was.

Yet here was this bowl-you-over turnout, cars filling the four-story parking lot next door, with KPFK, the radio station that was putting on their first  annual fund-raiser, charging $75 per person and turning folks away.  The rejects fostered a brisk trade in slick programs and posters with Higgins’ picture in glorious black and white.

Eric Reed

Inside, there came in glorious live or taped audio such jazz figures as Clayton Cameron, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Burrell,  John Beasley (the musical director), Gerald Wilson, Leon Mobley,  Will Calhoun, Phil Ranelin, Richard Grant, Charles Owens, Eric Reed and of course Coleman.

“Billy was one of the most special human beings,” the white plastic alto man said in a message read on the stand. “He had something to do with the reason we’re all alive.”

“He was very, very pure,” Coleman added. “He could make me feel so good and proud of the way he executed (on the stand). And (most important) he never had one derogatory or unappreciative thing to say about anybody.”

“He didn’t really want to take a lot of drum solos,” said Reed. ” ‘It’s my job to make everybody else sound good,’ he seemed to feel. And in some kind of way Billy Higgins made it all sound amazing.”

Kamau Da'ood and Charles Lloyd

Poet Kamau Da’ood, the Horace Tapscott alumnus who co-founded the ground-breaking performance space World Stage in Leimart Park with Higgins, shouted a passionate poem about bones, and John Densmore, a founding member of the Doors, did likewise.

But it was the saxophonist Charles Lloyd who transcended the verbal — although he first spoke a few words with undeniable  conviction — in a moving unaccompanied instrumental elegy to his longtime traveling mate in the land of the jazz future.  It is a future toward which, he seemed to mourn, his old friend can journey no longer.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE.

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