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May 4, 2001
Billy Higgins, Jazz Drummer With Melodic and Subtle Swing, Dies at 64


Billy Higgins, one of the best-loved and most-recorded drummers in postwar jazz, died yesterday at a hospital in Inglewood, Calif. He
was 64 and lived in Los Angeles.

The cause was kidney and liver failure, said a friend, Dorothy Darr.

Since the late 1950's, when he made a name for himself by playing on Ornette Coleman's early recordings, Mr. Higgins was one of
the most musically sensitive jazz players around, with a light but active swing, a delicate cymbal sound and a melodic style of
playing that made drumming with a normal kit sound like a watercolor painting in progress.

His style did not draw attention to itself and could not be described by mannerisms; his musicianship simply raised the standard of
every band he played in.

He got his nickname, Smiling Billy, because he always seemed to be in a state of glee while performing. "It was a joy just to see
him play," said Matt Wilson, one of many young drummers who count Mr. Higgins as a primary influence. "He had a very
transparent sound; it was aggressive, but hidden, never in your face. It was elegant."

In The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, the most comprehensive jazz recordings guide, Mr. Higgins's list of credits on in-print albums
is among the longest. He recorded with Thelonious Monk in the late 1950's, with Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley; and
with Cedar Walton, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Pat Metheny, David Murray, Charles Lloyd and John Scofield. Besides playing
the drums, he sometimes sang and played guitar.

Mr. Higgins said he wanted to be a professional musician from the age of 8. He played rhythm and blues in Los Angeles, but he also
made an important connection with another young musician, the trumpeter Don Cherry, forming a group called the Jazz Messiahs;
the two musicians befriended Mr. Coleman at the same time in 1956, and they ended up in the same quartet, playing Mr. Coleman's
bluesy and frequently pan-tonal music.

Mr. Higgins came to New York with Mr. Coleman for an extended booking at the Five Spot Cafe that began in November 1959. That
residency is regarded as a pivotal moment for jazz.

Once settled in New York, he became virtually the house drummer for Blue Note Records during the 1960's, playing on countless
hard-bop recordings.

In the 1970's he became a regular member of Mr. Walton's trio, which continued into the late 1990's. And he found steady work with
the Timeless All-Stars, as well as the Hank Jones Trio. By the end of the 70's Mr. Higgins was releasing his own records, beginning
with "Soweto," "Soldier" and "Once More."

Mr. Higgins was on the faculty of the jazz studies program at the University of California at Los Angeles, and taught at World Stage,
a Monday-night program for budding musicians at Leimert Park in Los Angeles that he founded with Kamau Daa'oud, a poet.

In March 1996 Mr. Higgins had his first liver transplant and needed another one within 24 hours when it was determined that the first
liver was bad. Jazz aficionados were surprised when he began playing again, coming to New York with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Lloyd and
Harold Land.

His final performance was at the Los Angeles club Bones and Blues, on Jan. 22, when his students and his colleagues — including
Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Land — played in a benefit to support his fight against liver disease.

He is survived by four sons: Ronald, William Jr., David and Benjamin, all of Los Angeles; two daughters, Ricky and Heidi, both of Los
Angeles; and a brother, Ronald, of Palmdale, Calif.

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