Monday, December 28, 2009

Music feature: Jazz world remembers pianist Higgins

Pianist Eddie Higgins (1932-2009).
Photo by Andrea Canter.

By Bill Meredith

Drummer Art Blakey (1919-1990) took many a young, future jazz star on the road for seasoning with his group The Jazz Messengers between the 1950s and the 1980s. The list included Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Keith Jarrett, Jackie McLean, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Joanne Brackeen, Benny Golson, Chuck Mangione and Cedar Walton.

It might have also included Haydn "Eddie" Higgins, but the pianist turned down Blakey's offer, deciding he didn't want to travel. Higgins was firmly established in the Chicago scene at the time, leading his own trio at the Windy City's popular London House club between the late 1950s and late 1960s. Guest stars who appeared there, and subsequently hired Higgins to record with them, included Shorter, Morgan, and Coleman Hawkins.

In declining Blakey's invitation, Higgins certainly changed the course of his own history. But the pianist still became an icon among musicians as he split time between homes in Cape Cod and South Florida after leaving Chicago (where he initially moved to study music at Northwestern University). The Massachusetts native also became a huge success overseas.

Higgins finally joined Blakey, in the greatest big band we'll never hear, when he died of lung and lymphatic cancer at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale last Aug. 31. He was 77. He left behind a wife, jazz vocalist Meredith d'Ambrosio, two daughters and four grandchildren.

"He might've ended up living a different life if he'd gone on the road with Art," d'Ambrosio says. "But he had young children at the time, and didn't want to leave them. He chose his family. But he still became known around the world. He was what you'd call a 'rock star' in places like Korea, Japan, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany. And I think he was a star in the United States, too. Anyone who saw him on the Chicago scene realized that."

Indeed, Higgins had bookings in both Korea and Japan at the time of his death, and he was also slated to perform Dec. 9 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts' Amaturo Theater in Fort Lauderdale with bassist Don Coffman and drummer Danny Burger. But rather than cancel that date, the rhythm section and guest pianist Dick Hyman performed "An Evening To Remember: Tribute to Eddie Higgins." A peer and friend of Higgins, the 82-year-old Hyman is known for his work on a dozen Woody Allen films, including Zelig, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days and Mighty Aphrodite.

Hyman is also known for his ability to accurately mimic the styles of classic jazz pianists, as evidenced by his latest recording, the six-disc (five DVDs; one DVD) boxed set called Dick Hyman's 100 Years of Jazz Piano (Arbors). But in paying tribute to Higgins, he chose the road less obvious.

"I wish Eddie were still around, so there wasn't a need to do that show," Hyman says. "Of course, I often pay tribute to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and other stars, but Eddie's playing was another matter, since he was so current and contemporary. But it was easy to work with Don and Danny, since they're great players. I chose to purposely avoid things that were so closely associated with Eddie, like [W.C. Handy's] 'St. Louis Blues.' It was a tribute to him, but I didn't want it to be an imitation of him."

Rather, Hyman chose material encompassing some of the influential composers that both he and Higgins appreciated. Set one included familiar standards like Cole Porter's Easy to Love and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave, but also more edgy pieces like Sonny Rollins' Pent-Up House and Thelonious Monk's Well, You Needn't. Set two included Hyman's own A Letter From My Brother in Brazil, Scott Joplin variations, Waller's Ain't Misbehavin' and Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Lady. But the second act also opened with a special treat.

"Meredith came out with us," Hyman says, "and she sang the Irving Berlin tune 'I Got Lost in His Arms.' It was a very special moment for all of us."

"Everyone was so kind," d'Ambrosio says of the experience. "The Gold Coast Jazz Society, which put on the show, is also handling the 'Haydn 'Eddie' Higgins Music Scholarship Fund.'"

"I got to know Eddie and Meredith during several jazz cruises we all played on between five and 10 years ago," Hyman says. "But I certainly already knew about Eddie. He was a damn fine player, and we were both sort of swimming in the same pool in our backgrounds and styles. We both came out of Teddy Wilson and be-bop piano of the 1950s, along with bossa nova."

Higgins and d'Ambrosio married in 1988, but she too had heard about her future husband before she met him.

"He came out to see me sing after having heard me on the radio in 1987," she says. "But I certainly knew who he was before that. And like his family and friends, I ended up calling him Haydn. He didn't have a middle name, so Eddie was just a name he'd made up."

The announcement of Higgins' death brought about remembrances from many South Florida jazz performers and admirers. Miami multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, who knew Higgins from his own days in Chicago, headed a jam session tribute to him Dec. 6 at the ArtServe Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale. Others left posts on the Internet.

"Eddie was a real gentleman," wrote bassist Don Wilner. "He and I played for years together and made a couple of recordings. He was a wonderful pianist and human being."

Vocalist Dana Paul wrote: "I had the pleasure of working with Eddie several times over the past 20 years, and every occasion was like being gifted with the opportunity of sharing wonderfully creative and crafted moments."

"He was a pianist with an original sound," d'Ambrosio says. "He would reharmonize chords and melodies; voice them differently to make them sound more interesting. And then he'd look up at you and smile. It was part of his quiet nature and subtle sense of humor. He was an elegant man, and he'll be remembered for his elegance and his hipness."

"I had the pleasure of taking piano lessons from Eddie and Meredith," wrote vocalist Pamala Stanley. "Some of my fondest memories are being at their house. Eddie would be teaching me something, and Meredith would correct us from the kitchen. We laughed our heads off. How I loved that man."

"Eddie was a very nice, sweet guy, and one of the best pianists I've ever known," Hyman says.

A fitting coda closed the Fort Lauderdale tribute show to Higgins.

"There was a second piano on the stage, with a poinsettia and a spotlight on it," Hyman says. "At the end of the concert, a recording of Eddie's performance of 'Sleigh Ride' played. It was a traditional thing he'd do every year. And as it played, lights lit up that piano, and we all played along with him. I found a second piano part, and the guys also fell into it. To me, it was the high point of the entire program. It was as though Eddie was there with us."


* Soulero (Atlantic, 1965)
* By Request (Solo Art, 1986)
* Zoot's Hymns (Sunnyside, 1994)
* Speaking of Jobim (Sunnyside, 2000)
* Relaxin' at the Lounge (Venus, 2007)


* Lee Morgan, Expoobident (Koch, 1960)
* Wayne Shorter, Wayning Moments (Koch, 1962)
* Meredith d'Ambrosio, Love Is Not a Game (Sunnyside, 1991)
* Meredith d'Ambrosio, Shadowland (Sunnyside, 1993)
* Meredith d'Ambrosio, Beware of Spring!(Sunnyside, 1995)

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer who has written extensively on jazz for magazines such as Jazziz and Jazz Times.

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