Thursday, June 11, 2015

Eddie Higgins: 1939-2009 - "A Very Soulful Cat"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Eddie Higgins is a very soulful cat who knows where it's at; lives there and stays there and constantly plays there!”
- Jon Hendricks

I know this might sound incredulous in today’s music file sharing world where a couple of clicks on an internet site can bring anyone into contact with the music of any recorded Jazz artist. The fact that  many of today’s Jazz recordings are self-produced and can be bought directly from the musician located anywhere in the world via a website only serves to further expedite the process.

But it was a totally different world a little more than half century ago and obtaining recordings by musicians who recorded for specialized Jazz labels was a bit like the Quest for the Holy Grail and seeking the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant all rolled into one.

As the fifties progressed, it became clear that while jazz had largely lost its popular support - hardly any records by recognizable jazz artists made the Billboard album or single charts in the period covering 1955-60 - it had built up a committed, hip audience of both blacks and whites in the urban areas that were still nurturing the music.

The club culture of 52nd Street may have declined since its pinnacle of the first bebop era, but New York City was still full of places which had a jazz booking policy, from young venerables such as Birdland and the Village Vanguard to mayfly cellars and bars that lasted a while before switching policy or changing hands.

Just as significant were the many other cities - Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles -  which could boast similar, if less populous, local circuits. While urban real estate was still cheap and low-rent accommodation plentiful, there remained the margins which could almost comfortably support the jazz musician and his or her working life.

It was also a time, in American culture, of a new Bohemia. The beat poets, writers, film and theater people, artists and just a general gaggle of people who liked to hang out were temperamentally attuned to the idea of jazz, even if not always the substance or actuality of it. Most of the hard-bop musicians plied their trade in hard-core circumstances: their daily work was what it was. Unlike the situation on the West Coast, where a climate of session work had built up for many of the local Jazzmen, playing on pop records or for TV and film music, the idea of being a 'session musician' hadn't so far emerged in the hard-bop life.

Yet any sense that this was some kind of balmy period with plentiful work and agreeable conditions should be quickly set aside. The pull of New York began to hurt local scenes, as the most talented musicians in the end left for the principal jazz city. Clubland was still substantially in the grip of gangsters. And just as so many musicians a decade earlier had found themselves with remorseless narcotics habits, so heroin still exacted a considerable price among young musicians. Many Jazz musicians were acknowledged heroin addicts. Instead of the squalor which came to be associated with hard-drug dependence, the ugly reality of heroin chic sucked in many in this new Bohemia, jazz musicians making up a plentiful proportion of their number.

For all that, it was an intensely creative moment in jazz, perhaps even more so than the original bebop era, because the language had been established and was available for anyone to speak, if they had the will to do so, and a new record industry was rushing to grow up around it. Where bebop had once seemed almost outrageous, to some of the more settled swing-era musicians, hard bop was now familiar. The neurotic climate of bebop had been traded for a more studied intensity.

As the LP format became standardized, the music, now available in a medium which approximated the length of a typical club set, was documented in a way that sought a new audience. Followers of the music began to build collections - without necessarily becoming mere 'collectors'. If microgrooves encouraged a more leisurely, contemplative approach to jazz listening - no more rushing to change the record after three minutes - they also helped to educate tastes, and develop serious appreciation.

All of which might suggest an atrophying or at least a gentrification of this new jazz mainstream. But there were too many individuals, too many singular and identifiable voices at work in hard bop to allow anyone even to imagine that the movement could go stale or turn grey. For many listeners (although not all critics, of which more later), each fresh record spelled out an exciting new development. The further away one was from the local scene the more compelling it seemed.

Because I lived in Los Angeles, I had ready access to Jazz record labels such as Pacific Jazz and Contemporary, but Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige were much harder to find and therefore prized. This was also the case with Chicago based Jazz labels such as Argo, Veejay and Emarcy.

Luckily, a friend of the family was an AM radio DJ whose program focused on popular music - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat "King" Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the various vocal “sisters” and “brothers” groups - so he basically lined up the Jazz LP’s along his living room wall and periodically allowed me to “... pick out what you want; I can’t use this stuff on my program.”

And that’s how I met Chicago-based pianist Eddie Higgins.

He was seated at a grand piano, looking through the open top and staring right at me on the cover of a Vee Jay LP simply entitled Eddie Higgins [Vee Jay SR 3017], so the least I could do was take it home and give it a listen - right?

Recorded in Chicago in 1960, the album featured four tracks by Eddie’s trio with Richard Evans [trio]/Jim Atlas [quintet]on bass and Marshall Thompson on drums, and three tracks on which the trio is joined by Paul Serrano on trumpet and Frank Foster on tenor sax.

As Jon Hendricks of the renown vocal group Lambert Hendricks and Ross states at the end of his liner notes to the LP:

“So, since Eddie Higgins can't get out of Chicago right yet so people can hear and see, the next best thing is that he's got his own LP, and this has been taken care of by Vee-Jay. Hooray!”

Hooray, indeed, because Eddie Higgins [Vee Jay SR 3017] introduced me to an imaginative and interesting pianist whose career I have since followed on record for almost 50 years until Eddie’s passing in 2009.

Eddie was born in Cambridge, MA in 1932, the home of Harvard University but moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University [in nearby Evanston, IL] because they had “... a better school of music than Harvard’s, which was almost non-existent. I began playing at local clubs to earn some money and one thing led to another and I wound-up leading the resident trio at the London House [famed Jazz club] from 1957-1969.”

Eddie’s style of playing is unpretentious, straight-ahead and always swinging. It is based on a repertoire drawn primarily from the Great American Songbook with a smattering of Jazz Standards and a few originals thrown in to add spice and color to what can only be described as “the perfect set” on each of his recordings.

While listening to Eddie’s latest CD, it’s as though I am visiting him in a Jazz club and he is allowing me to call my favorite tunes for his trio to perform while I sit back a sip a glass of my favorite red plunk.

Eddie improvisations are generally close to the melody, sometimes blues inflected, and generally feature him playing on the full range of the piano.

After growing weary of Chicago’s long, cold winters, Eddie moved to Fort Lauderdale, FL where he co-lead a trio with Ira Sullivan [tenor sax and trumpet] that played at clubs, Jazz festivals in the US, Europe and Japan and on Jazz cruises.

In 1988, Eddie married vocalist Meredith D’Ambrosio and worked frequently as her accompanist. They made a number of recordings together for Sunnyside.

Over the years, Eddie’s fans have been treated to a series of excellent trio recordings on Venus Records produced by Tetsuo Hara and Todd Barkan. Many of these are highlighted in the video tribute that closes this feature.

All of Eddie’s Venus albums are highly recommended both for his consistently outstanding performances and for their unsurpassed sound quality.

Who knew that a chance encounter with Eddie’s first LP on Vee Jay with lead to a half century of listening some of the best piano trio on record?

Jon Hendricks’ way with words is always a joy to encounter whatever the context and here are the original liner notes from Eddie Higgins [Vee Jay SR 3017].

“Ever since first coming to Chicago I've been very favourably impressed by Eddie Higgins and the worthwhile piano he plays. I've mentioned to him several times that perhaps he ought to hit the road; that his appearance before audiences outside Chicago had been too long delayed, but he quickly assured me that he was working seven nights a week - quite often enough, especially when conditions on the road were best described as 'tough'.

Eddie doesn't work seven nights a week on the same gig. Not at all. In fact, he works in so many different places you'd think he'd snap his wig, but he says it's a boll. He'll work two nights as relief pianist with his trio in a jazz house, then two nights in a plush establishment featuring acts with a more 'commercial' name, but the music he plays is always the same.

I remember going to hear Eddie at the London House, a Chicago restaurant featuring fine food and idle chatter, and being so thrilled to hear him play Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," Benny Golson's "Whisper Not" and "I Remember Clifford", and Gigi Gryce's "Social Call" amid the jingling of silverware and other clatter. And although only our party was listening and applauding, Eddie and the Trio swung right on, like it didn't really matter, which boils right down to the fact that Eddie Higgins is a very soulful cat who knows where it's at; lives there and stays there and constantly plays there!

Eddie's bassist on the Quintet tunes and on "HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?", Jim Atlas, is a mild-mannered, bespectacled chap of quiet demeanour whose execution could hardly be cleaner, who listens intently to what the other instruments are saying, and whose deep respect for Paul Chambers is evident in his playing.

Richard Evans, who joined the trio in between record dates, has worked with Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson and other greats. Richard is a dedicated bassist with great harmonic sense, and when he solos he gives his all, as you can hear from his work on "SATIN DOLL".

Drummer Marshall Thompson is another ex-hoofer who got tired of standin' up dancin' and decided to sit down while dancin', thus joining Jo Jones, Ed Locke, and Buddy Rich, to name some, who were dancers all before they sat down and started dancin' on the drum; so, rhythmically, Marshall's beat is steady because he stays ready.

Joining the trio on "YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS", "FOOT'S BAG," and "ZARAC, THE EVIL ONE", are Frank Foster, tenor saxophone, and Paul Serrano, trumpet, and they have a ball before they're done. Frank Foster needs no introduction because of his work with the Basie crew, but Paul Serrano, a Chicagoan, may be new to some of you. Paul is a calm, quiet man who says what he has to say with his horn on the bandstand. He's the kind of musician that the public finally hears then wants to know what he's been doing all these years! The answer is he's been doin' the best he could - playin' good.

The trio tunes, "AB'S BLUES", "FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE", and "SATIN DOLL", and one Quintet side, "YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS", are familiar tunes and have been heard, but about one trio side, "BLUES FOR BIG SCOTIA", and two Quintet sides, "FOOT'S BAG" and "ZARAC, THE EVIL ONE", it might be best to say a word.

"BLUES FOR BIG SCOTIA" is on Oscar Peterson original that Eddie heard Oscar, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen play. You'd never figure out who "Big Scotia" is, so I'd better tell you that it's Oscar's nickname for Ray's wife.

"FOOT'S BAG" is an Eddie Higgins composition, "Foot" being Eddie's wife. When you know that she is of Greek descent and that the tune is written in modes, common in Greek music, you'll know by the title just what is meant. You might say it is Eddie's musical reference to "Foot's" musical preference.

"ZARAC, THE EVIL ONE" is not a fiend with diabolical power, but the name an ex-drummer of Eddie's gave to the red light gleaming atop the Sheraton tower! That It couldn't be anyone really evil is made very clear, because the tune - composed by Eddie - is very beautiful to the ear, You have my word that "Zarac" is the most beautiful evil cat I ever heard!

So, since Eddie Higgins can't get out of Chicago right yet so people can hear and see, the next best thing Is that he's got his own LP, and this has been taken core of by Vee-Jay. Hooray!”

JON HENDRICKS [of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)

The following video features the quintet’s version of Eddie’s original, Zarac, The Evil One.

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