© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I got to hear J.C. Higginbotham in performance during my first visit to a Jazz festival.
The occasion was a July 4, 1957 birthday tribute to Louis Armstrong that was held as part of the American Jazz Festival in Newport, RI. The following year, it changed its named to the Newport Jazz Festival.
On the night in question, J.C. Higginbotham performed as part of a group headed by his long time running mate from New Orleans, trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen. Also on hand were two other trombonists who had a long association with Pops: Kid Ory and Jack Teagarden.
Big T, Kid and J.C. made up one heckuva trombone section.
I really didn’t know much about J.C.’s earlier career until I read the following piece by George Hofer which appeared in the January 30, 1964 edition of down beat magazine. I found it to be especially helpful because it also included a discography of J.C.’s earlier recordings.
This feature is part of a continuing effort by the JazzProfiles editorial staff to chronicle the careers of some of the earliest makers of the music to show our appreciation and to help keep their memory alive. No them; no Jazz.
It is also interesting to explore the earlier environments in which the music took place and some of the zany characters who were associated with it.
The Early Career of J.C. Higginbotham
“THE ORIENTATION of pre-bop trombone took a wide range of development, from the percussive tailgate of Kid Ory to the smooth, melodic playing of Lawrence Brown. Between these two extremes evolved playing styles based on the personal creativity of such men as Georg Brunis, Jimmy Harrison, Miff Mole, Tricky Sam Nanton, Jack Teagarden, and J. C. Higginbotham.
Higginbotham, who has acknowledged the influence of Harrison, once wrote, "If a man has technical ability and understands harmony (whether through formal training or sheer intuition), he should be able to express himself. But the result still depends on what is going on in his mind."
Higginbotham's most exciting and productive period came when he was a leading soloist with the late Luis Russell's Saratoga Club Orchestra between 1928 and '30. He was a blues player established in a New Orleans setting with such natives as trumpeter Red Allen, clarinetist Albert Nicholas, pianist Russell, bassist Pops Foster, and drummer Paul Barbarin; and his performances fit well into the scheme of things. His solos at fast tempos were characterized by his terrific drive, hot brassy tone, and fierce vibrato; and even on slow numbers he still played in a shout style.
To quote Higginbotham again, he has written, "The important things about a jazz musician are how he is thinking, the emotions that compel him to play, his attitude toward music, musicians, and people in general."
In his playing, Higginbotham has illustrated many of his personal characteristics, but his slap-bang, devil-may-care facade serves to hide from view his deep and sincere personal attitudes. While he could arrive in New Orleans in 1947 for an Esquire concert with two case — one holding his trombone, the other containing nine bottles of whiskey — and wind up playing seated on the floor, he could write, at the same time, in a national magazine, an article entitled Some of My Best Friends Are Enemies, illustrating a sensitive and keen judgment of the racial situation as applying to the Negro musicians.
JACK (JAY C.) HIGGINBOTHAM was born in Atlanta, Ga., on May 11, 1906. His family owned a restaurant and was fairly well-to-do. He had an older brother, Garnet, who played trombone and was the coach of the football team at Morris Brown University. He also had a sister who was interested in his musical inclinations and bought him his first trombone. The other musical Higginbothams included, in later years, his niece, songwriter Irene, now married and living in Brooklyn.
Young Higginbotham's first instrument was a bugle he picked up for a dollar and with which he learned to play well-known tunes by ear when 13. On Sundays he played the Poet and Peasant Overture on his bugle in the chapel of his church.
A couple of years later his sister put $11 down on an old, caseless trombone she found in a shop in Decatur, Ga. He was now on his way, and the first tune he learned to play on his new horn was My Old Kentucky Home.
He was enrolled at a boarding school, connected with Morris Brown, and managed to sneak out three nights a week (he was forced to climb a gate to get back in) to play on a hotel roof garden in Atlanta with the Neal Montgomery Orchestra. The band had two girl musicians, pianist Marion Hamilton and drummer Mae Bates, one of whom wanted to marry the 15-year-old trombone player. When the girl tried to make up his mind for him by poking a pistol at his stomach, he decided to forfeit the sum of $9 that he had been making for the three nights of playing.
A short time later, he was sent to Cincinnati to study the tailoring business at the Cincinnati Colored Training School. After finishing the short course, he returned to Atlanta to finish up his education at Morris Brown, but he had taken to the Ohio city, and it wasn't long before he returned to work as a mechanic at the Cincinnati plant of General Motors. Nights he spent gigging with Wesley Helvey's band, a local territory outfit that later featured trumpeter Jonah Jones.
The young trombonist became a regular member of the Helvey band during 1924-25 and recalls the stars of the group were trumpeters Theodore (Wingie) Carpenter and Steve Dunn. The three brass men hung around together and frequently visited with the members of the Zack Whyte Orchestra when the latter was in town.
One-armed Wingie Carpenter was the first to go farther north, and in 1926 he sent for Higginbotham to come on up and join the Gene Primus Band then playing at the Paradise Ballroom in Buffalo, N. Y.
A short time later Higginbotham went with another Buffalo band led by pianist Jimmy Harris. Then he went to New York City in September, 1928, and joined Luis Russell's band at the Club Harlem on Lenox Ave. For the next two years, the peak period of the Russell crew, they played regularly at the Savoy Ballroom, the Roseland Ballroom on Broadway, the Sunday night sessions at the Next Club uptown, and toured the circuit from New York to Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Md., to Philadelphia, Pa. Finally, they settled down at the Saratoga Club, and though today Higginbotham says, "It was the swingingest band I ever played with," he began to get restless.
One of Higginbotham's favorite bands of all time was the Chick Webb aggregation, and when trombonist Jimmy Harrison's last illness took him out of the band, bassist Elmer James recommended Higginbotham to the drummer-leader as a replacement.
After several months with Webb, the Georgia trombonist switched to the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and remained until 1933. When Lucky Millinder took over the leadership of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band in 1934, Higginbotham, with his pal from the early Russell days, Red Allen, went with Millinder for several years. Then, in 1937, they both rejoined Russell, whose band at the time was fronted by Louis Armstrong.
Allen and Higginbotham finally left Russell for good in 1940 and organized a small jazz group. During most of the 1940s, some of the '50s (Higginbotham worked with his own group for long periods in both Cleveland and Boston), and occasionally today the brass team of Allen and Higginbotham has been together more often than not."
Early Higginbotham Discography
New York City, Feb. 1, 1929
King Oliver and His Orchestra — Louis Metcalf, cornet; Higginbotham, trombone; Charlie Holmes, soprano saxophone; Greely Walton, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano; Will Johnson, guitar; Bass Moore, tuba; Paul Barbarin, drums.
CALL OF THE FREAKS (48333)
Victor V38039, Bluebird B6546, B7705
THE TRUMPET'S PRAYER (48334)
Victor V38039, Bluebird B6546, B7705
New York City, July 16, 1929
Henry Allen and His New Yorkers— Allen, trumpet; Higginbotham, trombone;
Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Holmes, alto saxophone; Russell, piano; Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Barbarin, drums.
IT SHOULD BE You (55133)
..... .Victor V38073, Bluebird B10235
BIFFLY BLUES (55134)
......Victor V38073, Bluebird B10235
New York City, Sept. 9, 1929
Luis Russell and His Orchestra—Allen, Bill Coleman, trumpets; Higginbotham, trombone, vocal; Nicholas, clarinet, alto saxophone; Holmes, alto, soprano saxophones; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Russell, piano; Johnson, guitar; Foster, bass; Barbarin, drums.
FEELIN' THE SPIRIT (402939)
...........Okeh 8766, Vocalion 3480
New York City, Feb. 5, 1930
J. C. Higginbotham and His Six Hicks —Allen, trumpet; Higginbotham, trombone; Holmes, alto saxophone; Russell, piano; Johnson, guitar; Foster, bass; Barbarin, drums.
GIVE ME YOUR TELEPHONE NUMBER
(403736) ...............Okeh 8772,
Hot Record Society 14 HIGGINBOTHAM BLUES (403737)
___Okeh 8772, Hot Record Society 14,
Oct. 16, 1933
Benny Carter and His Orchestra—Eddie Mallory, Bill Dillard, Dick Clark, trumpets; Higginbotham, Fred Robinson, Keg Johnson, trombones; Benny Carter, Way-man Carver, Johnny Russell, Glyn Pacque, saxophones; Teddy Wilson, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Bass Hill, bass; Sid Catlett, drums.
SYMPHONY IN RIFFS (265162)
.................... .Columbia 2898