[JPL] Eddie Higgins obituary

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Sun Sep 27 15:05:22 EDT 2009


Eddie Higgins, 77; pianist created tapestries of music

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 27, 2009

Softly underscoring a melody that descends teasingly, Eddie Higgins played
chords that drifted down the lower register of his piano during a passage in
"You're My Inspiration,'' a song he recorded 20 years ago with his wife,
Meredith d'Ambrosio.

Just as her vibrato began to fade while singing a low note, his right hand
floated back up the keyboard in an improvised riff, a musical tip of the hat
that announced the pianist's presence without for a moment overshadowing the
vocalist.

"In a situation where you're an accompanist, you not only have to show a lot of
sensitivity to the vocal, but you have to find ways to express yourself without
leaving the singer out on the limb,'' said former Globe jazz critic Bob
Blumenthal, who has listened to Mr. Higgins for years. "To be creative
harmonically that way is an accomplishment.''

During a recording career spanning more than half a century, Mr. Higgins melded
his creativity with some of the biggest names in jazz. Many fans, though, liked
him alone at the piano, weaving tapestries with his unique approach to chords
that could make a Bach sonata sound like it was composed in a smoky Chicago
club.

Mr. Higgins, who for nearly 40 years divided his time between Fort Lauderdale
and the Daniels Island section of Mashpee, died Aug. 31 in Holy Cross Hospital
in Fort Lauderdale of complications of lung and lymphatic cancer. He was 77.

"His playing was recognizable, but beyond that it was another level,'' his wife
said. "He would take a song and would change the original chords to be much more
interesting - chords that worked, but they were just clever. I can't really
explain it. There's a very spiritual thing that happens to you when you're
creating a specific sound.''

After leaving his childhood in Andover for college in Illinois, Mr. Higgins got
his real education in Chicago's jazz scene, where he played at the London House
for a dozen years, beginning in the late 1950s. Along the way, "he covered a lot
of territory with his music, Blumenthal said. "He obviously knew the great
American songbook - and he knew the jazz songbook.''

In sessions on stage and in the studio, he refined his sound playing with
musicians such as saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Wayne Shorter, trumpeter
Freddie Hubbard, and drummer Art Blakeley, who once asked Mr. Higgins to join
his band the Jazz Messengers. A young father at the time with little interest in
long road trips, Mr. Higgins declined.

In notes he wrote to accompany an online discography prepared by jazz aficionado
Bill Gallagher, Mr. Higgins recounted the time his trio accompanied Hawkins at
the 1959 Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago. Minutes before the performance,
Hawkins arrived "impeccably dressed, with his saxophone case in one hand and a
small airline travel bag in the other,'' Mr. Higgins recalled. "He sat down at a
table, opened the bag and took out a pint of whiskey, had a generous swig, and
gave me a noncommittal stare.''

Hawkins shrugged off suggesting tunes for the set, so Mr. Higgins took charge.

"There were 19,000 people in the audience that afternoon, not much by today's
rock 'n' roll standards, but still the largest of my career,'' Mr. Higgins
wrote. "I remember getting goose bumps when about 10,000 of them applauded my
solo on 'Body and Soul.' ''

Born in Cambridge, Mr. Higgins was named Haydn after the classical composer - a
name he went by with his wife, family members, and close friends.

His father taught at Phillips Academy in Andover, where Mr. Higgins grew up. His
mother played piano and he "started playing when he was 4,'' his wife said. "He
would emulate everything he heard, but he didn't like to read music.'' Instead,
he watched his mother's hands and taught himself to play classical pieces by
ear.

"A neighbor upstairs was playing records all the time,'' his wife said. "One day
he heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and he went nuts. He knocked on the
door and said, 'What was that?' It was jazz.''

Mr. Higgins attended Northwestern University's School of Music and soon was
playing in Chicago clubs, adopting the first name Eddie for performances.

His first three marriages ended in divorce as he expanded his repertoire,
becoming a musician who could play any standard and just as effortlessly do a
jazzy take on classical compositions from Bach, Faure, or Rachmaninoff. By 1970,
Mr. Higgins grew weary of the wind in Chicago and the cold winters when he
returned home to New England.

"He landed one day in Florida in the winter and said, 'This is it,' '' his wife
said.

Mr. Higgins bought a home in Fort Lauderdale and spent summers in Mashpee -
neither location a jazz mecca. Still, he recorded frequently, releasing many
albums in Japan, where he was warmly received and arguably better known than in
the United States.

In 1987, he met d'Ambrosio, a singer, pianist, and composer, when she was
performing at the Asa Bearse House in Hyannis. They married the following July,
a year to the day after meeting.

"We just dug what each other was doing and hit it off right away,'' he told the
Globe in 1996.

"With Eddie, it's like having a one-man band behind you,'' she told the Globe in
the same interview, speaking about her husband's talents as an accompanist.

Blumenthal, who last listened to Mr. Higgins in a solo gig a couple of years
ago, said that "in the last 10 years of his life, he came to represent not just
the modern jazz piano tradition, but some of the earlier jazz styles as well
because of his great versatility.''

Invoking the late Dave McKenna, another legendary jazz pianist who lived on Cape
Cod for years, Blumenthal called Mr. Higgins "a classic piano player in the way
McKenna was, somebody who could play a solo piano gig and never run out of
material because they knew every song in the book and then some. Far be it from
me to say anybody knew more songs than Dave McKenna, but with Eddie's obvious
classical training combined with his modern leanings, if I ever had to bet
anyone, it would be him.''

In addition to his wife, Mr. Higgins leaves two daughters, Shelley Higgins of
Carrboro, N.C., and Lela Damico of Yorktown Heights, N.Y.; and four
grandchildren.

His ashes will be interred in the Marstons Mills Cemetery in Marstons Mills at
noon on Oct. 4.


-- 
Tom Reney
"Jazz à la Mode"
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