Billy Higgins, a personal friend of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival's artistic director, Jessica Felix, had been an important part of the festival since its inception, and this year's event was to be a tribute to him. Sadly, it had to be a memorial instead. Had he survived, he likely would have performed (with the approval of his doctors, as I understand it), but his generous spirit could be felt everywhere none the less.
The festivities began on Wednesday, May 30, with the Gala Dinner and Concert, a fund raiser for jazz education programs connected with the festival. After an outdoor reception featuring some of the delicious wines produced in the neighborhood, we were treated to a set by the Billy Higgins Trio, with Famodou Don Moye taking the drum chair, Ray Drummond at the bass and Craig Handy playing tenor and soprano saxes. Needless to say, the audience was treated to a very fine performance that included standards like "Stella By Starlight" and "Summertime" as well as blues in the form of Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon For Two" and an extemporaneous calypso, all explored with the depth and joy that one would expect from three masters such as these. Even the well worn among the selections were performed with a sense of discovery and surprise that is the essence of jazz.
You probably would had to have been there to fully appreciate this, but if you can, picture listening to this music in a beautiful dining hall with live but clear acoustics, windows all around looking out on some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable and a glass of good wine close at hand. Now that you have that in mind, understand that the meal that followed was, on a culinary level, equal to the music that preceded it, and that the proceeds of the evening went to a very good cause and you have an evening well spent.
The Jazz Education Program, which is supported in part by the admission fee to the Gala, serves the local schools of Healdsburg and Geyserville, CA. It arranges for some of the finest jazz and blues musicians in the region to work with the children in both elementary and secondary schools. This past season musicians like Ed Kelly and Charlie Musselwhite presented lecture concerts to junior and senior high school students; the Oaktown Jazz Workshop worked individually with members of the Healdsburg High School Jazz Band; Babatunde Lea and his band, the Jazz Guerillas, worked with fifth and sixth graders as part of their American history program; and Tacuma King lead a six-week Percussion Song and Dance workshop for children of all ages (including grown-ups). During the days preceding the festival Ray Drummond, Craig Handy and Don Moye also toured the schools. As I said it was an evening well spent.
The festival continued on Thursday evening, May 31, with Jazz Night at the Movies. Jazz film collector Mark Cantor presented performances from his extensive collection, focusing mainly on televised performances from the fifties and sixties. The theme was musicians who were "glossed over by the recent Ken Burns documentary on Jazz." Organized into four sets, each with a thoughtful introduction by Mr. Cantor, the program treated us to a marvelous array of performances by, among others, Count Basie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Gene Krupa with Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Dinah Washington and Joe Venuti. The evening finished with three kinescopes of songs performed by Billie Holiday that Cantor had just restored and which had not been viewed publicly since 1956. The presentation was both comprehensive and very generous.
Friday evening's concert was given over to the piano trio of Renee Rosnes, with drummer Billy Drummond (Renee's husband and no relation to Ray) and bassist Peter Washington. All three members of this group are very much in demand to play with other people's groups so the feeling was that this was a special concert not only for the audience, since West Coast folks are not as aware of Renee as those of us in the East, but for the players themselves. Never the less this has been a working group whenever possible for some time and the communication between them was almost palpable. The choice of the tunes was a fine mix of the well-known like "Star Eyes", and the obscure like a composition by a man who lives not far from Healdsburg. The audience left the concert with a clear understanding of why these are three of the busiest musicians in Jazz today.
Saturday's Festivities began with an outdoor "Latin on the Lawn" concert in the performance space at Rodney Strong Vineyards. The concert opened with the 10 piece salsa band of veteran timbalero Pete Escovedo. With an instrumentation of two trumpets, two trombones, one reed player, timbales, congas, piano, bass and drums this was the biggest ensemble of the weekend, and what a wonderful groove they provided. Pete, as many readers probably know, is the father of the famous Sheila E., as well as congero Juan, who was in the band on this occasion. All of the players were superb and with the leadership of Papa Escovedo and the charts of Wayne Wallace they kept things cooking. By the end of the set practically everyone was up dancing.
After we caught our breath we were treated to a rare West Coast appearance of the Fort Apache Band, or as Ray Drummond calls them, the Gonzalez Bros. Band. Lead by Jerry Gonzalez, who would be impressive on either trumpet or congas, but plays both, the band included altoist Joe Ford, whom I first heard many years ago with McCoy Tyner, the wonderful and underappreciated pianist Larry Willis, Jerry's brother, and one of the foremost latin jazz bassists, Andy Gonzalez, and the great drummer Steve Berrios. The group held the audience enthraled with their high energy mix of Afro-Cuban and New York jazz.
After a break for showers and dinner came the evening concert. The first set featured the Ray Drummond Quartet, led by the esteemed bassist, with Craig Handy, saxophones, Rob Schneiderman, piano and the magnificent Billy Hart, drums. The group mixed a collection of standards and originals into one continuous fantasia that explored a wide range of colors and tempos, playing together in various combinations, and as individuals. Drummond has, over the last several years, personalized the innovations of Charles Mingus in exploiting the expressive potential of the small jazz group to the fullest. This evening we were treated to very fine example of Drummond's work as a leader.
After an intermission there was a 1/2 hour film collage of concert footage and interviews of the late Lester Bowie. Most of the film and video was supplied by Bowie's long-time friend and collaborator Famodou Don Moye and the presentation was assembled in Healdsberg, with Moye's assistance, especially for this festival. I am embarrassed that I did not write down the name of the gentleman who provided the equipment and expertise for this effort, because I find that mention of him was omitted from the program as well. He and Famodou managed to remind us of the breadth of Lester Bowie's achievement across those years after which Jazz was supposed to have died, according to the Ken Burns documentary.
To conclude Saturday evening's concert, Don Moye was joined by two more of Bowie's friends and colleagues, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe and organist Amina Claudine Meyers for an exciting set of forward-looking blues-based jazz. In other words music that was both deep and delightful. There is something about Blythe's tone alone that takes my breathe away, and his solos were among the very finest saxophone playing I heard at this festival, which is not to take any thing away from anybody else. Amina Claudine Meyers is a master of the Hammond B-3 and she demonstrated both the power and beauty of this extraordinary instrument. And again Don Moye displayed that exciting combination of looseness and precision that is one of the hallmarks of the music to come out of the Mid-west in the late sixties and early seventies, exemplified by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others associated with the AACM.
The final concert was held at the Geyser Peak Picnic Area and it opened with the Billy Higgins Sextet. Since Higgins resettled in Los Angeles in the last years of his life, he had the opportunity to put this group together with some of the finest players from that city. The front line of Harold Land, tenor saxophone, Oscar Brashear, trumpet and George Bohanon, trombone, is as strong a line-up as any and represents a remarkable range of experience and mastery. I was particularly taken with the pianist William Henderson who was having an especially good day. The bassist Jeffery Littleton was Billy's first choice among the players in L.A., and the drummer, young Charles, Jr. "Chuckie" McPherson is someone I imagine we will be hearing from a great deal more in the future. McPherson is the son of the well-known alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and I suspect a protegé of Billy Higgins.
Next came the Heath brothers, Percy, Jimmy and "Tootie." Along with their latest pianist, the young a very capable Jeb Patton, they turned in a remarkable set that was truly worthy of its place at the end of an extraordinary five days of music. Jimmy, one of the outstanding saxophonists, composers and arrangers of his generation told a series of beautiful stories in his solos. Percy's mastery of the bass, and improvisation in general has only been enhanced by his advanced age. He is still one of the very greatest jazz bass players alive today. Albert "Tootie" Heath is likewise among the finest drummers in jazz with accomplishments too numerous to mention and was, as usual, a joy to hear. The young Jeb Patton has been taken into the hearts of the Heaths, who call him the fourth Heath Brother. At one time he was a student of Jimmy's, and now he has become a vital link from an older generation to the future.
Because I had to catch a plane out of San Francisco I had to tear myself away from Healdsburg before the grand finale, A Salute to Billy Higgins. The drummers who had played at the festival formed themselves into a percussion ensemble, along with, I suspect, some surprise guests. I wish I could report on this set as well, but we will all just have to imagine what it was like as we give thanks for having had the talented and generous Mr. Higgins among us with his smile, grace and magnificent music.

© Paul Combs, 2001, 2012