Name: Chris Higgins
Early Years/Education: When I was in the first grade, somebody brought a violin in for “show and tell,” and I was mesmerized. I remember just looking at it. I went home and told my mom I wanted to play the violin. I had to convince her to get me one. I started studying with Linda Wicks, who taught a lot of people in the Eugene area, which is where I’m from. My dad was a physics professor at the University of Oregon.
That’s the start — and I think a lot of the ear playing I do now is because of that Suzuki training. You’re making that immediate connection from the brain to the fingers without looking at the page. Plus, you’re learning how to pick out melodies and play them on your instrument. After three years on violin, I switched to guitar just because they were offering a class at school. I was eight then, and at age 10 started playing trumpet. Played that for four years. At 13, I started playing electric bass. I was in a rock band, and somebody had to play the bass, so I volunteered. I became really obsessed with learning how to play it; I was one of those kids that was so obsessed I slept with the bass in my bed.
Started on acoustic [bass] at the urging of Richard Long, a teacher. He told me, “If you really want to play the electric bass, you should learn to play acoustic.” This was a total fabrication. There’s no connection whatsoever. I think he said it because he wanted another bass for the orchestra, so I started playing in the orchestra at South Eugene High School; I was 15. The following year I started playing in the jazz band. It was around this time I decided I was going to be a professional musician, I mean I knew. At that point I really started practicing, I got my priorities straight. My senior year, I dropped all my academic classes and spent the whole day in the music room. I eventually got a GED.
Berklee College of Music: In the last two years of high school, my dad moved to Boston to do research at MIT. My mom suggested that I be enrolled in a music camp, and dad found Berklee. He signed me up, and I went two years in a row. When I applied for a scholarship and got one, my parents moved back to Oregon and I stayed in Boston in my own apartment and attended Berklee. I was 17. At Berklee there were 1,200 guitar players, 200 electric bass players, and all of 10 acoustic bass players, which was good for me.
I was in so many ensembles, I’d hang out all night playing, sometimes 12 hours a day — I loved it. Danilo Perez, Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel were there. Rosenwinkel was like my best friend in college. We were close musical associates. We played a lot of duo sessions, a lot of quartet sessions. We did a first recording, “I Wish I Knew,” featuring Chris Cheek with Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jorge Rossi and me.
When I was 19, I got a gig in the Black neighborhood in Boston at Wally’s with mostly Black musicians. The audience was older, had heard Red Garland and Sonny Stitt play in that very place. It was a five-hour gig, fast tempos, and they weren’t very nice if you dragged. I was the house bassist two nights a week for three years. That was the one gig that built my chops.
After getting my degree from Berklee, I worked on cruise ships to pay off my student loans. Got off the boat in Barcelona and traveled and worked around Europe, eventually moving to New York, where I found work right away. I knew tons of people from Berklee who were living there. I was in New York for a few years when saxophonist Bill McHenry invited me to move to Barcelona with him. While there, I had a lot of success and played and recorded a lot — 15 CDs over the course of six years.
I actually tried to move back to New York on September 2011. We were about to land but got diverted to Halifax. I took the train across Canada and went back to Oregon for a month before returning to Spain [because] Spanish saxophonist Perico Sambeat called me for a tour with Rosenwinkel. I did eventually move back to New York because I wanted the challenge. In Barcelona, most of what the drummers were doing wasn’t challenging me or interesting me. There was a lack of pure swing.
Portland: Me and my wife had planned to move to Portland after having a baby, and we had already bought the house. We wanted to have a garden and get back to nature. Our house is in the Elliott neighborhood. Things are really brewing here, there’s more vitality here; that’s another reason I wanted to move back here. The Portland bands I’m currently with include groups led by David Valdez (who I knew from Berklee and Barcelona), George Colligan (my first roommate in New York), Tim Wilcox, Mark Simon, John Stowell and Greg Goebel.
Musical Influences: Ray Brown and Charlie Haden. I’m sort of a cross between those two. Heavily influenced by Coltrane, his inspiration to push further. A lot of his music leaves the realm of music for me, it’s like he’s a medium. I’m really into Duke Ellington and singers like Ella Fitzgerald and especially Billie Holiday. I’m influenced by Ornette Coleman, Scott la Faro, also Clifford Brown. I listened to a lot of bebop.
Delfeayo Marsalis was at Berklee, and [so] everyone was checking out records from the ‘50s and ‘60s, getting that classic sound, trying to play in that traditional. We put gut strings on the bass and I got swept up into that whole movement. That foundation is great to have. We actually bought the records and listened to them over and over
Most Satisfying Experience: Getting to play with Pat Metheny at the Vitoria Jazz Festival. Metheny was touring Europe, playing with different groups in each country. The organizers sent him recordings of the local jazz players, and in Spain he wanted to play with alto saxophonist Perico Sambeat. I was in Spain that summer, and Perico called me. We played Metheny’s quartet material before a huge audience. That was a high!
Favorite Recordings: Miles Davis - “Kind of Blue”; Kurt Rosenwinkel - “Enemies of Energy”; Ornette Coleman - “Shape of Jazz To Come”; Duke Ellington - “And His Mother Called Him Bill”; Oliver Nelson - “Blues and the Abstract Truth”; John Coltrane - “Afro Blue Impressions Live” double album; Pat Metheny - “Bright Size Life” and “Rejoicing” on ECM; Led Zeppelin - “Houses of the Holy”; Bach - “Mass in B Minor”; Bob Dylan - “Blood on the Tracks”; and the Beatles - “Abby Road” and “Sargeant Pepper.”
Discography (partial list): Bill Goodwin Quartet, “Raise Four,” Vectordisc Records 2013; The Dang-it Bobbys Big Trouble, “Kris Bauman,” 2011; The Dang-it Bobbys Big Trouble, “Muy Nice Music,” 2009; Adam Niewood, “Epic Journey Vol. 1 & 2,” Innova Recordings, 2008; Tim Wilcox, “Sound Architecture,” Diactic Records, 2008; Bruce Arkin Quartet, “Wake Up!” Fresh Sound New Talent, 2007; Gorka Benitez, “The Free Sessions,” Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004; Javier Vercher, “Introducing Javier The Vercher Trio,” Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004; Albert Bover, “Live In Jamboree,” Mas y Mas, 2003; Albert Bover, “Esmuc Blues,” Fresh Sound New Talent 2001; Bill McHenry, “Rest Stop,” Fresh Sound New Talent, 1997; Chris Cheek, “I Wish I Knew ,”Fresh Sound New Talent, 1997.
Gigs: September 3 with Ryan Meagher at Shaker & Vine; September 5 with Matt Otto at the Camelia Lounge; September 14 with Mark Simon at Cinetopia (Vancouver, WA); September 24 with Ryan Meagher at Shaker & Vine; and September 27 with Mark Simon at Ivories Jazz Lounge.
Future Plans: To continue playing and putting out my own CD. I’ve got a lot of music, and maybe in the next year or two I’ll put something out using local players. I also really enjoy teaching. I’ve done jazz camps in Spain in Spanish.
Other: What is really healthy about the Portland jazz scene and Portland in general is how interested people are when they come to see you play. They’re sincerely interested in not only you but in music. They’re very present ... you don’t find that in New York City.
If you have enough skill, you can make everything you do swing. You have to hear it, you have to be it — it’s like being an actor, you really have to possess it, especially in jazz.
Interviewer’s note: Chris Higgins plays a 100-year-old Juzek bass owned by Nabil Totah for 50 years. Totah’s bass has accompanied Hampton Hawes, Charlie Parker, Tal Farlow, and other jazz greats.
-- by Rita Rega