Eddie Higgins: The Lamp is Low

A Tribute by Brian Q. Torff

Before a great musician begins a performance, the air fills up and there is a feeling in the audience of an excited tension. It is the air of anticipation in that something great is about to occur. That is how it felt when the jazz pianist Eddie Higgins took to the stage. He was the ultimate statement in class, refinement, and style, yet always mixed with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Eddie was the consummate professional- from his long-time residency at the London House in Chicago to concert stages around the world.

Audiences responded to him and why not? He could play driving boogie-woogie like Meade Lux Lewis, swing with the intensity of Oscar Peterson- and render heart-breaking and poetic ballads reminiscent of Bill Evans. Though perhaps not as famous as these men, he was and always will be their musical equal.

Perhaps the reason why everyone loved Eddie Higgins was the fact that he played for an audience and never at them. His music was a warm fireplace in the dead of winter. I first heard him at a Chicago club on North Halsted performing Ravel’s ‘The Lamp is Low’ with a swing on low burn that kept on rising. I have never forgotten that moment, and recall hoping that one day I would have the chance to play with Mr. Higgins.

It was Eddie’s ballad playing that combined exquisite harmony with that impeccably delicate touch that got me every time. Every year at the LaCrosse Jazz Festival we would play the gorgeous, but unlikely titled “Love Theme for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It would bring tears to my eyes and blow my cool in the process. So it pleased me when we recorded my Scottish piece “The Heather” for our ‘Live at the Dakota’ album. When we got off the stage that night, Eddie said to me in a quiet voice, “ You made me cry,” to which I responded, “It serves you right.” Eddie once said that our trio recording with guitarist Reuben Ristrom was one of his two favorite records in his esteemed career. That moves me deeply.

I hope that aspiring pianists and future listeners will continue discovering the music of Eddie Higgins. I can tell you that being on stage with such a gentle giant is the best that jazz has to offer.

At the end of the day, Eddie is the quiet gentleman you want to hear- when the lamp is low.