Blues for Brother Hilton

It was around 1993, during an evening at the Osaka Blue Note jazz club, that I knew I was witnessing a moment in musical history I would remember for the rest of my life.

Tito Puente, the reigning mambo king on the timbales, had formed a new band, the Golden Latin Jazz All Stars, and was taking it on the road in the U.S. and overseas. A recording by the band released the year before, Live at the Village Gate, had been generating a buzz in the States and burning up my own CD player here in Japan for months. I dragged my wife along to the club with me, thinking I might never see the likes of this moment again. That turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.

For on the stage that night was a musical dream-team of some of the biggest names in the Latin jazz world. Leading the pack was Puente and, as special guest, the legendary conga master Mongo Santamaria from Cuba. It was incredible to see the two aging musical giants on stage together, especially when the band jammed on Santamaria’s classic hit “Afro Blue” and brought the house down.

But there were a couple of relatively young lions in the band — musicians representing my generation — who I had also come to see: Giovanni Hidalgo, then considered the baddest conguero around, and Hilton Ruiz, the piano player. I hadn’t known much about Ruiz then, but after that night at the Blue Note when his star had shone brightly on that stage, I became a permanent fan of his music.

Over the years I followed Hilton Ruiz’s releases on CD, including Hands on Percussion, which I loved. Ruiz always had an innate sense of groove and swing, which was due no doubt to his years of learning from and playing with some of the greats of jazz, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Mary Lou Williams.

I found over time that whenever I would have a Hilton Ruiz disc playing in the background, I’d just have to stop working or whatever I was doing and listen to him finish soloing on piano — and it almost always elicited the same kind of awed reaction from me: Damn, he’s right on it!

Admittedly, Hilton Ruiz didn’t have one of those instantly recognizable piano styles like, say, Horace Silver or Mal Waldron. But what did make Ruiz stand out among many other pianists on the jazz scene was his versatility in playing various styles of music and his infusion of some serious Nuyorican soul into the hard bop genre of old-school jazz. And Ruiz, to my mind, was undoubtedly at his best in a live group setting more than in a studio session, always holding the fort down and yet lifting the music up and letting it soar.

And so it was a major shock years later to find out that Ruiz had died in some kind of accident in New Orleans, the news of which was reported around the world at the time.

It seems that Ruiz had gone to a live jazz club in the city’s French Quarter one night in 2006 and was later found unconscious in the street nearby with serious injuries to his head and face. He never regained consciousness, and died at age 54.

The New Orleans police announced the death as merely the result of Ruiz falling down on the curb outside the jazz club and closed the case quickly. This raised suspicions that the New Orleans police department (some of whose officers apparently worked side-jobs as bouncers for that jazz club) were possibly involved in Ruiz’s death and now were covering it up. The police in New Orleans, after all, have never been known for being the most honest group of people around.

There were calls for an official investigation into his death. The family of Ruiz sued the jazz club, seeking the truth and justice in the courts. But it seems that nothing ever came of either of those efforts.

Hilton Ruiz’s death remains unsolved to this day, a “sad and mysterious” accident that extinguished one of jazz’s brightest lights. It has always been hard for me to conceive as dead someone whose music was so alive and so full of the passion and energy of life. I could never really reconcile that.

Yet though the man may be gone, his music has not been forgotten. A few years ago, Hilton Ruiz’s daughter, Aida, released some of her father’s final recordings on a CD, Hilton’s Last Note, a collection of New Orleans-inspired songs containing a soulful blending of Latin, African and French influences.

The CD’s liner notes also include these bittersweet words: “To Hilton’s friends, fans and lovers of Jazz: be consoled in the fact that although we lost him decades too early, his music will live on for all to enjoy. Those who caused his demise WILL be brought to justice.”

I had a chance to contact Aida Ruiz through the website she had set up for keeping alive her father’s legacy, shared my condolences with her, and assured her that the spirit of Hilton Ruiz’s music continues to live on even in faraway places like Japan. I was deeply moved to read this story, “The Life and Death of Hilton Ruiz”, in which Aida shared the tragic circumstances of her father’s death but also his richly lived life. I encourage you to take a few moments to read it too.

I’ve been listening recently to CDs of music by Hilton Ruiz and am still greatly saddened all these years later. Yet at the same time, I’m inspired anew by the gift of his music — and especially appreciative now that I got to see him on stage that night long ago at the Blue Note, truly a memorable moment in my lifetime.

Now, I’m not a musician by profession (maybe in my next life, if I’m lucky), but if I were, I’d compose my own final tribute to Ruiz by perhaps writing a song that goes something like this: a slow blues number that starts off as a lament or dirge mourning the passing of someone beloved in the family, then gradually growing in intensity and finally breaking into an all-out Afro-Cuban dance celebration in the true tradition of the New Orleans second line. A celebration, in other words, that gives the spirit of Ruiz a glorious send-off to that Great Jazz Gig in the Sky.

But since I’m merely a wordsmith, I guess I’ll have to settle for this blog piece as my way of paying tribute to someone whose lifework of creating musical beauty continues to mean something good to a whole lot of people in this world. So here it is: one for brother Hilton Ruiz. Long may his star continue to shine in the night sky.

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