Hilton Ruiz

Latin and jazz pianist


Hilton Ruiz, pianist, composer and bandleader: born New York 29 May 1952; married (one daughter); died New Orleans 6 June 2006.

Hilton Ruiz was an unusually gifted pianist to whom musical boundaries meant nothing. Latin music came naturally to him, but so did bebop and he could play with conviction in any jazz form, most notably in the stride style developed by giants like Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

Born in New York to Puerto Rican immigrant parents, he was trained in classical music as a young child, appearing on television and in a solo recital in Carnegie Hall when he was eight. He could have had a career as a classical pianist but was drawn to jazz and Afro-Cuban music as a teenager. He was so gifted that his age seemed immaterial and whilst quite young he worked with musicians like Clark Terry, Frank Foster, Charlie Mingus, Jackie McLean and Freddie Hubbard.

His versatility made him ideal for the band led by the blind saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk not only made his own instruments, but played music that was unique in his time, drawing from the oldest blues forms to the sophisticates of modern jazz. "All the music I enjoyed was part of the Rahsaan experience," said Ruiz:

We had to play all these musical flavours every night. I had to research.

His set involved playing music from New Orleans, it involved playing the music of John Coltrane, the music of Charlie Parker and then his own original music. One set was like going through a time machine, a whole history of music.

Ruiz stayed with Kirk from 1973 until 1977. He worked in duos in the New York area over the years, using several distinguished bass players. In 1978 he toured Egypt and India with Clark Terry and he came to Europe with Clark Terry's Big Bad Band. The following year, he played at Ronnie Scott's Club in London with the tenor saxophonist George Coleman and backed the singers Betty Carter and Abbie Lincoln, amongst others. He joined the New York All Stars and led a trio which he took to Paris to play and record there in November 1981.

In 1986 he recorded the tribute The Music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk with the trumpeter Bill Hardman and trombonist Steve Turre. Turre, a long-time friend, said,

He's one of the few musicians on the scene who's equally at home in both the jazz genre and the Afro-Cuban genre in a complete sense. He really can play the blues, too. For real.

As a teenager, Ruiz had studied with the jazz legend Mary Lou Williams. "She showed me a lot about what not to do," he said:

When I did something wrong she'd say, "No, that's not right. That's corny, that's not happening. Do it like this. Move over, let me show you how it's done."

Perhaps Ruiz's following in Latin music was larger than those who enthused about his jazz. His bands of the Eighties and Nineties played a Latin jazz fusion. He played as an equal with giants of Latin like Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, David Sanchez, Steve Berrios and Ignacio Berroa.

In 1987 he published a three-volume piano method, co-written with Richard Bradley, Jazz and How to Play It. "The book doesn't have a lot of theoretical jargon that you have to wade through," he said:

It's just a simple explanation of different devices that are used . . . I believe that's what students

are looking for because when I used to buy books, and I bought a lot of music books, there was always a lot of stuff I had to wade through to figure out. When I got to the actual musical example, it wasn't anything I could play.

Ruiz also wrote music for the soundtracks of the films Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and American Beauty (1999).

On 19 May, in the small hours of the morning, Hilton Ruiz was found unconscious on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was thought at first that he had suffered a severe beating, but his injuries now appear to have been the result of a horrifying fall. The pianist, who was in the city to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, remained in a coma until his death.

Steve Voce

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Twelve of the winning bidders will each host three group matches
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary General Cover Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teacher lo...

Part Time Primary Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Part Time Primary TeacherOur...

Science Technician

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:School Science Technici...

School Administrator

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Long term SIMS School Administr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week