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

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