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John Hicks, Hilton Ruiz and Nicholas Payton

This JazzSet opens with remembrances of the late pianists John Hicks and Hilton Ruiz, both of whom died unexpectedly this spring. Then we revisit the 2000 Monterey Jazz Festival for New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton's salute to New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong, a signal figures in all of jazz.

John Hicks, from a publicity photo  

John Hicks

Many first encountered John Hicks in the Betty Carter Trio, one of the top small bands of the 1980s. Hicks had to turn sharp corners at top speed to keep up with Betty's voice, and he did so for seven years.

Bradley's piano bar near Washington Square in New York was another John Hicks scene, up close and personal (the piano fit snugly into a corner by the bar).

There was even a John Hicks Big Band, and John was a long-time pianist in the Mingus Big Band as well. His discography from the late 1960s to today reads like a history of jazz.

Hilton Ruiz, from a publicity photo  

Hilton Ruiz

Young Hilton Ruiz spent hours and hours at Mary Lou Williams' apartment/piano salon in Harlem. Hilton learned ragtime, blues, boogie and bop from the great Mary Lou. "There's nothing better than studying with the people who invented the style," he said.

In the 1970s, he worked with the powerful and inventive Rahsaan Roland Kirk. With his Puerto Rican heritage and his copious work with Tito Puente and others, it's no wonder that Hilton Ruiz became the quintessential Latin jazz pianist.

Ruiz had been seriously injured in New Orleans, participating in a recording project to benefit Hurricane victims. After a two-week coma, he died. He became another victim of the extended killer that is Katrina. A year earlier, Ruiz participated in a Pianothon to benefit tsunami victims. He played the Lord's Prayer and a powerful piano impression of the tsunami itself, leading into a blues. Jazz will not easily let go of John Hicks and Hilton Ruiz.

"Star-Crossed Lovers" by Billy Strayhorn, a duet by John Hicks (on the right) and Kenny Barron (on the left) from Riverside Park, New York City, 1989. Produced by Jazz Forum Arts.

"Michael's Mambo" by Hilton Ruiz for his nephew Michael, from the American Museum of Natural History, NYC 2003, with bassist Orlando Morine, drummer Marlon Simon

Music from Nicholas Payton
"Tiger Rag"
"Hello Dolly"
"Dear Louis" (composed by Payton)
"West End Blues"
"I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You"

The 2001 Verve recording features the same band and an essay by Nicholas, "Growing up in the 'birthplace of jazz.'"

Nicholas Payton, trumpet
Ray Vega, Paul Stephens, trumpets
Bill Easley, Tim Warfield, Scott Robinson, woodwinds
Vincent Gardner, trombone
Bob Stewart, tuba
Anthony Wonsey, piano
Reuben Rogers, bass
Adonis Rose, drums


  • John Hicks
  • Hilton Ruiz, including video a performance
  • An Obituary
  • Nicholas Payton
  • Monterey Jazz Festival
  • Credits
    Thanks to archivist Yujin Cha.
    Jazz 88 WBGO in Newark, NJ, receives funding from the Grammy Foundation for preservation of the archive.
    John Hicks was recorded by Malcolm Addey; Hilton Ruiz Trio was recorded by Duke Markos.
    Thanks to Tim Jackson, General Manager of Monterey.
    Field producer Bud Spangler of Syntropy Audio, recording engineer Jeff Cressman.

    Copyright 2007 NPR