By Hal Smith
FERNANDO FLOYD ‘FRED’ HIGUERA, drums
b. Oakland, CA 5/25/09 d. San Mateo, CA 1/24/83
Some time ago, jazz trumpeter and recording engineer Bryan Shaw was preparing to master a live 1950 recording by Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band. He threaded the ancient reel onto a tape deck, adjusted the computerized sound board, punched the ‘play’ button, and leaned back in his chair to listen. The performance had scarcely begun before Bryan launched forward out of his chair, shouting “Wow! Who’s that drummer?” Over the years, that scene has been played out more times than I can count. Upon hearing records by the classic Bob Scobey band of the early ‘50s, the response is invariable. Drummers, other instrumentalists, and jazz fans have all asked asked the same question.
The answer: Fred Higuera. His glorious, swaggering beat enlivened dozens of Scobey records. In defiance of the usual stylistic dogma affecting San Francisco drummers (felt, not heard), Higuera ‘aimed for the bottom head’. His firm but swinging rhythm that gave the Scobey band a springy feel that was not heard in any other Bay Area group.
A Thunderous Walloping of the Mounted Tom-Tom
Higuera was the perfect drummer for Scobey, who wanted an entirely different rhythmic feel than what he experienced in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Higuera’s time was impeccable as was his technique, which showcased well-developed independence between hands and feet. His musical colleague George Probert once said, "Freddie could walk in one rhythm and play a different rhythm in each hand while snapping his fingers.” Behind the ensembles and horn solos, he used a large ride cymbal as the main percussion device, but played a variety of rhythms besides the normal ‘ride’ pattern.
He often played a Charleston beat in unison with banjoist Clancy Hayes, resulting in an elastic rhythm. Other devices Higuera used to good advantage included rolls and syncopations on the closed hi-hats, with punctuations on the bass drum; heavily accented press rolls on the snare drum; ‘tap dancing’ patterns on the woodblock and snare drum rim; and playing choke cymbal with fills between measures. He was fond of building up the final turnaround of a song, starting a bar or so before the spot where such a device might normally start.
A crisply-played pattern on the snare led to a thunderous walloping of the mounted tom-tom, leaving no doubt that the band was moving into the ride-out chorus. The final bar of a song usually received a Higuera’s signature ending: two quick hits on the mounted tom-tom and a cymbal crash on the third beat.
Fernando Floyd ‘Fred’ Higuera was born in Oakland, California on 25 May, 1909. His father Albert listed his occupation on his World War I draft card as “trap drummer and candy and ice cream maker.” Many years later, Fred was hired to play an evening with Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band. A friend asked if Fred could play the right kind of drumming for the YBJB. Higuera responded, “My dad was a ragtimer. Of course I know how to play that style!”
While in his teens, the younger Higuera surely picked up the basics of drumming from his father. During the 1920s. he learned about jazz drumming by listening to recordings by Vic Berton (“my first influence”), Gene Krupa, Ben Pollack, Zutty Singleton, and Baby Dodds. Eventually, he also became an expert Latin percussionist, able to play timbales and other instruments with sticks and hands. In the late 1930s, he was offered the drum slot with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra. Had he taken the job, it is possible that Higuera might have become a Swing Era superstar. However, for unknown reasons, he did not join the orchestra. Rather, his playing was confined to groups based in the Bay Area, plus occasional work with with bands such as Seger Ellis’ ill-fated Choirs of Brass.
Sometime during the 1930s he married Barbara Furney. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was a private, a drummer and a cook. Following the war, the Higueras lived and worked briefly in Reno, Nevada.
With the Yerba Buena Jazz Band
In the 1940s, Higuera listened to records featuring Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond, and Max Roach. These contemporary sounds, together with the previous diverse influences, produced a unique drumming style. He used this considerable talent with jazz and dance bands, small combos, and Latin groups throughout the ‘40s. Even though his musical interests went in the opposite direction from Lu Watters’, he substituted for Bill Dart with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Cornetist Ken Smith remembers hearing Higuera with the YBJB. Ken recalled, “He played some of Watters’ style and some of his own style.”
In 1948, pianist Johnny Wittwer, temporarily replacing Wally Rose in the Watters band, made several wire recordings of the YBJB. On a few sessions, Fred is the drummer. His ragtime drummer genes enabled him to play exactly the right thing at the right time with Watters. For a high fidelity example of Higuera’s San Francisco style drumming, hear Bob Scobey’s record of “South” on Good Time Jazz.
His association with Scobey dated back at least to 1939, when both musicians played in Lu Watters’ orchestra at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland. A few recordings made at the orchestra’s rehearsals demonstrate that Higuera had been listening closely to Gene Krupa. Surely the drumming made a positive impression upon the rhythm-conscious Scobey. When he finally tired of the strict 2/4 rhythm of the Yerba Buenans and formed his own band, Scobey was quick to recruit Higuera for the drum chair.
Recruited by Scobey
The drummer appears on many of Scobey’s recordings for Good Time Jazz, Verve and Down Home made between 1951 and 1958. Such tracks as “Big Butter and Egg Man,” “Long Gone,” “Peoria,” and “Ostrich Walk” show just how much the drummer added to the Scobey sound.
“Panama” illustrates Higuera’s creativity, as he played multiple solo choruses on brushes instead of the usual sticks.
The astounding mambo version of “Hindustan” sounds as if there are at least two world-class Latin percussionists at work.
Years after the recordings were made, mere mention of Higuera always resulted in a smile and a compliment from Scobey bandmates such as Bill Napier, Burt Bales, and Bob Mielke. Pianist Wally Rose, who frequently played with Scobey, called Higuera “the best drummer I ever played with.” In a late-‘70s, conversation with Scobey bassist Squire Girsback, this writer mentioned hearing Higuera at a club and remarking, “He still has it.” Girsback, whose speech was badly slurred following a severe stroke, responded with unmistakable clarity, “You’re goddamn right!”
However, despite the synergy between Scobey and Higuera, the latter did not stay with the band for long periods of time. Between 1950 and 1958, he was in and out of the band, often playing other types of music on engagements which paid better than Scobey’s.
In 1962, Higuera worked with a commercial band, Joe Marcellino’s Orchestra, at A. Sabella’s Capri Room in San Francisco. Several of the performances were broadcast for KCBS and the surviving playlists illustrate the type of music Higuera played on such occasions: medleys of waltzes, Hawaiian songs, and pop tunes of the ‘20s and ‘30s; current hits like "Peppermint Twist,” and “Never On Sunday”; and—probably because an expert Latin percussionist was aboard—a variety of cha-chas, rhumbas, boleros, and mambos. Higuera continued to play these types of jobs for many years. In the 1970s, he played with the Euphonic Jazz Band and with Slim Hood and the La Honda Bandits at the Iron Works in Palo Alto.
Life at Home
During this period, Fred and Barbara Higuera helped to raise their grandchildren: Desiree, Heather and Hans. Desiree recalls that Fred refused to drive, after being ticketed one time for driving on the freeway at nine miles per hour. Afterwards he would either take a bus, the BART subway system, or depend on his wife to drive him to work. Desiree remembers going to the Iron Works with Barbara to pick up Fred, only to get caught in the conga line as Slim Hood played “The Saints” as the final number of the evening. She also described Grandfather Fred waiting for dinner to be served and amusing himself by drumming with knife and fork on “every glass, plate and dish on the table.” Grandmother Barbara was not pleased with the performance and shocked the children by saying, “Up your brown, Fred,” while flipping him the bird’. Heather wrote, “My grandma’s car had a dent in the dash from [Fred] playing drums with his hands while we were driving.” She also recalls that the neighbors referred to her grandfather as ‘Silver Stix.’
In 1977, Wingy Manone was the guest artist at a concert of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California. The all-star band backing him up included Bob Mielke on trombone, Burt Bales on piano, Dick Oxtot on banjo, and Fred Higuera on drums.
Throughout the ‘70s, he played a variety of musical styles at Bay Area venues such as the Sinaloa, Pinky’s, and the Velvet Turtle. He also played with the Circus Vargas orchestra. Trumpeter Charlie Fardella, a Circus Vargas veteran, commented that the high wire acts loved to work with Higuera because he could play a steady roll on the snare drum, with no accents, for as long as the performers walked the wire.
Meeting Fred Higuera
While this writer heard Fred Higuera live in 1970 and again in 1978, we were not introduced until 1979. At that time he was playing in the Basin Street Trio with clarinetist Phil Howe and pianist Devon Harkins at the Leamington Hotel in Oakland. My wife June accompanied me to the Leamington as soon as I heard that Fred was drumming there. We were transfixed by the relentless drive from the drums. Never once did the level of excitement waver. Finally, during an intermission, I met Fred and immediately we started talking shop. I mentioned my regular Sunday brunch job in Petaluma with the Golden State Jazz Band. He expressed an interest in hearing the band, which included his old friends Bill Napier and Bob Mielke. We agreed that I would pick him up at the Leamington the next morning and he would ride to the job with me.
I called his number Sunday morning, but there was no answer. I tried again, but then it was time to leave our house in Oakland for the long drive to Petaluma. I was dejected after envisioning the opportunity to spend a day with one of my idols. While setting up the drums, I happened to look out the back window of the restaurant. A car resembling my wife’s Mustang drove into the back lot. The passenger door opened…and out stepped Fred Higuera! When he called the house just after I left, June immediately offered to drive him to Petaluma. Fred took a seat in the front row, right in front of the drums. After the first set, I asked if he would like to sit in. He responded, “No, man. I came to hear you.” On the next set, I was still flying high after that comment. Then leader Ev Farey called our quasi-Latin number, “Isle of Capri.” As we played, I became more intimidated with each succeeding bar. After all, the man seated directly in front of the drums, watching my every move, had recorded the Latin tour-de-force version of “Hindustan.” By the time the song ended, I was pouring sweat. I looked at Fred and said, “That’s my Latin style.” Without hesitation he responded, “Yeah, that’s what we call the gringo beat.”
Though it was an honor to play for him, the best part of the day was the long drive back to his Oakland hotel. We talked about drums and drummers, and he spoke enthusiastically of his love for the Chicago Style music of Teschemacher, Spanier, Sullivan, and Condon. The conversation trailed off as we slowed for a stoplight. As the car idled, I saw a far-away expression on his face. He shook his head slowly and said, “Nobody plays stop-and-gos anymore.”
Soon after this encounter, he played another concert for the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California, with the Basin Street Trio. From all accounts, his drumming was the highlight of the concert. To my everlasting regret, I missed the concert and never had another opportunity to hear, or talk with, Fred.
Soon after playing a New Year’s Eve job, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. Desiree remembers her grandfather “forcing his drum stick in his left hand and making himself hold it and move it.” Sadly, he never played again. He passed away in San Mateo, California on January 24, 1983.
Fortunately, he left a treasure chest full of recordings from his years with Bob Scobey. A relatively recent release (GHB CD-285) contains previously unreleased live recordings, alternate, and unissued takes by the Frisco Band, with well-recorded Higuera playing in absolute top form.
Whenever you see a recording that lists Fred Higuera on drums, give it a listen. You will hear exactly what it means to be Swingin’ on the Golden Gate!
Sidney Bechet with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band: Dixieland Jubilee Vogue EP 7073 (Vinyl 7” EP; out of print).
Bob Scobey’s Band Verve MGV 1001 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Beauty And The Beat RCA Victor LPM 1344 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Bourbon Street Verve MGV 1009 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Direct From San Francisco Good Time Jazz CD 12023 – 2
Bob Scobey: Frisco Jazz ’56 (2 CDs) Jasmine CD 496 (includes all tracks from “Direct From San Francisco,” “Bob Scobey’s Band,” “The San Francisco Jazz Of Bob Scobey” and “Beauty And The Beat”).
Bob Scobey: The Great Bob Scobey and his Frisco Band Vol. 1 Jazzology JCD 275
Bob Scobey: The Great Bob Scobey and his Frisco Band Vol. 2 Jazzology JCD 285
Bob Scobey: The San Francisco Jazz of Bob Scobey Verve MGV 1011 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: The Scobey Story Vol. 1 Good Time Jazz CD L 12032 – 2
Bob Scobey: The Scobey Story Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz CD L 12033 – 2
Bob Scobey: The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957 GHB BCD 285
Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994. Donna Ewald Publishing.
Goggin, Jim: Some Jazz Friends, Vol. 2. Victoria, B.C., Canada. 2006, Trafford Publishing Co.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1954 and 1959 liner notes reprinted in booklet accompanying The Scobey Story, Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz CD 12033 – 2. Fantasy Records, 1991.
Leigh, James: Liner notes for The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957. New Orleans, 2007. GHB CD 285.
Smith, Hal: Fred Higuera: Swingin’ On The Golden Gate. Frisco Cricket, Winter, 2011. San Francisco, San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.
Conversations with the Writer:
Bales, Burt; Duffy, Mike; Fardella, Charlie; Farey, Everett; Girsback, Squire; Helm, Bob; Howe, Phil; Higuera, Fred; Knies, Don (fan); Mayl, Gene; Mielke, Bob; Napier, Bill; Probert, George; Quilligan, Larry (fan); Rose, Wally; Smith, Ken