Terence Higgins: Strings and Skins

Terence Higgins, New Orleans drummer

“My title is New Orleans monster drummer,” says the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s veteran drummer, Terence Higgins. “Because musicians know who I am and what I do. Through the Dozen, I’ve achieved a lot, like getting calls from non-New Orleans musicians.”

Higgins, a native of New Orleans, has toured internationally with the Dozen for 15 years. Through George Porter, Jr., he had the unique opportunity of playing with music legends, including Earl King, Johnny Adams, Snooks Eaglin and Fats Domino, at only 23 years old.

“He had me playing with artists that I was almost too young to even know,” says Higgins.

Several years ago, Higgins got the call from legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield. He saw Higgins playing with Jon Cleary one night and sat in. Scofield called him the next day to join his Piety Street Band. “You have to be pretty versatile to play in my band, and Terence can do all that,” says Scofield. “What turns me on is where he puts the beat, and how musical a drummer he is. He can play all the things I want to do, so he’s perfect.”

Higgins demonstrated his creativity soon after starting with Scofield. “There was a drum solo in one of the tunes, but I opted to do a tambourine solo,” Higgins says. “Scofield loved it because it was only tambourine, and I took it to another level.”

His command of the tambourine came from years playing in church, and much of Higgins’ talent can be traced to his musical education. He got his first bongo at age four from his great-grandfather, and grew up drumming in the O.P. Walker Sr. High marching band, where he was chosen to perform in the McDonald’s All-American marching band.

Scofield is not the only legendary guitarist to seek out Higgins. He recently got the call from Warren Haynes asking him to join the Warren Haynes Band and tour internationally. Haynes wanted a New Orleans drummer, and everyone he asked, from Ivan Neville to Ron Johnson, recommended Terence Higgins.

“Terence is schooled in a lot of genres that people might not expect him to be,” says Haynes. “And it makes for a well-rounded musical personality.”

“When you get inside the New Orleans thing you just do it,” says Higgins. “It has nothing to do with technique or talent. It’s just a spirit that takes over.”

But Higgins isn’t lacking in technique or talent. According to Haynes, he’s an amazingly musical drummer. He has technique and chops, but also knows how to play songs. An accomplished songwriter himself, Higgins released his first solo album, In the Bywater, in 2005, with his own fusion/funk band, Swampgrease.

“He has kind of a built-in love and understanding of songs and how songs work,” says Haynes. “Some drummers spend so much time working on being a drummer that they forget how important it is to be part of the song.”

According to Haynes, that unspoken way of communicating through music happened instantly with Higgins, where they could look at each other and know what the other one is thinking.

“Drummers from other cities may be technically proficient and can read music,” says Higgins. “But there’s something about New Orleans drummers that gives them a certain feel that no other drummers have.

“When you think about how important New Orleans music is to the overall picture of American music. It’s something that we sometimes take for granted, but absolutely should not take for granted,” says Haynes. New Orleans musicians live and breathe that style of music. They’re playing it every day of their life. They’re not just studying it like it’s a class. It’s part of their DNA.”

Higgins believes what keeps him working with a lot of different artists is that he does his homework. “Some of the songs are deceptively complex,” says Haynes. “And he really got on the inside of them and studied all the idiosyncrasies.”

The 2011 Warren Haynes Band tour promotes Haynes’ new soulful record, Man in Motion, and his 1993 rock/blues solo album, Tales of Ordinary Madness. It took the band from Australia to the U.S.—including a stop in New Orleans during Jazz Fest—and included a European tour. Higgins is on break from Haynes’ band during September, while he tours with Scofield.

“He’s coming up with new stuff every day,” says Higgins. “He did this tune with Ziggy Marley and it’s never been recorded. So we’re learning it now.”

Education has paid off for Terence Higgins, so he’s passing it on. He is the founder and director of Louisiana Drumline Camp. In its third year, the program reaches students from ages 8 to 18, hosting a one-day mini- camp and conducting small classes within schools.

“We teach and mentor young drummers,” says Higgins. “I want to let these kids know that I came up through band programs at school, and look, I turned out alright.”