Thursday, June 08, 2006


Hilton Ruiz - 1952-2006

Questions surround death of jazz pianist.

It has not been a good week for keyboard players. First the Grateful Dead's Vince Welnick committed suicide. Then on Tuesday, Billy Preston - known as "The Fifth Beatle" for his playing on "Get Back" - passed away at 59 years of age. But most upsetting to me is the loss of jazz pianist Hilton Ruiz, who also died on Tuesday of a head injury suffered outside Bar Utopia on Bourbon St. in New Orleans on May 19. It's unclear what exactly happened to Ruiz on the night in question.

“Although it is the family’s understanding that the New Orleans Police Department has closed its file in this matter, the family confirms that they continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding his injury and death,” the Ruiz family's New Orleans attorney Scott M. Galante stated.

"Galante said he has not seen the evidence that police showed to Ruiz’s ex-wife and daughter, both named Aida, while Ruiz was still on life support," the Associated Press reported. "Attorney Mary Howell, representing them at the time, said then that they had accepted the conclusion reached by police. [His] not convinced that an accidental fall caused his death."

A story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune stated: "Although there were early reports that Ruiz might have been beaten, New Orleans police said witnesses and other evidence indicated he fell. 'We did see a fall on the video. I can't tell you any more now,' Ruiz's ex-wife said... A number of Ruiz's friends and colleagues, including trombone player Steve Turre, a longtime friend, were skeptical about the police account.

"Capt. John Bryson, a police spokesman, said, 'We investigated it as an attack. That was the first indication. But all the evidence indicated that he fell. If anyone saw anything else, we beg them to come to us.'"

Ruiz died in East Jefferson General Hospital at 3:50 a.m. on June 6. He'd been in a coma since May 19.

The pianist arrived in New Orleans on May 18 to work on a Hurricane Katrina benefit CD project with Marco Matute, founder and producer of the M27 World label. They spent they day shooting a video. He became involved with the project after performing at a Katrina benefit in New York.

"The music was beautiful," trumpeter Lew Soloff remarked. "There were some very exciting takes. I understand that Hilton said it might have been the best album he ever did. Then three days later, I heard about this."

I interviewed Ruiz in 1979 when he still lived in New York (he'd since moved to Teaneck, NJ). He was 27 at the time and just starting to make his mark on the local jazz scene. An impeccable pianist, Ruiz incorporated latin rhythms into bebop motifs. "I played my first recital at Carnegie Hall when I was eight," he told me. "I was a child prodigy."

Ruiz played with a wide range of jazz musicians, but was best known then for his work with Rahsann Roland Kirk in the mid-'70s. "Musically, he showed me how to be a versatile performer just by teaching me hundreds of standards," he explained. "I don't know anybody who knew as many tunes as he did. He was really one of the greatest musicians America ever produced."

Ruiz's own discography included more than a dozen solo albums, beginning with Piano Man in 1975. His song "Something Grand" was featured on the soundtrack of the film American Beauty.

"He's one of the few musicians on the scene that [was] equally at home in both the jazz genre and the Afro-Cuban genre in a complete sense," Turre commented. "There [are] a lot of people who dabble with both worlds, but very few can authentically deal with both. And he [was] one of them."

I can only hope that foul play was not involved in the death of this wonderfully talented musician. Check out Hilton Ruiz's cd catalog at Amazon.

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