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Jazzman Hilton Ruiz dies at 54

Pianist, composer was working on benefit recording in New Orleans
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jazz pianist and composer Hilton Ruiz, who excelled in a wide variety of styles from Afro-Cuban rhythms to the blues, died early Tuesday, never regaining consciousness after a fall in front of a French Quarter bar. He was 54.

Ruiz, who had come to New Orleans from his home in Teaneck, N.J., to work on a Hurricane Katrina benefit project, had been comatose at East Jefferson General Hospital since he fell early May 19.

He died about 3:50 a.m. Tuesday, agent Joel Chriss said in a telephone interview from New York.

A jam session had been planned for Tuesday in New York before he died, as a benefit to help pay his medical expenses. Now it is also a memorial, said trumpeter Lew Soloff, a founding member of The Manhattan Jazz Quintet.

Although there were early reports that Ruiz might have been beaten, police said witnesses and other evidence indicated he fell. Attorney Mary Howell, retained by his ex-wife, Aida Ruiz, and daughter, also named Aida, said last week that they, too, were convinced that Ruiz had accidentally tripped or fallen.

But his ex-wife and daughter said late Tuesday that they had retained a new attorney, Scott Galante. They referred calls to Galante, whose home number is unlisted and whose office was answered by a machine.

Capt. John Bryson, a police spokesman, said Tuesday, “All the evidence indicated that he fell. If anyone saw anything else, we beg them to come to us.”

Lifetime of musicRuiz has been described as one of the most versatile musicians in jazz.

“He’s one of the few musicians on the scene that is 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,” said trombone player Steve Turre, a longtime friend. “There’s a lot of people who dabble with both worlds, but very few can authentically deal with both. And he’s one of them.”

The many musicians with whom Ruiz worked included Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus. He was featured on the 1997 video “The Best of Latin Jazz,” and his song “Something Grand” was included on the soundtrack of the film “American Beauty.”

“I was pretty lucky in being exposed to a lot of different kinds of music, and studying them with good teachers,” Ruiz said in a biography on the Telarc International Corp.’s Web site.

Playing with Ruiz, bass player Leon Dorsey said, “I always knew I had to bring my ‘A’ game to the table all the time. ... His musicality, artistry, passion — all those things were just melded, and they all happened at a very high level. All worked in perfect symmetry.”

Ruiz came to New Orleans on May 18 with Marco Matute, founder and producer of the M27 World label, to shoot video to go along with a Hurricane Katrina benefit CD, Howell said.

“They spent the whole day filming, riding in carriages, talking to people about New Orleans,” she said. She said Ruiz “got very involved in the situation here” after playing in a New York benefit concert.

Trained in classical music as well as jazz, Ruiz played at Carnegie Recital Hall when he was 8 years old. His first recording, at age 14, was with a group called Ray Jay and the East Siders.

His teachers included jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams; in his early 20s, he worked with saxophone player Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

“All the music I enjoyed was part of the Rahsaan experience,” Ruiz said in an interview for liner notes on his 2003 CD “Enchantment.” “He played the music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. The great composers of classical music. Music from all over the world — Africa, the Orient, the Middle East. We had to play all these musical flavors every night.”