Jazz Piano Virtuoso Hilton Ruiz, 54

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Hilton Ruiz, 54, a versatile pianist known for his pulsing, rhythmically exciting Latin jazz and bebop playing, died June 6 at East Jefferson General Hospital in New Orleans. He had been in a coma since May 19, when he was found outside a French Quarter bar with severe head injuries. He had been in New Orleans to make an album and video to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina.

With a broken skull and several broken bones in his face, Mr. Ruiz was initially believed to have been beaten. Authorities later concluded that he had suffered a serious fall. He had a heart attack while being transported to the hospital.

Mr. Ruiz, who began his career in his teens, brought energy and flair to virtually every genre of jazz, including boogie-woogie, Afro-Cuban and contemporary Latin styles. He occasionally played classical music as well. He made 18 albums as a bandleader and performed on dozens of others with many leading names of jazz and Latin music.

In his teens, he performed with well-known jazz musicians, including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Frank Foster and Clark Terry. He later spent about four years with multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and toured the world with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean.

Even though jazz and Latin music share certain roots in African-based rhythms, Mr. Ruiz said, "each entity requires you to develop a special discipline; there are definite differences in the basic feel and the basic structure of jazz and blues and Latin idioms."

In his music, Mr. Ruiz, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, brought the varied strands of his musical odyssey together.

"With jazz, you can incorporate everything you've listened to, from all over the world," he said. "In my music, you can hear the Latin elements, because when you're playing jazz, you can only play what you are."

Mr. Ruiz became interested in the piano at the age of 5, when he saw a television appearance by Duke Ellington. Three years later, as an 8-year-old piano prodigy, Mr. Ruiz played a Mozart sonata at Carnegie Hall.

After early training in classical music, he turned primarily to jazz and was playing professionally by the time he was 14. He studied with pianist Cedar Walton and often visited the home of Mary Lou Williams, a pioneering jazz pianist and composer.

"I learned a lot from Mary Lou," Mr. Ruiz said in a 2004 interview with the Jerusalem Post. "She taught me traditional ragtime stride piano and blues-style boogie-woogie. There is nothing better than studying with the people who invented the style."

He absorbed the polyrhythmic music of Latin jazz stars Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente and in 1973 completed his apprenticeship by joining Kirk's band, where he had a deeper exposure to some of the bedrock sources of jazz, including blues idioms, gospel and Dixieland. He also appeared with bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonists Paquito D'Rivera and Pharoah Sanders, among others.

Mr. Ruiz was a prolific composer as well as performer, and his music was featured in Woody Allen's film "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) and in Sam Mendes's "American Beauty" (1999). Among his best-received albums were "Steppin' Into Beauty" (1978), "El Camino" (1988) and "Enchantment" (2003). In 1986, he published a three-volume instructional book, "Jazz and How to Play It."

His marriage to Aida Ruiz ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, also named Aida Ruiz.

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