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The sad and mysterious death of Hilton Ruiz

Washington DC Jazz Network

The talented and versatile Latin jazz and be-bop pianist Hilton Ruiz died in June of 2006 in New Orleans.  He'd gone there to make a video to accompany a CD he'd recorded, a tribute to and benefit for the recently flooded and hurricane-ravaged city. 

He was excited by the project, and glad to have some way to help.

Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, the 5-year-old Ruiz saw Duke Ellington on a television show, and that sparked his interest in the piano.  Three years later, he played Mozart at Carnegie Hall. 

He studied classical music, then turned to jazz, with such eminent teachers as Cedar Walton and Mary Lou Williams.  Also influenced by the Afro-Cuban sounds of Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, he made a most compelling blend of music.

"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."

Before recording under his own name, he'd worked in the bands of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Paquito D'Rivera and Pharoah Sanders.  His compositions were featured in films:  Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and Sam Mendes's "American Beauty."

Hilton Ruiz was found outside a French Quarter bar with severe head injuries on May 19, 2006.   He remained in a coma and died on June 6, 2006.  New Orleans police say his injuries were sustained in a fall, while others (some at the scene and some after the fact) say he was the victim of a severe beating.

While video was produced showing that he did, in fact, fall face-down on a curb after leaving a club,  many people are convinced that he was attacked first.  NOPD closed the case, a lawsuit was brought, the Latin music community in New York lobbied Congressional members of the  Hispanic Caucus to petition to re-investigate the case.

Unfortunately, closure remains elusive for Hilton Ruiz's family and friends.

Here's Hilton Ruiz's version of "Moment's Notice" from 1994:

Listen for more Hilton Ruiz on Jazz Caliente, Thursdays at 2pm on KPLU's Mid Day Jazz.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.
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