December 5, 2006

Music Preview: Cancer can’t silence tenor sax player

Bennett Higgins: Photo courtesy of the Jazz Factory. Bennett Higgins is playing his first show since he had surgery for esophageal cancer.There was a time when Bennett Higgins couldn’t even enjoy a steak dinner.In 2004, Higgins was undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer when those twin terrors — chemotherapy and radiation — robbed every ounce of delight during a trip to Outback Steakhouse.“My brain would say, ‘Boy, I would love to have Outback. And I would get there and order, and when the first bite would hit my lip — it just didn’t taste right,” he said. “It was like I was chewing aluminum. Nothing would go down smoothly.”Higgins prefers brass, not aluminum. He’s a tenor saxophone player whose house band tore it up at Joe’s Palm Room in the ’60s and ’70s. Another popular jazz musician at the time, Louis Smith, was leaving town, so he and the other players recommended Higgins, who had sat in with Smith, for the job as the club’s music director.“Joe (Hammond, the owner) always wanted a house band,” Higgins said. “He didn’t want to change groups that often.”Higgins was responsible for providing all the entertainment nightly and for special occasions. “I tried to find the top musicians that I could,” he said. It wasn’t hard. “Back then, there were not too many places for jazz bands, especially in the black community.“For a while there, we had matinees every Wednesday and Friday, and then we would come back from 5-8 (p.m.), and then from 9-1 a.m. until they passed a law where the bars could stay open until 4, then we had a late, late show on weekends until 3:30 a.m.”He drafted members for his house band, which would come to be known as Crisis, a popular jazz fusion group: Riley White on keyboards; Higgins’ kid brother Jonathan on drums; Pete Peterson on piano; guitarist Kevin Keller; and trumpet player Ken Stanley.For musicians, Joe’s Palm Room “was a dream come true. The owner was very pleasant to work for and work with. He had no foolishness going on in that place,” Higgins recalled. “Some nights, people wouldn’t even be in the place, and he’d still pay us.”Wearing thinIf he had a choice, Higgins would have lost 80 pounds through sweat instead of scalpels.Speaking of surgeries, how’s this for bedside manner: Higgins was supposed to have surgery in Louisville. The doctor had scheduled the procedure, but never followed through. Higgins’ surgery day came and went without a phone call.“I panicked and started thinking about words like ‘metastasizing,’” Higgins said. “My wife got on the Internet and phone, and we found a doctor at the University of Michigan.”The Louisville doc, by the way, never called to apologize. So much for professional courtesy.When he finally went under the knife, Higgins’ fear evaporated. “I had so many people praying for me. I just put my life in God’s hands and (the surgeon’s) hands.”He did ask one question, though.“I’m a saxophone player. Will I be able to play after this?”“If not,” the surgeon replied. “Then I didn’t do my job.”The surgery in itself makes Higgins’ Saturday evening concert at The Jazz Factory a miracle (those not familiar with the ins of this particular type of cancer should hold off on lunch).When doctors removed Higgins’ esophagus, they cut him open from his naval to his breastbone, stretched his stomach up toward his neck, and refastened it to the bottom of his throat.Higgins can still eat, but he has to take a nap thanks to a common after effect in esophageal cancer patients called rapid gastric emptying, or “dumping syndrome.”Without an esophagus, Higgins now digests food so quickly that it takes all of his body’s resources to break it all down.“I can go lay down for about 15-20 minutes and be fine,” he said. “Until I eat again.”Higgins, who quit smoking 15 years ago, was told the cancer thrived on his lifestyle: eating late at night before he went to bed, “which musicians often do,” he said. That habit aggravated his acid reflux. So did stress.He taught in Jefferson County public schools for 30 years, first the marching band at Shawnee High, then Iroquois Middle School and finally at Southern High.Last July, Higgins got more bad news form his doctors: He had developed an abdominal hernia. He underwent surgery and was released with a clean bill of health.