Home Profiles Pianist, Composer, Arranger Hilton Ruiz

Pianist, Composer, Arranger Hilton Ruiz

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HILTON RUIZ (1952-2006) was a child prodigy and pianist who transcended conventional boundaries.

Born in New York City on May 29, 1952, he performed at Carnegie Recital Hall at age eight. In addition to classical studies, he explored jazz under the tutelage of the legendary Mary Lou Williams, and at 14 made his recorded debut with the Latin soul outfit Ray Jay and the East Siders.

His remarkable improvisational gifts cemented Ruiz’s decision to pursue a career in jazz, and while still in his teens he backed everyone from Freddie Hubbard to Joe Henderson. Ruiz vaulted to global renown in 1973 when he joined the famously eclectic saxophonist/flutist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, proving his mettle as a gifted interpreter of a repertoire spanning from the blues to the avant-garde via cult-classic LPs including The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color and The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man.

After a four-year tenure with Kirk, Ruiz toured Egypt and India with Clark Terry. Afterward, he returned to New York and was a first-call sideman for acts including Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Chico Freeman, and also founded his group and continued a headlining career that began with the 1975 Steeplechase effort Piano Man.

Over the span of acclaimed recordings including 1977’s Steppin’ Into Beauty, 1988’s El Camino (The Road) and 1991’s A Moment’s Notice, Ruiz honed an approach that resulted in collaborations with Tito Puente and Paquito d’Rivera; he also moonlighted in film, contributing to the soundtracks of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning American Beauty, and with Richard Bradley authored 1987’s three-volume Jazz and How to Play It.

During a visit to New Orleans, where he was scheduled to work on a Hurricane Katrina benefit project, Ruiz suffered a fall in front of a French Quarter bar and slipped into a coma. He never regained consciousness, dying just a week after his 54th birthday on June 6, 2006. The official cause of death is unknown.

Partial Discography

1975 Piano Man
1977 Excition
1977 Steppin’ Into Beauty
1981 The People’s Music “Live at Jazz Unité, vol 1” (Jazz Unité 103)
1981 Green Street “Live at Jazz Unité, vol 2” (Jazz Unité 104)
1987 Something Grand
1988 El Camino
1989 Strut
1990 Doin’ It Right
1991 A Moment’s Notice
1992 Manhattan Mambo
1993 Heroes
1994 Hands-on Percussion
1997 Island Eyes
1998 Rhythm in the House
2003 Enchantment
2004 New York Story
2005 Steppin’ With TP – Dedicated to Tito Puente

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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