Hilton Ruiz was a celebrated jazz musician

NEW ORLEANS – Jazz pianist and composer Hilton Ruiz, who excelled in a wide variety of styles, including Afro-Cuban rhythms and 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 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.

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

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

Ruiz, of Teaneck, N.J., 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 Telarc International Corp.’s Web site.

When 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.

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