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Jimmy Heath (1926-2020) – JazzWax

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Jimmy Heath, a tenor saxophonist with exceptional gifts as a composer, arranger and player who spent critical years of the 1950s in prison for the sale of heroin but rebuilt his career in the 1960s and beyond, died on January 19. He was 93. [Photo above of Jimmy Heath by Francis Wolff (c) Mosaic Images]

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Nicknamed “Little Bird” for his Parker-like fluidity when he played alto saxophone in the late 1940, Jimmy didn’t start recording leadership albums until 1959, when Orrin Keepnews brought him into the Riverside fold. In 1975, he formed the Heath Brothers, with drummer Albert “Tottie” Heath and bassist Percy Heath, who played in the Modern Jazz Quartet. [Photo above of Jimmy Heath and produce Orrin Keepnews] Heat_g18b-60cb2fd3a39d48fbb9305fb143603c2f68c1c057-s1600-c85
Jimmy was among the jazz giants of Philadelphia, a group that included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Philly Joe Jones, Reggie Workman, Shirley Scott and others. But unlike these musicians, Jimmy was pulled off the scene between 1954 and ’59—a critical five-year period in jazz history when album jazz flourished. His big band compositions and arrangements are especially notable for their swing and construction. [Photo above at New York’s WOR Studios in 1953, from left, Miles Davis, Kenny Drew, Art Blakey and Jimmy Heath; courtesy of Temple University Press / Jimmy Heath collection]

In memoriam of Jimmy, here’s my two-part interview with him in 2009 combined into a single post:

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Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath is best known as the timeless anchor of the famed Heath Brothers band. When Jimmy’s brother and bassist Percy died in 2005, Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath continued on, and their most recent album, Endurance, is a perfect example of how greatness only improves with age. On the CD of originals and standards, Jimmy exhibits a firm, smoky sound while Tootie’s touch remains shrewd and motivating.

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Jimmy’s career began in the mid-1940s, and he played with virtually every modern jazz trumpeter, including Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Art Farmer and Freddie Hubbard. Jimmy’s career was interrupted by five years in prison sentence for narcotics sale and possession in the mid and late 1950s. In prison, Jimmy continued to compose and play, and upon release he was determined to succeed and flourish.

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Jimmy Heath: In Philadelphia. There were four of us—my sister, Percy, Tootie and me. My father was an auto mechanic, but for a period we were on welfare. It was the Depression.

JW: Why did you initially choose the alto sax?
JH: I had heard Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, and later Jimmy Dorsey. The alto just appealed to me. I began playing in high school, in the marching band, for football games. I played the fight songs of all the colleges I couldn’t attend economically or racially, like On Wisconsin!, Notre Dame Victory March and so on. I also had a couple of private teachers and learned from mentors and the band director down in North Carolina.

JW: You mean Philadelphia, no?
JH: No, Wilmington, N.C. My older brother Percy and me used to go down there to live with my grandparents and go to high school there. Because of the economic problems my father had in Philadelphia. My grandmother and grandfather ran a grocery store that supplied all the teachers who taught at the black high school. They were like the neighborhood store where teachers would get things on credit. Percy and I would stay with my grandparents during the school year and then go back to Philadelphia in the summer.

JW: Could you read music at that time?
JH: I began to learn. I learned in high school. My private teacher was in Philadelphia, so I’d study more intensively when I’d return home in the summer.

JW: Did learning to read music come easy?
JH: No, no, no. It took time. Nothing that’s good is ever easy [laughs]. After graduating from high school in 1943, I put together a band in Philadelphia. We played locally and out of town once in a while. We played swing and dance music. Bebop was just beginning. I didn’t hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy until 1945.

JW: When did you lead your first serious band?
JH: In 1947. I had a couple of well-known guys in there. I had trumpeters Johnny Coles and Bill Massey, who knew John Coltrane and introduced me to him. And I had tenor saxophonist Benny Golson and bassist Nelson Boyd. Percy couldn’t play the bass that well yet. He had just gotten out of the service. Percy was drafted in 1944 and became a Tuskegee Airman, a second lieutenant, a pilot. We played a lot of cheap little gigs in bars and at dances occasionally. That was a way to survive. Specs Wright was our drummer. Looking back, it was almost like a feeder band into Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. Nelson, Coltrane, Golson, Specs and myself—we all eventually went with Dizzy’s band.

JW: Your earliest recordings were with Howard McGhee in 1948.
JH: McGhee [pictured] was a very nice guy. He was the first one to get me on the road as a professional musician, before I got with Dizzy in 1949. By the time I was with Howard, I was copying Charlie Parker and sounded so much like him that they called me “Little Bird.”

JW: Did you like being called Little Bird?
JH: I felt great about it at the time because he was the man. Later I wanted to get my own reputation going, which is still very difficult. When you’re an alto player and you come from the Charlie Parker school of playing, it’s hard to get away from it regardless of what instrument you change to. I changed to tenor, but I’m still playing some Charlie Parker in there.

JW: Was McGhee frustrated as a trumpeter in the shadows of Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis?
JH: Not at all. Howard and Fats lived together and made records together in late 1948. The thing is, we have a system in this country that promotes No. 1. “He’s No. 1.” “You’re No. 1.” “We’re No. 1.” When the culture rewards No. 1, it means everyone else is nothing. It’s corny the way they rate things. Because No. 3 could come up and kick your butt the next day [laughs]. Everybody has something to offer. Howard McGhee made a living out of music. He just tried to play and enjoy himself as a human being. That’s what we do. If musicians worried about the polls, we’d go nuts. Everyone can’t be No. 1.

JW: You and your brother Percy went with McGhee to Paris in May 1948.
JH: Howard was one of my heroes. We actually flew to Paris.

JW: Was flying scary?
JH: Sure was. First time? Seventeen hours to get there? In May 1948? On a jet prop—not a jet. Jets weren’t there yet. It was called a Constellation. We had to stop in Newfoundland to refuel and stop again at Shannon Airport in Ireland for more fuel before going on to Orly Airport in Paris. I was scared to death with the fire coming out of the back of the jet engines. Percy was telling me, “Be cool, James, it’s alright” He had been a pilot, so he knew what was going on. He calmed me down.

JW: How long were you in Paris with McGhee?
JH: Only a week. It was the first jazz festival. I don’t understand how documentation says that the one with Miles [Davis] was the first. This was a year before that, in May 1948. While we were there, we were big time. We were accepted. However, the headliner was Le Grand Coleman Hawkins. But the guy who got over best with the people was Erroll Garner, with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist John Collins. Erroll took the French by storm.

JW: How did the Paris experience change you?
JH: Even for that short period of time, we were accepted as artists, and it felt great to be respected that way. We weren’t getting that kind of respect here. You know, that’s all artists need, frankly.

JW: You joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1949. How were you hired?
JH: There was another fellow in my band named James Foreman. He was my piano player. He got with Dizzy’s band also. Me and Percy used to follow Dizzy’s band, wherever they played. We would stand in front of the band with our artist ties and berets, imitating Dizzy’s guys. Dizzy kept saying, “Hey, there’s the Heath brothers from Philly.” Eventually, Dizzy and Gil Fuller, the band’s arranger, decided to hire us. Coltrane and I got in within a month of each other. Both of us played alto because Dizzy’s two alto saxophonists had left. Coltrane had played alto in the Navy band. 

JW: Did it feel good getting hired by Gillespie?
JH: Oh man, that was it. That was the top of the heap. Dizzy had the bebop, the new music, and his band was incredible musically. That was the top. I felt I had made it. Dizzy loved my playing. He said in his book To Be or Not to Bop that this was the best reed section he’d had. It was me, Coltrane, Jesse Powell, Paul Gonsalves and Al Gibson. [Pictured at center, from left: John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath and Paul Gonsalves in Dizzy Gillespie’s band; click to enlarge]

JW: What did Gillespie teach you musically?
JH: He’d say, “Hey, come here. Let me show you something on the piano.” The first time I had him at my home in Philadelphia, he showed me things on our piano. He said, “If you want to be an arranger and composer, you have to learn this keyboard.” He showed me harmonies that I still use. I can’t explain it for your interview but I can play it [laughs]. Very modern chord voicings on the piano. He’d voice chords differently than anyone else. He was the first to show me the 9th next to the 10th, and how to create note clusters and harmonic devices that I still use today.

JW: What made Dizzy special?
JH: Dizzy was a teacher all the time. Every day he was showing you something new rhythmically or harmonically on the piano. Dizzy was the most accessible genius I have ever met. Dizzy would stop to talk to the garbage man, kids, everybody. He was not a guy who had an entourage like some people. He was an ordinary human being with a world of talent. And he would give his talent to others. He would show you a lot of things. We all learned from Dizzy, and those who passed through Dizzy’s bands all went on to become the giants of the music.

JW: When you recorded with Miles Davis in 1953, you switched to tenor saxophone. Why?
JH: I had switched to tenor a little earlier. I did that to get my own thing. I wanted to be Jimmy Heath, not Bird [Charlie Parker]. The tenor was the way to get an identity. It also was an economic move. The tenor was the fourth instrument hired around Philadelphia after a rhythm section. They wouldn’t hire no alto in the early 1950s. They wouldn’t hire a trumpet either. And [laughing] they sure wouldn’t hire no trombone. If it wasn’t the guitar, it was a tenor as the fourth instrument. When I switched, work picked up for gigs.

JW: What was Miles Davis like back then?
JH: Miles said the only reason he didn’t play like Dizzy is because he couldn’t. Miles wanted to play like Dizzy, but he found his own niche.

JW: What was that niche?
JH: Ballads. Miles loved Freddie Webster, who had played with Jimmie Lunceford. Freddie was a guy with a beautiful sound. Miles knew him. Freddie didn’t make but a few recordings in the 1940s, and all were historic for trumpet players. Freddie got a sound curve that Miles wanted to get. Nobody wants to be just like someone else. But they’re inspired by their predecessors, and they learn what they did. Then they come up in a matter of time with their own sound. Nobody can play sax like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Hank Mobley. But eventually you get your own sound. Clifford Brown loved Fats Navarro, and Lee Morgan loved Clifford Brown. But each had his own thing. It’s a continuum. Miles was very talented in organizing groups and stylistically moving forward.

JW: Did you enjoy listening to Davis when you played with him?
JH: Oh yeah. But when I was with him, he was missing notes and stuff, but you know, we all had to crawl before we could walk.

JW: Missing notes or leaving notes out?
JH: No, it actually was missing notes. Miles played with such a good feeling that no one cared about the missing notes. He showed that it’s about the feeling, not about perfection. 

JW: Is it hard not to get caught up on perfection?
JH: You have to learn to let things go. When you practice and try to get everything in there perfectly, you wind up kind of stiff.

JW: You played baritone sax with J.J. Johnson and Clifford Brown in 1953, on Turnpike and Sketch One.
JH: [Laughs] I played a couple of tracks on baritone. They were John Lewis’ compositions, and he asked me to do that.

JW: What did you think?
JH: Eh [pause, followed by laughter]. I just got the horn and tried it, you know.

JW: What did you think of the baritone? Too big?
JH: Oh yeah. I didn’t even want to carry it around. I could just about carry this tenor [laughs]. I had already played with Clifford [pictured] around Philly before this record date and before he went with Max and made his rep. He always was a Fats Navarro follower, and I had heard Fats. But you knew immediately Clifford was exceptional.

JW: What made Brown exceptional?
JH: His facility. And his mind. And his ideas, and his sound.

JW: You also recorded with Kenny Dorham in late 1953.
JH: Kenny was a romantic composer of the bebop generation. He and Tadd Dameron wrote the most beautiful melodies. Most people aren’t aware that Kenny was a guy who could play the tenor sax, piano and the trumpet—and compose and sing.

JW: Why isn’t Dorham better known and celebrated?
JH: Again, it gets back to the system of No. 1. Fats didn’t get the same as Miles. If you’re not No. 1, people don’t think there’s much value, and you’re forgotten. It’s a crazy world.

JW: Dorham was kind of low-key, yes?
JH: No. What do you mean, “low key?”

JW: Reserved?
JH: Not really. Miles was no gregarious guy, either. Kenny Dorham was great. He was one of my favorite guys to play with. I liked his whole musical knowledge. He was a person I would want to be considered. He was a person who could write, play, orchestrate and do all of the phases of music.

JW: You were shaped by trumpet players, weren’t you?
JH: Nooo. It’s just that the trumpet and tenor sax was the instrumental combination of the period. I also played with Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Art Farmer and so many others.

JW: When you practice, what do you do?
JH: I practice [laughs]. As a creative musician, when you practice, you are trying to find your own way of improvising and your own sound. You’re not reading anything. To be able to improvise is another kind of technique that needs a lot of work. Sometimes you take standards and improvise on them. Or you take sequences and work on them. You want to be able to play all over the instrument. You want to play everything you know in every key so that you’re fluent and articulate in what you’re doing when you stand up and create music on the spot. Improvisation is a life’s work.

JW: How does a musician’s sound change over time?
JH: Well, physical problems emerge sometimes due to your teeth or body, sometimes for the worse mostly. But if you keep practicing, you can overcome the aging issues.

JW: How long will you practice today?
JH: An hour. Not as long as Trane but I don’t play as much stuff [laughs].

JW: Is there a jazz artist you wished you had played with?
JH: Yeah, Duke Ellington. We met when [tenor saxophonist] Paul Gonsalves was in the band. But I never had the opportunity.

JW: Your arrest for drug possession in 1954 must have been horrible.
JH: Oh yeah, it was. But you try to adjust to prison life and try to create as much as you can there. While I was there, I was still writing tunes. I wrote Picture of Heath and For Miles and Miles in prison. I got them out to Chet Baker by passing them to my brother Tootie. He gave them to Jimmy Bond, who was Chet’s bass player on gigs at the time. Jimmy gave them to Chet, and Chet and Art Pepper made an album [Playboys] that included mostly my songs.

JW: Was your sentence unfair?
JH: Sure there’s an unfairness to it. There’s an unfairness when you’re an addict and you sell something to somebody to support your habit. You’re not trying to get rich as a dope pusher. You’re an addict peddler. You’re selling drugs so you can get more. There should be a difference in that when it came to a sentence. But they didn’t care if you were creative or not. A lot of people had longer sentences than I did. I was in prison for 4 1/2 years. I think Gene Ammons and Frank Morgan were in for longer.

JW: Do you look back and resent that?
JH: What can you do? I can’t go back and change it. I had to restart my career, like the computer. When I came home, I had to restart. It was hard trying to catch up. You can’t catch up to the 4 1/2 years that are gone. Just missed. But you have to try.

Bonus: Bret Primack recently spent time filming Jimmy Heath for a documentary he produced. Here’s Bret’s Passing the Torch



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