For Jimmy Heath’s 85th Birthday: A 2001 DownBeat Article, and WKCR Interviews from 1993 and 1995

To observe the 85th birthday of Jimmy Heath, a long-standing master of the tenor saxophone and the art of composition, and a keen student of human nature, I’m posting a feature that I wrote for DownBeat on the occasion of a 75th birthday concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the complete transcribed proceedings two programs on WKCR—a 1995 “Jazz Profiles” retrospective of his music, and a 1993 Musician Show with Mr. Heath and his younger brother, the master drummer, Albert “Tootie” Heath.

Jimmy Heath (DB, #1):

Over the course of 58 years as a professional jazz musician, Jimmy Heath has played with, befriended, or witnessed virtually every consequential figure in his field.  So from his perspective, the only possible title for his 75th birthday concert could be, “He Walked With Giants.” Throughout the invigorating proceedings, Heath played the tenor and soprano saxophones with authoritative command, spontaneously composing, conjuring long, lyric lines that he articulated with mellow warmth.  He demonstrated that he breathes the same rarefied air as the legends to whom he paid homage.

Benny Golson, Heath’s friend for most of those 58 years, attended the concert, and was happy to elaborate.  “What’s amazed me about Jimmy since I’ve known him is how he is able to move through chords, not scientifically, but melodically,” says Golson. “He’s got a true tenor sound, and everything that goes with it — the articulation, concept, punctuation and pacing. He doesn’t give you an endless slew of notes. He plays ideas.  It’s like a conversation, but musical, not linguistic. He has a story to tell, and it’s right in tune with those chords.”

Heath is equally adept telling stories with the pen; his oft-covered compositions, which number over 130, plumb essences with a minimum of fuss.  Many appear on a long string of classy recordings with small groups and mid-sized ensembles that balance meticulous orchestrations and soulful, lucid improvising in equal measure. He offered six during the first half of the concert, joined by an array of family (brothers Percy on bass and Albert on drums) and friends (Slide Hampton, trombone; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet) in configurations ranging from trio to nonet.  After intermission, Heath — who cut his teeth in the big band era — was in his element, conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra through a commissioned homage from Wynton Marsalis, his own arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” and four more originals.

The composer found new contexts for each one.  On “Gingerbread Boy,” which Miles Davis famously reimagined two years after its first appearance (On The Trail [Riverside]), he reharmonized the line, then set up an invigorating tenor triologue with LCJOers Victor Goines and Walter Blandings.  He set up cogent polyphony between the sections on the rich harmonies of “Gemini,” which debuted on a 1962 sextet [Triple Threat] with Freddie Hubbard and french hornist Julius Watkins, but received its most famous — and lucrative — reading on a six-digit-selling Cannonball Adderley album.  There were other highlights.  The LCJO sax section executed a luscious soli section on “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” a dedication to Coleman Hawkins excerpted from “The African-American Suite of Evolution.  And Antonio Hart — a prize Heath student during the ’90s at Queens College — took a virtuoso turn on “Like A Son,” Heath’s tribute to their exceptionally close relationship.

“Jimmy’s tunes are not complicated, but they’re not dumb either,” Golson says. “They are logical and go someplace.  His music has arms and legs.” Heath deployed those appendages effectively throughout the evening, directing the band with a dance-oriented conducting style, replete with well-timed hand swoops, shoulder dips, elbow shimmmies and leg kicks. “Jimmy reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie in front of a band,” Golson states.  “Dizzy would act like he was throwing baseballs at Yankee Stadium…all kinds of things.”

The concluding track on Heath’s only big band recording, Little Man, Big Band [Verve, 1992, now deleted], is a brassy tour de force with an Afro-Cuban feel. He called it “Without You, No Me,” the “you” referring to Gillespie, who commissioned the piece, and is first among equals in Heath’s pantheon of giants.

“Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington,” Heath says. “He is the master musician who was my mentor and was accessible to me throughout my life.  From the time I first met him, I asked questions, and he’d give me something I could use musically. He would demonstrate chord voicings on the piano and phrasing on his trumpet.  He’d tap out rhythms and sing ideas.  He showed me how to write in 3 or 5 or 7, and still syncopate in a way that’s jazz as opposed to straight classical writing.  With his whole being he was music, and I always wanted to be just like him.”

Gillespie came of age musically in Philadelphia in the mid-’30s, while Heath and his brother Percy were growing up in a household whose soundtrack spotlighted Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan. Sometimes they heard them at the Earle Theater, Philly’s TOBA outlet.  Heath fell under the spell of Carter and Johnny Hodges, and at 14 received an alto saxophone, which his father (an auto mechanic who played clarinet in an Elks band) purchased for $90 on the installment plan.  He quickly became proficient, learning to play in the marching band at Williston High School in Wilmington, N.C., where his grandparents owned a grocery store, and through private lessons back home on summer vacations. After graduation in 1943 (the “separate but equal” school stopped at 11th grade), he played with local big bands before joining a well-regarded territory unit out of Omaha led by Nat Towles, whose alumni included Buddy Tate and Sir Charles Thompson.

Heath discovered bebop while on the road with Towles. His first epiphany came at a dance hall in Savannah, Georgia, where the band was setting up for a one-nighter. Curious about Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism,” he put a nickel in the jukebox and heard Charlie Parker for the first time. “I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, ‘Man, check THIS guy out.'” he recalls. “We all began to put the money in.”  Later with Towles, he heard the Parker-Gillespie Guild sides (“Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House”).

“I didn’t realize it was the same guy I heard on the McShann records until after I quit and came back to Philly,” Heath says.  “Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter were beginning to move into a quicker-paced way of improvising.  But I liked Charlie Parker’s lines, his phrasing, use of alternate notes and undertones in the chords. I always refer to Charlie Parker as a volcano. His playing bubbles for a while before it flows into some wonderful phrase that you can’t expect. He builds in the bottom of his horn, creating this intensity, and then pops out with something that knocks you to your knees. Charlie Parker played what you wished you’d thought of first, the perfect lick and the perfect idea in the perfect place. He was a genius!  And I don’t use that word as much as some people.”

Back in Philly, Heath and his big brother spent intensive time in the woodshed, augmented by long practice sessions with fellow altoist John Coltrane, fresh from a tour of duty in the Navy. The Hodges-Carter devotee began to zoom in on Parker’s style, becoming so adept that musicians outside of Philadelphia began referring to him as “Little Bird.”  The appellation was so evidently welcome that Heath recalls trumpeter Freddie Webster saying, “You come when they call you that, don’t you?”

The time with Towles “sold me on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it,” Heath states. He began to recruit “everybody in the city of Philly who I thought was interested in playing the music I was trying to write,” eventually assembling a tight, 17-piece bebop outfit that stayed together for two years. Personnel included such budding flowers as Golson (on fourth tenor), Coltrane, trumpeter Johnny Coles, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Nelson Boyd and drummer Specs Wright; they rehearsed the sections in Heath’s living room, where they ate food prepared by Heath’s mother, Alethia, and performed cabaret and dance functions for black audiences in West and South Philadelphia.  Heath commissioned inexpensive charts from local arrangers John Acea and Leroy Lovett, transcribed Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie recordings, and contributed his own nascent efforts.

Notorious for its blue laws, late ’40s Philadelphia nonetheless featured a vibrant nightlife, and was a frequent destination for New York musicians.  The brothers met most of them, often inviting them to 1927 Federal Street for home-cooking courtesy of Alethia Heath.

“Fats Navarro and Coleman Hawkins came to my house when they played the 421, and so did Bird, Miles, Dizzy — all of them,” Heath relates. “My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited; my parents treated them like their children or friends.  When Fats came, he took out his trumpet and played a bit.  My Mom liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles, and I know for a fact that Clifford Brown was enamored with Fats Navarro, and played something like that until he found his own style. He passed that along to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford.

“I heard Fats in Tadd Dameron’s octet in the Royal Roost opposite Dizzy when Dizzy had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo. Fats Navarro was SCREAMING on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful; Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats could play very high, with clear, warm sound. Tadd liked to have Fats play all his first trumpet parts, because he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.”

But Heath’s heart belonged to Gillespie.  Their lifelong friendship began in late 1946, when the orchestra came to Philadelphia to play a dance, and 55″Percy and I went to the ballroom where Dizzy was playing, and invited the band for dinner,” he recounts. “John Lewis came in a full-length fur coat (my sister called him ‘Fur Coat’ for the rest of her life), and that’s when I met Kenny Clarke and James Moody. Dizzy’s band extended what Charlie Parker had done, incorporating the hip bebop lines that the soloists played into the ensemble. It was more involved technically, with more notes and harmonic extensions of chords and polychords. Percy and I followed the band around with our berets and artist ties, the same as Dizzy and them were wearing. We became known as the Heath Brothers from Philly, and we’d follow the band and stand in front of it wherever they played — in Delaware, the Savoy, or 52nd Street.”

In the autumn of 1949, after a couple of years on the road with Howard McGhee, and a brief stint with Gillespie’s erstwhile collaborator Gil Fuller, Heath got the gig.  During his 18 months with Gillespie, he received a veritable post-graduate course in improvisational tactics and approaches to writing for jazz orchestra.

“When John Coltrane and I played altos in his band, we were amazed at how Dizzy improvised in a big band context,” Heath recalls. “A big band can inhibit a soloist.  Dizzy knew how to draw on the power of a big band and still get all his stuff in.  We’d listen to Dizzy play the two-bar break after the introduction on ‘I Can’t Get Started.’  Everybody has pet cliches and ideas that they rely on.  But as long as I was there, he never played the same thing; he’d make a variation or add or delete something. He was a true improviser.

“Gil Fuller helped me. He insisted on putting excitement in your music, making your introduction command attention — the introduction to ‘Things To Come’ makes everybody look around!  He said that Tadd Dameron’s songs were window-dressing, that they weren’t exciting. They were rivals, of course. I liked them both. Tadd’s music emphasized romance and beauty and feeling and soul; he was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn. George Russell wrote some very abstract things for Dizzy, and I listened to Gerald Wilson also. I also began thinking about small-group writing by hearing J.J. Johnson.  Between knowing them and listening at home to people like Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver and Benny Carter, I went through a trial-and-error period, until I came up with what I had.

Gillespie broke up the big band in 1950 for financial reasons; Heath remained with the pared-down sextet, and finally left in early 1951.  He moved back to Philadelphia and — like Coltrane — became a tenor saxophonist. “When Jimmy switched to tenor, his interpretation of music changed,” Golson states.  “The tenor demanded something else, and he came up to that.  It wasn’t like an alto player was playing the tenor saxophone.”  Heath says that part of his motivation was economic.  “After the clubs hired the rhythm section, the tenor was their instrument of choice,” he notes. “Also, it was impossible to play the alto without playing Charlie Parker licks!  I thought maybe I could find a little bit of Jimmy Heath in there.

“I had begun to like what I heard on the tenor from Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. Sonny Stitt had the execution of Charlie Parker, he was very clean and precise.  But Dexter had a big warm sound that was compelling.  Coltrane was playing like Dexter at that time, too.  We got records like ‘The Chase’ and all the songs Dexter put his name on — ‘Dexter’s Deck,’ ‘Dexter’s Minor Mad,’ ‘Dexterity.’ Dexter was in love with Dexter, but he was a charmer. And he could PLAY.”

Heath moved to New York in 1952, and spent six months working on day jobs before the union recognized his change of residence. Unfettered, he immmediately cemented his credentials as an improviser-composer-arranger with the Symphony Sid All-Stars, a group comprised of Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, whose repertoire is documented on a Davis-led 1953 Blue Note sextet that includes Heath’s “C.T.A.,” a bop classic.  During that year Heath also recorded with Kenny Dorham for Debut and with J.J. Johnson for Blue Note, the latter date marking Clifford Brown’s first recording.  He seemed poised to claim his place as the next major voice from his generation on his instrument.  Then he was arrested on a heroin charge, and went to prison for four-and-a-half years.

“I was scheduled to go with Max Roach when he started his group,” he recalls.  “I was scheduled to go with Tadd Dameron when Benny Golson got the gig.  But due to illness, I couldn’t make either one of those.  It happened to me as a result of being on the rebound of a love affair, a temptation to do something to get out of the doldrums.  Then it took on a life of its own.  It deterred my recognition as a jazz soloist; it was the time when small group jazz took hold, and I was not on the scene.  I mean, I was with Miles before Coltrane.  Being off the scene stifled my career, but it saved my life.  Most of those who were out there with me are gone.”

Heath did not squander his lost years; assigned to clerk duty, he had ample time to write and rehearse the prison band.  Upon his release, he moved home to Philadelphia, and signed — at the instigation of Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones — with Riverside Records, for which he functioned as a de facto staff arranger and led six strong, still vivid albums that reflect an increasingly personal, confident vision.  He moved back to New York in 1964, just as the label folded, and slogged through the late ’60s hardcore jazz recession, reflecting a marketplace that no longer welcomed bebop.

Eight years passed before Heath’s next recording, “The Gap Sealer,” a “variety package” on which he expanded his palette of tones and colors, incorporating soprano saxophone and flute, electric keyboards, African melodies, and funk beats.  In the interim, he took steps to move beyond the “mother wit and intuition” upon which he’d previously depended, studying with Schillinger teacher Rudolph Schramm, whose pupils included Eubie Blake, Mercer Ellington and Jimmy Jones, studying orchestration, string and vocal writing, and extended form composition. These interests began to cohere when, taking advantage of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “retirement,” he joined forces with Percy and Albert — who had played in tandem on four of his Riverside recordings — as the Heath Brothers.  Signed to Columbia in 1978, they released four strong-selling albums, including the Grammy-nominated Live At the Public Theater, supervised by Heath’s percussionist-producer son Mtume.  And in 1987, Heath took a tenured position teaching arrangement and composition on the faculty of Queens College, creating a highly regarded Jazz Studies program with such luminaries as Roland Hanna and Donald Byrd.

In an effort to provide new material for his students every semester, Heath rejuvenated his big band juices.  “My interest hasn’t waned at all,” says Heath, who recently retired, leaving him time to pursue a performing schedule that might tax a man half his age. “I have three new arrangements — on ‘The Thumper,’ on ‘New Keep,’ which I wrote for Orrin Keepnews, and one that Ray Charles did when Johnny Coles and Blue Mitchell were in the band called ‘Togetherness’ — that I’m trying to get to the copyist now.  If people have heard them before, it was as sextet music.  Whenever you return to your music and rewrite it, you add and change things, and it evolves into something quite different.”

Perhaps Heath played with more energy and stronger attack in his earlier years, but the force of his tonal personality is undiminished. “I try to sing on my instrument,” he says.  “I think all the alto players in my day aspired to leading a saxophone section, and the lead alto players then had to sustain the melodies, play them with a certain tenderness and dynamic range, which you don’t get if you just play in a small group.  If you heard Marshall Royal play lead alto with the Basie band, you know how to sing.  If you hear Benny Carter, you know how to sing a melody.  On a couple of records I did for Riverside, Cannonball Adderley played lead alto — he knew how to sing.  Johnny Hodges was the greatest singer of all time.  He could out-sing a vocalist with words!  Lester Young and Ben Webster could play a ballad with the tenderness of a singer.  Miles Davis gives me the same tingle on a ballad that a good singer does.

“You can’t just be a machine gun and play fast. The school teaches everybody to do the techniques. But there is a certain thing about a saxophone. To me, it should sound similar to a viola. That’s what Ben Webster sounds like on ‘Danny Boy.’ When I write my arrangements on my computer for the saxophone section, I use the violin sound for the altos, violas for the tenors, and the cello sound for the baritone. I love that sustaining quality.”

Heath elaborates on an aesthetic developed from section playing.  “I can get just as much reward from being in an ensemble and liking how they play something I’ve written as from having everybody clap when I play a solo,” he says.  He means it; only one album in his oeuvre, the classic Picture Of Heath [Xanadu, 1975] features him alone with a rhythm section.  “Soloing is great.  But I always wrote stuff for other people to be on the record, too.”

All well and good.  But Heath’s relaxed dance continues to compel.  “Musically, this man is Dorian Gray,” Golson concludes.  “What he does on his tenor belies 75 years.  This man has vision and he’s always moving ahead, which is good.  He makes his musical life an adventure; he goes to the same forest every day, but he doesn’t touch the same trees.  Like anything else — architecture, clothing, medicine — jazz, too, should move ahead.  Jimmy Heath is one of the forces that helps move it ahead. Jimmy Heath is an icon, and he is truly a master.”


* * *

Jimmy Heath Profile (WKCR), 3-22-95):

[MUSIC:  “Picture Of Heath” (1975); “Basic Birks” (1991); “Without You, No Me” (1992); w/Lee Morgan “Bruh Slim” (1962)]

TP:    You’ve brought along a number of recordings, including that last date with fellow Philadelphian Lee Morgan at Birdland in 1962, which you wanted to speak about.

JH:    Well, Spanky DeBrest and Albert Heath are also Philadelphians, so there are four Philadelphians on the record, along with Barry Harris.  The other thing is that it wasn’t recorded to our knowledge,  This is a bootleg record that somebody taped off the radio and eventually put it out.  So we weren’t paid for the record at all.  Then the man asked me to do the liner notes on it, and I did those, and he paid me for that.  But I’ve never been paid for the recording.

TP:    Let’s talk about the Philadelphia days, which we’ve done on past shows, but I think we can do it again.  Music in your family, your coming-up as a musician and your beginnings in music.  How did you come to playing the reeds?  Was music in the home?  Was it there for you?

JH:    Oh, yes.  Our parents, Percy, Senior, and Alethia(?), were dedicated to our music, and had recordings in the house of all the top Black artists of that time — and White.  But they had Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Basie, Benny Carter, and other people who I heard.  They offered each one of us boys…and my sister; they offered her to play an instrument, and she took piano for a while, then stopped.  Percy took violin, and played it in the junior high school orchestra.  When they asked me what I wanted to my play (my father was a clarinet player, and my mother sang in church choir), I said I wanted to play the alto saxophone, after hearing Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.  My father bought me an alto saxophone for ninety-some bucks; it took him a year or more to pay for it…

TP:    That was during the Depression.

JH:    Yes, it was!  It was around 1939 or ’40, somewhere like that.

TP:    So you started on the cusp of being a teenager.

JH:    Yes, I was 14 when I got it.

TP:    But you’d been absorbed in music, I guess, all your life through hearing it in the home and so forth.

JH:    Yes.  My father and mother had a friend who had a record shop.  And anything new that came out, we were informed of it by our friend who ran the record shop.  One of my favorites was always Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan and people like that.  We had those records in the house, and we heard that all the time, so that’s the music I was raised hearing besides, you know, church, Gospel Music.

TP:    Were you taken to the theaters in Philadelphia to hear the bands coming through when you were young, or did that start later for you?

JH:    No, my father used to take us to hear the bands at a theater on South Street.  I can’t remember the name of it, I was so young.  Percy probably remembers better than I about this occasion, but Duke Ellington was there, and he took us to meet Duke Ellington.

TP:    Do you have any memory of the occasion?

JH:    Well, the only thing I remember is that he touched me on my head and said, “Hi, sonny.”

TP:    Did your father play professionally at all, or was it an avocation for him?

JH:    It was an avocation.  He didn’t play professionally.  He was an auto mechanic, and got his clarinet out of the pawn shop on weekends and played with the Elks marching band.  He had a few little jazz licks he used to play around the house, you know, but he wasn’t a professional.

TP:    I’d like to talk about your education on the instrument as well.  Who were the first people who gave you tuition on the saxophone?

JH:    Well, I was going to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I started when my father gave me that saxophone.  That’s where I began to play, and I began there in high school and played in the marching band, playing for all of the football games and what have you.  I used to go back to Philly in the summer and take private lessons from a couple of different people.  One man was named Terry, Mr. Terry, who was into the Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter sound.  Then I studied with another man, Paul Amati(?), who was connected in some way with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I don’t know what he played, and I don’t remember what instrument he played, but he taught me alto saxophone.

TP:    Was there a particularly good band-master at the high school you attended?  Which, by the way, was what high school?

JH:    Williston High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The band-master liked Jazz a lot, and he started a Jazz band along with the marching band.  So that was my first introduction to playing in a Jazz band, in high school.

TP:    The lessons must have stuck, because you obviously became intensely attached to music and involved with it, and by the time you were 19 or 20 you were involved in a big band of some note in the Philadelphia area.  I’d like to discuss these years of development, what you listened to, and your progress in music let’s say between 1940 and 1945.

JH:    Well, it was the big band era when I got out of high school and graduated in 1943.  I played with the big bands around Philly.  Then I got a gig with a band in Omaha, Nebraska, led by Nat Towles.  Nat Towles’ band was a territorial dance band in the Midwest, and he had arrangements by Wild Bill Davis, the organist, he had some by Sir Charles Thompson.  These people had already been in the band before me, and they left a few examples of their writings with the band.  We played a lot of stock arrangements, of course.  That’s where I met my friend who I visited yesterday, Billy Mitchell.  We were in that band together in 1945.

Leaving that band, I came back to Philadelphia, and then decided to start my own big band.

TP:    Describe the scene in Philadelphia during your last couple of years of high school, before you went out on your own as a professional musician.  Were there a number of good local big bands?

JH:    Well, there were several big bands.  The Frankie Fairfax Big Band, the one that Dizzy had played with when he was in Philly.  Jimmy Gorum(?) and Mel Melvin, there were several bands…

TP:    Talk about these people a little bit.

JH:    Well, that’s a little before my time.  I was in school when Dizzy was there.  Dizzy always said, “Do you remember?” and no, I don’t remember when he was there.  I was in school.  When I came out of school, Frankie Fairfax’s band wasn’t the leading band around town.  It was Jimmy Gorem(?).  The first band I played with after coming out of school was led by Calvin Todd, a trumpeter who played like Roy Eldridge and wanted to be like Dizzy eventually — he was a strong trumpeter.  After leaving that band, I played with Mel Melvin’s band, and then went with Nat Towles in Omaha, Nebraska.

TP:    Were there any saxophonists around town who you particularly admired?

JH:    Sure.  There were people around Philly who could play very well.  One of them is still there, and that’s Jimmy Oliver.  We called him the Satin Doll because of his beautiful black complexion.  Satin Doll is still there.  He’s a wonderful player.  Trane, Benny Golson and all of us used to go listen to him.

TP:    You, John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all born around the same time, although there are a few years in between, and the relationship remained close for many years.  Talk about the beginnings of that triangular friendship.

JH:    Well, Benny is just a little younger.  Trane and I are actually the same age.  Trane was born on September 23, 1926, and I was born on October 25, 1926, one month later.  So Benny was younger.

I came into contact with Coltrane when he came out of the Navy, and I had this band, and I asked him did he want to play in my band.  He said, “Yeah.”  We both were playing altos at that time.  Benny came in the band a little later playing tenor.  But Trane and I were hanging out and transcribing as much Charlie Parker and Dexter and the cats that we could hear.  The beboppers had come out.  After leaving Nat Towles, the Bebop Era was in full bloom.  So that’s what we were about.  That’s what my big band was about.

TP:    Had you been onto the records from the very beginning when they came out in 1945?

JH:    Yes.  When I was with Nat Towles on the road I first heard “Swingmatism” and “Hootie Blues” by Jay McShann, and then later, when I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Hot House” and that stuff, I didn’t make the connection that it was the same person until later.  But I do know that the altoist just knocked me to my knees — and that was Charlie Parker, of course.

TP:    Were you sort of waiting to hear Charlie Parker at that time?

JH:    Well, no.  Because I was satisfied with Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter!  But he was so overwhelming until he just took me and everybody along with him to follow his tradition in music.  Dizzy always said that he was a person who had it all made when he met him — he had the style.

TP:    He took you by storm.

JH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Well, I’d like to talk about your arranging, because we have cued up the earliest recorded arrangement of yours, from 1949; your first recording was with Howard McGhee in 1948, where you played some alto and baritone.  Talk about the big band you set up in Philadelphia after leaving Nat Towles.

JH:    I used to go to Earle Theater and hear big bands all the time.  I used to go hear everybody’s band.  I liked the big band sound.  I was trying to learn how to write when I was with Nat Towles, but I never wrote anything for that band, so when I got home I was sold on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it.  This particular arrangement that you’re going to play is one that I had written for my band in Philadelphia, but we never recorded.  So Gil Fuller, who was one of my teachers and helped me to edit this arrangement and get it together, put it on a record that he made.  It’s very comical.  The vocal is by Gil Fuller, because the vocalist didn’t show up at the record date, and he decided he was going to sing it.  It’s a standard called “Mean To Me.”

TP:    Before we play it, though, I want you to talk a little more about your early writing and efforts at composing.  For instance, what is the earliest composition of yours that became part of what we know as the Jimmy Heath composition book?  Can you put your finger on that?

JH:    Well, I think the first composition that would give me any recognition was probably “C.T.A.”  Before that I had written one for Howard McGhee.  It was a Blues, and I thought I had written it, but actually it was a Charlie Parker lick ended by a Fats Navarro lick on the end — so I didn’t really compose anything!

TP:    In the big band that you led in Philadelphia, were you writing your original compositions or were you doing arrangements of other material, or playing other arrangers’ material?

JH:    I was playing other arrangers’ material, plus we were all trying to transcribe Dizzy’s stuff from the big band records he put out.  I had a guy named Leroy Lovett, who was a great writer, and Johnny Acea, who played with Dizzy’s band.  He played trumpet, tenor and piano.  He was a Philadelphian who was very versatile, and an arranger.  So I was last on the totem pole as far as writing for my band!

TP:    But you were going through all this material, organizing it and getting inside of it, a very good practical education for an aspiring arranger of music.

JH:    Well, all of my arranging skills were very practical in that sense, that I learned from my peers, until later when I started to study and take lessons.

TP:    Well, let’s begin this next set of music going back about forty-five years to July 11, 1949, the Gil Fuller Big Band, with Gil Fuller singing “Mean To Me.”

JH:    Wshew!

[MUSIC:  G. Fuller/J. Heath, “Mean To Me” (1949); Miles/J. Heath, “C.T.A.” (1952); J.J./J. Heath, “Capri” (1953)]

TP:    You said that shortly after “Mean To Me” was recorded, you joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, embarking on a very intense four or five years in the center of the New York Jazz scene.

JH:    Yes.  There was some controversy between Gil Fuller and Dizzy at the time, after having written all the stuff he had written, all the things like “Things To Come”… At least he orchestrated those things with Dizzy’s ideas on a lot of occasions.  But he was a great orchestrator.  So when he and Dizzy kind of came to a parting of the ways, he started a band in competition with Dizzy’s band, and that band is the band that you heard.  He also had Moody in one of those bands after he left Dizzy.  We had a battle of music, actually, with Dizzy’s band at the Audubon Ballroom.  After that competition, or battle of the bands, or whatever you may call it, Dizzy became more interested in me, and I joined his band after that.  He knew I’d had the band in Philly, and that we were playing his arrangements and all that.  Then, when we had the competition… Trane and I both eventually got with Dizzy about a month apart in 1949, in the Fall.  I think we made that record in August.

TP:    During the years you were running the big band, 1947-48-49, so many talented young musicians were active in Philadelphia, like Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.  Talk about some of the musicians who were working around Philadelphia during that time.

JH:    Well, Red and Philly Joe were around Philadelphia playing with Jimmy Oliver, “Satin Doll,” on gigs, and with others.  So they were doing more small group things around town.  Red Rodney was there.  Johnny Coles played in my band.  Ray Bryant played piano in my band.  Nelson Boyd was my bassist.  Percy, who had just gotten out of the Service, hadn’t really become familiar enough with the bass to play in the big band, to read the charts and everything.  He had been a violinist, and then went away into the Service.  So used Nelson Boyd, who became Miles’ bass player.  So the band was full of budding flowers.

TP:    Beautifully put.  In what venues were the flowers allowed to bloom somewhat in Philadelphia?  Did the band have a fair amount of work in those couple of years?

JH:    Well, we had cabaret parties and dances to play.  That’s what presented a problem, because we were playing Bebop, and people didn’t dance so readily to that.  That’s how I met my drummer, Specs Wright, who eventually played so well that people did start to dance to my band.  See, I didn’t have Philly Joe.  I had Specs Wright playing drums.  Specs Wright was an excellent reader, and he could play… He taught Philly eventually, and he played with Cannon, and Dizzy… I got him the gig with Dizzy, too, when I got with the band.

TP:    What were the main clubs in Philadelphia where the top stars would come through town?

JH:    Well, there was the 421 Club, the Showboat, Ridge Point.  This was a little before the Blue Note and Pep’s.  There were some other clubs that are not as famous.  Pep’s and the Showboat became famous Jazz clubs, where the national artists would pass through.

TP:    So Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young would all work at the Showboat or the 421 Club.

JH:    Eventually.  But there was one in Philly that black entrepreneurs owned, called the Zanzibar.  I heard Lester there with his quartet.  I heard Coleman Hawkins and Fats Navarro together there with a quintet.  Philly Joe and Percy, when he started playing, worked at a place called the Ridge Point.  Trane played up there with them on a gig; he was switching to tenor at that time.  The tenor was the instrument of choice with a small group, not the alto.  The tenor always was the fourth voice hired after the trio.

Then there was the Down Beat Club, which was a very important club.  That’s where I heard Charlie Parker and Miles, and Duke Jordan and Max and Tommy Potter.  That was the occasion when I loaned Charlie Parker my saxophone, because his was in pawn.  He would come to Philly in the afternoon, or in time for the gig, and I would meet him at the gig and take my horn to the Down Beat Club, and let him play it all night, and then I would take it back home, because he would commute back to New York and come back the next night.  I did that for six days.  Charlie Parker playing my horn, I was like a kid in the candy store — it was a dream come true.  I would take the horn into the cellar at my family’s home in the day-time, and he would leave his Brillheart white mouthpiece on the horn and everything, and just split at night.  I would take out the horn, and try to see if some of those beautiful lines were left in the saxophone — which I found out they were not!

That went on for a week.  Then on the weekend, I had a gig with the big band, and Charlie Parker came and played with the big band — and Max.  They sat in with my band on this occasion.  It was a benefit concert for a tragedy that had happened to a kid, a streetcar accident or something, and Charlie Parker played my horn in front of my band.  This photograph is legendary, and it’s around, where Trane has a cigarette in his hand, he’s looking at Charlie Parker, and he’s about to burn his hand and his mouth is wide open.  That’s one of the main photos I show all my students, to show them that the saxophone did not start with Coltrane!  There’s somebody before him.  It’s a continuum.  That was one of the memorable occasions of my life, to have Charlie Parker play my horn for a week, and then come by and sit in with my band.

TP:    It seems to me, as inspiring as Bird was to you and Coltrane, he was also, paradoxically, a primary reason why you gave up your emphasis on the alto saxophone and switched to the tenor.

JH:    Yeah, Charlie Parker was too rough to try to follow on alto.  So we all assumed the idea that if we changed to tenor and played Bebop, it would be different.  Not realizing that if you’re playing tenor, playing Bebop, you’re playing like Sonny Stitt and Dexter — because they’re playing Charlie Parker on tenor!  So it’s still Charlie Parker all the way.

TP:    It sounds like you and Trane paid almost as much attention to Dexter Gordon at that time as you did to Bird.

JH:    Well, Dexter was the tenor saxophonist who really incorporated the Bebop style.  He and Sonny Stitt were the most prominent.  But Dexter had a little holdover of Lester, and Sonny Stitt was all Bird.  Dexter had something that we liked that was more tenor-oriented.  Sonny sounded like an alto player playing tenor, which was very good.  He was very good and smooth.  But Dexter still had some of that Lester, which was uniquely a tenor quality.

TP:    Now, at that age, 23 or 24, were you still interested in new things, let’s say, that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were coming out with?  Or did you sort of put them aside for a while in your concentration on the new music?

JH:    Well, I was very interested in that.  Now, Trane and I had gotten some transcriptions made by Howard Johnson, the lead alto player with Dizzy, of Charlie Parker’s solo on “Don’t Blame Me” and other things.  There were people who were transcribing Charlie Parker and investigating his lines and how he got to where he was.  We all had that.  We were like second-string beboppers in Philadelphia.  We were close to the Bebop scene in its infancy, and we were able to follow through on that same music.  When Dizzy and Charlie Parker started the game, they passed the ball down to us.

TP:    You were part of the sort of second phase of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band between 1949 and 1951, and having performed some of his arrangements with your big band, you were family with his book when you entered.  What was Dizzy’s manner as a bandleader and in rehearsals?

JH:    Well, Dizzy was a wide-open, gregarious kind of person.  He was a dynamic conductor, and one of the best that I had ever seen with a big band.  He sang things the way he wanted them to be phrased.  We also had the music of Tadd Dameron, who wrote on the music if he wanted us to play eighth notes in a certain fashion.  He would write, “OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA-U-DA-DO, BAM”  Dizzy and all his disciples and colleagues had crystallized the way they wanted the Bebop music to sound.  So we tried to imitate that.

The only problem I had, Melba Liston was in the band and Gerald Wilson, and Dizzy would get a little upset about attendance or something sometimes, and try to pull out music that he thought we couldn’t handle.  In one instance, we were in Little Rock, Arkansas, to play a dance; Trane and I and Paul Gonsalves I think was in the reed section also.  We hadn’t played “Things To Come” until that time.  We could have won a fight against the audience.  We outnumbered the audience with the band!  So the people would come in and say, “Well, we don’t want to hear no Bebop; why don’t you send Buddy Johnson or Count Basie down here?” — and Dizzy was upset.  So after the gig, just before we closed the gig, “Play ‘Things To Come’!”  And he pulls out this music.  Of course, Trane and I had transcribed some of that stuff, and we knew it, so we made it through.  He was quite surprised that we were able to play the arrangement the first time we ever saw it.

TP:    Personally, was this the beginning of your friendship with Dizzy?  Had you met him a few years before in Philadelphia?

JH:    Yeah, I had met him with his big band.  I had seen him on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Philadelphia, I think it was in 1946 or ’45 when they came there, Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Al Haig, Max, and either Curly Russell or Tommy Potter.  But when he got the big band, we followed the big band everywhere on the East Coast that they would go.  Percy and I would put on our berets and artist ties like the band had on, and stand in front of the band, and Dizzy would recognize us: “There’s the Heath Brothers from Philadelphia.”  Tootie was too young to follow around with us then.  But Percy and I would imitate the dress and everything.  And we got next to Dizzy, and I eventually got the gig with the band, and I got Percy a gig with the band also, after!

TP:    I guess that’s around the time when your friendship with Milt Jackson began, too.

JH:    Definitely, and James Moody also — because Moody was in the band that we followed.  And Ray Brown also, who was another 1926 guy from my year.

TP:    What a year.

JH:    Yeah, that was a great year.

TP:    Fine vintage.

JH:    Miles.  There’s a lot of good guys from that year.

So Ray and Bags and Joe Harris, the drummer, were good friends.  Joe Harris is also from the same time, and is still in Pittsburgh.  They were hanging out together.  You know, we just struck a friendship with Dizzy on kind of a platonic basis, I mean, just association, no real serious…

TP:    Interplay.

JH:    No.  Percy had met him before I did, I think while I was with Nat Towles.  Percy was just out of the Service with his Lieutenant’s clothes on.  When I came home from Nat Towles, we chanced upon Dizzy coming in town, and Dizzy said, “Hey, Lieutenant!”  He called Percy “Lieutenant” because he was a fighter pilot and a Lieutenant, and he respected that.  I said, “Man, I thought you knew Dizzy.”  I got the gig with Dizzy first, and got Percy the gig.  I thought Percy knew him, but Dizzy knew him as being one of the early fighter pilots from World War Two.

TP:    That’s when you and the other young lions of the time would gather and play sessions and small group dates around New York and other places.

JH:    Well, the sessions were a big thing, the jam sessions during that time.  Everybody, all of my peers, were trying to learn how to play Bebop.  We would go either to Johnny Coles’ house or the Heaths’ house, and gather and try to learn all the songs we heard on the records.  Ray Bryant would be there, or Dolo Coker on piano, or once in a while Red Garland would come in.  But Philly or Specs Wright and Golson, Trane, we would all go and meet together and have these tremendous jam sessions.  Our mothers were very nice people.  Johnny Coles’ mother would fix Kool-Aid and sandwiches, and my mother would do the same.  So we had like a Jazz family in Philadelphia.

TP:    But after coming to New York and joining Dizzy Gillespie, you did various small group things in New York and the surrounding area with Milt Jackson or Miles, so forth and so on.  When did that start?

JH:    Well, I wasn’t privy to the jam sessions in New York as much.  When I got to New York, I was working with a band, so I wasn’t attending so many jam sessions.  Before I got with Dizzy, I remember coming to New York to go to Minton’s, and that was an occasion.  Well, my first gig in New York was actually with Howard McGhee at the Three Deuces.  That was an occasion where Hank Jones played the piano.  Hank Jones took me to his house and played “Cherokee” through the keys after the gig, and I was floored by that, that this what we had to do to be around New York to perform.  You had to learn everything in all the keys, because the guys who could really play would clear you off the bandstand by changing keys, or playing tunes that you couldn’t play.  But since Minton’s was one of the spots where the jam sessions were going, I went up there with Leo Parker.  Max was there, and Al Lucas — I stayed at his house that night.  Monk was there, and Lockjaw.  People like that were playing in the sessions at Minton’s.

TP:    The tracks we heard in the last set of music featured people like Clifford Brown, who came from Wilmington, not far from Philadelphia, so I’m sure you knew him, or of him, and J.J. Johnson and Miles, who were all part… In 1951 there was a Birdland All-Stars tour, and you were put together in a band… Yes, no?   Tell me.

JH:    After.  We’ll talk about that after…

TP:    After a set of music?  Okay, let’s talk about that then. [ETC.] The music we’ll hear comes from Jimmy Heath’s first recording date as a leader for the Riverside label in September 1959, a sextet with Nat Adderley, cornet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.  There are five originals by Jimmy Heath on this date, some of which have been played up to this day.  Did you write this material for the date, or were these part of a backlog of compositions that you had beforehand?

JH:    I think these were written for this date.  This was my first record date, and I wrote the material.

[MUSIC: J. Heath, “For Minors Only” (1959); Jimmy Heath Tentet, “Big P” (1960); “Two Tees” (1960); w/ Nat Adderley “Chordnation” (1960); w/ Sam Jones Tentet, “Four” (1961)]

TP:    One thing that performance of “Four” brought to mind for both of us was your friendship with Miles.  You said it was an arrangement that he liked very much, and commented on to you.

JH:    Oh, yeah.  He said, [MILES] “Hey, James, that’s one of the best arrangements I ever heard on ‘Four’.”  So he liked that one.

But before these five, you played a couple of things that I wanted to comment on from the Blue Note series.  One was the Miles Davis record, and the other was the J.J. Johnson with Clifford Brown.  The Miles Davis and the J.J. Johnson date came as an offshoot of the Symphony Sid All-Stars, the touring group that we had that consisted of Kenny Clarke, Percy, Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson and Miles and myself.  It was called the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and the deejay Symphony Sid took us on the road, and was the announcer.  Out of that, Miles had a contract with Blue Note, and he used most of the people on his date.  Then J.J. did a date, and he added Clifford Brown.

When we made that date with Clifford Brown, the thing about that one in particular that sticks out in my mind is that we played the thing called “Turnpike” that has the circle of fourths in the solo structure.  J.J. had something set.  It being his date and he being a very precise person, he had some licks set that he wanted to get in, and he would fluff sometimes, and we’d have to make another take.  Every time we made a new take, Clifford Brown would come up with some incredible sequences.  At that moment, Frank Wolff, the photographer, and Al Lion, came out of the booth after the cut, each cut, saying [GERMAN ACCENT] “That Brownie, that Brownie!”  And the next thing I knew, they had Clifford in the corner, signing a contract with him.  So that was the beginning of Clifford’s career recording-wise, as a result of the J.J. Johnson record.

TP:    What were the circumstances of the Miles Davis date?

JH:    Well, the circumstances were coming out of the Symphony Sid All Stars.  He used Art Blakey on the drums on that particular date.  But it was all during that same time.  Out of that Symphony Sid All-Stars, there was Percy, Kenny Clarke and Milt.  Then right after that, or during that time, the MJQ started, too.  So a lot of things happened in that period that were kind of related, because Kenny Clarke and Milt teamed with John Lewis and Ray Brown, then eventually Percy, to form the MJQ around that same time.

TP:    Jumping ahead almost a decade, I’d like to discuss the Riverside recordings we heard.  It seems like Orrin Keepnews was using you both for recording dates under your leadership, and also as kind of a house arranger for dates by Blue Mitchell and Sam Jones and Nat Adderley and so forth.  It must have been a very active and creative period for you, because so many of your famous compositions seem to emanate from the years 1959 to about 1964.

JH:    Well, I guess I was considered like the staff arranger of a sort.  Benny Golson did some things, too, during that time, but maybe not for other people’s dates as much as his own.  I think it stemmed from the fact that after a long illness, when I came back on the scene, Cannonball was one of my chief endorsers.  I had never met the man, and he endorsed me with Orrin Keepnews, he and Philly Joe.  I had an opportunity to go with Blue Note or Riverside, and I chose Riverside.  Once I got on the label, I was considered one of the arrangers; all the cats on the label wanted me to write something for their dates, and I did some on different people’s dates at that time.  When I look back in retrospect, there’s quite a few.

TP:    I wanted to ask you about your studies in composition and arranging.  I gather that after your earlier efforts and hearing things first-hand from Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Fuller and so forth, you actually wound studying formally.

JH:    Well, Gil helped me a lot.  He always insisted that you get some excitement in your music.  He said Tadd Dameron’s music was background.  Heh-heh.  They were rivals, of course.  But Tadd Dameron’s music had a lot of heart in it, and a lot of feeling and soul, whereas Gil’s were like “Things To Come,” they were exciting.  But I liked both of them.  Also, George Russell was writing for Dizzy’s band; he was very abstract, a different kind of orchestrator.  So was Gerald Wilson.  Gerald Wilson was writing some of the things for the Dizzy Gillespie band that were very good.  Melba hadn’t started, but she was there.

So listening at home to Duke Ellington and people like that, and arrangers like Benny Carter and people like that, I just went through a trial-and-error period, where I tried things.  Then when the small groups came about, like you heard there mostly, I had already begun thinking how to write for sextet by hearing J.J. and other people who had sextets.

So then I went along with that, with mother-wit or intuition for many years, until I started to study with a man named Rudolf Schramm, who taught the Schillinger System, and taught it at Carnegie Hall, where he had a studio upstairs.  I learned quite a bit from him, how to organize what I had already experienced, and how to edit and put things together.  He also helped me in orchestrating for strings and choir and things like that, and encouraged me to write for larger ensembles and, like, suites that I have written.  A lot of them haven’t been recorded, because it costs a lot of money to record them, and they are not hit material, so the record companies are reluctant to record them.  You know, “The Afro-American Suite of Evolution” or the thing I wrote for a five-piece Jazz group and a symphony orchestra called “Three Ears”, or the “Upper-Neighbor Suite” I wrote for a Canadian 10 or 12 piece ensemble.  Some string things I’ve written.  The Kronos String Quartet recorded my version of “Naima”, and the Uptown String Quartet recorded “Naima” for Muse Records.

But I’ve been writing for all kinds of ensembles. To get back to the big-band writing, that started when I took a position at Queens College as a professor, and I teach composing and arranging there.  So I started to write for the big band, new material for every semester.  That keeps my big band music flowing.

Right here I would like to say that my entire career as a composer has been one of dedications to people that I like, my peers and family members.  Just about everything I wrote is dedicated to a human being that I find exceptional in one way or another.  “Big P” is for Percy, “Two Tees” for Albert Heath, “Mona’s Mood” is for my wife — different people.  Most recently I wrote one for Antonio Hart called “Like A Son,” because he was one of my students and he’s very close to me.  “Without You, No Me” to Dizzy.  “Trane Connections” was for Coltrane, “Forever Sonny” for Sonny Rollins.  I don’t think there’s another composer in the history of the music who has dedicated as many songs and compositions to their peers.  I have no problem with competition or ego that I can’t respect another person’s ability.

TP:    Well, one of your main sources, as you cited before, was Tadd Dameron, and the next track we’ll hear comes from a 1982 release dedicated to Tadd Dameron, featuring the group Continuum, featuring Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton, another one of this generation’s most distinguished composers and orchestrators, Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and the late Arthur Taylor on drums, who passed last week, and was a close friend of yours and is missed by everyone in the Jazz community.  We’ll hear “Nearness.”  Any comments on it, Jimmy?

JH:    Well, it’s really now a dedication to A.T., because he really liked this song, and he asked me to give him a chart on it so he could do it with his Wailers.

[MUSIC:  Continuum, “Nearness” (1982); J. Heath/KD/AT, “Nobody Else But Me” (1961); “J. Heath/Freddie/J. Watkins, “The Quota” (1962); J. Heath/Blue Mitchell Orch., “Blue On Blue” (1962)]

TP:    We’ll move out of chronology now, and concentrate on recordings made by the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy and Albert, the three great musicians who came out of the Heath family in Philadelphia.  The first selection will come from a 1975 recording for Strata-East, the first by the Heath Brothers as such.

JH:    I had worked with Percy and Albert on The Quota and on Really Big, a couple of my Riverside dates, so that was the Heath Brothers before the Heath Brothers formal title was adopted by the record companies.  Percy was always with the MJQ, for years, so that left Albert and I, and we worked together quite a bit, and Percy would work with us once in a while when he wasn’t busy with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  But I could use my brothers on recordings, and that’s what I did on those Riverside records.  Then when Percy took a hiatus from the MJQ for a few years, we started a group called the Heath Brothers.  The first record we made was made in Norway.  We were on tour over there in Oslo, and Stanley Cowell was our pianist, and he wanted to document this group on the Strata-East label.  That’s what we did.  We made this record and it was released on Strata East.

TP:    Talk about the qualities that your two brothers bring to their instruments, and their place in the music pantheon.  First your older brother, Percy.

JH:    Well, Percy can walk the bass.  He’s got an uncanny sense of time.  He was the bassist of choice around New York for a lot of recordings.  He’s been on more than I have, I’m sure — and I’ve been I guess getting close to being a hundred records, I’m sure.  But he’s been on many more.  Albert was a person that came along, nine years after myself in age, and he soon became one of the favorites in the Riverside catalogue, and he made quite a few Blue Note records, and he recorded with Trane and Sonny Rollins and everybody, too.

So I don’t know, it must be in our genes.  Our father and mother were wonderful people, and they let us pursue what we loved — music.  We weren’t forced to do anything else.  If you have an environment like that at home, where you are encouraged to play, and you have any talent, then you’re going to play.

TP:    Well, you mentioned after World War Two, when Percy came back, that the two of you spent a lot of time workshopping together, transcribing, listening, performing.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, Percy and I…that’s before Tootie came out of high school.  We even played with Howard McGhee together when I first went to Paris in 1948 in…oh, I think it was April or May in 1948.  We were both with Howard McGhee at that time.  Howard McGhee was the first person to really take us out into the big time, so-called.  He also was the person who took my big band from Philly and took it on the road, and we went to the Apollo and the Paradise in Detroit and some of the theaters.  We played a gig in Chicago, and my whole book, my repertoire got lost in the Inglewood Station in Chicago, so I never saw my big band music again!

TP:    Oh, no!

JH:    Yeah, that was unfortunate.  But we continued to work with Howard in the small-group situation anyway, and record.  He was the first person I recorded with.  And Howard was a wonderful person to be around, a nice man, and he could play real well, and he really liked me.  So that was the essence of the beginnings and being-together of the brothers, Percy and I first, and then eventually the three of us.

TP:    Now, Tootie has a very personal way of swinging as well, and gets a very distinctive sound out of the kit.  He’s very recognizable on your Riverside releases.

JH:    Well, I think he has some of his teacher’s style, and that’s Specs Wright.  All of the drummers liked Klook and Max, but Tootie was close to Specs.  Specs was a very crisp and swinging drummer also, who had excellent hands.  I think he taught Tootie to practice very slow, because Specs was so methodical.  I roomed with him with Dizzy’s band, and he would drive you nuts, because he would practice so slow all day, I mean, sit there with a practice pad and say, BOP… BOP…BOP, and then when he gets on the gig it was like WRRHOWOWO.  It was incredible.  But he knew a system of how to practice.  I think Tootie got that from him.  Also, Everybody liked what Max was doing, and he incorporated some of Max, and Philly Joe was around, and he listened…

We all learned from our predecessors, and that’s the way it should be.  I mean, you learn from the people who came before you, and then you expand into your own style.

TP:    One more question about your writing.  You said you often write people in mind as far as dedicating the compositions.  As far as the musical content, do you write for people you know will be performing it, or does it come out of more your own ideas that are percolating around at a given time?

JH:    It’s not necessarily for the people who are going to perform it, because a lot of times I was the only one to perform some of them!  The song I wrote for Sarah Vaughan, “Sassy’s Samba,” the Heath Brothers recorded it, and eventually the New York Voices recorded it.  They put their own words to it.  But it was dedicated to Sarah Vaughn.  Just like “Blue On Blue” we just heard was to Blue Mitchell.  And the thing we’re about to play, “Smilin’ Billy”, is for Billy Higgins.

So I think about the person’s personality.  You know, Ted, I write down nicknames and expressions of all my friends.  I’ve got a whole list that would be very interesting to literary people, I think, who are interested in Jazz.  Because I think about the person.  Thad’s thickness or Slide’s slickness.  Expressions that depict the person.  I mean, Slide Hampton is a very slick player and arranger.  Thad’s music was so dense, so Thad’s thickness… I’ve got a whole list of maybe about fifty or sixty people that I have coined phrases on what I visualize them or how I perceive them.

TP:    Then that triggers off some sort of musical lines and connections and progressions.

JH:    It’s all connected.

TP:    Let’s start off with part one of “The Smilin’ Billy Suite” — we don’t have time to hear the others — to lead off a set by the Heath Brothers.  In the 1970’s Jimmy had expanded his sound palette, as had everybody in the orchestra, sort of in touch with the times, and on this date you play flute, tenor and soprano saxophone; Tootie plays a double-reed on Part of the Suite, which we won’t hear, but primarily drums; Percy had begun playing the baby bass by that time; and Stanley Cowell plays piano and also Mbira on other sides here.

[MUSIC: “Smilin’ Billy Suite, Pt. 1” (1975); “A New Blue” (1978); In Motion, Brass Choir/HB, “Project S” (1979)]

TP:    It does seem that the Heath Brothers enabled you to expand your exploration of tones and colors that began working on in a series of albums for Muse and Cobblestone Records in the early 1970’s.

JH:    Well, I fell in love with the French horn when Julius Watkins started to play the way he did, and I started adding the French horn to quite a few of my albums.  Until today I still like to use the French horn.

TP:    We heard it on The Quota and Triple Threat, those early Riverside dates.

JH:    And on Swamp Seed, the one that you’re going to play with Herbie.  But even the later ones, the Landmark things, I used the French horns and tubas and those instruments.

TP:    Most recently on Old Flames, which you arranged for Sonny Rollins, there’s that brass choir situation, although you don’t appear on that.

JH:    Ah!

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll move back to the 1960’s now, and focus on Jimmy Heath’s final two dates for Riverside, and also a few collaborations with Milt Jackson, with whom you recorded a number of times between 1962 and 1967, and continue to up to recent days.

JH:    Yes.

TP:    In our conversations earlier about the Dizzy Gillespie band, you talked about first meeting Milt Jackson, and I guess you’ve recorded with him since your very first one, in 1948.  I think he was playing piano on those Howard McGhee dates.

JH:    Well, he was on some things.  He was also in that big band thing in 1949 that I did.  He was playing piano and vibes on the “Mean To Me” that we heard earlier.

TP:    Talk about your relationship with him.  It’s been of such long duration and so creatively fruitful.

JH:    Well, yeah.  Even last week Milt recorded one of my songs on his album with the young lions he’s using, Jesse Davis and Joshua Redman and Christian McBride and Benny Green.  So he asked me to write a tune for that album, and I wrote one called “Bop Again.”  I think Cedar wrote one for that date.  So Bags and I, our relationship goes…oh, man, since the late Forties, since he was with… I met him when he was with Dizzy’s band, I would imagine.  So that’s ’46-’47, something like that, until today.  There were times when the MJQ would go on the road, and I wouldn’t know they were back in town if I had depended on my brother Percy, because he would be gone fishing — and Milt would say, “oh, we got back yesterday!”  So Milt and I are like brothers.

TP:    Well, he’s a musician with as identifiable a sound as any that ever played this music.

JH:    We just played a gig with Paul West at the Henry Street Settlement with the Symphony Orchestra down there, doing Dizzy’s music.  Milt and I were on that together.  So Milt and I are very close.

TP:    We’ll hear a few tracks featuring Jimmy Heath with Milt Jackson a little later,  But coming up now is “Wall To Wall,” recorded in 1963 for Riverside on the album Swamp Seed.  This is redolent of brass, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Julius Watkins and Jim Buffington on French horns, Don Butterfield on tuba.  Herbie Hancock plays piano on this track.

JH:    “Wall To Wall” is from ear to ear.  We all had beards, and I said “We have wall-to-wall rugs.”  And I see you have one, Ted, so you’re right in there.

[MUSIC:  “Wall To Wall” (1963); “Gingerbread Boy” (1964); J. Heath/Bags “Dew ‘n Mud” (1965); J. Heath/A. Farmer, “One For Juan” (1967)]

TP:    In our next set, we’ll move to selections from a series of recordings that Jimmy Heath did in the mid-Seventies for the Cobblestone, Muse and Xanadu labels, where the common thread I guess is producer Don Schlitten, who produced all of these dates.  And back to what we said about the Heath Brothers groups, during this time you were really expanding your sonic palette compositionally.  You feature yourself on flute and soprano sax, you bring in a lot of popular rhythms, African melodies and so forth.  Talk a little about your state of mind at this time, and the dynamics that went into making these recordings.

JH:    Well, the Sixties was a turbulent time, and the music depicts what’s going on.  What we were wearing, and what we espoused as Afro-Americans was coming out in the music.  I wrote things like “Heritage Hum”, and along with my son Mtume, we were doing things like “Alkebulan,” which is called “The Land Of The Blacks.”  We were just expressing our views musically with the times, as things were happening.  You know, I came up when… I went to high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, from Philadelphia, and I’d have to get in the Colored coach and all that stuff.  When we got to Washington, D.C., you’d get out of the coach you were in on the train, and get in the Colored coach, and they had Colored water and all of that stuff.  I’m still trying to figure out what Colored water is.  But it was a time when we weren’t getting any respect as human beings, and we needed that.  I think the Bebop Era, Dizzy and Charlie Parker spoke to that in their music in a revolutionary sense, and I was following through on what was happening in the country and with us as human beings on the planet.

TP:    Well, to a lot of people in the 1960’s, your old friend John Coltrane in a certain way symbolized some of the highest aspirations of African-Americans.  I asked you off-mike if you continued to see Coltrane during the 1960’s, and you said that when you were still living in Philadelphia, where you were until 1964, he would still come by your house, and practice and eat between sets at the Showboat.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, he was playing at the Showboat, and he would play these extended sets, playing “My Favorite Things” for 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes a half-hour on one song, then they would take a break, and they would have to go back that evening to perform again.  So Trane, he would practice on all the breaks between the sets.  So the long break between… He was supposed to end at six, and he goes back at nine or something.  Well, he ended up seven or something, played overtime.  Well, my mother’s house was closer than his mother’s house in West Philly.  He had moved by that time.  He would always come down to the house.  I said, “Look, Trane, you could down to Mom; I’ll get Mom to fix something.”  And my mother would fix him something.

The last occasion he did that, he came down to the house, and we talked for a while.  My mother said, “Well, the food isn’t ready, John, because Jimmy just called me.”  He said, “Well, look, Jim, can I go upstairs and practice until she gets…”  I said, “Yeah, go ahead!” and he went upstairs and practiced until the food was ready, ate the food, went back to the club, and played some more for the rest of the evening.  Trane was like that.  He practiced all the time.  Juanita, who was named Naima later, his first wife, said he was 90 percent saxophone.  So that gives you an idea of John Coltrane’s life.

TP:    In our conversation off-mike you told me also that you moved back to New York City in 1964.  I’m sure that must have expanded your possibilities in many ways.

JH:    Well…

TP:    Or not.

JH:    Yeah, well, it did.  I was basically doing things with my own group during that time.  I went back with Miles for a little after Trane left, and I didn’t stay long.  Well, then I was free-lancing around New York until later.  I was still recording for Muse and Xanadu around that time…

TP:    Around 1970 or so.

JH:    1970.  In retrospect, the late Sixties were kind of slim pickings for Jazz.  The other music had just moved in so strongly, and everybody went, the audiences, until they were… Sarah Vaughan told me she didn’t have a recording contract for quite a while during that…

TP:    Yeah, it was a tenuous time and a transitional time, and a lot of the music in the Seventies I guess reflected wanting to get into the mainstream and make some money in terms of the type of music that was being presented.

JH:    I think so.

[MUSIC:  The Gap Sealer, “Heritage Hum” (1972); Love And Understanding, “Gemini” (1973); “The Time And The Place” (1974)]

JH:    [RE: Picture of Heath.] I didn’t write a lot of arrangements for the ensemble, you know, so it was a loose kind of a session.  Plus when the tenor is out front it’s a different ego trip.

TP:    Now, you call it an ego trip.  Why?  I assume you’re talking about being able to stretch out and play at length and take some liberties.

JH:    Well, to me sometimes it’s boring as a musician, as a listener to hear one instrument, and that instrument alone. I’ve fallen in love with orchestration and composition, and I like to hear a lot of different textures and a different sound.  Consequently there are very few records that I really stretched out on.  On the live dates I would stretch out a little more.  Perhaps that’s one of the problems I’ve had with recognition, is that I’ve been prone to let somebody else play instead of me taking the whole show.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your sound and style as a tenor saxophone player.  We talked earlier about your sources in the music, and coming out of Charlie Parker, and then listening to Dexter Gordon and transcribing solos.  I’m not sure how to frame this.  At a certain point, musicians begin to transcend their sources.  Listening back, when do you think your individual sound, your individual voice began to become clear on the tenor saxophone?

JH:    Well, I think simultaneously, with the more knowledge you get about the music and the more time you put in on an instrument, that’s when you begin to find yourself.  Earlier you are always trying to see what has been done before, and you are investigating earlier performers and listening a lot.  There were times in my career, and there are times when I don’t listen to Jazz records, because I don’t want to be influenced by everybody else and their playing.  So I think that’s a way to become your own person.  Also your individual sound has a lot to do with it.  The tone quality that you get that’s identifiable.  You know, you can hear Sonny Rollins, and you know Sonny; you hear Joe Henderson, and you know Joe.  And people who really listen, they say, “Oh, that’s Jimmy Heath” — they can identify me.  And I take pride in that fact.  But there were some times when my friend Dexter Gordon, when I would go hear his group, when I got bored as a listener because Dexter would use the same format.  He would play first on every song, and then he would let the piano player play, and then he would take fours with the drummer or the bass player.  Then the next song, Dexter first, Dexter first.  I guess that’s the way people want you to be, and I’m not in that mode.  So I let some of the other guys play first, I play second, I may… It’s an image problem…

TP:    I’d like to talk a little more about sound, and your sound.  Is there a sound that you were hearing, let’s say, in your mind’s ear around 1953 or 1960 or so, and then you worked to get to that sound, and arrived there?  Is that how it worked for you?

JH:    Yeah, I worked on the sound.  I was listening to Dexter and Lester and Bird, and I think that I kind of incorporated some of their inflections in my playing.  But tone quality, you’ve just got to practice…sound, practice tone.  Whole notes, which is boring.  And you’ve got to do that in order to get a good sound.  Once you get a sound, though, the rest of the delivery is easy!

TP:    Well, one of the hallmarks of individuality for a tenor player within this tradition is “Body and Soul,” and I know on records produced by Don Schlitten, he liked to have the artists work out on this tune.  You can hear versions on his records by almost every great saxophonist of the time.  So let’s hear Jimmy Heath’s version of “Body and Soul” on tenor and soprano from Picture Of Heath, 1975, with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins.

[MUSIC:  “Body and Soul” (1975); w/ Joe Henderson, “Steeplechase” (1988)]

TP:    We’ll move now to material from a pair of recordings by Jimmy Heath for Landmark in 1985 and 1987, respectively.  From the first, we’ll hear the title track, “New Picture.”  New Picture continues your tradition of a four-brass section.

JH:    I used the tuba and two French horns on this one, and a trombone in this particular grouping.

TP:    Do you approach each album as a project unto itself?  Is there some sort of picture you’re trying to paint with every date that you do?  Is it a function of what you’re working on at that time, and things sort of come together?  How do you go about it?

JH:    Well, I go about it in trying to do something a little different, if I can.  That’s why I have different-sized ensembles on most of the records, and not just the quartet alone.  I have sextets and various different color combinations, with the strings, the cello on some things, flute on some things.  So I just like music.  I love music, and I love all the sounds of the different instruments.  If I could really afford it, or the record companies could afford, I would like to do something with the larger ensembles, too, the symphony, that size ensemble, 40 or 50 pieces.  I just want to explore all of the sound qualities that I can find in my knowledge and concept.

TP:    So it transcends notes.  It’s really ultimately about sound.

JH:    Yeah, and the voice.  I’ve done several things using choirs, and I’m really interested in doing that at this point in my life.  I would like to do something with a group like Take Six or something like that!

[MUSIC: “New Picture” (1985); w/ Purrone, “I Waited For You.” (1987)]

TP:    There are certain musicians who can make five hours go by like an hour-and-a-half.  Jimmy Heath is one of them, and he’s been sharing the time with me and with you, the radio audience, in the studios of WKCR, giving a first-person account in this retrospective of Jimmy Heath’s 46 years of recorded music.

JH:    Pshew!

TP:    One more set to go.  But I wanted to talk a little bit about your educational activities.  Because for a number of years you have been Professor Jimmy Heath, and you’ve put together a very strong Jazz program at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.  How long has this particular gig been part of your career, and how long did you work towards that in terms of academic credentialing?

JH:    Well, I’ve been teaching privately for many years, back with Ted Curson, Jimmy Garrison, Sam Reed(?) and other people around Philadelphia.  Then coming to New York at the Jazzmobile organization, and the Housatonic College in Bridgeport, and the City College of New York on Convent Avenue with Ron Carter.  Then in ’87, after an illness, I took a position at Queens College, which is very close to my home, where I have been since 1964.  I have been working at that for many years privately.  The people there saw that I was the person that they wanted to begin the Jazz faculty as tenured people… At least I am now tenured.  When I started in 1987, I was the first one hired full time at Queens College in teaching Jazz music.  I basically got that on my reputation over the years as a performer and composer and traveling person, sort of known personality.

TP:    One thing that’s come out a lot in this past decade-and-a-half is the idea that Jazz can be taught if it’s really done right.  Your generation often had to pick up things by themselves, though not in all cases, because there were a number of formally trained musicians.  Talk about that concept and applying it to young, raw students, and what the students are like these days.

JH:    Well, at that time, like you said, the performers of the music taught at some institutions weren’t allowed to teach in those institutions probably because of lack of degrees, and this is what academia demands and expects from a person.  But somewhere along the line, they realized that some people didn’t have that opportunity, and they still are doctors of their music.  So then the institutions started hiring more people, like Kenny Barron and Rufus Reid.  Some of them have Bachelor Degrees and some of them have more.  But usually it was based on their reputation.  It’s hard to get a position in an institution on just your reputation without the formal credentials.  And I think by the performers getting in as teachers, whether credentialed or not, it has brought a new awareness into the university systems so that the people who are teaching Afro-American, Jazz music in these institutions are the people who have done it.

So the students are very fortunate that they have somebody that is performing all the time that can really pull their coats to a lot of other things that an academic cannot.  They have just studied how this chord goes and this and that, but they haven’t been performing.  They don’t know what the audience responds to… It’s the insider approach.  The students I’ve had have been…they feel honored to be there.  They come there… Donald Byrd was at my school also, and now Sir Roland Hanna is there, and Cecil Bridgewater.  So we have a faculty staff, small as it may be, of performers.  And they have degrees, too, Cecil and Roland.

But it’s just the fact that it’s a different approach to the music.  It’s a personal approach, not from a book.  This is why we have students that are finishing under our direction that are right in the music world, going right out there and performing.

TP:    Maybe fifteen years ago a lot of older musicians were somewhat pessimistic about the future of the music, and I think these fears have been put to rest as many talented and creative young musicians have emerged.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, the one icon that’s caused a lot of change in our music, to me, is Wynton Marsalis.  The image that he has presented and his dogmatic attitude of what he really thinks of our music, Afro-Americans’ music, has caused a lot of young people to follow in his direction.  They want to dress well on the stage.  They play good.  They are clean-cut guys; they don’t deal with no vices.  And a lot of them come out of school.  People like Alvin Batiste are turning out musicians, Nathan Davis in Pittsburgh, and all of this network of people who are in the institutions and qualified performers has come together.

When we were judges on a panel, Dizzy and I, on a Budd Johnson award, we saw so many good young players.  Incidentally, on this particular one, Vincent Herring was the winner.  But Dizzy looked at me and said, “The music is in good hands.”  When we heard all these young people playing the way they are… In my case, at my school, Antonio Hart.  Or I was the chairman of the judges’ panel for the Thelonious Monk Institute when we chose Joshua Redman the number-one saxophone player — and the rest is history.  So there is a coming together of youth and the old vets out there that’s very healthy in attittude, and the music is stronger than ever.

[MUSIC: J. Heath/Mulgrew/Lundy/Nash, “Ellington’s Stray Horn” (1994)]


* * *

Jimmy and Albert (“Tootie”) Heath (7-21-93) — Musician Show:

Q:    Jimmy Heath and I have done several shows in recent years, and we’ve talked a fair amount about your activities in Philadelphia as a young musician.  But I don’t think we’ve really spoken too much with Albert Heath about your younger years.  So I’d like to begin speaking with you, if I might.  First, you’re from such a musical family, it’s almost an inane question to ask how you got started playing the drums.  But was that your first instrument?  Was that your first interest?  And with whom did you start playing, when you did start playing?

AH:    Well, the musical influence came from my brother Jimmy, who was always sitting at the piano and studying and learning something about harmony, and he would exchange ideas with other musicians, like some names that I won’t drop right now because I want to stay on the track here… So my brother Jimmy was my main influence, and then Percy started to play much later; he came along later.  But Jimmy was the first and strongest influence in music, in terms of what was called Bebop at the time.

My father was also a major influence, as well as my mother, because she sang in the choir, and my father played clarinet in a marching band.

So I had a lot of music all the time.  There was recordings of people like Fletcher Henderson and Basie and Duke Ellington, of course, and all those big bands that we used to listen to.  My parents used to play the music of Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson.  So I got a real good foundation in the music of our culture.

Q:    Now, Jimmy Heath has talked about avidly going to hear the big bands in the theatres.  Were you able to do the same as a youngster?  I know you were younger.

AH:    Yeah.  Fortunately, I was able to see a few bands.  But it meant that I had to kind of skip school to do it.  My parents didn’t know that I was doing that, but… I saw the Ellington Orchestra, and I saw…

Q:    Who was the drummer with the Ellington Orchestra?

AH:    It was Sonny Greer at the time.  And I mean, I was overwhelmed by his appearance and all of the instruments that he was playing at that time.  You know, he had chimes and congas and tympany and bells and all kinds of instruments he had back there in the back of the orchestra.  And he was well in control of everything back there — and I was just like totally impressed by him.  And he had on white tails; I’ll never forget it.  He was, like, immaculate.  And I never forgot that.

Also, I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band with a friend of my brother Jimmy… For some reason or other… Teddy Stewart was the drummer, and he couldn’t show up for some reason, and my brother had his friend, who was just out of the Service, the military, whose name was Specs Wright, and Specs Wright came in and played Dizzy’s book as if he had sat there all the time and played it for years.  And I was like… You know, I couldn’t believe that, what I was seeing.  So I was fortunate enough to see the Gillespie band.  I saw the Basie band, and that’s about it…

Q:    Was that Shadow Wilson at that time?

AH:    No, I didn’t see Shadow Wilson at that time, but I saw Shadow Wilson at the Five Spot with Thelonious.  So I did see Shadow.

Q:    Well, it’s very important for young musicians to see the older, master musicians so that they get a correlation of motion to sound or action to sound.  And I know that’s something that at that time, with the big bands, musicians really were able to do, maybe more so than today.  You teach.  Do you…

AH:    Yes.  I’m on faculty at California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, California.  But I think it’s true today also that the younger players… Like, for instance, last night I saw the son of a friend of mine who came down to see us, and he’s a very young person — and I’m sure I’ll see some more young musicians coming down to see us.  And I think the tradition is being passed on to these young people through us.  We’re the old guys now.

Q:    Let’s get back to your younger days in the music.  What was your first gigging experience around Philadelphia?  Who were some of the people you paired off with as a young drummer, and what types of situations were you playing in?

AH:    Well, my first professional performance was done at a place called the Lincoln Post, across the street from where we used to live, which was a marching band — the American Legion is what it was.  And they had a marching band over there.  And somehow, myself and a trumpet player by the name of Ted Curson and a saxophone player by the name of Sam Reed, who were my… We were school mates.  And Sam played an alto saxophone, which he still does today, and Ted Curson played the trumpet, which he still plays today, and is functioning out in the world, playing all over the world — both of them are.  And we had an opportunity to play at this place at night — which was rare, you know, because we were all about 15 or 16 apiece, or something like that.  And some people gave us a chance to play because they’d heard us rehearsing or something.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we did get a chance to play in this place.  And they liked it.  And at the end of the night, we got seven dollars to split up among ourselves.  So that was my first professional job!  And I’ll never forget that.  And the music was horrible.

Q:    What kinds of things were you trying to play?

AH:    We were trying to play what we heard Dizzy playing, and…who else were the guys at the time…?  I think it was basically Dizzy and Charlie Parker, were the Bebop people who were our idols.

Q:    Who were you patterning yourself after?

AH:    I was trying to be Max Roach as hard as I could.  And I couldn’t even keep time.  So you know, it was like terrible.  This was probably the worst music… I don’t see how we got paid for it, I really don’t.  You know, when I reflect back on it, it had to be just awful.

Q:    But what did you think at the time?

AH:    At the time, oh… Well, we got paid.  I thought it was… Oh man, I thought we were doing something!

Q:    Then what were the steps?  Philadelphia was a thriving scene.  There were many musicians who later really made their mark in the world of music.  And I’m assuming that you took your place among them, as all young, up-and-coming musicians?  Was this the case?

AH:    I had an opportunity to play with some wonderful musicians around Philadelphia because of my brothers.  Again, they kind of laid the way for me, and they made friends, and people would come to our parents’ home, or our  home, and I would meet these people, and my brother Jimmy would say, “My brother’s studying drums” and blah-blah-blah.  And that kind of got around.  And sooner or later, after I had got serious about trying to learn something about the drums, I started to be able to play with people like a guy named Louis(?) Judge, and Jimmy Garrison was around there and Spanky DeBrest and Lee Morgan.  And you know, I was really big-time when I got to play with Coltrane, who was not famous at the time, but just one of the best players around at that time even.  I was going to say Benny Golson but Benny came later, I didn’t see… Benny was away at college, I think, when I came up.  But there were people like that.  I may be leaving some names out here, and I hope I don’t offend anybody by leaving them out, but I can’t think of any other names…

Q:    Are the years we’re talking about now, say, 1950, ’51, ’52… Jimmy made a piano thing…

AH:    Oh, a piano thing?  Oh, Ray Bryant.  He did play with Ray… Not around Philadelphia.

JH:    [OFF-MIKE] Bobby(?).

AH:    Oh, Bobby TImmons!  Oh, my God.  Yeah, Bobby Timmons was…oh, man…

JH:    How about McCoy?

AH:    McCoy, we… Yeah, McCoy…

JH:    How about Kenny?  Kenny Barron?

AH:    Kenny?  No.  Kenny was off practicing and getting to be one of the greatest piano players of our time, but he wasn’t around.  He was a little younger than us.  But McCoy, I remember going up to McCoy’s mother’s beauty parlor, and there was a piano in the back.  And we used to have what we’d call jam sessions up there at McCoy’s house — which was way out of my territory, out of my neighborhood, and it was real dangerous to go up there because…

Q:    What was your neighborhood and what was that neighborhood?

AH:    I was South Philadelphia and he was North Philadelphia, and you just don’t go up there fooling around unless you know how to do it.

So anyhow, Lee Morgan was also up there in North Philadelphia, and so were some good drummers like Eddie Campbell and Lex Humphries, and Odean Pope was around, and Donald Bailey… Oh, man, some good musicians.

Q:    So it was a real testing ground, and obviously you have to be dealing, otherwise you’re not going to be able to stick around.

AH:    Well, you fake it real good until you watch enough guys doing it and you learn how to do it, you know.  And if you just surround yourself with people who are better than you, I think you learn like that.

Q:    Did you ever have any specifically drum teachers?

AH:    Oh yeah.  I had a lot of drum teachers, yeah.  The first one that really had a strong influence on me was Specs Wright.  Now, I had teachers before Specs Wright, but it wasn’t a long-term thing.  But with Specs, it was a long-term thing.  Like, as long as I can remember, I could always call him up and go by.  We didn’t have a schedule, but I could go to his mother’s house on some Saturdays and catch him there, and then sometimes he would come down to see my brother Jimmy, and then he’d go off for 15 or 20 minutes with me and help me with what it is that I wanted to learn.  And he showed me a lot of things.  I learned a lot about playing with, you know, groups, and a lot about dynamics and technique and all of that stuff from him.

And I had some other teachers, too.  One in particular that Mickey Roker always jokes…we always have this joke about this teacher, because Mickey always says, “Hey, man, we both studied with the same guy.  But what happened to you?” — as if something’s wrong with what I do, and he’s okay!  But this guy’s name was Ellis Tolin.  And he was around in Philadelphia.  He had a place called Music City, a drum store, and in the back he would give lessons.  This guy had incredible technique.  He loved Buddy Rich, and he used to have Buddy Rich up there, and we could go up there and see Buddy Rich play all the drums you’d want to see.  Then Philly Joe used to come up there also and show off, you know, because he could play better than anybody up there, and he would come up there and just wipe everybody out.

Q:    So his position in Philadelphia was sort of as the King of…

AH:    Yeah, he wasn’t a king, but I mean, he had… Like, some of the better drummers went up there.  Now, everybody didn’t go there.  There were some other places, too, around Philly that people studied, like Granoff School of Music.  There’s a lot of guys that went there who I can’t think of right now… But the guys from South Philadelphia that I knew, like Mickey and Ronald Tucker and Specs and a few other people used to go up to Ellis Tolin’s.  That was kind of the in thing to do.  You just wanted to go through there.  Because they had sessions on Mondays or something like that, and you never knew… Whoever was playing in Philly, the drummer from the group would come up to Ellis’ place and do a little clinic.  But they weren’t called clinics at the time; they called them jam sessions.  And they would come up there and play.  And it was always something special.

Q:    You mentioned that in your youngest years you were always exposed to musicians, because Jimmy Heath was always having musicians over.  Was that involved with the big band that Jimmy had in the late 1940’s?

AH:    Yeah, Jimmy used to have… Our living room at my mother’s house was a little too small for the whole band most of the time.  So he would have like section rehearsals, and he’d have a reed section rehearsal one day, and I would come home from school and here’s these guys with all of these saxophones out, and the music all over the dining room table.  My mother would be busy in the kitchen doing whatever she’s doing.  And they would have, like, a section rehearsal.  So I got a chance to hear the music in sections.  And this is really a wonderful way to learn an arrangement.  And I had my ear cocked on all of this stuff.  At that age, you know, you could absorb and remember a lot of things.  So a lot of that stuff sticks with me right now.  I mean, it’s a part of my upbringing, is that I heard the section rehearsals.  Then I would hear the trumpets rehearse.  Then sometimes it would be the whole band, even, in the house — on some occasions.  Then I would see people like Coltrane and Benny Golson, and Johnnie Splawn and Johnny Coles…

Q:    All in your family living room.

AH:    All of these guys, yeah, would be at my mother’s house, at our mother’s house, with rehearsals by Jimmy.  So I got a chance to meet and be around all of these people, and be influenced.

Q:    Let me turn the mike over to Jimmy Heath now and ask how you got this band together, and what was the impetus for it.  It had a major impact on every musician who came through it in Philadelphia at that time.

JH:    Well, I had come out of a big band in Nebraska called Nat Towles, and I wanted to have a band myself.  So when I came back to Philadelphia…

Q:    Can I stop you for a minute?

JH:    Yes.

Q:    Nat Towles’ band was one of the famous territory bands.  How did you come to join that?  And just say a few words about Nat Towles.

JH:    Well, Nat Towles was out of Omaha, Nebraska.  And there was a trombonist from Philly, who we had been playing together with earlier bands when I first got out of high school, named Felix Leach.  And Felix Leach told the people in Nat Towles Orchestra that when a chair was vacant, or alto chair, that I would like to join the band.  So I went to Omaha, Nebraska.  Billy Mitchell was the straw boss of the band, and he had an apartment with a very small room.  Of the two people that tried out for the band… I couldn’t read as good as the other guy, but Billy Mitchell took a liking to me and said, “Keep the little guy.”  And we talk about that now, Billy Mitchell having later played with Basie and Dizzy.

But when I got back to Philadelphia after leaving that band… Before we leave that portion of it, that band had Buddy Tate before me, and Sir Charles Thompson and others.

But after I got to Philly and I wanted to start my own band… Dizzy had a band then, and I really was in love with the Bebop…the big band of Dizzy.  So I tried to pattern my band and transcribe some of Dizzy’s arrangements, and play that music.  And you know, Trane came out of the Navy, and he was around Philly, and Bill Massey and Cal Massey, who were trumpeters, and they joined my band.  Because I was trying to play Bebop with a big band, as Dizzy had laid the pattern down.

Q:    Were you transcribing off the records, basically?  Or did you get the music and do your own orchestrations?  How did it work for you?

JH:    Well, I was trying to transcribe.  And I had a couple of guys who were pros, who had been with Dizzy.  Johnny Acea had written stuff for Dizzy.  This is a guy from Philly who could play the saxophone, trumpet and piano, and he was an arranger.  So he transcribed a couple of things for me, and  a man named Leroy Lovett also transcribed a lot of the things — and I did the others.  And I was trying to write things in the Bebop style also.

Q:    Now, was the band primarily a workshop situation?  Or were you trying to make a go of it and turn it into a performing big band?  I’m assuming that you would have.  But how did it function?

JH:    Yeah.  Well, it was not just a workshop.  We were trying to gig, and we did gig.  I’ve got a poster at home that says when we played at a place called the O.V. Carter(?) Elks in Philly, Jimmy Heath and his 17-Piece Orchestra with Jimmy Thomas on vocals and John Coltrane on saxophone, and Specs Wright and all — and it cost 75 cents to get in the dance!

Q:    At this time you were primarily an alto player, yes?

JH:    Right!   Trane and I were playing alto.  He wasn’t playing tenor at that point.

Q:    And you were both disciples of Charlie Parker.  Who came before Bird for you, and how did you first get struck with Bird?

JH:    Well, before Bird one of my idols was Mister Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges, and Tab Smith.  They were the three alto players who I found the most interesting to me.  Then Charlie Parker came along and changed the rhythm and the lines of music that I found really fascinating, and I began to try to play like that.

Q:    Can you describe what the impact was on you when you first heard it, and why — again if that’s not too inane a question.

JH:    When I was with Nat Towles’ Orchestra, we went to Savannah, Georgia.  And I remember it as if it was yesterday, that when we got to the dance hall… We were going to play a dance that evening.  And we got there in the afternoon to set up the band and check the hall out.  And they had a jukebox that you put five cents in; you’d put a nickel in the jukebox to hear records.  And I put a nickel in, and I played a record by Jay McShann called “Hootie Blues.”  And right away, the alto solo struck me, and I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, “Man, check this guy out.”  And we all begun to put the money in for this Jay McShann, “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism” by Charlie Parker as soloist with McShann.  That was the beginning.

Then later in my stay with Nat Towles, I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Salt Peanuts” and that stuff, and I didn’t realize it was the same guy at that moment until after I quit and came to Philly — I said, “Oh, that’s the same guy I heard on those records with McShann.”

Q:    You described a few months ago with me hearing Bird in Philadelphia in a club.  The first time you heard him you said might have been 1948 or so?  Or am I wrong on that?

JH:    The first time I heard him was in the Academy of Music,  when they came there for the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert.  There was Al Haig and Max and Curly Russell, I think, and Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  And then came that in ’48, with the band with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter.  And at that point, when he played in the Downbeat Club, is when I loaned him my saxophone every night.  And knowing his reputation, I would stay up there the whole night and hear Bird play, and then take my horn with his mouthpiece on it, and bring it back home, and take back to him the next night.  And he would leave the mouthpiece on it, and split and come back to New York to do his business.  I would take the horn in the cellar in my pad and see if I could find some of that Bebop he’d left in there, which it was hard to get it because it went through  there!

Q:    What kind of mouthpiece did he have?

JH:    He had a white Brillheart mouthpiece that he used to leave on there.  It was amazing, because as a kid you’d say, “Wow, I heard Charlie Parker play this horn.  He played all that stuff last night.  I know some of it’s left in here.”   But my stuff would still sound the same.  Band!

Q:    It couldn’t have been that bad, because you had a bit of a reputation around Philadelphia, and broader than that by 1950 or ’51.  Anyway, we’re talking with Jimmy and Albert “Tootie” Heath, and they’re talking about the 1940’s in Philadelphia, and coming up. You mentioned Dizzy Gillespie, who had a Philadelphia connection, of course, because he lived there for a number of years, and he always drew on Philadelphia musicians, it seems, over the years.  You’ve cited Dizzy as really your main inspiration in terms of writing and musical focus.  Over the last couple of years you had a chance to work with Dizzy during that final gig at the Blue Note a year ago, and then Slide Hampton’s group earlier this year.

JH:    Mmm-hmm.

Q:    Just say a few words about Dizzy, and then we’re going to hear a tribute composition you did for him and some of the early Musicraft sides that you were listening to back then.

JH:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington.  He is the master musician that was accessible to me throughout my whole life.  He was always good to me, and I could ask him questions.  He would show me things.  And believe me, he knew so much to show you.  Any time you are with any musician that has been around Dizzy, he says it’s like being in a workshop when you’re around him, because he’s going to give you something every time you’re with him that you can use in your musical life from then on.

Q:    How would he show you?  Would it be different ways each time?  Would it be demonstrating?  A word?

JH:    He would demonstrate on piano chord voicings.  He would demonstrate on his trumpet.  He would demonstrate tapping out rhythms to you.  He would sing ideas to you.  I mean, with his whole being he was music, and that’s what I always wanted to be — just like him.

Q:    Well, you have a composition on your last release, Little Man, Big Band, with the large ensemble for Verve, called “Without You, No Me.”  So this is Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie…


We heard quite a set of music, that all is meaningful to Jimmy and Tootie Heath in that last set.  The last piece was Jimmy Heath’s first composition to be recorded.  That’s “C.T.A.,” recorded by the Miles Davis Sextet on April 20, 1953 for Blue Note.  Miles on trumpet, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Jimmy Heath on tenor sax, Gil Coggins on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Art Blakey on drums.  Preceding that we heard a 1963 session featuring a man that Jimmy Heath and John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all listening to as young musicians in the 1940’s, Dexter Gordon. That’s from Our Man In Paris, Dexter Gordon reunited with Bud Powell on piano and Pierre Michelot on bass, on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia.”  Before that we heard “Lady Bird,” a 1948 for Blue, Tadd Dameron Septet, composition and arrangement by Tadd Dameron, with Fats Navarro, trumpet, the tenors of Wardell Gray and Allan Eager, Curly Russell, bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums, Chino Pozo, bongos, and of course Tadd Dameron on piano.  Preceding that we heard two recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, the orchestra and a smaller group.  We heard “Things To Come” from 1946, and “That’s Earl, Brother” also from ’46.  “That’s Earl, Brother” was a small group that featured a litany of the greats in Jazz.  Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Ray Brown, Al Haig and, again, Kenny Clarke.  And we began the set way back with Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, “Without You, No Me.”  That’s on Jimmy Heath’s most recent release, Little Man, Big Band, on Verve. [ETC.]

That whole set of music inspired lots of conversation while we were off-mike, and many comments,  You were saying, Jimmy, how Kenny Clarke would sustain a real excitement and fire at a medium tempo, and then Tootie interjected that Buhaina, Art Blakey, did it, too — the drummers that we heard on the last selections.  So maybe we can start from there.

JH:    Well, Kenny Clarke… I played with Kenny Clarke in the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and that was Miles Davis, J.J., Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and myself, and Symphony Sid, the D.J., took us on the road, and we did several gigs, including the Apollo, and one in Cleveland, one in Atlantic City.  We didn’t have a pianist.  The groove was always there, because Klook, as he was known, was a fiery drummer at all tempos, and in particular in a walking Swing groove he could keep the fire going.  And Percy and Klook was a love affair from the first time.

Percy still considers Kenny Clarke to be the world’s great drummer ever.  They got together again… I was on a thing in Africa, in Dakar, when it was the twentieth anniversary of the independence of that country.  And I was on a thing with Dizzy and Clifford Jordan and Jimmy Owens and Sonny Fortune, I think, and Kenny Clarke came from Paris, and Percy.  And it was a love affair started all over again.  That was maybe twenty-five years after we had played with him earlier.

Another thing about Kenny Clarke is, in his book that his wife sent me recently, he said that his favorite band… I forgot… He said Sonny Stitt on alto and Jimmy Heath on tenor was his favorite band.  So that’s another reason I have always loved Kenny Clarke, because he appreciated my playing also.

Q:    Tootie Heath, a few words about both Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey.

AH:    Well, my brother has a little advantage here, because he had the pleasure of playing with these people, and I am only going by recordings and live performances.  So I can be objective, but I was never really in it, so I don’t really know the feeling.  But from my perspective, you know, as a drummer and just listening to the rhythm, or the sustenance of the rhythm is the main thing in playing drums as far as I’m concerned — and I learned that from Kenny Clarke and from Art Blakey.  It was always a smooth cushion, and then there were other little exciting things going on, very subtle, with both of those drummers, Art Blakey as well as Kenny Clarke.  But Art Blakey had a little more… His dynamic range was a little wider than Kenny.  But Kenny Clarke would play with a big band as well as with a small group, and be very dynamic also.  I don’t mean that he didn’t have the dynamics.  He definitely had dynamics.  But Art Blakey had a special group experience, I think, that Kenny Clarke didn’t have, because Art Blakey played in his own band most of the time and with his own musicians.

Q:    And he shaped all the compositions as well…

AH:    Absolutely.

Q:    …which I don’t know if you could say that about Kenny Clarke so explicitly.

AH:    Kenny had less time to deal with the material.  Usually it was on a recording session like Dexter’s, he would fly in or come in from wherever… In this instance, he was in Paris, so he would just come in and do the recording.  They didn’t have any preparation time most of the time.  And the results were amazing, I mean, for the time that they put in, with the time he put in with the music, in terms of… Well, other drummers like Max Roach had his own people that he played with for long periods of time also.  But see, Kenny Clarke didn’t have that advantage.  He was always free-lancing, other than with the Modern Jazz Quartet…

JH:    Francy Boland.

AH:    Yeah, he did that for a while.  He sure did.  That was kind of a long-term affair, with that band, and it was basically the same personnel.  And it was about eight or nine years that band stayed together.

Q:    The band Jimmy referred to is the Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke Big Band, with many of the greatest musicians in Europe through the Sixties and early Seventies.

AH:    That’s right.  But that was in a big band context, so that was a little different from the Art Blakey comparison.

Q:    Two more musicians.  We heard “C.T.A.” at the end of the set, and that was recorded as part of a Miles Davis session in 1953.  And I know that Jimmy Heath had a very close relationship with Miles Davis, who recorded a number of your pieces.  One of them, twelve years later, was “Gingerbread Boy.”  Say a few words about your relationship with Miles and your initial hook-up.

JH:    Well, I met Miles when he was with Charlie Parker, in the quintet, in 1948.  And we became friends, and we talked about harmony, and we discussed chords and sequences, and we hung out together socially.  Miles was the same age, and we had a lot in common in that respect.  But he was always a very bright musician who was very changeable.  He’s a Gemini person, and he would change.  He liked to change his music and try to come up with something new, which he would… Throughout his career he did start new trends.  He started the modal playing.  He gave that its birth.  If he didn’t start it, he is the one who gets credit for that.  And there are other phases of the music that Miles went through in his later years with the electronic support and Funk beat.  You know, Miles was always ahead.  Like the record says, “Miles Ahead.”

Q:    And he employed your son, Mtume, in some of those bands as well.

JH:    Well, I think Miles had everybody in our family to play with him at once… Tootie, didn’t you play with Miles?

AH:    Yes.

JH:    And Percy and myself — and my son.

Q:    Then before that, we heard Dexter Gordon playing “A Night In Tunisia.”  While that was playing… Jimmy Heath hadn’t heard that record before, but you were pointing out during a couple of passages in Dexter Gordon’s solo, you said, “Hear that?  Hear where Trane’s sound is coming from?”  And you said indeed that you and Benny Golson and Coltrane were all very enamored with his playing in the 1940’s — as were many other tenor players around the country.

JH:    Oh yeah.  Around the world.  You know, Dexter had that crying sound in the top register of his horn also.  He influenced Coltrane.  In the earlier Coltrane performances and back home in Philly, I knew… Trane, we all were listening to Dexter.  Because Dexter was swinging hard.  He was a Bebop player who swung hard.  He was a connection between Lester and Charlie Parker, and out of that era he found a way to play the Bebop language on the tenor that was unique — and we all wanted to be like that.  Like everybody wants to be like Mike; we wanted to be like Dexter.

Q:    Tootie, you worked sometimes in Europe with Dexter, and there’s a wonderful recording called The Apartment in particular that I can think of on Steeplechase, where you and Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Orsted-Pederson are backing him.  What was he like to play with for you as a drummer?

AH:    Well, you know, I entered in Dexter’s career at a time when his health had started to be a factor.  And it took him a while to get started, and we kind of had to compensate for Dexter’s…what do you call it…?  It was like a little delay.  So the Dexter Gordon that my brother is talking about is a different Dexter Gordon.  But it was a wonderful experience.  I mean, whenever he got started and got going, it was a wonderful experience.  But at the time, you know, his health was really playing a major role in his performance.  And unfortunately, this happened with Lester Young, too, who is another person that I had the chance to catch…

Q:    When was that, and how did that happen?

AH:    With Lester?  Well, I was locally playing around Philadelphia, and a friend of mine that was a bass player (he doesn’t play any more; his name is Jimmy Bond), he had what was called the house trio at this club called the Showboat.  And the Showboat would employ Lester Young, Max Roach, and people like that, and Dakota Staton and so forth.  And Lester would appear there maybe three times a year.  And  Jimmy Bond called me one time, and said, “Do you want to be in the house trio and play to support Lester Young?”  I said, “Man, that would be a treat.”  So I did it, and that’s how I got to be the drummer for Lester… Whenever he came to Philly and played at that club, I would be the drummer.  And I got a chance to know him, and I got a chance to learn a lot about playing time and things like that.

Q:    Did he say anything explicitly to you?  There are a number of little pearls of Lester Young quotes.  Jimmy is laughing here.

AH:    Yeah, he used to say… He said a lot of things!  A lot of things I can’t repeat, because you know, Lester had a unique way of speaking.  And I can’t say some of the things because you’re on the air, and they have some regulations about that.

Q:    One or two.

AH:    One or two, yeah.  So I’d better not say the things.  I’d have to try to rephrase things, and then they lose…

Q:    The pungency.

AH:    Yeah.  They lose the whole thing. [JH LAUGHING]  But I learned a lot from him as a man as well as a musician.  Just his way of being in the world, and seeing other people and other musicians and so forth.

Q:    While the music was playing, I think Jimmy had a quote from Prez to John Coltrane that I think is repeatable over the air.

AH:    Oh, he said he heard Lady Coltrane playing all of those snakes.  Yeah, he referred to everybody as Lady.  And I think that came from Billie Holiday being Lady Day.  And anybody that meant anything to him special, he would always refer to them as “Lady” — which was a very respectable term.  I mean, when he called you “Lady,” I mean, that was very special.  The same as they called Fats Navarro “Fat Girl”  It wasn’t a derogatory thing.  It was just something very special.  He called George Wein “Lady Moon Beams” because he had a bald head, you know…

Q:    Speaking of ladies and speaking of “Fat Girl,” we heard “Lady Bird” by Tadd Dameron performed by the Tadd Dameron Septet, featuring Fats Navarro.  Fats Navarro was one of the major figures in his brief life, and certainly affected Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, who came out of the Philly area, and Jimmy Heath was certainly very explicitly affected by Tadd Dameron’s conception of writing.

JH:    Yeah, Fats Navarro came to my house, as many of the musicians did, including Miles, Dizzy and all of them… My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited.  She would treat them as if they were their children or their friends.

Q:    What would she make for them?

JH:    Oh, she would make anything that she was cooking, whatever — fried chicken or whatever.  And we had everybody down to my house, Coleman Hawkins and Bird and everybody.  In this particular case, she would be preparing things for anybody that would be there.  Fats Navarro came there and took out his trumpet, and started to play a little bit.  And my Mom always said that she liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles.  She could hear something in his sound that she liked.  And I know for a fact that when Clifford Brown came around Philly from Wilmington, Delaware, he was enamored with Fats Navarro, that’s who his love was — and he began to play something like that until he found his own style.  And the generation passing down passed on to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford, and the people who came  along… So it was a continuum of the music.

But Fats Navarro was one of the strong voices of Bebop that didn’t last long in his life.   He just died young.  But he was a powerhouse of a trumpet player.  I heard him with the Tadd Dameron…I think it was something like an octet in the Royal Roost, and Dizzy had his big band in there at the same time.  He had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo and all that.  And Fats Navarro was screaming on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful.  But Fats was beginning to gain a lot of recognition, and while Dizzy was out…they both were… But they were different.  Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats was a very… He could play very high and clear, and with a very clear sound.  He had a warm trumpet sound.

And they all were wonderful musicians.  But Fats was really a talent at that time.  And Tadd Dameron used to like to use Fats to play all his first trumpet parts, because he could play the trumpet parts like he liked to hear them.  Because Tadd was a person whose delicacy musically…you would take him to be effeminate or something.  Because he would sing everything, LA-DEDADA…you know… And he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.  He was a person who was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn.

Q:    Tadd Dameron.

JH:    Yeah, Tadd Dameron.

Q:    Really all of his compositions were informed by that lyrical sensibility.  Did you know Tadd Dameron?  Were you ever able to sit down with him and go through things?

JH:    Oh yeah.  I knew Tadd very well.  I was supposed to be in one of the bands, but I had had…I got sick at the time and couldn’t make it — and Benny Golson made it.  That was the Dameronia band.  I was supposed to be in that band.  There were a lot of occasions where I was supposed to be in bands, and I got sick.  I had a problem during that time.  Max Roach’s first band, before Harold Land got in, I was the tenor player who Max wanted at that time.  I stayed ill for a few years, maybe four years, five years.

Q:    We’re speaking with Jimmy Heath and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, and it’s been an education over the last 45 minutes.  We wanted to play a couple of selections that feature different drummers who again had a big impact on Tootie.  But by the way, I’d like to ask you (I guess it’s sort of obvious), where did the nickname ‘Tootie’ come from?

AH:    Well, you have one.  Your name is Ted, right?

Q:    Well, yes, but…

AH:    Are you named Theodore?

Q:    Yes, I am.

AH:    There you go.  I got mine just like you got yours.

Q:    Albert…


AH:    Well, it’s just a different name.  My grandfather gave it to me.  And where he came from with it, maybe my brother Jimmy could answer that.  Because I never got a chance to ask him before he died…

Q:    It just got put on you, this name?

AH:    Well, we all had nicknames, the whole family.  But I chose to keep mine, or… I don’t know if I chose to keep it or if it just stuck.  But I still have it, and I like it, and it suits me.  I look like Tootie now.  I don’t look like Albert.  I look like Tootie.

Q:    What was Jimmy’s nickname?

AH:    I’m not going to tell you.  I’ll let him tell you that.

JH:    [LAUGHS]  Percy’s was Percolator.  And mine was Skookum.  I don’t know where that came from, so I’ll let that one go.

Q:    The next selection we’ll hear comes from a 1953 session for Prestige under Miles Davis’ leadership.  This is a very famous session.  Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker both appear here on tenor saxophones, and Walter Bishop on piano, Percy’s on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  Now, Jimmy has a comment.

JH:    Yeah, I’ve got a definite comment.  I had that song written, the line that they call “Serpent’s Tooth,” and I was supposed to make that record, but Bob Weinstock or whoever was in charge of Prestige said, “Look, I don’t know any Jimmy Heath.  Let’s get Charlie Parker.  He wants to make a date on tenor, so let’s get him to make the date on tenor.”  So I gave this line to Miles, an untitled line, and said, “Well, Miles, I can’t make the date; would you record my piece?”  And he did, but he put his name on it, “Serpent’s Tooth,” and his name as the composer.  So that’s the way that goes.  And Sonny and Percy are the ones who are left that will tell you that is my song.  And Clark Terry knows about it because he had a big band arrangement from Phil Woods, and Phil Woods knows that that was my song.  But Miles got credit for it.

Q:    Before we play “Serpent’s Tooth,” I’d like to get a couple of comments on Philly Joe Jones by Tootie Heath, who had to come up under him in Philadelphia during those years.

AH:    Well, about Philly Joe.  He was probably one of the most amazing players that you’d ever want to…well, I’ll say musicians — because he played music on the drums.  Philly Joe was… Oh yeah, and my brother’s making the piano sign over here.  He played some serious piano, too.  Philly Joe was probably a major influence on me, as well as many others, and he made a tremendous impact on this music when he finally came to New York and started to record.  Because he was playing… The way that he was playing when he recorded with Miles, he was playing like that around Philadelphia.  If you were lucky, you could catch him playing in a group with some guys like Jimmy Oliver and Shuggie(?) Rhodes(?) and Red Garland, and… I guess that would be the basic quartet, bass, drums and piano.  And like I said, if you were lucky, you could catch him playing with these people.  And when he moved to New York finally, then the world got a chance to hear him, because he joined the Miles Davis group, and then we all know what happened after that.  They made some of the most powerful recordings together that have come about in this particular music, in this genre that we’re talking about since I can remember.   Now, this is only my personal opinion, of course, but I…

Q:    Well, that’s what the Musician Show is all about.

AH:    Well, recordings like Round Midnight, that album, and the Gil Evans series that Philly Joe did with Miles Davis and some others that I can’t think of right now.  But I heard one the other day which was Coltrane’s date, and he used Miles on trumpet, but Coltrane was the leader.  But it was the Miles Davis group… Now, the guy on the radio said this.  Now, I don’t remember whose date it was.  But they were playing some music like I had never heard, something  regular like “I Got Rhythm” or something like that.  I forgot what it was.  Are you familiar with that record?

Q:    No, I’m not.  The one that I can think of is Cannonball and Miles…

AH:    No.

Q:    …but that’s a different date.

AH:    It could have been the Miles Davis group mistakenly… You know, the DJ could have made a mistake and said it was Coltrane.  But they said Coltrane was the leader of this.  But Miles Davis played trumpet on it.  And man, Philly Joe was immaculate on it, like he was most times you’d ever catch him.  He was always…

Q:    He played with a real elegance all the time.

AH:    Man, he had a snap and a sound and a feeling that… You know, it was just big and broad.

Q:    Well, let’s hear “The Serpent’s Tooth,” and then we’ll hear a final wrap-up with Jimmy and Tootie Heath, who are appearing at the Village Vanguard this week… [ETC.]


“Daahoud” by Clifford Brown.  That’s from a 1954 session by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet with Harold Land, George Morrow and Richie Powell. [ETC.]

I’d like to thank the Heaths for their generous comments and just for really a quick cram course on some of the essentials of the legacy of the music today.  Jimmy Heath, thank you very much.

JH:    Well, Ted, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.  You’re so knowledgeable of the music, and I respect your knowledge and I’m glad to have been here.

Q:    Well, thank you.  And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Albert Heath.

AH:    Well, it was a real pleasure to do a real interview in New York City and be able to talk to all of these people… And Art Taylor, I know I left you out, but please don’t be angry.  And Elvin Jones, if you’re listening, I know I stole your stuff, too.  And all you guys that I left out, please don’t be angry with me.  Just come down to the Vanguard and we can make up.



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