Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Heath, Jimmy (James Edward)

Jimmy Heath has made substantial but often overlooked contributions to the sound of the modern saxophone. Starting with Howard McGhee’s All-Stars, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, Heath has earned hundreds of credits as a performer, composer and arranger, and has become a noted educator and mentor to many younger musicians, including Antonio Hart, Jeb Patton, and Wynton Marsalis.

James Edward Heath was born on October 25, 1926 to Arlethia and Percy, Sr., Jimmy Heath grew up surrounded by music in South Philadelphia, at the time a stronghold of African-American culture in the northeast United States. The family was highly musical, and Jimmy is three years younger than his brother bassist Percy and eight years older than his brother Albert “Tootie,” a drummer. When asked by his father what instrument he wanted to play, Jimmy picked the alto saxophone. In his youth, he liked the sounds of Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, and after a short period of study and initial development, he began playing professionally by age fourteen.

Jimmy stepped onto the jazz scene at the height of the Swing Era, but was quickly caught up in the musical movement which came to be known as bebop. While traveling with the Nat Towles Band from Omaha, Nebraska in 1945, Jimmy first heard and met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who had begun to experiment with saxophonist Charlie Parker on developing a new, more harmonically advanced language for jazz. Heath got a chance to Gillespie with Parker on June 5, 1945, when the dynamic duo performed in Philadelphia. Among those in the audience were many notable Philadelphia musicians, including Heath, as well as fellow saxophonists John Coltrane and Benny Golson.

After his stint with the Towles band ended in 1946, Jimmy settled back in Philadelphia. Around that time his brother Percy, by then already in his early twenties, took up the bass. The brotheres then joined trumpeter Howard McGhee’s All-Stars, and traveled with the group to Paris in 1948 to take part in the First International Jazz Festival at the Salle Pleyel. This was the first jazz festival in Europe after World War Two, and many major jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were there. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy formed a ten-piece big band in Philadelphia, which included Coltrane and Golson.

Meanwhile, Gillespie heard about Jimmy’s playing from Percy, who was building his own reputation as a first-call jazz bassist. Both Jimmy and Percy became associated with Gillespie, playing for two years in his band, before a tour as a part of the “Symphony Sid All Stars” which included Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, and Kenny Clarke. The two Heath brothers can be heard on the comical "You Stole My Wife, You Horsethief" from this period.

Heath's prowess on the alto sax earned the nickname “Little Bird,” but he switched to tenor saxophone in 1951, so as to avoid being continually compared to Charlie “Bird” Parker. Soon his tenor style graced Blue Note recordings such as "Turnpike" by trombonist J.J. Johnson. Gigs with trumpeter Clifford Brown and work as an arranger-composer for trumpeter Chet Baker between 1952 and 1954 helped to heighten Jimmy’s profile in the jazz community. He then co-led a bop group with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and recorded on baritone and tenor saxophones on the trumpeter’s first session for Charles Mingus’ Debut label, called Kenny Dorham Quintet, in December of 1953.

However, Heath's growing success was undermined by his increasing dependence on heroin. This addiction was in part due to his devotion to Charlie Parker, and the belief of some musicians at the time that in order to play like Parker, one had to imitate all aspects of his life, including his drug abuse. It was Teddy Stewart, Dizzy Gillespie's drummer, who first steered Heath towards heroin. Heath himself has explained that he was drawn to the drug during a deep depression he suffered after an emtional breakup with a woman who had borne him a son.

Jimmy found himself incarcerated for drug possession from January 1955 until May 1959 at the Lewisburg Penitentiary. He was not listless, however, behind bars. Heath formed a big band, including some professional personnel that were inmates there, and wrote charts for the ensemble. He also wrote more music for Chet Baker, which appeared on the 1956 album Playboys with alto saxophonist Art Pepper on Pacific Jazz. In the 1990s, the same album, which includes “C.T.A.” and "Picture of Heath" would be released on Blue Note as Picture of Heath.

When Heath was released from prison in 1959, he was unable to work in nightclubs due to his prior conviction. Instead, he went on the road with Miles Davis to California for two months in the summer of 1959, replacing John Coltrane, who had been fired from the Davis band, also for drug use.

When Heath’s probation officer learned that he had crossed state lines, contravening the terms of his parole, he instructed the saxophonist to remain within a ninety-mile radius of Philadelphia. Davis fought to get Jimmy back in the band, but to no avail. This proved to be a pivotal moment in jazz, because since Heath was unavailable Davis rehired Coltrane, with whom he recorded Kind of Bluein April of 1959.

Heath went on to work with another trumpeter, Blue Mitchell, and is heard on Mitchell's Blue Soul on Riverside Records, which includes the track "Polka Dots and Moonbeams".

Producer Orrin Keepnews hired the saxophonist to write arrangements and lead his own sessions. In 1959, Jimmy did the first sessions for The Thumper, which includes “For Minors Only.” Riverside's all-star line-up for this session consisted of Wynton Kelly, Nat Adderley, Curtis Fuller, Paul Chambers, and brother Tootie. His second leader session on Riverside was for the album Really Big, a ten-piece big band date.

Between 1961 and 1963, Jimmy wrote arrangements for a string of albums which featured the french horn of Julius Watkins in the ensembles, including The Quota in 1961, Triple Threat in 1962 and Swamp Seed in 1963.

Ending his fine run of sessions as a bop leader for Riverside in 1964, he recorded with Chambers and Kelly again for the album On the Trail, , adding guitarist Kenny Burrell. Meanwhile, Jimmy continued to partner with other artists on Blue Note, appearing as sideman on Freddie Hubbard, Julian Priester, Grant Green, and Donald Byrd records.

Jimmy and his wife Mona relocated to Queens, New York in 1964, where they shared a coop apartment building with trumpeter Clark Terry and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The couple had two children together, and their son James Mtume would grow up to become a well-traveled percussionist who worked with Miles Davis in the 1970s.

At the start of the 1970s, Jimmy actively took up the soprano saxophone playing, and he incorporated the flute during this time as well. His use of flute, soprano, and tenor can be heard on organist Charles Earland’s 1970 album Black Drops, as well as1972’s The Gap Sealer under Jimmy’s name.

Continuing to be a versatile arranger, he wrote for Clary Terry’s Big B-A-D Band, launched after the trumpeter left The Tonight Show. He developed an enduring association with pianist Stanley Cowell, and Jimmy played on the albums Music, Inc. and Big Band, Regeneration, and Marchin’ On released Cowell’s and Charles Tolliver’s Strata East label. Heath also recorded his own leader dates on a variety of small labels, such as Love and Understanding for Xanadu in 1973, The Time and the Place for Landmark in 1974, and Picture of Heath for Xanadu in 1975.

Jimmy also composed his multi-movement Afro-American Suite of Evolution, with each movement honoring a different jazz legend. In 1973, he led an all-star debut at New York's Town Hall of the work, commissioned by Billy Taylor's Jazzmobile. In preparation for the large orchestral project, Jimmy studied under Professor Rudolph Schramm, himself a renowned educator of the Schillinger system.

His association with Jazzmobile helped Jimmy start a teaching career, leading to positions at Houstatonic College in Bridgeport, Connecticut followed by a year at City College in Harlem. He continued to work as a soloist and also with his two brothers. The trio incorporated Stanley Cowell and Roland Hanna for piano duties, and soon The Heath Brothers had a 40,000-copy-selling album, simply titled Heath Bros. for CBS records. This working band continued whenever The Modern Jazz Quartet, Percy’s most high profile association, went on hiatus. Jimmy then assumed a teaching position at The Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in the late 1980s.

Contuining to work as a sideman, Jimmy played on guitarist Mark Elf’s album The Eternal Triangle, which includes the track "Tea Cup" in 1988, and J.J. Johnson’s Let’s Hang Out in 1993. A young saxophonist named Antonio Hart was beginning to shine under Jimmy’s tutelage, and the mentor appeared on the protégé’s numerous releases throughout the 1990s. In 1998, Jimmy retired from Queens College, but has continued teaching in other New York metro area music programs, and made his own leader dates fronting a big band beginning in 1992 with Little Man, Big Band for Verve.

In 1993, Jimmy was nominated for the largest international prize given to a jazz artist, the Danish JazzPar Award, and received a Grammy nomination in 1995 for writing the liner notes to a box set of early Coltrane releases on Atlantic Records called Heavyweight Champion.

The Heath Brothers continue to tour, and after the 1997 album As We Were Saying. Queens College graduate student Jeb Patton took over the piano chair in the band, appearing on the 1998 release Jazz Family. On October 19th and 20th in 2001, Jazz at Lincoln Center held a 75th birthday celebration for Heath, titled “He Walked With Giants.” Jimmy continues to receive honors from international organizations and music programs, and notably was the first jazzman to receive an honorary doctorate from Juilliard.

Jimmy Heath continues to actively lead numerous big bands and small groups, with the recent creation of The Queens Jazz Orchestra, Jimmy Heath Generations Quintet, and the Jimmy Heath Big Band. He also appears often in the saxophone section of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band.

Contributor: David Tenenholtz