Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Bassist Percy Heath brought a fresh perspective to his instrument and advanced the melodic and rhythmic functions of his instrument in the 1950s. Percy’s playing soon became the embodiment of the requirements needed to sustain a contemporary ensemble. Exact in his execution, Percy’s recordings with The Modern Jazz Quartet and The Heath Brothers outline a career dedicated to the development and innovation of jazz.
Percy Heath was born on April 30, 1923 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Percy was the second of four children and was raised in South Philadelphia. Music was of utmost importance in the Heath household, and Percy's two younger brothers, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, followed him into a life in music.
His father was a clarinetist who performed with the “Quaker City Elks Band” in Philadelphia. His mother and father also performed in a gospel quartet called“The Family Four.” At the age of eight, Percy began to play the violin and often performed during church services. The family home was located on Federal Street and the brothers would play music long into the night, or until their mother told them to stop.
Heath’s early favorites included bandleaders Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. He had the chance to see these two men perform at the Lincoln Theater in Philadelphia. He attended local dances and was able to hear the music of bandleader Glenn Miller and pianist William "Count" Basie, which deepened the young man's interest in music.
In 1944, Heath was drafted into the Air Force and was part of the Tuskeegee Airmen where he flew P40 and P47 airplanes. Percy was lucky enough to evade any combat and returned home to Philadelphia in 1946. Fresh out of the Air Force, he decided to pursue a career in music.
Upon his homecoming, Heath took the separation pay he was given from his discharge from the military and bought a plywood, Epiphone bass. In order to properly learn the mechanics of the bass and expand his knowledge of music, he registered himself at Philadelphia's Granoff School of Music. To explain how quickly this late bloomer advanced in music, Percy credited the years he spent attending church services and listening to church members clap their hands as giving him an innate rhythmic sense which he easily applied to the bass.
Inside a matter of months, Percy began to perform with pianist Red Garland. His stint with Garland was short-lived and he began to perform at the Down Beat Club as a member of the house band. While performing there, he met trumpeter Howard McGhee who had formerly performed with alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker.
Before long, Percy met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and he invited Dizand his band back to their parents home to socialize. Included in his band at the time were bassist Ray Brown, drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist John Lewis, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. During this time, Ray showed Percy the proper way to hold the bass. Brown’s performances with Gillespie provided Percy with his first influence on the bass.
In 1947, Percy and Jimmy were on the road as members of McGhee’s sextet. The subsequent year the group appeared at the first “Festival International de Jazz” in Paris.
In 1949, Percy made the pilgrimage to New York City with his brother Jimmy in order to advance their musical ambitions. Percy quickly found his services in demand, and freelanced with, among others, Charlie Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk.
From the years 1950 until 1952, Heath was a member of Gillespie’s band, which helped shape the next stage of his career. The Gillespie rhythm section, building on their experience of performing their own repertoire while the band's brass players rested their chops, broke off as a quartet led by vibist Milt Jackson, with bassist Ray Brown, drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist John Lewis. Brown soon left to join singer Ella Fitzgerald’s group and Percy replaced him. Initially billed as the “Milt Jackson Quartet,” the ensemble renamed themselves “The Modern Jazz Quartet,” or “MJQ” in 1962.
When Heath joined the group, Lewis and Jackson were trying to expand the repertoire for the unique instrumentation of the group. The group tried to blend jazz and blues phrasing with classically inspired embellishments. Initially, Heath found some of the material so difficult that he was forced to seek lessons from bassist Charles Mingus.
Heath continued to freelance, performing on trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1954 album Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, which featured Monk, Jackson, and Clarke. In 1955, Clarke left the group in order to seek a life in Paris, being replaced by drummer Connie Kay.
The same year, Percy appeared on trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s album Afro-Cuban. The album featured that talent of baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. On “La Villa,” Percy supports the unison horn melody by intricately weaving lyrical basslines that carry the harmony of the song. Percy and Art’s rhythmic styles appear different in theory, but easily blend well together.
In 1956, the MJQ were invited to perform on the “Birdland” tour with Davis, tenor saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell. The group were a huge hit and returned home with a dramatic increase in their popularity.
For the next twenty years Heath performed with the MJQ adding his individual style to numerous recordings. During a brief period in the early seventies, the MJQ were even signed The Beatles-owned Apple Records, and Percy and Connie recorded several songs with guitarist George Harrison, although these sides were never issued issued.
In 1960, Percy, Albert and pianist Tommy Flanagan appeared on guitarist Wes Montgomery’s pivotal album The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. On “West Coast Blues,” Percy cleverly outlines the blues structure of the song without appearing static or clichéd. The interaction between Percy and Albert is strong with the two men picking up on every nuance of their performances.
The same year, the MJQ released the album The Modern Jazz Quartet and Orchestra. For the album, the group was joined by a symphony orchestra that was conducted by composer Gunther Schuller. Included on the album was Schuller’s “Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra” and Lewis’ “England’s Carol,” which was an arrangement of the English song “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”
On “England’s Carol,” Heath maintains a light feel to his performance by playing with a sophisticated ear and never getting in the way of the orchestration. He fully provides the rhythmic momentum while maintaining the harmony, often doubling the left hand of the piano part to add more power to the arrangement.
In 1962, Heath performed on pianist Bill Evans’ album Interplay, which featured guitarist Jim Hall, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Philly Joe Jones. In 1974, the MJQ decided to disband citing financial limitations as the cause.
Shortly after, Heath performed with singer Sarah Vaughan. In 1975, Percy, Jimmy, Albert and pianist Stanley Cowell formed the “Heath Brothers.” At this time the brothers were adding different instrumentation to the group including flute and finger piano. Wanting to add to the mix, Percy began to play the cello, borrowing a modified cello from Ray Brown. Since then, Percy has been one of several bassists to double on the cello.
In 1981, the MJQ reformed for a tour of Japan. The tour was successful and the group continued to perform throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, Connie Kay passed away and the group continued to perform on a limited basis with Percy’s brother Albert filling in. The group stopped actively touring in 1997 and officially disbanded for the last time in 1999 after the death of Milt Jackson.
In the late 1990s, The Heath Brothers decided to reform, recording the albums As We Were Saying in 1997 and Jazz Family in 1998. In 2003, Heath released his first and sadly his last solo album at the age of eighty-one entitled A Love Song, garnering enthusiastic reviews from critics and fans.
Heath has been the recipient of several awards over the years including an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. Additionally, Heath has performed concerts at the White House for U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
A native of Montauk, New York, Heath succumbed to bone cancer on April 28, 2005 in Southampton, New York. Percy is survived by his brothers Jimmy and Albert and the music he brought to this world.
Select Discography As Percy Heath
As Percy Heath
A Love Song (2003)
With John Coltrane and Don Cherry
The Avant Garde (1960)
With Miles Davis
Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1954)
With Bill Evans
With the Heath Brothers
Marchin’ On (1975)
Passin’ Thru (1978)
Live at the Public Theatre (1979)
In Motion (1979)
Expressions of Life (1980)
Brotherly Love (1981)
Brothers and Others (1981)
As We Were Saying (1997)
Jazz Family (1998)
With John Lewis
Grand Encounter: 2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West (1956)
With the Modern Jazz Quartet
Lonely Woman (1962)
Plays George Gershwin’s “Porgy And Bess” (1964)
Plastic Trees (1971)
The Complete Last Concert (1974)
Contributor: Eric Wendell