Octojazzarian profile: jimmy heath

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath.

by arnold jay smith

                 Jimmy Heath, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

One might think that after all the years and experiences of saxophonist / composer / arranger / educator Jimmy Heath that he would have so much to say about the places and the people, the music he’s composed and performed and the influences on the instruments on which he is so proficient. Perhaps he’s saved those for his forthcoming autobiography, I Walked With the Giants, due in January. What we shared –and there was a bunch left unsaid of our 35-year ongoing relationship— was alluded to in the brief analysis and observations of the premiere of his Queens Jazz Orchestra at its home at Flushing Town Hall recently published in the jazz.com blog. (Click here to read it.)

The topic with which we are both most concerned is legacy. “I have two bands now, so I have to be careful not to have a conflict,” he explained. The other, much older band is the Jimmy Heath Orchestra which has its own schedule of appearances,” Whichever group he speaks on the subject is always about disseminating information about the music. We might be discussing his commissions of some thirty years ago, or his more recent ones, or the formal and informal teaching he continues on campuses around the country. Jimmy recently made a guest solo appearance with the New Jersey City University Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Ed Joffe. (In the spirit of full disclosure I am an Adjunct Professor of Jazz History there.) I had assigned my students to review the proceedings. Their reports emphasized Jimmy’s “youthful exuberance,” the manner in which he explained his music and the enthusiasm he elicits from the student musicians.

“I do a number of those every year,” he said. “I feel that I can give something so that the music will continue. You have to do things so that young people can understand there’s more to it than what they are being given.” He was alluding to the one-chord vamp with a drum beat that can so easily be played on a machine.


profiles of jazz legends who are creative and active beyond their eighth decade:
a jazz.com feature by by arnold jay smith (click on image below to view article)

Jimmy Heath by Suzanne Cerny

Jimmy Heath

Randy Weston by Suzanne Cerny

Randy Weston

Marian McPartland by Suzanne Cerny

Marian McPartland

Chico Hamilton by Suzanne Cerny

Chico Hamilton

Clark Terry by Suzanne Cerny

Clark Terry

Dr. Billy Taylor by Suzanne Cerny

Dr. Billy Taylor

The Heaths, i.e., Jimmy and wife Mona moved to Queens in 1964. “I was tired of the row houses in Philadelphia where I was married and living with my parents. I wanted to come to Queens after speaking with Clark Terry and Cannonball Adderley who told me that the Dorie Miller Coop [where he still resides] was where they lived and how many others lived there.” There were trees and the schools were better in Queens — there were none of the former in the part of Philly where he lived. He and Mona had two children together, so the latter was important as well.

The name Heath was already established by big brother Percy who, along with the rest of a Dizzy Gillespie rhythm section, formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Jimmy began playing alto — he loved Charlie Parker — then tenor, and later soprano, and lobes began to stand at attention. [Read all about that in his forthcoming book.] But these essays are about more; it was his teaching and writing that fired my interest.

“I began teaching in 1980, at Housatonic College in Bridgeport, CT. Then for a year at City College. I taught at Jazzmobile prior to the college and university level. I was teaching privately while I was in Philadelphia.”

While at Jazzmobile Jimmy had the opportunity not only to teach, but to write, play and conduct for and with professional and student ensembles. Dr. Billy Taylor was the founder and director followed by Paul West then David Bailey. “Under Billy we had these lecture concerts in the Intermediate Schools,” Jimmy remembered. “We would do an evolutionary program beginning with ragtime and boogie woogie. The kids would love boogie woogie because they had been brainwashed by the repetition of the music of the day. We might play the theme from the television show “Sanford and Son” [by Quincy Jones]. I would play the soprano part. When we got to the more complicated parts of the music, Billy would talk about [people like] Art Tatum. At one school in Brooklyn one of the kids told us that all ‘they’ ever sent them were string quartets and like that. They were so happy that we brought jazz.”

That opened Jimmy’s mind to the fact that jazz was not being exposed in the schools. He gives Dr. Billy all the credit for doing that. And presently Wynton Marsalis as well.

In 1973 I attended a concert at the Town Hall in NYC presented by Jazzmobile of Jimmy Heath conducting an all star orchestra, big band and choir in the commissioned premiere of The Afro-American Suite of Evolution. It was a mammoth effort running some 30+ minutes, tracing our music from its inception to what was then current. While Jimmy unearths excerpts from time to time, the suite in its entirety has never been performed. No clean recorded copies of the premiere exist. “That was 30 years ago; why do you want to talk about that now? he asked me.” His recollections answer his own question.

He had applied for funding and Jazzmobile was the vehicle. “I had to study,” he said emphatically. “I had never written for strings nor choirs up to that time.” Every week for two years Jimmy became a student studying with Professor Rudolph Schramm, whose teaching of the Schillinger System helped make him legendary. “He knew what I was doing on recordings, etc., and took me from where I was to where I wanted to be. Prof. Schramm gave me the confidence I needed to complete the difficult task of tracing the history of African Americans through music.” Jimmy had heard Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, and still listens to the music of Stravinsky and other Western Classical composers. He knew that Bird, for example, had The Firebird score. I’ve heard that that music often wafted from Bird’s dressing room between sets. “We were interested in the harmonies, not the rhythm,” he said. “We had the rhythm!” The Suite was performed twice subsequent to the Town Hall debut: at the Monterey Jazz Festival and in Winnipeg, Canada.

[If there is a copy out there, might someone send it to me, please?!]

Jimmy still utilizes sections. “Each section is dedicated to one of my icons, my heroes,” he admitted. “'The Voice of the Saxophone,' with its dedication to Coleman Hawkins, was recorded twice: once with CBS and once with the Heath Brothers.”

Two of his other heroes are Dizzy Gillespie, for whom he wrote "Without You No Me," performed in Flushing, and Parker, for whom he was commissioned to write "Bird Is The Word" for the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem and on the Lower East Side. “For the NYC Parks Dept. commission of 'Bird Is The Word' I used only seven pieces whereas the Afro-American Suite was for a huge orchestra. I had the band sing, chant, if you will, ‘Bird is the word, the music we all heard; he made it clear and his music is still here.’ I encouraged the people to chant along.” [I did.] Jimmy’s looking for a “connection” to record the piece.

For his latest commission for the QJO, "Cultural Crossroads," Jimmy again utilized a chant which was later echoed instrumentally by sections of the band. He explained that the use of a chant is not so much of African roots as it is from his experiencing the big bands at the Earle Theatre in Philly. “Jimmy Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Tommy Dorsey all had the band sing something,” he remembered. “When I was with Dizzy he had us sing some nursery rhyme. So when I wrote "Moody’s Groove" the vocalizations were homage to him. It’s a communicative thing. If it’s the blues it’s ‘Hey, baby let’s go home and do it.’ Unless it’s country & western; in that case it’s all about your truck, in sexual terms no less. Or ‘All my ex-es live in Texas that’s why I moved to Tennessee.’”

There is no chanting in the 'Basie' section" of the “Afro-American Suite” which was performed at Flushing Town Hall with the QJO. Count Basie was a long time resident of Queens and his presence triggered Jimmy’s warm feelings about the borough and its inhabitants. Jimmy and Cobi Narita were on a panel at FTH at about the time when the “Queens Jazz Trail” map was being created. The map highlights the homes of the artists. The map begat a motorized trolley to take people on a tour of said homes [refer to my previous jazz.com article for some names, or www.flushingtownhall.org and follow the trail yourself.] Jimmy said that if they got the funding he would put the band together. In fact, the title, Queens Jazz Orchestra was Jimmy’s idea. “I thought it was just another idea that would not come to fruition,” he remembered thinking. “They had jumped the gun by putting it on the schedule then said that I had to write something since it was already on the schedule.”

Cultural crossroads, indeed. Flushing has turned from upwardly mobile Jewish to Pan-Asian. Corona is multi-Hispanic. Nearby is Shea Stadium and soon the new Citi Field home of the New York Mets. Yuppies and their puppies have long-ago re-discovered Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. There are CUNY and other institutions now inhabiting former factories and warehouses in Long Island City. Want upscale shopping malls? Try Elmhurst. The diversified area has been featured in major newspaper articles, on radio and on television.

All of which is echoed by FTH’s programming: jazz, Latin, Broadway, photo and fine art exhibits, arts & crafts. The QJO was the next natural step. “The band is made up of the same quality musicians that I have in my own band,” Jimmy said. “The repertoire comes from the people who lived there. The idea is to have a touring organization under the banner QJO. Dates and venues have yet to be named. We have to crawl before we walk.”

REGRETS?: Jimmy made an appearance at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for an anniversary in 2007. Rev. Herbert Daughtry mentioned that he knew Jimmy from a certain period in both their lives and from a time and place of which Jimmy said, “I was stupid. I would like to relive that period when I had a problem with drugs. I would take out those four or five years and use them productively.”

UNFINISHED?: “Just to continue enjoying life. I have five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.”


With “The Queens Jazz Orchestra” now off to a good start with the success of it’s inaugural concert the plans for the future are almost writing themselves.

”Flushing Council on Culture & The Arts” is planning a “Jazz Camp” next year at “Flushing Town Hall” that will utilize “Queens Jazz Orchestra” members to teach jazz improvisation, harmony, history and technique to students who aspire to become proficient jazz players and perhaps pursue careers as professionals.

Plans to bring the Queens Jazz Orchestra on tour are already in motion and requests to book the ensemble are coming in. The Orchestra would like to perform at the major Jazz Festivals abroad including the Montreux Jazz Festival and festivals in Japan and India, as well as colleges in the United States.

Flushing Town Hall is planning a cruise for the orchestra, “The Queens Jazz Orchestra Jazz Cruise” for 2009, which will be an evening of music; dining and dancing departing from the Flushing Marina and the orchestra will have some special guests performing with them to spice up the summer night.


July 05, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 David Marriott // Jul 06, 2008 at 09:44 PM
    I loved your article -- I recently did a recording session with Jimmy Heath after being a fan for many years, and it was truly an honor -- he told a little story-poem about one of his compositions at one of the rehearsals, and he was kind enough to do it on camera -- I hope you enjoy! http://youtube.com/watch?v=-nEWPtp7GJ8 All the best, Dave Marriott
  • 2 Ole Hall // Jul 27, 2008 at 02:28 PM
    I enjoyed your article about Jimmy Heath very much. I have been a fan of Jimmy's for 35 years. I have met him and Mona several times - they are wonderful people. It's strange that you mention "The Afro-American Suite of Evolution". I have read about the 3 times it has been played and I have tried to get a copy if someone has recorded it - but no luck. Sincerely Ole Hall, Denmark