Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath is best known as the timeless anchor of the famed Heath Brothers band. When Jimmy's brother and bassist Percy died in 2005, Jimmy and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath continued on, and their most recent album, Endurance, is a perfect example of how greatness only improves with age. On the CD of originals and standards, Jimmy exhibits a firm, smoky sound while Tootie's touch remains shrewd and motivating.
Jimmy's career began in the mid-1940s, and he played with virtually every modern jazz trumpeter, including Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Art Farmer and Freddie Hubbard. Jimmy's career was interrupted by a four-year prison sentence for narcotics possession in the mid-1950s, a period that would have destroyed most artists. Instead, Jimmy continued to compose and play during his incarceration, and he emerged determined to succeed and flourish.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Jimmy on the 1940s and 1950s, the 82-year-old tenor saxophonist talks about growing up in two cities, starting on the alto sax, joining Howard McGhee in 1948 and how he and his brother Percy came to the attention of Dizzy Gillespie in 1949:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Jimmy Heath: In Philadelphia. There were four of us—my sister, Percy, Tootie and me. My father was an auto mechanic, but for a period we were on welfare. It was the Depression.
JW: Why did you initially choose the alto sax?
JH: I had heard Johnny Hodges [pictured] and Benny Carter, and later Jimmy Dorsey. The alto just appealed to me. I began playing in high school, in the marching band, for football games. I played the fight songs of all the colleges I couldn’t attend economically or racially, like On Wisconsin! and Notre Dame Victory March and so on. I also had a couple of private teachers and learned from mentors and the band director down in North Carolina.
JW: You mean Philadelphia, no?
JH: No, Wilmington, N.C. My older brother Percy and me used to go down there to live with my grandparents and go to high school there. Because of the economic problems my father had in Philadelphia. My grandmother and grandfather ran a grocery store that supplied all the teachers who taught at the black high school. They were like the neighborhood store where teachers would get things on credit. Percy and I would stay with my grandparents during the school year and then go back to Philadelphia in the summer.
JW: Could you read music at that time?
JH: I began to learn. I learned in high school. My private teacher was in Philadelphia, so I’d study more intensively when I’d return home in the summer.
JW: Did learning to read music come easy?
JH: No, no, no. It took time. Nothing that’s good is ever easy [laughs]. After graduating from high school in 1943, I put together a band in Philadelphia. We played locally and out of town once in a while. We played swing and dance music. Bebop was just beginning, and I didn't hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy until 1945. [Pictured: Philadelphia in 1940]
JW: When did you lead your first serious band?
JH: In 1947. I had a couple of well-known guys in there. I had trumpeters Johnny Coles and Bill Massey, who knew John Coltrane and introduced me to him. And I had tenor saxophonist Benny Golson [pictured] and bassist Nelson Boyd. Percy couldn’t play the bass that well that yet. He had just gotten out of the service. Percy was drafted in 1944 and became a Tuskegee Airman, a second lieutenant, a pilot. We played a lot of cheap little gigs in bars and at dances occasionally. That was a way to survive. Specs Wright was our drummer. Looking back, it was almost like a feeder band into Dizzy’s orchestra. Nelson, Coltrane, Golson, Specs and myself—we all eventually went with Dizzy's band.
JW: Your earliest recordings were with Howard McGhee in 1948.
JH: McGhee [pictured] was a very nice guy. He was the first one to get me on the road as a professional musician, before I got with Dizzy in 1949. By the time I was with Howard, I was copying Charlie Parker and sounded so much like him that they called me "Little Bird."
JW: Did you like being called Little Bird?
JH: I felt great about it at the time because he was the man. Later I wanted to get my own reputation going, which is still very difficult. When you're an alto player and you come from the Charlie Parker school of playing, it’s hard to get away from it regardless of what instrument you change to. I changed to tenor, but I’m still playing some Charlie Parker in there.
JW: Was McGhee frustrated as a trumpeter in the shadows of Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis?
JH: Not at all. Howard and Fats lived together and made records together in late 1948. The thing is, we have a system in this country that promotes No. 1. “He’s No. 1.” “You’re No. 1.” “We’re No. 1.” When the culture rewards No. 1, it means everyone else is nothing. It’s corny the way they rate things. Because No. 3 could come up and kick your butt the next day [laughs]. Everybody has something to offer. Howard McGhee made a living out of music. He just tried to play and enjoy himself as a human being. That’s what we do. If musicians worried about the polls, we’d go nuts. Everyone can’t be No. 1.
JW: You and your brother Percy went with McGhee to Paris in May 1948.
JH: Howard was one of my heroes. We actually flew to Paris.
JW: Was flying scary?
JH: Sure was. First time? Seventeen hours to get there? In May 1948? On a jet prop—not a jet. Jets weren’t there yet. It was called a Constellation. We had to stop in Newfoundland to refuel and stop again at Shannon Airport in Ireland for more fuel before going on to Orly Airport in Paris. I was scared to death with the fire coming out of the back of the jet engines. Percy was telling me, “Be cool, James, it’s alright” He had been a pilot, so he knew what was going on. He calmed me down.
JW: How long were you in Paris with McGhee?
JH: Only a week. It was the first jazz festival. I don’t understand how documentation says that the one with Miles [Davis] was the first. This was a year before that, in May 1948. While we were there, we were big time. We were accepted. However, the headliner was Le Grand Coleman Hawkins. But the guy who got over best with the people was Erroll Garner, with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist John Collins. Erroll took the French by storm.
JW: How did the Paris experience change you?
JH: Even for that short period of time, we were accepted as artists, and it felt great to be respected that way. We weren’t getting that kind of respect here. You know, that’s all artists need, frankly.
JW: You joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1949. How were you hired?
JH: There was another fellow in my band named James Foreman. He was my piano player. He got with Dizzy's band also. Me and Percy used to follow Dizzy’s band, wherever they played. We would stand in front of the band with our artist ties and berets, imitating Dizzy’s guys. Dizzy kept saying, “Hey, there’s the Heath brothers from Philly.” Eventually, Dizzy and Gil Fuller, the band's arranger, decided to hire us. Coltrane and I got in within a month of each other. Both of us played alto because Dizzy’s two alto saxophonists had left. Coltrane had played alto in the navy band. [Photo of Dizzy Gillespie at McElroy's Ballroom in Portland, Ore, in 1949 by Al Monner]
JW: Did it feel good getting hired by Gillespie?
JH: Oh man, that was it. That was the top of the heap. Dizzy had the bebop, the new music, and his band was incredible musically. That was the top. I felt I had made it. Dizzy loved my playing. He said in his book To Be or Not to Bop that this was the best reed section he had had. It was me, Coltrane, Jesse Powell, Paul Gonsalves and Al Gibson. [Pictured at center, from left: John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath and Paul Gonsalves in Dizzy Gillespie's band; click to enlarge]
JW: What did Gillespie teach you musically?
JH: He’d say, “Hey, come here. Let me show you something on the piano.” The first time I had him at my home in Philadelphia, he showed me things on our piano. He said, “If you want to be an arranger and composer, you have to learn this keyboard.” He showed me harmonies that I still use. I can’t explain it for your interview but I can play it [laughs]. Very modern voicings on the piano. He’d voice chords differently than anyone else. He was the first to show me the 9th next to the 10th, and how to create note clusters and harmonic devices that I still use today.
JW: What made Dizzy special?
JH: Dizzy was a teacher all the time. Every day he was showing you something new rhythmically or harmonically on the piano. Dizzy was the most accessible genius I have ever met. Dizzy would stop to talk to the garbage man, kids, everybody. He was not a guy who had an entourage like some people. He was an ordinary human being with a world of talent. And he would give his talent to others. He would show you a lot of things. We all learned from Dizzy, and those who passed through Dizzy’s bands all went on to become the giants of the music.
Tomorrow, why Jimmy switched to tenor sax, the niche Miles Davis carved out for himself in the early 1950s, Jimmy's years in prison and how Picture of Heath wound up on a Chet Baker album.
JazzWax tracks: Jimmy Heath recorded on alto saxophone in the late 1940s and sounds remarkably like Charlie Parker. Jimmy's earliest recordings with Howard McGhee can be found on Howard McGhee 1946-1948. Jimmy appears on tracks 14-20 (with Earl Coleman on vocals on 14 and 15). You'll find a download here. His recordings in Paris with Kenny Clarke are tracks 1-4 on Kenny Clarke 1948-1950, a download here. Jimmy's recordings in Paris with Howard McGhee are tracks 8-20 (Al's Tune through Prelude to Nicole) on Howard McGhee: 1948, a download here. Jimmy with Dizzy Gillespie is on the downloadable Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra: 1949-1950, tracks 1-12 here.
JazzWax pages: Jimmy's autobiography, I Walked with Giants (Temple University Press) will be published January 28, 2010.