Up until 1952, Jimmy Heath's instrument was the alto saxophone. A fast study, Jimmy sounded almost identical to Charlie Parker, earning him the nickname "Little Bird." But the novelty of mimicking Parker soon wore thin, especially as the tenor saxophone emerged in the early 1950s as the more popular reed instrument. So Jimmy made the switch, and in 1953 began recording a series of important sessions with Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Kenny Dorham. By late 1953, Jimmy was fast on his way to becoming one of the best-known saxophonists of the period. [Photo of Jimmy Heath in July 2009 by Paul Slaughter]
Then everything came crashing down. In 1954, Jimmy was arrested and convicted for drug possession and spent 4 1/2 years in prison. While serving time, Jimmy continued to play and compose. But by the time he was released in 1959, Jimmy had missed out on what's arguably the most important period in modern jazz history. Today, Jimmy looks back and views those years as just another chapter in his life, albeit an unfair one.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Jimmy, the legendary tenor saxophonist talks about Miles Davis and the niche he carved out, playing the baritone saxophone on two recordings, his admiration for trumpeter Kenny Dorham, his incarceration, and how Chet Baker wound up recording an album in 1956 that featured Jimmy's jailhouse compositions:
JazzWax: When you recorded with Miles Davis in 1953, you switched to tenor saxophone. Why?
Jimmy Heath: I had switched to tenor a little earlier. I did that to get my own thing. I wanted to be Jimmy Heath, not Bird [Charlie Parker]. The tenor was the way to get an identity. It also was an economic move. The tenor was the fourth instrument hired around Philadelphia after a rhythm section. They wouldn't hire no alto in the early 1950s. They wouldn’t hire a trumpet either. And [laughing] they sure wouldn’t hire no trombone. If it wasn’t the guitar, it was a tenor as the fourth instrument. When I switched, work picked up for gigs.
JW: What was Miles Davis like back then?
JH: Miles said the only reason he didn’t play like Dizzy is because he couldn’t. Miles wanted to play like Dizzy, but he found his own niche.
JW: What was that niche?
JH: Ballads. Miles loved Freddie Webster, who had played with Jimmie Lunceford. Freddie was a guy with a beautiful sound. Miles knew him. Freddie didn’t make but a few recordings in the 1940s, and all were historic for trumpet players. Freddie got a sound curve that Miles wanted to get. Nobody wants to be just like someone else. But they’re inspired by their predecessors, and they learn what they did. Then they come up in a matter of time with their own sound. Nobody can play sax like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Hank Mobley. But eventually you get your own sound. Clifford Brown loved Fats Navarro, and Lee Morgan loved Clifford Brown. But each had his own thing. It’s a continuum. Miles was very talented in organizing groups and stylistically moving forward.
JW: Did you enjoy listening to Davis when you played with him?
JH: Oh yeah. But when I was with him, he was missing notes and stuff, but you know, we all had to crawl before we could walk.
JW: Missing notes or leaving notes out?
JH: No, it actually was missing notes. Miles played with such a good feeling that no one cared about the missing notes. He showed that it’s about the feeling, not about perfection. [Photo of Miles Davis: Herman Leonard Photography LLC]
JW: Is it hard not to get caught up on perfection?
JH: You have to learn to let things go. When you practice and try to get everything in there perfectly, you wind up kind of stiff.
JW: You played baritone sax with J.J. Johnson and Clifford Brown in 1953, on Turnpike and Sketch One.
JH: [Laughs] I played a couple of tracks on baritone. They were John Lewis’ compositions, and he asked me to do that.
JW: What did you think?
JH: Eh [pause, followed by laughter]. I just got the horn and tried it, you know.
JW: What did you think of the baritone? Too big?
JH: Oh yeah. I didn’t even want to carry it around. I could just about carry this tenor [laughs]. I had already played with Clifford [pictured] around Philly before this record date and before he went with Max and made his rep. He always was a Fats Navarro follower, and I had heard Fats. But you knew immediately Clifford was exceptional.
JW: What made Brown exceptional?
JH: His facility. And his mind. And his ideas, and his sound.
JW: You also recorded with Kenny Dorham in late 1953.
JH: Kenny was a romantic composer of the bebop generation. He and Tadd Dameron wrote the most beautiful melodies. Most people aren’t aware that Kenny was a guy who could play the tenor sax, piano and the trumpet—and compose and sing.
JW: Why isn’t Dorham better known and celebrated?
JH: Again, it gets back to the system of No. 1. Fats didn’t get the same as Miles. If you’re not No. 1, people don’t think there’s much value, and you’re forgotten. It’s a crazy world.
JW: Dorham was kind of low-key, yes?
JH: No. What do you mean, “low key?”
JH: Not really. Miles was no gregarious guy, either. Kenny Dorham [pictured] was great. He was one of my favorite guys to play with. I liked his whole musical knowledge. He was a person I would want to be considered. He was a person who could write, play, orchestrate and do all of the phases of music.
JW: You were shaped by trumpet players, weren’t you?
JH: Nooo. It's just that the trumpet and tenor sax was the instrumental combination of the period. I also played with Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Art Farmer and so many others.
JW: When you practice, what do you do?
JH: Practice [laughs]. As a creative musician, when you practice, you are trying to find your own way of improvising and your own sound. You’re not reading anything. To be able to improvise is another kind of technique that needs a lot of work. Sometimes you take standards and improvise on them. Or you take sequences and work on them. You want to be able to play all over the instrument. You want to play everything you know in every key so that you’re fluent and articulate in what you’re doing when you stand up and create music on the spot. Improvisation is a life’s work.
JW: How does a musician's sound change over time?
JH: Well, physical problems emerge sometimes due to your teeth or body, sometimes for the worse mostly. But if you keep practicing, you can overcome the aging issues.
JW: How long will you practice today?
JH: An hour. Not as long as Trane but I don’t play as much stuff [laughs].
JW: Is there a jazz artist you wished you had played with?
JH: Yeah, Duke Ellington. We met when [tenor saxophonist] Paul Gonsalves was in the band. But I never had the opportunity.
JW: Your arrest for drug possession in 1954 must have been horrible.
JH: Oh yeah, it was. But you try to adjust to prison life and try to create as much as you can there. While I was there, I was still writing tunes. I wrote Picture of Heath and For Miles and Miles in prison. I got them out to Chet Baker by passing them to my brother Tootie. He gave them to Jimmy Bond, who was Chet’s bass player on gigs at the time. Jimmy gave them to Chet, and Chet and Art Pepper made an album [Playboys] that included mostly my songs.
JW: Was your sentence unfair?
JH: Sure there’s an unfairness to it. There’s an unfairness when you’re an addict and you sell something to somebody to support your habit. You’re not trying to get rich as a dope pusher. You’re an addict peddler. You’re selling drugs so you can get more. There should be a difference in that when it came to a sentence. But they didn’t care if you were creative or not. A lot of people had longer sentences than I did. I was in prison for 4 1/2 years. I think Gene Ammons and Frank Morgan were in for longer.
JW: Do you look back and resent that?
JH: What can you do? I can’t go back and change it. I had to restart my career, like the computer. When I came home, I had to restart. It was hard trying to catch up. You can’t catch up to the 4 1/2 years that are gone. Just missed. But you have to try.
JazzWax tracks: Jimmy Heath with the Miles Davis All Stars in 1953 can be found on Miles Davis Vol. 2 (Blue Note) as a download at iTunes. Jimmy with the J.J. Johnson Sextet featuring Clifford Brown, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke can be found on the Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Vol. 1 (Blue Note) as a download at iTunes and Amazon or here on CD. Jimmy plays alto and tenor saxophones on Kenny Dorham Quintet (Debut), featuring Dorham on trumpet, Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. The album is available as an iTunes and Amazon download or on CD here.
Chet Baker and Art Pepper's Playboys, featuring compositions by Jimmy Heath, has been reissued with a more politically correct title and cover image as Picture of Heath (Pacific Jazz). The sextet included Baker (trumpet), Pepper (alto sax), Phil Urso (tenor sax), Carl Perkins (piano), Curtis Counce (bass) and Lawrence Marable (drums). It's available as a download or on CD here.
JazzWax pages: Jimmy's autobiography, I Walked with Giants (Temple University Press) will be published January 28, 2010.