Sunday, January 19, 2020

Jimmy Heath Passes

Photo: Linda Rosier
He seemed timeless, he seemed ageless, he always looked happy – Jimmy Heath, saxophonist and composer, passed today (1/19/2020) at the age of 93. His career spanned over seven decades, starting in Wilmington NC and in his hometown of Philadelphia, PA, and taking him around the country and the world.  Perhaps best known for his group with his brothers, bassist Percy (1923-2005) and drummer Albert "Tootie" (born 1935), it's hard to keep track of the many musicians he played with and/or composed for but the names include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Milt Jackson, JJ Johnson, Warne Marsh, and the WDR Big Band plus many others.

Heath led small groups, had a delightful big band, gave countless workshops, and composed continuously.  Like many musicians who fell under the spell of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker in the late 1940s and early 50s, Heath was arrested for heroin possession and was himself a user.  A four-year jail term cured him of the addiction and he used his time off the "scene" wisely, composing, practicing, and playing.  Originally an alto player (he was called "Little Bird" for his sonic similarity to Parker), he switched to tenor in 1962 and picked up soprano as well as flute several years later.  Over the decades, Heath recorded for Riverside Records Xanadu Records, SteepleChase, CBS, Strata-East, and Jazz Legacy Productions (and others).

On a personal note, there was a time that every trip we went on to visit one of our daughters, the Heath Brothers were playing in a local club or concert venue.  Once at Chicago's Jazz Showcase, we arrived for the early show and our four family members were the only audience members.  Jimmy and "Tootie"talked with us for 15 minutes and then asked if they should start playing.  As soon as the Brothers plus pianist Jeb Patton and bassist David Wong started to play, more people wandered in but there were never more than 12 people in attendance.  Yet, the Quartet played as if there was a full house; in fact, they treated the audience to a full 60-minute set!  On our way out, we saw the crowd for the late set stretching down the block!

Jimmy Heath lived a good long life.  He not only composed jazz pieces but also ventured into the classical realm plus wrote an autobiography published in 2010 "I Walked With Giants."  To his credit, he always gave his full attention to the music and the audience, to his students, and to people who treated him fairly and honestly.  While his presence will certainly be missed, we have his long lifetime of music to enjoy!

Here is Mr. Heath with the WDR Big Band – he was six months shy of his 90th birthday when this was recorded:

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