A Complete Jazzman

I am greatly indebted to Thomas Bellino, whose Planet Arts—a not-for-profit company involved in a network of educational and culturally awakening projects—includes Planet Arts Recordings. His latest release, Turn Up the Heath by the Jimmy Heath Big Band (planetarts.org), made me realize that in all these years writing about this music, I have ignored one of the most deeply satisfying and personal arranger-composers in jazz—especially evident when his instrument is a big band.

Jimmy Heath is hardly unrecognized. A 2003 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, he is greatly respected by his jazz peers. As George Wein says in the course of the indispensable DVD, Brotherly Jazz: The Heath Brothers (brotherlyjazz.com), “If you have to have an arranger, you call Jimmy. And if you need a saxophone player for a session, Jimmy is there.” But I wonder how many jazz listeners around the world know that, as Herbie Hancock emphasizes in the film, “Jimmy is a master composer.” In his notes to Turn Up the Heath, Jimmy writes, “My first love has always been the big band, our symphony orchestra.” But in his long and still vigorous career—encompassing his appearance on more than 125 recordings—he’s had far too few opportunities to record his arrangements (which are compositions) and his original pieces with a big band.

I first heard this set after many grim hours at my day job reporting on the Bush administration’s grievously distorting the essential separation-of-powers harmony of our Constitution. But as soon as the first notes of Turn Up the Heath came on, my spirits lifted, and I still feel the deeply flowing pulse of the music. It reminded me of what Dizzy Gillespie—a primary mentor of Jimmy’s—told me long ago: “It’s taken me most of my life to know what notes not to play.”

Jimmy knows the value of space. He lets the music breathe; and accordingly, the ensemble players and the soloists always sound like their natural selves—a multitude of individual voices cohering into a wholly distinctive conversation. Jazz, at its most enduring is, after all, constitutional democracy in action, with all of its individual stories becoming a mosaic of interdependence. And in Jimmy Heath’s writing, as intensely swinging as it often gets, there is an implicit obbligato of singing lyricism. Anyone who can write like this knows what he was born to do in this world.

Dr. Billy Taylor says of Jimmy (who years ago used to be called “Little Bird”), “He was the guy who was very melodic, and he really learned a lot from Charlie Parker, but he also learned a lot from other musicians who were older and…after he got over his Charlie Parker fixation, he was able to incorporate some Ben Webster and…Lester Young and other people who played other styles.”

In his composing-arranging as well as in his playing, Jimmy has indeed embodied jazz’s rainbow of sounds and stories. One of the results is that he is technically a master of the language. Jazz is a craft before it can become an art. And in the Brotherly Jazz documentary, Jon Faddis—of whom Dizzy Gillespie was also a fundamental mentor—says, “What’s amazing about Jimmy is he is one of the few guys who can, you know, tell you exactly what chord is going on, and what the voicing is, and you can set on the bandstand next to him and learn.”

Last year on Oct. 18, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, New York, saluted “legendary jazz artist and Professor Emeritus Jimmy Heath on his 80th birthday.” The concert consisted largely of Heath’s compositions. And in a press release, the school pointed out that “for many years, Jimmy Heath, along with Howard Brosky (trumpet) and Sir Roland Hanna (piano) were the foundation of our Master of Arts degree jazz program at Queens College.” Extending his contributions to this global music, there is a Jimmy Heath Scholarship Endowment at Queens College. (For more information: Edward Smalldone, the City University of New York, 65-30 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, NY 11367-1597.) Dizzy once told Jimmy, “You’ve got to keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future.”

In the liners, Jimmy also writes that he wasn’t able to make a complete big-band recording until 1992 “with help from my friend, Bill Cosby,” who produced the sessions. That Verve set, Little Man Big Band, won a Grammy nomination but has since been deleted. At last, this Planet Arts set “is a follow-up.” It’s a commentary on the jazz business that it wasn’t until Jimmy was nearly 80 that he could go into a studio and make this ageless recording. And that was because Planet Arts, as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 company, was able to get funding sources such as the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the New York State Council on the Arts.

“Jimmy has a lot more arrangements, including forward-looking ones,” Tom Bellino tells me, “and I’d be happy to raise money for another Jimmy Heath Big Band recording. He’s got more energy than anyone else I know, and it’s an honor for me to be working with these guys. I grew up listening to this music.” If only there were more Tom Bellinos in jazz. On the cover of the Brotherly Jazz DVD, Sonny Rollins says, “The Heath Brothers have made the world a better place. That’s what jazz is all about.” Tom Bellino understands that.

Originally published in March 2007

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