The Heath Brothers: 3 At Last

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Jimmy Heath
By Andrew Lepley
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Percy Heath
By Andrew Lepley
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Albert Heath
By Andrew Lepley

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If swinging good taste and the pursuit of the good groove in service to impeccable compositions and arrangements are to your liking, then clap hands ’cause the Heath Brothers have reunited on the heels of As We Were Saying on Concord Records. One of the first families of jazz, the Heaths of Philadelphia have been contributing mightily to the jazz language since the late ’40s. After a stint in the military, inspired first by his musical parents and perhaps also by the successful example of his younger brother Jimmy, Percy purchased a bass fiddle in 1946 and by 1949 had moved to New York and was hanging out on Sugar Hill jamming with such fellow neighborhood aspirants as Art Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew and Jackie McLean. In the meantime sax and flute man Jimmy began playing in dance bands around Philly in 1943, right out of high school. Youngest brother Albert slaked his thirst for rhythm by taking up the traps.

All three became successful in their own right. Percy went on to freelance with many of the bebop pioneers, then joined the fabled Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, whose rhythm section became the Modern Jazz Quartet after Percy succeeded Ray Brown, thus launching their 43-year-career. Jimmy, too, came under the spell of the great Gillespie, threw off the Little Bird moniker when he relinquished the alto sax in favor of the tenor, and became one of the music’s most dependable and underrated composer-arrangers. Albert, a.k.a. Tootie and a.k.a. Kuumba, molded himself into a highly sought after freelance trap drummer and percussionist, putting in notable stints with J.J. Johnson, the Jazztet, and a particularly brilliant late ’60s-early ’70s Herbie Hancock ensemble.

In 1976 the brothers came together to record Marchin’ On for pianist Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver’s musician’s co-op record label Strata East, with Cowell making for a quartet. They signed with Columbia, added a guitar chair for Tony Purrone and recorded Passing Thru. Tootie split, leaving the drum chair to Akira Tana, and the band went on to record three for Columbia and two for Antilles. Since then Jimmy and Albert have maintained their MVP status in any number of ensembles, with Jimmy also concentrating on his writing and teaching at Queens College.

In the early ’80s the MJQ re-formed, beckoning Percy back to their world of elegant sonorities, concert halls, and tuxedos. In ’93, when Connie Kay passed, Tootie was installed at the MJQ drum chair. Now the Heath Brothers are back together again as a unit. During recent separate conversations, I inquired as to this auspicious return. Anyone who has siblings will recognize the obvious warmth and love these three stellar musicians share, coupled with sparks of disagreement that give further life to such familial relationships.

Percy Heath: With the demise of the Modern Jazz Quartet I have time now to play with my brothers. It happened once before, in the ’70s, and it was interrupted by the resumption of the Quartet, so I told Jimmy to just go ahead and do his thing because I was re-committed to something we had put a quarter of a century into.

Is the MJQ officially retired this time?

P.H.: Oh yeah, after 43 years as far as I’m concerned it’s permanent.

Jimmy Heath: With the MJQ on another hiatus, or whatever, we figured it was time for us to get back together again.

Albert Heath: The MJQ disbanded after the 1995 tour. After Connie’s death that knocked out a major player; those guys had been together like husband and wife for all of those years and it’s really difficult for anybody to step in there and go along like everything’s alright. Connie was a major player in that group and he was a hard act to follow. That left Percy free to play with [the Heath Brothers band]. I spoke to John Burk of Concord Records when we were in Japan in ’95 with the MJQ for a Concord concert. I said I’d like to do a CD with my brothers and they thought it was wonderful!

Do you find there’s a different philosophy or approach when you’re playing with your brothers in the band, as opposed to other bands you play in?

J.H.: When I’m playing with the Heath Brothers there’s an emotional tie that I don’t get when I’m playing with other people.

A.H.: We have a certain musical bond and I feel that we have a duty to carry on this tradition that our father and mother passed on to us. Jimmy has been the writer of the family through the years, he has established himself as a major writer. Percy has been a major part of the MJQ—that’s been his trip. My trip has been freelancing and playing with lots of different people in lots of different situations. So I think we bring these three elements in our own personalities to the Heath Brothers, and it makes it unique.

P.H.: There’s no adjustments to make; there’s a saxophone to play with and there’s different drum sounds. No there’s no philosophy, you just adjust to what the situation is.

Is there a Heath Brothers sound?

P.H.: I’m sure if we keep performing people will know who we are when they hear us, as opposed to some of these other groups that really don’t have any identity. Jazz players express things that they experience in life ultimately. You could always tell Lester Young from Coleman Hawkins, and you could name ten other saxophone players that had personal identifications, they had their language and how they express themselves. It seems that some of that identity is lost now with young people that come out of music schools playing scales and sequences. They have yet to decide what to play and what not to play.

A.H.: There is a [Heath Brothers] sound, but we really don’t demand that the sound is a certain way.

J.H.: Because of the instrumentation there’s a sound. When Percy plays with the Heath Bros. he’s allowed to play the baby bass that he wasn’t allowed to play with the MJQ, so that gives us that particular sound.

For a significant period during the late ’70s and early ’80s that sound was stoked and fed by the drums of Akira Tana. In an interview during that first Heath Brothers incarnation, I asked Percy about Albert and the group and he responded that his younger brother was off doing other things and didn’t have time or inclination for the Heath Brothers band.

A.H.: [Laughs] That’s typical brother stuff…all brothers have kind of that same thing going: the Marsalis Brothers, the Jones Brothers…It’s got something to do with who’s the oldest. Percy has always been labeled as the most successful, so whatever he says has been word in our family. Percy has had some monumental achievements in his life. Percy’s in another place with his tolerance of other people’s choices. That’s my older brother and it just doesn’t go any further than that. I’ve learned how to tolerate that just as he’s learned how to tolerate me. With Percy, I think after all these years I know how not to irritate him. With Jimmy I’m a little less tolerant, because he flirts. He’s the next person in line in terms of being open. He agrees to a lot of things, he plays the game like I do. Percy is not quite that flexible, everything is black and white for him.

Tootie, since your experiences have been a bit more wide and varied, and as the youngest brother, would you say you are the most open to new ideas and new musics?

A.H.: They’re open in their way and I’m open in my way. We have one common ground, and that’s the bebop era which all of us have allegiance to. Because of the nature of the instrument I play I could not ignore the culture and the African experience, and of course the history that goes along with it. I’m not saying they ignored it, but it has been an integral part of my development.

Percy, since the Heath Brothers now appear to be an occasional recording and touring unit once again, and coming off an unprecedented 43 years with one band, why does band longevity seem so fleeting these days, is it a matter of simple economics?

P.H.: It’s also dedication to what the persons are doing. Like for instance Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry were together forever because they believed in what they were doing, until other situations came up where they went on to separate things. When I first heard Ornette and Don with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, those four people practically slept together [laughs], and got their thing together. The Modern Jazz Quartet was so strong and different musically, and we had built an audience over the first 22 years to support us financially. In that respect it was successful enough to keep us together. And then the dedication to what we were trying to do had a lot to do with it.

Jimmy, as the major composer in the family, do you write differently for the Heath Brothers band than you would for other situations?

J.H.: There’s not much difference in the compositional aspect because the compositions that I’ve been writing and have always written are usually dedications to some human being that I admire—family or musical talents, or incidents, Mandela, or whatever. So they have nothing to do with the Heath Brothers in particular, because those same compositions can be big band. You could take a composition and make it into whatever direction you want to. So once you get a composition that you’re satisfied with, then the arrangement and the instrumentation sort of dictates the direction.

How do you hope to keep the Heath Brothers fresh?

P.H.: Jimmy is constantly composing; we could go back to things he did for the earlier Heath Brothers records and do some of those things, they’re still fresh. Jazz is as fresh as the moment. Just because you’re playing the same composition, it’s constantly changing because improvisation is never the same. The [MJQ] has so many recordings of “Django” I can’t even begin to name them all, but other than the structure of the composition, it’s another piece every time we played it.

J.H.: I’ve got a different opinion than Percy in that I think music has become like the world is, more integrated. I always refer to Dizzy when he said that someday the musics would be one. I agreed with him because of the influx of other cultures adding their taste to the jazz scene, which I think is inevitable.

A.H.: I think to scale it down to just the three of us would be the freshest thing that we’ve ever done, because we don’t do that other than when I go over to Jimmy’s house and Percy comes over and the three of us play; I love it! I’m asking Jimmy to just concentrate on the three of us, with him playing the soprano, tenor; he also plays alto, piano, flute, guitar. I play drums, frame drums, hand drums, little keyboards, a little guitar, I’ve got an oud that I play. Percy plays the cello…It could be a very interesting and fresh record. We could make a fabulous record, but Jimmy’s dream is the bigger the better. But I learned from John Lewis in just the two years that I played in the Modern Jazz Quartet that less is best.

Originally published in January/February 1998

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