Book Review: I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath

Written by sax legend Jimmy Heath and Joseph McLaren

Master saxophonist/composer/arranger/educator Jimmy Heath’s extremely-articulate, plainly-written, eye-opening, earnest, raw, sometimes happy, often times, grim autobiography. I Walked With Giants (Temple University Press, 322 pgs.) is a must-read, guide to how to become a successful survivor.
It is a fascinating, wonderful story about a man, now in his eighties, a Philadelphia native, who fell in love with the saxophone when he was a teenager; began his professional career almost immediately after high school graduation and has had a very fulfilling, fruitful experience as a musician and college professor.

Heath started his career in late 1943, at 16-years-old, when he toured the South, Midwest and East Coast, with road bands such as Calvin Todd and Nat Towles. Three years later, he led his own big band in Philadelphia, which included a shy, green, just-in-town-from-North Carolina saxophonist named John Coltrane. Later, he performed and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Jimmy has taught at the Jazzmobile, a New York City-based program that has brought live jazz, instruction and education to the city’s neighborhood for decades, at Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, City College of New York, and is the retired director of the Jazz Studies master’s degree program in performance at Queens College (City University of New York). He received the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2003 and has been awarded three honorary doctorates.
He is also the brother of two well-known jazz musicians. His older brother, the late bassist Percy Heath (died at 81 in 2005), was known for his sturdy, tasteful bass line, and the time he spent with the popular Modern Jazz Quartet. Jimmy and Percy’s “baby brother’ Albert “Tootie” Heath, 74, is a durable drummer who lived in Europe for several years, where he was much-in-demand and the first-choice of fellow expatriates and touring jazz musicians from the States who needed a soulful, smooth swinger. In 1974, the trio formed The Heath Brothers, a group that is still performing and touring today. Their latest recording is fittingly called “Endurance” (Jazz Legacy, 2009). It is quite obvious, and his gleeful memories reflect it, that one of the happiest and highest points in Jimmy’s life was the formation of the Heath Brothers. It was something that they had talked about for a long time, so, when it happened, it was almost magical. He also seemed pleased that they signed with Columbia Records, a large company with the resources to record, promote and finance their touring.

“I don’t think my parents could have predicted that their three sons would all become professional musicians known as ‘The Heath Brothers.’” he wrote on the very first page. “Elizabeth (his sister) had her own names for us: ‘Lord Percy,’ ‘King James,’ and ‘Prince Albert.’ I guess it was her sarcastic way of ‘feeling a draft’ because she wasn’t in the music business.”

Both of the Heath Brothers’ supportive parents were music lovers and amateur musicians. Their mother, Arlethia, a Sumter, South Carolina native, sang in the church choir, and played music on the phonograph at home. Percy, Sr., their father, who was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, was a clarinet player. They met in Wilmington, and migrated to Philadelphia in 1924 shortly after Percy, Jr. was born. They both enthusiastically encouraged their four children (their sister Elizabeth was a pianist ) to learn to play an instrument. During the Great Depression of the 1930s and early 1940s, when things weren’t going so well financially for his parents, Jimmy and Percy,Jr. were sent down south to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with their father’s family who operated a thriving grocery store. Jimmy, (’43) and Percy (’40) graduated from all-black Williston Industrial High School, where they were very popular and excelled at academics. It was shortly after he enrolled at Williston, at Christmas time, when his father sent him a saxophone, after Jimmy told him he had joined the school’s marching band. Later, he started a group called The Jazz Barons, made up of Williston students. Heath credits his hard-working, honorable, humble parents with being the good role models that help him throughout his life.

Humility is a constant theme of I Walked With Giants. Heath has a way of heaping praise on everybody but himself,as if what he has done is no big deal. He is quick to write in glowing terms about his family—his parents, his wife, Mona, his brothers, children, Mtume, Roslyn and Jeffrey, and his fellow musicians. He has especially kind words for his first son, Mtume, who would follow his father into show business and become a musician, composer and hit music maker. But those who know him, know better, and are well aware that Jimmy is the epitome of excellence, discipline and determination.
He is also not afraid to talk about his bad times, when he was addicted to heroin and his almost five years spent in prison for drug possession. One of the most interesting passages in the book is when he described his first day at Lewisburg (Pennsylvania) Penitentiary, where he was given a I.Q. test, on which he scored 120. The prison warden, who knew Heath was a professional musician, assigned him to the mop squad. Jimmy said it was pure racism and throughout the autobiography he is quick to give examples of how racism has permeated his life. Yet, he never let it consume him because his values made him work harder to achieve his goals. Later, while still in prison, he wrote some of his best compositions and was able to form and direct a jazz band made up of inmates.

This is an excellent, easy-to-read, earthy autobiography, with a foreword by Bill Cosby, an introduction by Wynton Marsalis, photographs provided by Jimmy Heath, a selected discography, a chronology and an index. It ranks right up there with other notables, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promiseland. Written with Joseph McLaren, an author, English professor, editor and former Jazzmobile student, it also includes quotes from the many musicians and associates Jimmy met along the way. This is a book that is sure to be nominated for a Pulitzer or become the screenplay for a hit move. What a perfect title for a masterpiece! What a remarkable heartwarming story about a strong resilience man who not only walked with giants but whose life shows magnificently and clearly that he was and still is a giant.

1 Comment

  • Oct 27, 2014 at 03:21AM Eric Wattree

    In spite of the fact that Jimmy Heath is a well known and highly respected jazz musician, he's still one of the most underrated saxophone players of a heroic time. I can't say enough about the crisp and biting tone that he brought to the tenor saxophone, and also, the depth of his soul and dazzling articulation. He was, and is, John Coltrane's musical brother and peer. He is now a living, breathing, monument to one of the greatest eras in jazz.

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