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Bassist Percy Heath Dies

Bassist Percy Heath died yesterday morning in Southampton, N.Y. from bone cancer at age 81.

Heath was best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet. He played with the quartet for its four-decade existence, along with leader and pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and drummer Kenny Clarke (later succeeded by Connie Kay). Heath also recorded with musicians including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Heath was born on April 30, 1923 in Wilmington, N.C. and grew up in Philadelphia. His family was a musical one: his father was a clarinetist, his mother a singer in a church choir and his two younger brothers also went on to become professional musicians. After studying violin as a child, Heath took up bass as a student at the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia in 1946 and was performing in local jazz clubs within a couple months.

In 1947, he and his brother Jimmy moved to New York and in 1950, both joined Dizzy Gillespie’s group. In 1952, Heath formed the Modern Jazz Quartet with three other Gillespie alumni, Lewis, Jackson and Clarke.

After the Modern Jazz Quartet broke up in 1974, Heath and brothers Jimmy and Albert started the Heath Brothers, a group that specialized in free jazz, a stark contrast to the traditional Modern Jazz Quartet. The Heath Brothers continued until the Modern Jazz Quartet reunited in the early ’80s.

Heath is survived by his wife, June; his sons Percy III, Jason and Stuart; and his two brothers.

Originally Published