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Percy Heath


Percy Heath
Percy Heath

He was a musician-bassist extraordinaire, a husband, a father, a brother and an inspiration to younger aspiring bassists like me. I told myself years ago when I decided to pursue a career in jazz music that I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.

My first introduction to that big sound of his was from my record collection. Remember some of those wonderful gems from the 1950s that demonstrate many of his contributions to jazz from this early part of his career? Check out the hookup between Mr. Heath and Kenny Clarke on some of those nuggets as an example of that universal jazz standard–swing. It was obvious to everyone during this period that Percy Heath could swing you into “bad health.” The consistency of performance at the highest level, the strength of his pulse in the rhythm section and the purity of his tone, let alone the length of his notes, all demonstrated inspirational traits that would serve as a role model for succeeding generations of bassists.

I first heard him performing live in a concert by that seminally unique organization, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Everything that the MJQ played involved presenting music at the highest level of musicianship in venues of the highest class in a most dignified manner. The group’s impeccable style was perfectly suited to his artistic personality. I remember hearing one of their concerts at Stanford University in the late 1960s and being truly impressed by the classy musical presentation of these four gentlemen known as the MJQ. The dynamics of their performance were astonishing; I could hear every note from each of the instruments, including the bass fiddle, and they did it with only two talk microphones. (Yes, there was no bass amplifier and there were no stage monitors; if it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it).

Since then I was lucky enough to hear the MJQ live in various venues around this planet. Every concert had the same characteristics as the Stanford concert, as four very distinguished gentlemen would perform American classical music with great dignity. Mr. Percy Heath was one of those gentlemen.

Have I said anything about his involvement in community affairs, especially out in the Eastern end of Long Island, where he settled with his family in the early 1960s? Everywhere I go out there, everybody (or so it seems) knows Percy. I swear he had to be the unofficial mayor of Montauk. One of his passions, in fact, one of the main reasons that he went out there: fishing. I think every time I was out there and I called his home, he was out fishing, usually out there in his boat.

To show how small the world really is, several years ago a friend of mine, who is a postal-service employee who works at a substation near my home, told me about a fishing vacation he had recently had out in Montauk. He told me a story about a “gentleman” (his exact word) he had met while fishing from the shore. Both of them became entranced that day because the fish were running in massive schools along the shore and were practically flopping out onto the sand on their own. And, of course, it turned out that the gentleman was Percy, and he remembered that day and my postal-service friend. Of course, we had something else to talk about when, several years later, Percy’s photo showed up in a fishing magazine with a rather large fish he had caught. One can’t make this stuff up.

And the yearly art-society gatherings and shows out there at the Eastern end of Long Island? Did I mention anything about that?

Let me not forget the “band of brothers” that I was also fortunate to hear over these last 30 or so years. I remember hearing the Heath Brothers live for the first time at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the 1970s. At that concert I heard Jimmy, Percy, Tootie and Stanley Cowell play Percy’s composition “The Watergate Blues” live. This was one of the tunes that was on what was their then current (and first) recording on Strata-East called Marchin’ On! (That was the first edition of the Heath Brothers band that continues on today. I warned you about that record collection of mine.) On it Percy plays an instrument that was called the baby bass. In later years he would call it a cello. He always played that cello with the same big sound and infectious great feel and spirit that he had when he played the bass.

“Quelle inspiration!” So the French say. His artistry has been a continuing source of inspiration for me for a long time. God bless Mr. Percy Heath.

Originally Published