Jimmy Heath: A Little Bird Told Me

The saxophonist looks back on highlights from a brilliant career that’s still very much in progress

Jimmy Heath honors his friend and Riverside Records employer Orrin Keepnews at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in September (photo by Alan Nahigian)
Jimmy Heath performs with the Heath Brothers
at New York’s Rockefeller Center in June 1977 (photo by Tom Marcello)
Jimmy Heath with Clark Terry (left) and Wynton Marsalis at Red Rodney’s memorial in June 1994; Saint Peter's Church, New York City (photo by Alan Nahigian)
Jimmy Heath in 1961, a year after releasing his first large-ensemble album, "Really Big!" (photo by Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images)
Heath Brothers: "Marchin' On"
Howard McGhee and Milt Jackson: "Howard McGhee and Milt Jackson"
Jimmy Heath: "Little Man Big Band"
Jimmy Heath: "Picture of Heath"
The Jimmy Heath Big Band: "Turn Up the Heath"
Jimmy Heath Quintet: "On the Trail"
Kenny Dorham Quintet: "Kenny Dorham Quintet"
Ray Brown/Milt Jackson: "Ray Brown/Milt Jackson"
The Jimmy Heath Orchestra: "Really Big!"
Art Farmer: "The Time and the Place"

1 of 14      Next

If you wanted to play “Six Degrees of Jimmy Heath,” you could keep going for quite a while.

Here’s just one way to start a round: In 1948 Heath led a big band in Philadelphia, for which he hired John Coltrane. The two saxophonists joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band the following year. Four years after that, when Heath was playing with Miles Davis in the Symphony Sid All-Stars, he introduced the trumpeter to his former employee. Within the last three sentences, jazz history has been made several times over.

That’s just one relatively short chain of events in Heath’s long career. His smart, inviting playing—as a leader, a sideman and a longtime member of the Heath Brothers band, which he founded with his siblings Percy and Albert (a.k.a. “Tootie”)—is enough on its own to make him a legend. But he’s also added a formidable number of compositions to the classic jazz canon, including “Gingerbread Boy,” “C.T.A.” and “Project S.” And his skills as an orchestrator are renowned: He was the closest thing to a house arranger Orrin Keepnews had at Riverside Records during a splendid run in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Narrowing a 70-year catalog of recordings down to a select few is a serious challenge—made even more complicated by the fact that he’s still making records like his latest, 2013’s excellent big-band album, Togetherness—but the good-natured Heath is happy to give it a go. Speaking from his apartment in Queens, his memories are overwhelmingly positive. But toward the end of the conversation, they take a melancholy turn. “There’s a lot of people on these records that are not here,” he says. “Cedar Walton shows up in my mind every day. I named my autobiography I Walked With Giants, and he was one of them. Along with Dizzy, Miles, Trane, Paul Gonsalves, Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson…” He trails off, exhales forcefully and lapses into silence.

A few seconds later, he’s back with a more chipper remark: “I’m very fortunate to still be on the planet at 9-0.” And still sharp as an Yves Saint Laurent suit, if the following recollections are anything to go by.

Howard McGhee/Milt Jackson
Howard McGhee and Milt Jackson (recorded 1948, released 1955 on Savoy)
McGhee, trumpet; Jackson, vibraphone; Heath, alto and baritone saxophones; Will Davis, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Joe Harris, drums

Bags [Jackson’s nickname] and I made a lot of albums together, but this was the first one. In those early days—I was 21—Howard was one of the most important musicians I worked with, one of the first who really had a rep. He was the bebopper from California. Before this recording, I’d worked some gigs with him at the Argyle Show Lounge in Chicago. The cat who owned the club gave us a check that’s still bouncing, and when we went back out there to complain, he opened his coat and showed us his gun. That’s what I remember most about playing with Howard McGhee.

Howard and Bags were the guys that started calling me “Little Bird.” I was still playing alto, and I was trying my best to play like the master, Charlie Parker. Of course everybody was trying to play like him at that time, because Bird had blown everybody’s mind, so Howard and Bags were showing me some respect by giving me that title. As far as I’m concerned, though, I didn’t make out so well being “Little Bird.” I had a couple of his licks, clichés that I’d learned, but other than that I was just beginning to find my direction in the bebop style. I don’t remember much else about this band, but I do know that it didn’t last. The session was in February ’48, and I went to Paris with Howard in May of that year, but Milt didn’t come with us.

Kenny Dorham Quintet
Kenny Dorham Quintet (Debut, 1954)
Dorham, trumpet and vocal; Heath, tenor and baritone saxophones; Walter Bishop, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums

Kenny was one of my favorite trumpet players and one of my favorite partners in music. I loved his orchestrations and his compositions. I look on him and Tadd Dameron as the great romantic writers of the bebop generation.

At that session with Howard McGhee in ’48, I played baritone for a couple of tunes, and that was the first time ever that I’d recorded on baritone. This album with Kenny was one of the very few other times I played baritone on record. He asked me to play it on “Be My Love.” Being 5-foot-3, it’s not too often that I’d be asked to play the baritone saxophone; it was too big for me! I think I did just three sessions with it. Three strikes and I’m out.

The Jimmy Heath Orchestra
Really Big! (Riverside, 1960)
Heath, tenor saxophone; Nat Adderley, cornet; Clark Terry, flugelhorn and trumpet; Tom McIntosh, trombone; Dick Berg, French horn; Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Pat Patrick, baritone saxophone; Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Albert Heath, drums

This wasn’t my first album as a leader, but it was my first album leading a larger group, a tentet, almost a big band. I wanted to do a record with an instrument that I really grew to love, and that’s the French horn. I liked the way it fit into the ensemble, and I’ve used it on several albums since. Adding Dick Berg to the lineup made four brass and three reeds, with Clark Terry playing the lead. That was the time when Clark told me, “I’ll play on any of your records for union scale.” He was already a big-name artist, and that was very important to me, that someone as large as he was would do that just because he liked my music. His playing knocked me to my knees.

I got bogged down with the arrangements at one point, so Tom McIntosh arranged Bobby Timmons’ tune “Dat Dere” for me. He wasn’t just a great trombone player, he was also a great composer and arranger. And Pat Patrick, the father of [former Massachusetts governor] Deval Patrick, played baritone. He told me at that session, “Man, you know if you’ve been on the Earth a long time, you got long gravity.” And eventually I named a song after what Pat said, “Long Gravity,” which became the Heath Brothers’ theme song.

Jimmy Heath Quintet
On the Trail (Riverside, 1964)
Heath, tenor saxophone; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Albert Heath, drums

I played with Miles for a month or two in 1959 after Trane left. That was with Cannonball and Wynton and Paul and Philly Joe Jones, and I said, “Oh, my goodness.” A little later, those guys convinced Orrin Keepnews to sign me. They said, “Coltrane’s with Blue Note now; you better get Jimmy Heath for Riverside.” So when I started making my own records for Riverside, I wanted to bring those guys in. Especially Wynton, the way he plays those triplets. A friend of mine in Philly said, and I agree, that he plays teardrops in his solos. They’re just dripping down.

On the Trail has a ballad called “Vanity” on it. I played that one because Sarah Vaughan had a hit with it, and Trane and I both loved to listen to her doing those ballads. Later on, I met the cat who wrote that song, Bernie Bierman. He lived to be over 100, and he said that my recording of “Vanity” knocked him out.

I got hooked up with the song “On the Trail” by playing with Donald Byrd. He had an arrangement of it and we were supposed to record it for Alfred Lion at Blue Note. Then Alfred and Donald got into a dispute, and Donald walked out of the record date. I said, “Well, I’m gonna record this arrangement.” Everybody thought it was mine, but that was Donald’s arrangement, with a line that comes from [Gabriel Fauré’s] Pavane. Kenny Burrell plays that line on my recording. It wasn’t supposed to be played by a guitar in Donald’s version, so that was probably my idea.

Ray Brown/Milt Jackson
Ray Brown/Milt Jackson (Verve, 1965)
Big-band session including Brown, bass; Jackson, vibraphone; Heath, tenor saxophone; Clark Terry, trumpet and flugelhorn; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Ray Alonge, French horn; Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Grady Tate, drums; arranged and conducted by Heath and Oliver Nelson

I arranged one half of that record, and Oliver Nelson arranged the other half. For some reason, Oliver had a whole big band and I only got a tentet. When I found that out, I said, “Oh shit, they cheated me!” And Oliver insisted on using minor seconds in his orchestration all the time, that crunchy harmony, which was a pet peeve with Milt Jackson. Bags had perfect pitch, so the minor seconds rubbed him wrongly. He’d be like, “Are you playing E or F or what?” Later he told me, “Look, Bermuda”—he called me that—“I like your side of the record better than Oliver’s.”

One of my originals is on there, “Dew and Mud.” That was written for Miles Dewey Davis and Muddy Waters, because the lick that starts it off—bing-bong!—was one of Muddy Waters’ licks that Miles used to play on the trumpet. Clark does a solo on that one—oh yeah! That was a nice record. I really liked Mr. Brown. I first met him in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1945, when I was with Nat Cole. We were trying to get him to come with us then, but next thing we knew he was with Dizzy, and that was the end of that. Grady Tate’s on that record too. I called him Gravy Taker because he was on all the gigs.

Art Farmer Quintet
The Time and the Place (Columbia, 1967)
Farmer, flugelhorn and trumpet; Heath, tenor saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Mickey Roker, drums

We did part of that record in the studio and part of it playing outside at the Museum of Modern Art [in New York]. I remember doing “Shadow of Your Smile”—my mother used to like that song, so I would play it a lot. And my tune “One for Juan” is on there. That was from a commercial that got to me, about [fictional Colombian coffee farmer] Juan Valdez. “The finest coffee beans in South America!” But actually it was something else that I was talking about besides coffee beans [laughs].

I’ll tell you something about Art Farmer: If he didn’t get paid on a gig, he’d still pay the sidemen. He’d say, “The club didn’t hire you, I hired you.” He was that kind of person. He gave me a bunch of addresses in Europe, so I could just write a letter and go over there and play for three or four weeks with different rhythm sections and make a nice taste. Good guy. And if you wrote an original composition for Art Farmer, the first time he’d play it, reading through the chord changes, would damn near be the perfect solo. A lot of people, in my experience, would have to run over it a few times before they got a solo they liked. But Art could read chords like he read the notes. He was exceptional.

Jimmy Heath
Picture of Heath (Xanadu, 1975)
Heath, tenor and soprano saxophones; Barry Harris, piano; Sam Jones, bass; Billy Higgins, drums

This was done just before the Heath Brothers started. I love my brother Percy’s playing, but he got so classically oriented with John Lewis in the Modern Jazz Quartet that he’d walk for a few bars and say, “That’s enough.” Whereas Sam Jones was one of the walkin’-est bass players I’ve ever played with. He walked to heaven, and he’s walkin’ there now. Homes, we called him.

Picture of Heath is one of the only records that I made with a regular quartet, using piano instead of guitar. I didn’t make more records like that because I love all the instruments, not just the tenor. If the tenor takes the first solo and the piano takes the second one every time, that’s boring to me. I like the French horn, the cello. I like a sax section; I like a brass choir. Why be so stuck on the tenor? But that’s how a lot of people made their rep, in the quartet: Dexter, Sonny, Coltrane. When Trane was in my big band, he wrote an arrangement for “Lover Man.” I said, “Man, I love this arrangement—why don’t you write some more like this?” And he said, “Aw, Jim, I ain’t got time for that. I’m too busy practicing.” So he had a different outlook.

The Heath Brothers
Marchin’ On (Strata-East, 1975)
Heath, tenor and soprano saxophones, flute; Stanley Cowell, piano and mbira; Percy Heath, bass and “baby bass”; Albert Heath, drums, flute and African double-reed instrument

That was the first Heath Brothers album. Stanley Cowell had started the Strata-East label with Charles Tolliver, and they engaged us to do a record. It was a family affair, and we adopted Stanley because we thought he was amazing. That was a different type of record for us. We recorded it while we were on tour in Oslo, Norway. We used to get on the train and travel around Europe, and we’d be playing in these cabins on the train. Percy played a bass with a cello body that Ray Brown created, Tootie and I played flutes, and Stanley played a chromatic African thumb piano. People would stop and listen to us on these trains going from one country to the next, and it was something that they liked. It was like a chamber-music group. So we decided to include that sound on the record.

The piece I wrote for Marchin’ On was “Smilin’ Billy Suite,” which is dedicated to Billy Higgins, because he smiled all the time and he made everybody else in the room smile. Billy had a time feel that was immaculate. It wasn’t loud, but he could make you feel what he was playing. One of the sections of that suite was sampled later by Nas [for the 1994 track “One Love”], and that turned out good because it kindled new interest in the group.

After Marchin’ On we moved to CBS, and that period was very important. That was the first time we’d used overdubbing. We brought my son Mtume in to play with us, we got nominated for a Grammy, and every album sold more than the one before. Then Expressions of Life [1980] sold 40,000—the most of all—and they fired us! But I understand. We were going up against Billy Joel and Michael Jackson, who were selling millions, and we couldn’t compete with that.

Jimmy Heath
Little Man, Big Band (Verve, 1992)
Big-band session including Heath, tenor and soprano saxophones; Lew Soloff, trumpet; Jerome Richardson, alto saxophone; Billy Mitchell, tenor saxophone; Tony Purrone, guitar; Roland Hanna, piano; Ben Brown, bass; Lewis Nash, drums

Back in ’47, ’48, I loved the big-band sound. This was my return to that sound, but it was my first recording with a big band under my own name. I had a great saxophone section, with Jerome playing lead alto and Billy Mitchell, my buddy from way back. Tony’s playing guitar on there too; we fell in love when he joined the Heath Brothers. He’s another perfect-pitch guy like Bags, who can play anything in any key that you want. I really was proud of that record.

I love to dedicate my songs to people I really dig. On Little Man, Big Band, there’s “Trane Connections” for John, “Forever Sonny” for Sonny Rollins, “Without You, No Me” for Dizzy, my mentor, and “The Voice of the Saxophone” for Coleman Hawkins, who was the headliner the first time I went on a tour to Paris, when I was with Howard McGhee.

The Jimmy Heath Big Band
Turn Up the Heath (Planet Arts, 2006)
Big-band session including Heath, tenor saxophone; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Slide Hampton, trombone; Lew Tabackin, flute; Antonio Hart, alto and soprano saxophones, flute; Charles Davis, tenor saxophone; Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone; Jeb Patton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums

Jeb Patton was my student at Queens College, and he became the Heath Brothers’ pianist for the last 16 years. We love him madly. Antonio Hart was another student of mine. As for Charles Davis, he and I go back a long way. I used to tell him, “When you take a solo and you hear the rest of the band come back in, that’s your last chorus.” But Charles would not stop. So I started calling him LPCD: Long Playing Charles Davis.

I went back to an old tune of mine for this one, “Gemini.” Lew Tabackin does the flute solo on it. I call him Chew Tobacco, because when he plays tenor, he looks like he’s chewin’ the reed. I got a name for everybody [laughs].