You can learn a lot about jazz hanging with 84-year-old Jimmy Heath. The saxophonist, arranger and bandleader has worked with nearly every important jazz musician of the postwar period, and his many compositions, including the jazz standards “Gingerbread Boy” and “C.T.A.,” are performed and recorded around the world. The Philly-born NEA Jazz Master spent many years teaching, and he’s shared a lifetime of behind-the-scenes stories in his recent autobiography, I Walked With Giants (Temple University Press). He is still actively playing and recording, and his latest release with his younger brother, drummer Tootie, is Heath Brothers: Endurance (JLP). This Before & After was conducted on Feb. 18 in front of a live audience at the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville, Md.
1. James Moody
“I’m in the Mood for Love” (from The Very Best of Prestige Records, Prestige). Moody, alto sax; Leppe Sundervall, trumpet; Thore Swanerud, piano; Yngve Akerberg, bass; Jack Noren, drums. Recorded in 1949.
BEFORE: It sounds like James Moody’s first version of “I’m in the Mood for Love.” What can I say? I’d been a friend of Moody’s since 1946, when he came to Philadelphia with Dizzy’s band. He’s still with me. We were in the same saxophone section many times and we called each other Section. And we were both indebted to the genius, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie. My whole life in music is dedicated to Dizzy. Moody felt the same way.
How did you feel about his alto playing vs. his tenor?
I liked Moody on all his instruments. I liked him on flute, but at the end of his life he backed away from the flute because it wasn’t classical sounding like Jean-Pierre Rampal. But it was James Moody on flute, and he had a jazz interpretation that was unique. I wrote a composition for Moody [“Moody’s Groove”] and the lyric tells the whole story. He was one of the most giving people I’ve ever met. He gave me hats, and he gave me dolls that played the saxophone, and mouthpieces and books. And Moody was a loving person to everybody. We went on tours together and you’d meet him at breakfast and he’d give you a kiss on both cheeks. At lunch, another kiss; at dinner, one more. I said he’s got more kisses than Hershey’s. He was all love—a beautiful person.
He has a unique sound. When he had his small group after Dizzy, he didn’t know all the changes. Others could tell you every chord in every song; Moody just had a big ear for music. That solo he played on “Emanon” with Dizzy? That’s a classic. But he wanted to learn to play by the changes, so he would ask me and some others who knew the inside of music, because we were writers. He’d say, “Section, show me how you do that.” And I’d show Moody stuff on the diminished chord, and he’d play it so fast. I still can’t play it as fast as he could. I showed it to him and he could outplay me on it. He was a person who could grasp anything he wanted. Tom McIntosh also showed Moody how to play by changes. When I wrote “Moody’s Groove,” he liked that.
2. Joe Lovano Us Five
“Passport” (from Bird Songs, Blue Note). Lovano, tenor saxophone; James Weidman, piano; Esperanza Spalding, bass; Otis Brown III, Francisco Mela, drums. Recorded in 2010.
BEFORE: It’s a Charlie Parker song. I remember hearing it from way back. I don’t know who that is but he’s got great technique. He can play fast. The intro is a little repetitive, but he’s got a good sound and I like it.
AFTER: I love Joe. I call him Joe Lo—you know, like J.Lo. He’s a good player. He can create idea after idea. We played gigs together. He creates, he doesn’t imitate.
3. Lee Konitz/Joe Henderson
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” (from The Lee Konitz Duets, Milestone). Konitz, alto saxophone; Henderson, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1967.
BEFORE: I like that counterpoint. I think it’s two different people and not overdubbing. I can appreciate that. You know, after being here for so many years, it’s hard to find people with individuality. Everybody sounds like somebody else.
But you don’t.
I’m old [audience laughter]. You know, I still sound like somebody. There’s some Charlie Parker licks in there.
AFTER: That didn’t sound like Lee. I know Joe. If I had heard either of them by themselves, I would have gotten it. But listening to both together, I was focused on the counterpoint and the lines they were playing against each other rather than who it is. I like both of them. Lee seems to have gotten a bigger sound since he’s gotten older. He’s got a warmer sound now. But that comes with age. Your vibrato gets a little wider. When Trane and I got together, we were trying not to have a vibrato.
I have a young student, Antonio Hart, who practices, and he’s working on his vibrato. He can play in the Johnny Hodges field and he can play in the Cannonball Adderley field. He’s very flexible. Once in a while he’ll use the double-lip embouchure like Hodges. Branford Marsalis also used a double embouchure and gets a warm sound out of the instrument. I was talking to Sonny Rollins about that the night before last. See, once in a while he does that too. But it hurts, man, especially when you’ve got false teeth. It cuts through my lip. I can’t use no double embouchure, man. I’ll never be a Hodges.
4. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
“Perdido” (from Piano in the Background, Sony). Ellington, piano; Britt Woodman, trombone; Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet; Paul Gonsalves, tenor saxophone; Willie Cook, Ray Nance, trumpets; Sam Woodyard, drums; Duke Ellington Orchestra. Recorded in 1960.
BEFORE: Where’d you find that? I never heard that in my life. I’ll tell you who I think it is. I think it’s Clark Terry on there. And it sounds like Coleman Hawkins, but I don’t know. It’s Duke’s band, though. And it sounds like Sam Woodyard on drums. Is that right? So, it could have been Paul Gonsalves. And that’s Jimmy Hamilton. I like the fact that he had the trombone, flugelhorn and tenor playing that very difficult bebop line.
I like that. I never heard that, man. That’s nice, very musical. Duke was one of the greatest composers of all time, no matter what genre you want to put him in. I don’t know if he wrote that bebop melody at the beginning—sounds more like Clark Terry—but he orchestrated the hell out of that piece.
AFTER: I only met Ellington once, when my father took me to hear him in Philly. I remember he touched me on my head and said, “Hello, sonny.” I’ve recorded five or six Ellington tunes over the years. Duke and Strayhorn approached harmony in different ways. Basically, I’m a romantic person. Whether it’s Ravel or Debussy or Delius, if you write some romantic music, you’ve got me. And Strayhorn and Ellington and Cole Porter could write music that touches me.
5. J.D. Allen Trio
“Sonhouse” (from Shine! , Sunnyside). Allen, tenor saxophone; Gregg August, bass; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2008.
BEFORE: This is a fascinating piece here—the performance and the composition. Very interesting. It’s different. The melody has a spirituality about it, like Coltrane, but it’s not Coltrane. It’s a young person playing in that style; an old guy wouldn’t play like that. With no piano, he has the freedom.
AFTER: I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know him. He’s following in the footsteps of my two friends from back in the day, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. I love it. He should continue to do what he’s doing. He’s thinking, and he’s found a sound that he digs, and he’s able to produce it with clarity.
6. Pete Christlieb Quartet Featuring Warne Marsh
“Woody and You” (from Conversations With Warne: Volume 1, Criss Cross). Christlieb, Marsh, tenor saxophone; Jim Hughart, bass; Nick Ceroli, drums. Recorded in 1978.
BEFORE: [makes appreciative grunts and laughs while listening] I thought it was Walter Blanding, but it’s not. I call him Walter Spicy, ’cause there’s nothing bland about him. They are in the hi-tech generation. To play that well and that fast, it’s a lot of work to get to that. They’ve been exposed to a lot of data in their lives. I hear some things I’ve heard before, and I hear some originality. I like to hear somebody play the saxophone that well.
AFTER: I’m going to play with Pete Christlieb next week at the Lionel Hampton festival. We haven’t played together before, but I heard him with the Tonight Show Band. He’s got great technique. I didn’t realize that Warne Marsh played that inside. Warne Marsh is a good saxophone player, too.
7. Sun Ra and His Arkestra
“Saturn” (from Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel, Evidence). Ra, piano; John Gilmore, tenor saxophone soloist; Le Sun Ra Arkestra. Recorded in 1956.
BEFORE: I don’t know who it is, but the arrangement is kind of dated. It just shows you how many great saxophonists there are. People love to play the saxophone. This was OK, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.
AFTER: Sure, Sun Ra. I been to his house when he had a parachute up in the corner. He was always talking about space, man. And when they stopped to search him at the airport, he said, “This is the most unfriendly planet.” Sun Ra was cool, but I didn’t have to like that.
8. Ben Webster With Strings
“Chelsea Bridge” (from Music for Loving, Verve). Webster, tenor saxophone; Tony Scott, clarinet; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arranger; George Duvivier, bass; Louie Bellson, drums; strings. Recorded in 1954.
BEFORE: Ben Webster, Ben Webster, Ben Webster: The greatest ballad player on tenor saxophone, ever. Let me tell you a story about Ben Webster. I was in Copenhagen and Ben was living there, and Ben asked if I knew the words to “For Heaven’s Sake,” sung by Billie Holiday. He said every time he played a love song he would learn the words so he could speak the words on his horn. You see what I’m saying? I was talking to him and Johnny Griffin, and Johnny Griffin said, “I don’t need the words. I play the saxophone; I play notes.”
For me, I try to get the inflections of the voice. An instrument is supposed to have a voice. We’re all trying to imitate the human voice. That’s why Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster could play a ballad and touch people. You can show off with lots of technique, but you can’t speak to a lot of people. Grover Washington couldn’t play like these people we’ve been listening to today, but he had a singing saxophone sound that people could understand. Brother Yusef Lateef plays a blues with so much sincerity, one club owner said, “Don’t play the blues like that. Nobody’s drinking!” Everyone was captured by his sound.
That’s the unique thing about music. Every once in a while you can play something exciting, but ultimately you have to play something that comes more from the heart than the brain. I was in love with Sarah Vaughan because she touched me. Carmen McRae, Billy Eckstine … I wish I could have been a singer instead of a saxophone player. But nobody wants to see no singing midget [audience laughter]. Ladies want the big handsome guy.
9. Woody Herman
“Early Autumn” (from Keeper of the Flame, Capitol). Herman, alto saxophone; Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, tenor saxophone; Serge Chaloff, baritone saxophone; Terry Gibbs, vibraphone. Recorded in 1948.
BEFORE: I know who that is: That’s Woody, “Early Autumn.” Stan Getz, all those good saxophone players. The writing is good, pretty—don’t you think so? When I was growing up and went to the Earle Theatre to see Glenn Miller play “Serenade in Blue,” and they put the blue light on the saxophone section, I said, “That’s what I want to do. One of these days I’m gonna be up there like one of them guys.” That was fascinating as a child. I was raised up in the big-band era, so I like big-band music. The big band in jazz is our symphony orchestra. That was our biggest sound. I heard all those bands.
Which big bands do you like today?
Maria Schneider. I like the [Jazz at Lincoln Center] band. I conduct the Queens Jazz Orchestra, and I have my own big band.
10. J.J. Johnson
“Gingerbread Boy” (from The Brass Orchestra, Verve). Johnson, trombone, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Dan Faulk, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Heath, composer. Recorded in 1996.
BEFORE: J.J. Johnson with Slide Hampton. That’s J.J.’s arrangement of “Gingerbread Boy.” I like it. Miles changed it around when he recorded it, but I went to the bank, so you know I liked that [laughs]. As long as you get the royal-ties for your melo-dies, please!
Did you set up your own publishing for your compositions?
Later I did. I was with MJQ Music for years. And I figured it out when I was getting big royalties from a rapper [Nas] who sampled me [on the song “One Love”]. When those big checks came in, every time I got $10,000 I realized that MJQ Music got $10,000. And that would have been $20,000.
You know what? I’ve never since had a hit since I set up my own publishing. The whole industry changed. You don’t have no jazz record shops, no outlets for the music. So people have to make their own records and deal with them. It’s a different game now. I just know they’re taking your music on the Internet-they download it and it’s gone. You don’t get paid like you used to.
You don’t get royalties from downloads?
It’s broken down into such small increments. If there’s money involved, somebody’s going to take it. And now MJQ Music is administered by Hal Leonard. Everybody else is gone. I sell my arrangements on my website, so I get all of it. I just know that when one of the name artists who recorded some of my music passes away, I know my royalty checks will get big again. It’s cold-blooded. Everybody gets to be iconic when they’re dead. I’ll stay an acorn instead of an icon.
Name some records that changed your life.
The first record I bought myself was “C Jam Blues” and “Rain Check” by Duke Ellington. I came home one day and it was under the sofa. I think Tootie broke it. Erskine Hawkins’ “Swingin’ on Lenox Avenue,” “After Hours” and “Tuxedo Junction”; Glenn Miller’s “Serenade in Blue”; Bird and Dizzy’s “Shaw ‘Nuff” and “Groovin’ High”; Sarah Vaughan’s “If You Could See Me Now”; John Coltrane’s “Naima.” Kenny Dorham was the romantic composer of the bebop era. He wrote four or five beautiful ballads. And Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess with Miles, because me and my wife courted on that album, and we’ve been married now for 51 years.Originally Published