Jimmy Heath, a saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and NEA Jazz Master whose career lasted nearly 75 years, died January 19 in Loganville, Georgia. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by National Public Radio, who spoke to Heath’s grandson. Heath died of natural causes.
Heath was the second of three jazz-musician brothers from Philadelphia, the eldest being bassist Percy and the youngest being drummer Albert “Tootie.” (Their sister, Elizabeth, was a pianist.) Originally an altoist—he earned the nickname “Little Bird” from his small stature and the similarity between his alto tone and Charlie Parker’s—Heath switched to tenor in the early 1950s and became known for his warm, bluesy, peppery sound on the instrument. He appeared on over 200 recordings, 17 of them as a leader and 11 as a member of the Heath Brothers with Percy and Albert. He was also a prolific composer and wrote several tunes that became jazz standards, among them “CTA,” “For Minors Only,” “Gemini,” and “Gingerbread Boy.”
Having come of age in the bop era—he broke through as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1949, and had previously played in Philadelphia with a young John Coltrane and Benny Golson—Heath was a staunch exponent of bebop in its purest form and worked with most of its iconic figures (as he himself noted in the title of his 2010 autobiography, I Walked with Giants).
“All I can say is, if you know Jimmy Heath, you know bop,” Gillespie, Heath’s mentor, said.
For all his adherence to classic bebop, however, Heath, who also taught at Queens College for more than 20 years, remained enthusiastic about the music’s constant development and potential. “It changes but it will never die,” he told journalist Scott Thompson in 2016. “It’s multicultural now. Every place I’ve been in this world, they seem to add their cultural influences. Jazz is wonderful, man! It’s my life!”
James Edward Heath was born on October 25, 1926 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Percy Heath Sr., was an automotive mechanic and amateur clarinetist who played with a local Elks Club band; his mother, Arlethia, sang in the choir of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. He became interested in music at the age of six, when his mother took him to see a Duke Ellington concert. For Christmas of 1941—by which time Jimmy and Percy Jr. had gone to live with their grandparents in North Carolina—his father sent him a Conn alto saxophone. He began playing in the Williston High School Marching Band and recalled that he was almost immediately serious about playing music.
Physically slight, Heath was denied induction into the Armed Forces during World War II because he was below the weight requirement. Instead of going overseas, he went in late 1945 to Omaha, Nebraska, where he joined a territory band led by bassist Nat Towles. After eight months with Towles, he spoke to his brother Percy, who had served as a fighter pilot in Europe and returned to Philadelphia when the war ended. “He said, ‘Well man, come on back because I heard this new music called bebop,’” he recalled in a 1986 interview. “And I said, ‘Me too man, I heard Charlie Parker and I want to get into this.’”
Heath returned to Philadelphia and in 1947 formed a big band, which he patterned after Dizzy Gillespie’s ensemble of the era. Among its personnel were trumpeters Cal Massey and Johnny Coles, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Nelson Boyd, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, and alto saxophonist John Coltrane. While the band enjoyed some success in the city, Heath broke it up in 1949 when he got the call to join Gillespie’s own band in New York.
Heath played with the Gillespie orchestra through its disbanding in 1950, at which time he began freelancing, changed to tenor saxophone to try to escape imitations of Charlie Parker, and worked more diligently at composition. He recorded “CTA,” his first tune to become a standard, in a 1953 session with Miles Davis. He also became addicted to heroin, and in 1954 was arrested for selling it to fellow musicians. After a brief treatment at a prison hospital in Kentucky, he was released, but was arrested again in 1955 and incarcerated until 1959 at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.
In later years, Heath referred to his release from prison as “a rebirth.” He stayed clean for the rest of his life; was able to rebuild his career quickly (though he had written and arranged an album for Chet Baker and Art Pepper from prison), replacing Coltrane in Miles Davis’ band for a few weeks and making his own recording debut for Riverside Records that fall; and, at a welcome-home party his parents held for him, met Mona Brown, whom he would marry in 1960 and remain with for the next six decades, having two children.
Though he continued making occasional records of his own into the 1960s, meeting particular acclaim with his 1961 date The Quota and 1964’s On the Trail (both for Riverside), he spent most of the decade and much of the early ’70s as a sideman, especially with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and trumpeters Blue Mitchell and Art Farmer. Starting in 1973, he began working more regularly with his brothers, Percy and Tootie, with whom he’d worked (sporadically) in the past; by 1975, they had formed the Heath Brothers Band with pianist Stanley Cowell, which was an active touring and recording ensemble until 1982 and continued with less regularity until Percy’s death in 2005. (At times the band also included Heath’s son, percussionist James Mtume.)
In 1986, Heath joined the faculty of Queens College’s Aaron Copland School of Music, remaining there for two decades and helping to establish its jazz studies program. This was not his first venture into teaching; he’d been a founding faculty member of Jazzmobile in 1964. But although he put great effort into his educational work, he also kept on recording and performing, often working as an arranger or at the head of his own bands. He premiered a symphonic work, “Three Ears,” at Queens College in 1988. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2003 and published I Walked with Giants in 2010.
At the age of 90, Heath finally took a step back from his heavy performing activity, retiring to Loganville; however, he retained the apartment in Corona, Queens, where he’d lived since 1964, and continued writing for and leading a big band. In October 2016, he appeared at the helm of a 90th-birthday tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center, “Jimmy Heath: Life of a Legend,” with his big band and vocalist Roberta Gambarini.
“I’m going to do this until I leave,” he said. “This is all I love.”
Heath is survived by his brother Albert; his wife of nearly 60 years, Mona; his son James Mtume (from a previous relationship); his children with Mona, Jeffrey Heath and Roslyn Heath; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.