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I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath

Memoir of saxophonist Jimmy Heath is the story of a true survivor.

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Jimmy Heath

Jimmy Heath, the master sax player, was born one month after the late, and legendary John Coltrane, and a few months after the late Miles Davis. The year was 1926. To a certain degree considering that in one year those three jazz greats were born, you have to conclude that 1926 was a very good year.

The dividends brought forth by 1926 come later: In 1959, Davis and Coltrane shine on Davis’ Kind of Blue. Coltrane gives us his modal classic, “Giant Steps” that year as well. Heath, as he notes in I Walked with Giants (with Joseph McLaren writing), got out of prison from a drug charge, May 21, 1959 and vowed to never touch drugs again when released.

Heath did re-focus that year on the music and not its sideshow. He was fast friends with all the major cats: Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Cannonball Adderly, and, of course, Miles, who summoned Heath to Los Angeles to play in his band in 1959. Heath admits he had trouble with the new “modal” style (unlike Trane) but eventually mastered it, a movement he calls “unique.”

There is something magical about most of these stories that Heath strings together in I Walked with Giants. They are simply timeless and captivating. They take the reader behind the music, into the lives and aesthetic choices of the players.

What other musicians are around now who knew and played with Coltrane, were at his funeral, and remember intimately the new sounds he tried in the 1960’s after the success of Giant Steps and A Love Supreme? Very few, of course, but that states the most important trait of Heath, the accomplished musician and composer: he is a survivor.

Heath plays with everyone along the way but the special portions of this book are his forays in the 1970’s with his brothers. Albert and Percy. Ken Burns forgot about the group in his film, Jazz but they are a missing link that must be noted.

“The albums with the Heath Brothers marked the peak of my recording success,” Heath states, though he states later that despite good sales, their label, CBS dropped them eventually (just as Burns drops this entire period from his film).

Most of all, I Walked with Giants, is a back and forth, call and response kind of book. Heath talks (McLaren writes it), and then someone else talks about Heath. Trumpet player, Art Farmer. Percy Heath, his brother. People and musicians who grew up with Jimmy on the streets of Philadelphia, and watched him grow up in the world. This swinging tale of one of jazz’s true survivors is a fine piece of history. It begins on the edge of the swing era, and is still going today, as Heath, now a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, continues to add to his legacy and remarkable body of work.

Originally Published