Jazz sax­o­phon­ist Jimmy Heath has died


Jimmy Heath, a tenor sax­o­phon­ist whose sharp and lively com­po­si­tions be­came part of the mid­cen­tury jazz canon — and who found new promi­nence in mid­dle age as a co-leader of a pop­u­lar band with his two broth­ers — died Sun­day in Lo­ganville, Ge­or­gia. He was 93.

His wife, Mona Brown, con­firmed his death to WGBO, a pub­lic ra­dio sta­tion in Ne­wark, New Jer­sey.

Heath’s sax­o­phone sound was spare but play­ful, with a beam­ing tone that ex­uded both joy and com­mand. But his rep­u­ta­tion rested equally on his abil­i­ties as a com­poser and ar­ranger for large en­sem­bles, in­ter­po­lat­ing be­bop’s cross­hatched rhythms and ex­tended im­pro­vi­sa­tions into ful­some ta­pes­tries.

He was a teenager tour­ing the Mid­west­ern dance cir­cuit with the Nat Towles Orches­tra in the 1940s when he be­came en­am­ored with ar­rang­ing. At first he could hardly read mu­sic, but he proved a quick study.

When a par­tic­u­lar har­mony struck him, he hounded his fel­low horn play­ers to tell him what notes they were play­ing, then pieced to­gether the chords on sheet mu­sic. Be­fore long he was writ­ing for a 16-piece band of his own, whose lineup in­cluded fu­ture sax­o­phone lu­mi­nar­ies John Coltrane and Benny Gol­son.

His ca­reer in many ways tracked the life cy­cle of post­war jazz in the United States. Af­ter tour­ing with dance bands, he moved on to the fresher, more cos­mopoli­tan be­bop style, play­ing in groups led by trum­peters Dizzy Gille­spie and Miles Davis.

Orig­i­nally an alto sax­o­phon­ist, he earned the nick­name Lit­tle Bird for his abil­ity to em­u­late the fleet play­ing of the be­bop pi­o­neer Char­lie Parker, known as Bird. He soon switched to the tenor, partly to skirt the com­par­isons, and es­tab­lished him­self as a cen­tral fig­ure on the New York scene.

In the mid-1970s, when R&B and rock had eclipsed jazz’s pop­u­lar­ity, he founded the Heath Broth­ers with his older brother, Percy, a bassist, and his younger brother, Al­bert, known as Tootie, a drum­mer. That band wel­comed the elec­tric in­stru­ments and strut­ting rhythms of a younger gen­er­a­tion into its own dis­tinc­tive style, which hop­scotched be­tween straight-ahead jazz and soul­ful fu­sion.

And when jazz be­gan its as­cent into the academy, Heath was among the vet­er­ans who shep­herded the tran­si­tion. In 1964 he be­came a found­ing fac­ulty mem­ber at Jazzmo­bile, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pre­sented con­certs and classes to young peo­ple in Har­lem. Decades later he helped forge Queens Col­lege’s jazz stud­ies pro­gram.

An avid com­mu­ni­ca­tor, Heath was par­tic­u­larly wily with word­play. He called trum­peter Roy Har­grove “Roy Hard­groove.” Drum­mer Grady Tate be­came “Gravy Taker” be­cause he snatched up so many good-pay­ing gigs.

Heath ti­tled his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, writ­ten with Joseph McLarin and pub­lished in 2010, “I Walked With Giants,” a play­ful ref­er­ence to his 5-foot-3 stature as well as to the fact that he spent much of his life work­ing along­side the most lauded names in jazz.

Re­flect­ing on his long ca­reer, Heath of­ten said that although he never achieved as much renown as some of his con­tem­po­raries, he was sat­is­fied. “You be­come an icon when you’re dead,” he told NPR Mu­sic in 2014. “I al­ways say I’d rather be an acorn, and be alive.”

Yet from the 1990s, he did en­joy recog­ni­tion as a jazz em­i­nence. In 2003, the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts named him a Jazz Mas­ter.

To his stu­dents, Heath was an am­bas­sador from an ear­lier time who never lost his hunger for fresh in­spi­ra­tion. He of­ten said most of his songs were in­spired by the peo­ple he met. One was named sim­ply “Nice Peo­ple.”

James Ed­ward Heath was born in Philadel­phia on Oct. 25, 1926. His fa­ther, Percy, was a me­chanic and la­borer who played clar­inet in the lo­cal Elks Club band; his mother, Ar­lethia, sang in their church’s choir. Jimmy moved to New York at 22, even­tu­ally land­ing a spot along­side his brother Percy in Gille­spie’s pi­o­neer­ing be­bop big band. Gille­spie be­came Heath’s pri­mary men­tor.

Around this time, Heath’s life off the band­stand took a turn. Af­ter the breakup of his first mar­riage, he sought so­lace in heroin, which was then preva­lent on the jazz scene. Even as gigs with the likes of Miles Davis and Clif­ford Brown raised his stand­ing, his habit over­took him.

In 1955 he was im­pris­oned on drug charges. He kicked his ad­dic­tion in prison, and as leader of the pen­i­ten­tiary’s big band he spent much of his time writ­ing tunes and ar­range­ments, as well as learn­ing the flute.

He would some­times smug­gle out com­po­si­tions and ar­range­ments by giv­ing them to his brother Tootie dur­ing fam­ily vis­its. The charts quickly made their way onto a few pop­u­lar records, in­clud­ing Chet Baker and Art Pep­per’s 1956 al­bum “Playboys,” which in­cluded mostly Heath’s tunes and was later reis­sued as “Pic­ture of Heath.”

Heath re­turned to Philadel­phia drug-free in 1959, but the terms of his pro­ba­tion pre­vented him from tour­ing. He was forced to pass up a spot as Coltrane’s re­place­ment in the Miles Davis sex­tet that recorded the cel­e­brated al­bum “Kind of Blue.”

So he made his own way, mostly in the stu­dio. He re­leased a string of well-re­ceived al­bums for River­side Records, in­clud­ing com­po­si­tions like “Gin­ger­bread Boy” and “For Mi­nors Only” that would be­come sta­ples of the jazz reper­toire. Even when he recorded with just a sex­tet, his crafty ar­range­ments gave the sense of a chat­ter­ing, wall-to-wall con­ver­sa­tion among band­mates.

He also found free­lance ar­rang­ing work, writ­ing charts for Ray Charles and oth­ers. Even­tu­ally he be­came a staff ar­ranger at River­side.

On the day he left prison, Heath met Mona Brown, a vis­ual artist, whom he mar­ried the next year. She was white, and her par­ents re­fused to at­tend the cou­ple’s wed­ding; af­ter the mar­riage, they stopped speak­ing to her. Even­tu­ally she and Heath moved to the apart­ment in Corona, Queens, where they would live for more than 50 years.

Be­sides his wife, he is sur­vived by their daugh­ter, Roslyn, and son, Jef­frey; Heath’s son from his first mar­riage, James Mtume, a per­cus­sion­ist, vo­cal­ist and song­writer with whom he oc­ca­sion­ally col­lab­o­rated; and his brother Tootie. Percy Heath died in 2005.


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