Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath
1926 – 2020
by Henry Cherry
When saxophonist Jimmy Heath died at 93 from undisclosed causes on Sunday, January 19, 2020, he left younger brother Albert as the last of the Heath brothers, a remarkable trio of musicians who worked collectively and individually to help craft the pillars of jazz music. With Albert on drums, Percy on bass and middle brother Jimmy, nicknamed Little Bird because of the early influence of Charlie Parker on his playing, on saxophone, the Heaths played on hundreds of recordings with legends and under known greats of the musical idiom. Without the Heaths musical input, jazz would not be what it is today.
As a member of a Dizzy Gillespie’s big band or out on his own, Heath was a giant individual talent. His 1961 solo release title track, “The Quota,” sheds the best light onto Heath’s ability as a leader, arranger and player. The song skates and shimmies and repositions itself several times with an ease that covers the intricacies of the its structure. You don’t realize how dense the music is until the song ends. That’s the genius of Jimmy Heath in a single 5-minute burst. As he worked at music throughout school, he broadened his skills across the alto, baritone and tenor saxophone, his main instrument was the tenor. Heath’s solo output is magnificent, though it is his career as a sideman where more casual listeners have come in contact with Heath’s glittering musicality. A finessed utility of style allowed Heath to work and invent music with Gillespie, Davis, Baker and alongside his brothers, never sacrificing his fierce but fluid tonality. Early terms in big bands stayed with Heath to the very end. “The big band is jazz music’s symphony orchestra,” he told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, “we can take soloists. We can have duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, and the whole works from a big band. When we get 16 people and you got four trombones, four trumpets, five reeds, and a rhythm section — heaven.”
Jimmy Heath, “The Quota” (1961)
The Heath family moved from North Carolina north to Philadelphia after eldest son Percy was born, a similar trajectory to the families of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Start in North Carolina, move north. The transition wasn’t easy, and the Heaths spent time on welfare. Still, the children were musically inspired by their parents. “My family was a typical jazz family,” Heath said in a 1986 interview at Howard University. “My mother sang in the church choir in a Baptist church. My father played the clarinet in the Elks band whenever he got it out of the pawn shop. He would get it out on weekends and put it back on Monday morning.”
While his diminutive size kept Heath out of WW2, it didn’t protect him from a brief but debilitating slide into heroin addiction and the saxophonist was imprisoned several years on drug charges. Discussing the situation during a promotional tour for his memoir, I Walked With Giants, Heath discussed the nature of addiction. “I was a sick man, you know? That’s what it is. It’s a sickness that’s very difficult. But in retrospect, I think it was a blessing that I went away to get straight. I just thought four and a half years was too long, man. It definitely stifled my career, but it also saved my life. My career I could get back. My life … I got to have my life. And when I look back, a lot of my peers didn’t make it. So being in Lewisburg (Penitentiary) was a blessing in disguise. I learned never to do that again, and I didn’t.”
Perhaps because of that experience, Heath settled in New York and, to augment the dimming musical realities in jazz as the seventies turned to the eighties, he became an educator, working with Jazzmobile, Housatonic Community College, City College of New York and finally, Queens College, which endowed a chair in Heath’s name upon his 1998 retirement. His last record as a leader, Togetherness: Live at the Blue Note, arrived in 2014 and features a spry big band, interpreting compositions by Heath, Parker, Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn. It is an irresistible book end to Heath’s career, acknowledging his early years playing in big bands without sounding dated.
Heath spoke often to his students about the importance of composing, something he focused on more intently when he started his own big band which briefly included John Coltrane, who Heath knew from his early days in Philadelphia. Composing traced new routes through the musical tides and it kept Heath’s sound inventive and spirited. The improvisational nature of jazz promoted composition, as Heath explained in 2011 to the New York Daily News, “Improvisation is spontaneous composing, with a given structure. The good improvisers will always have a pattern that they’ll repeat in different strata of the harmony. If you listen to people who are also writers, the way they play a solo is like they’re composing as they go along.” It was this methodology that kept Heath’s sound precise and inventive for the eight decades he played professionally. While a member of Gillespie’s big band, the bandleader and trumpeter came over to Heath’s house. “The first time I had him at my home in Philadelphia,” Heath told Jazz Wax in 2009, “Dizzy said, ‘If you want to be an arranger and composer, you have to learn this keyboard.’ Then he showed me harmonies I still use.”
“Gingerbread Boy,” from the Jimmy Heath Quintet’s On the Trail (1964)
Released from jail in 1959, Heath was still a musical commodity, largely because he continued playing and writing while incarcerated, even starting a prison big band to stay sharp. He sent some music out to his brother Albert, who got the songs to Chet Baker and Art Pepper. The two recorded Heath’s music for their co-led album Playboys. The success of that album helped keep his name in circulation while he served his time. Upon release, Heath went about getting his career back on track. But because of the terms of his probation, Heath was unable to accept Miles Davis’s offer to replace Coltrane when the saxophonist left Davis’s band. Instead, Heath kickstarted his recording career as a leader, while continuing to catch on to sessions as a sideman. At the same time, he began working as an arranger for larger acts, charting musical passages for Dexter Gordon and Ray Charles and Chet Baker while those musicians were at the apex of their careers. Jazz was experiencing its crescendo and Heath was an important part the genre’s last era of musical dominance
“Ray’s Idea,” with Miles Davis (1953)
On solo-outings like The Quota and “Gingerbread Boy” or in sideman settings like “Ray’s Idea” with Miles Davis, the percolating “Why Do I love You,” with Kenny Dorham, and “Big ‘P’,” with Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Heath is identifiable straight away, stringing the rhythmic punch of his playing through the dynamism of varied melodic concepts. In the Howard university interview, Heath remembered searching out new musical inspiration with Coltrane as youngsters in Philadelphia’s public library. “We’d go put the head set on and listen to Stravinsky or something because we heard Charlie Parker was listening and carrying Stravinsky’s chords.” This driving search for new ideas powered Heath’s music across decades and millennium and kept his music fresh and original.
“Big P’,” with Cannonball Adderley (1959)
Married nearly 60 years, Heath is survived by his wife Mona, his younger brother Albert, and his two children Rozie and Mtume. Another son, Jeffrey predeceased him. Heath was nominated for a Grammy in 1993. Ten years later, Heath was designated as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. Despite those achievements, Heath liked to let his music speak for itself, telling Jazz Times, “I’ve always been one of the guys, and I like that. To be respected by your peers, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
“Why Do I love You,” with Kenny Dorham (1960)
The Great Jimmy Heath
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Cherry is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: henrycherry.com