Tenor saxophone player Jimmy Heath is the eldest surviving member of the Heath Brothers; he’s been a key figure in jazz for more than 60 years, along with his older brother, bassist Percy (who died in 2005), and younger brother, drummer Albert “Tootie.“ The NEA jazz master is a major stylist on the tenor, as well as a major composer who’s had several pieces enter the standard canon (“C.T.A.,” “Gingerbread Boy”), and an educator whose protégés include 2011 DCJF performer Antonio Hart. Last year he published his autobiography, I Walked With Giants, and released the first post-Percy Heath Brothers album, Endurance (Jazz Legacy Productions). Ahead of his two-night stand at Bohemian Caverns with the Heath Brothers Quartet, Jimmy spoke to Washington City Paper about his work as a composer, his trips to Washington, and performing with the Heath Brothers Band without the eldest Heath.
Washington City Paper: You seem to be in D.C. fairly regularly; is this just a great place to work, or just the place that keeps calling?
Jimmy Heath: Well, I don’t know how often it’s been; I’m there once in a while. But you know, Washington is a good jazz city because it’s an international city.
WCP: Well, when I say “regularly,” I specifically mean that I often see you at various events at the Kennedy Center.
JH: Oh, yeah, that’s possible. Maybe once or twice a year or so, with either the Monk Institute or with the Dizzy Alumni Big Band. Not often with the Heath Brothers, although we did play the jazz club at the Kennedy Center. NEA Jazz Masters events, too; I am one, and if there’s something going on a lot of the time I’m there.
WCP: Incidentally, what are your thoughts on the NEA ending the Jazz Masters program?
JH: Oh, I think it’s terrible. I pay a whole lot of taxes and I think a lot of musicians deserve the recognition as well as the financial help that they’re given. All other art forms seem to take precedence over the jazz world.
WCP: You guys had a record out last year. Have you been gigging or touring for it?
JH: Yes, we have. We just got back from a European trip, which was nice; we went to Italy, Germany, Austria, Copenhagen, and Paris. That was quite a trip—if it hadn’t been for some one-nighters there! [Chuckles]
WCP: Had you been gigging with the band before the record, but after Percy passed?
JH: Oh, yeah, we had been working. We had a pretty good run when Percy was around, and it’s continued pretty good with the quartet, with the different bassists.
WCP: It must have been a difficult transition to working without him.
JH: Well, you know, he was my brother. And he was a great bassist and a beautiful person so we had a wonderful time. We had a closeness that is hard to duplicate, because we all loved the music. And our parents loved the music, and we saw that we had music.
WCP: Then you share that closeness with Tootie as well?
JH: Oh, yeah. It’s a family affair, we love each other. Musically and otherwise, we get along fine. Me and Percy used to get a little edgy sometimes; he was the older brother and he’d try to tell us all what to do, and I knew more about the music than him, so I’d try to tell him what to do. I had more of a variety of musical ideas and experience than him—after all, I was the first jazz performer in the family, before him, although his name was probably bigger because of the Modern Jazz Quartet. But, you know, he and I had been in the Dizzy Gillespie band together even before the Modern Jazz Quartet.
WCP: Is it your connection to Dizzy that brings you to the DC Jazz Festival?
JH: Well, yes, via John Lee. John Lee is the one that keeps the Dizzy Gillespie thing going, with the Alumni Big Band that I play in also. It’s unfortunate that Moody left us in December, because he and I were the oldest members of that band—Moody being in the band since ’45, and me since ’49. So we were the elders in the Dizzy alumni band. So I miss my buddy—my “section buddy,” we called each other.
WCP: How often are you working with that band?
JH: We just got through a smash of a week at Blue Note; we were there for six days, and we sold out every show for six days. That’s our main spot, you know, but we sometimes come to the Kennedy Center to play with certain vocalists or other attractions. And we do go on the road, occasionally, too. So it’s still happening, the Dizzy Alumni Big Band. And they got some talented young people in that band that Dizzy would be very proud of. Antonio Hart is one.
WCP: I was going to ask you about Antonio, since he’s also at the festival.
JH: Oh yeah. Antonio was a student of mine at Queens College, and I was able to maneuver—and his talent afforded him getting—a position at Queens College. He’s extremely capable, and I love him. I wrote a song for him called “Like a Son.” And he never calls me Jimmy; I say, “Man, we’ve been knowing each other ’bout 15, 20 years now!” But it’s “Mr. Heath, so and so.” That’s him; he’s just a perfect gentleman in the old-school fashion. He’s a wonderful young man, and he can play, man. I’m very proud of him.
WCP: You reminded me, in talking about writing a song for him, of what a prolific composer you are as well as a player. Does it still take up a huge chunk of time?
JH: Oh, it’s always taken up a lot of my time. I’m one of those people who have mixed devotions. [chuckles] You know I just did a commissioned piece for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, which is a beautiful facility—one of the greatest buildings I’ve ever seen for an African American. And I wrote this piece for the August Wilson Center; Sean Jones conducted the band, and I went out and played one little section of this extended composition.
WCP: Will there be a recording of that, perchance?
JH: I don’t think so. You know, it’s very difficult to record a big band these days; my last record, Turn Up the Heath, I spent half of my NEA grant money to do that myself.
WCP: Why is that?
JH: Well, the record companies are not putting up money for them, and they’re disappearing. So people are making recordings for themselves, or for small companies like Jazz Legacy Productions, or the Planet Arts, who record the big bands when they get some funding, like the Monday night big band at the Vanguard, or my big-band album Turn Up the Heath, for which I paid half and they paid half. And also, distribution is very sad nowadays. Everybody’s stealing your music from the computer; it’s a different era. We get our best results by selling CDs when we perform. Where’s your record shops?
WCP: Do you compose on saxophone or piano?
JH: Both! Dizzy told me in 1946, he said, “If you’re gonna write music, man, you better learn the keyboard!” I took his word for it, and I play piano all the time and sing melodies to myself, and then go to the saxophone. And vice versa. Inspiration comes on either.
WCP: Do you write with specific arrangements in mind?
JH: Yeah. I write with the Finale program, on the computer. I’ve been doing that since I was teaching at Queens College, since 1986 or ’87. Oh, man—it’s a great editing device. If you write a counterpoint line or something, and you play it back and you say, “Oh, man, that ain’t nothing. Let me try another.” You say, “Delete!” and it’s gone. You put another line in and say “Ah!”
Now, when the breath of life gets in the arrangement, that’s when it comes to fruition. When somebody plays it. Not the machine, because the machine sounds like a glorified accordion.
WCP: But you can write down a bit of a melody and then immediately hear what it sounds like.
JH: Oh, sure. Duke didn’t have that. He wrote some great music anyway—but Clark Terry told me he used to bring in stuff that was wonderful, and he’d say “Pass that back in,” and he’d tear it up. He didn’t like it. But he had to bring it in to hear it. But now the computer allows you to hear it before you take it in and bring it to life.
WCP: Don’t you lose something in that, though?
JH: Well, you know, sometimes you write things with the machine that’s very difficult to play on the horn! You can just turn the dial and make it play very, very fast. Any line you write, it reproduces. But sometimes—I have to delete that. [laughs] But the proof in the pudding is when you bring it in and have the band play it.
WCP: Will we hear any of that new material when you play in D.C.?
JH: Yeah, there’s new material that we haven’t even rehearsed. I gave them the music—the guitarist that’s performing is wonderful, and Cyrus is always just a pleasure to play with. He’s just so full of music.
Photo by Richard Conde