Albert "Tootie" Heath

Percussionist, Educator
Portrait of man in cap wearing glasses.

Photo by Ghylian Bell and Mychal Watts


The youngest of the three Heath Brothers, Albert “Tootie” Heath was the consummate jazz drummer, playing with seemingly everyone from John Coltrane to Ethan Iverson and performing on more than 100 recordings. Well-versed in various styles of jazz—including avant-garde, bop, and swing—he also delved into R&B, such as his work in the 1980s with his nephew Mtume; studied improvisation in North Indian classical music; and was praised for his ability to imbue his personality into any repertoire.

Self-taught, Heath received musical training from his father, a clarinetist in one of Philadelphia’s Black marching bands, as well as from his older brothers Percy and Jimmy (both NEA Jazz Masters), who were already establishing themselves in the jazz world. Still in high school, Heath was asked to accompany Thelonious Monk on the drums during his engagement at Philadelphia’s Blue Note Club. By 1957, he had moved to New York, where he had an auspicious recording debut with the legendary John Coltrane on his album Coltrane (and later played on Coltrane’s Lush Life). In 1958, Heath was the drummer for Nina Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue.

Heath embarked on a career as a sought-after musician, playing with J.J. Johnson from 1958 until 1960 and then the Jazztet while also working as a sideman at Riverside Records. In the mid-1960s, Heath moved to Europe but continued to play and record with jazz greats in the United States and around the world, including Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, and Clifford Jordan, as well as playing in Herbie Hancock’s band from 1965 to 1970. In the mid-1970s he returned to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, California, and performed and recorded with Yusef Lateef from 1973 to 1983. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Composition Fellowship in 1974.

In 1975, he joined his brothers and pianist Stanley Cowell to form the Heath Brothers, a group that remained active until the passing of Percy Heath in 2005. During the mid-1990s he was the drummer in the Modern Jazz Quartet.

From the late 2000s, Heath produced and led the Whole Drum Truth, an intergenerational jazz drum ensemble featuring legendary and emerging jazz drummers such as Sylvia Cuenca, Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, and Willie Jones III. He also led the Tootie Heath Trio, featuring pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street.

Heath was an instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop summer camps for middle and high school students for more than 30 years. He conducted clinics and workshops and performed at colleges and universities nationwide. In 2018, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America. 

Selected Discography

Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Riverside, 1960
Jimmy Heath, Triple Threat, Riverside, 1962
Kawaida, O’Be Records, 1969
Heath Brothers, As We Were Saying, Concord Jazz, 1997
Philadelphia Beat, Sunnyside, 2014

I am overwhelmingly honored to have been chosen as a Jazz Master and joining my brothers in this prestigious award.


Music Credits:
“So Tired” from the album In Person performed  by Bobby Timmons Trio

“Kawaida” from the album Kawaida by Kuumba-Toudie Heath; feat. Mtume, Jimmy Heath, Ed Blackwell, Buster Williams, Billy Bonner, Don Cherry & Herbie Hancock

“Bag a Groove” from the album Philadelphia Beat, composed by Albert “Tootie” Heath, performed Albert Heath, Ethan Iverson & Ben Street.

“South Filthy,” from the album As We Were Saying composed by Jimmy Heath, performed by The Heath Brothers.

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.


Albert "Tootie" Heath: Jimmy is quite a composer and he used to write for our group, and it was really special, and he made the Heath Brothers the Heath Brothers, I think. So, it was quite a pleasure to get together and to perform as a group.

Jo Reed: That’s percussionist and 2021 NEA Jazz Master, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and this is Art Works. The weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. The Heath Brothers are jazz legends. 2002 NEA Jazz Master Percy, was a bassist. 2003 NEA Jazz Master, Jimmy was a saxophonist, composer, and arranger, and their youngest brother Albert known to all as “Tootie” has been named the 2021 NEA Jazz Master. Tootie Heath is the ultimate jazz drummer. His talent was apparent at a young age. He was still in high school when he played at a club with Thelonius Monk. The list of musicians who have sought him out reads like a who’s who in jazz. He’s played with John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Yusef Lateef, Art Farmer, Anthony Braxton, Ethan Iverson, and I'm only naming a few. After all, Tootie has performed on over 100 recordings. But note the range of styles here. Tootie is known for his extraordinary versatility as a drummer. Eager to play various styles of jazz, as well as immerse himself in the music and rhythms of other cultures. Yet there’s never any mistaking his own distinctive musical voice, and it was a voice that was nurtured from an early age at his home in Philadelphia where he grew up surrounded by music.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, as a way that I was introduced to the music is actually from my brother Jimmy. I can always say that Jimmy was my music teacher and he taught me how to be with all of these people, and then he finally let me in the band as a drummer, which was unbelievable at about 14, 15-years-old.

Jo Reed: Remind me what the age differences are between Percy, Jimmy, and you.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Oh, my God. That’s a hard question because I don’t know. All I know is them guys was hard to get along with. That’s all I know and I was the young brother and they used to kick me to the curb but not Jimmy. Jimmy was always good to me. I think Percy was maybe 12 years older than me. Jimmy was eight or nine years older than me.

Jo Reed: Your father played the clarinet, didn’t he?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: My father was an automobile mechanic by trade but he played the clarinet on the weekend in the Elks’ marching band in Philadelphia. So, he practiced John Philip Sousa marches on the weekend. We could hear and then Monday morning when he woke up, he would take that clarinet and go to the pawnshop, which was on the corner and he would pawn that clarinet.

Jo Reed: Percy was a Tuskegee Airman, wasn’t he?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Absolutely he was and we were very proud of him about that because during those days there was no such thing as black pilots or black people in the Air Force other than mechanics, and he was trained as a pilot, and he passed that test, and then he became a lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

Jo Reed: It was after he left the Air Force that he got into the music. Jimmy was already a musician then.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes, let me tell you about Percy. Percy played the violin. Percy used to always complain about coming from high school with a name like Percy and carrying a violin case. It was very difficult in those days. <chuckles>

Jo Reed: I think it would be difficult today too.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes, I think it would be. So, he put the violin down and grabbed the bass after he got out of the Air Force, and before we knew it Percy was gone from Philadelphia. He was in New York. Him and his wife June had moved to New York and Percy was on most of the recordings of that particular period of the ‘50s. He became one of the top recording bass players of the ‘50s.

Jo Reed: Did your parents listen to jazz before Jimmy started playing it or was it Jimmy who really introduced jazz into the house?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: I think it was my father. My father was the one who listened to most of the old-timers. Duke Ellington and Count Basie, of course, and all of those other people of that era, and my father kind of introduced us to those people, and Jimmy became really attracted to the music of those people.

Jo Reed: I know Jimmy loved big bands, and he had a big band back in Philadelphia, and sections of the band would rehearse in your living room.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: That’s right. In my mother’s living room around the dining room table. They would have the parts laid out on the dining room table. We had sections rehearsing. One day he would have the brass section which was about four or five trumpets and a couple of trombones, and then he would have the reed section, which would be a couple of alto saxophones and a few tenor saxophones, and then, of course, the drummer, and the piano player. After a certain while, a certain period, I would be the drummer. But he had a drummer named Specs Wright who taught me how to play and he was my main influence. That's who I learned to play the drums from and he used to give me lessons. Once a week he would give me drum lessons. But he was a great drummer. Jimmy used him for a while and then after he was not available, I took over, and that was a great experience for me.

Jo Reed: When did you start playing drums?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, I was in high school. I must’ve been about 14 or 15-years-old and I wanted to be in the high school band.

Jo Reed: What attracted you to drums? What drew you to drumming?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: I think it’s the base of all the music is the rhythm, and I wanted to be a part of that and have that experience. So, that’s why I learned.

Jo Reed: I heard that you actually played with Thelonius Monk in Philly when you were still in high school.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: That’s true. Thelonius Monk was coming to Philadelphia for a week’s performance at this club called the Blue Note, and this guy who ran the Blue Note needed some musicians to come in and play with Thelonius. He needed a bass player and a drummer. So, he hired my friend who was a bass player named Jimmy Bond. So, Jimmy Bond called me up and said, “Listen, man. You want to play with Thelonius Monk?” I was like, “Get out. You must be joking.” I thought it was a joke and I accepted it of course, and we went into the Blue Note the night of the opening night. No Thelonius, and out in the car in front of the Blue Note was Thelonius sitting in a Bentley with Nicca [ph?] Cunningsworth the Baroness, and then about five minutes to nine he jumped up and ran in the club, and we started to play, and that was my opening night with Thelonius Monk.

Jo Reed: Did you even know what you were going to play?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Absolutely not. He started playing and we had to play with him, and we made it through the whole week. He never turned around and said hello. He never turned around and said thank you, goodbye, I hated you guys, or I liked you guys, or whatever, and I had never heard him say a word in the microphone to anybody. He just came in and started playing.

Jo Reed: Wow, and you were still in Philadelphia, am I right, when you and John Coltrane were in the High Tones with Shirley Scott?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Absolutely. Now, you know what? Last year Reggie Workman was presented with this same award that they’re giving me, and Reggie called me up to tell me he said, “Congratulations, man. They got you too.” But he talked about when we were introduced to John Coltrane in a club in Philadelphia. This was before Shirley Scott and we played in this club with McCoy Tyner was the piano player that couldn’t have been more than 15-years-old, and myself, and Reggie Workman, and we all played just I think it may have been three nights or so with Coltrane. But during that same weekend, I get in the mail a draft notice from the United States Army. I said, “This is a joke. They don’t want me in the army. I’m busy playing with Coltrane.” So, anyhow there was a young man named Al Jones who was a drummer that was with Dizzy at the time. So, he told me, he said, “Look when you go down there, take your snare drum and don’t put it down. Whatever they tell you to do, keep the drum under your arm,” and so I did it <chuckles>. I did that and of course they said, “Listen, you put that down, or either you come back next week and do this again.” So, I didn’t put it down. So, they made me come back again. So, when I came back, I had the drum again. I never put my drum down. So, they told me to go home again and they did it three times, and they sent me home and I came back, and the third time the guy said, “You are a 4-F,” which means physically unfit to be in the army, and I found out later that I had what is called a heart murmur. So, that was my whole experience about being qualified to go into the United States Army. I was playing with Coltrane so I didn’t want to be in no army. A nice exchange. A nice exchange, huh?

Jo Reed: Nice exchange.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes. <chuckles>

Jo Reed: Now, let me ask you because you were on John Coltrane’s first album as a leader, and that happened to be your first album as well.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Absolutely, and I was still living in Philadelphia at the time when Coltrane decided to do this album that we did. I went to New York and rehearsed with him and we did this recording called-- Let’s see, what was it called?

Jo Reed: Isn’t it “Coltrane”?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: “Coltrane,” yes. That was the first one as a leader. That was my first chance to record with John Coltrane.

Jo Reed: How old were you when you first moved to New York City and what brought you there? Was it a job or just more opportunities?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, both of my brothers influenced me to come to New York. Percy was living there a little above the Bronx. Percy really established himself in New York as a bass player and Jimmy came along later and did that. So, that was my main influence to go to New York. Plus, New York was where all of the young musicians were going. Tours were arranged out of New York, not out of Philadelphia, and that’s why I went to enhance my career.

Jo Reed: Is that when you started playing with J.J. Johnson?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes, that happened. Once I moved into New York, that happened. J.J. called me to take Alvin Jones’ place and I was overwhelmed because Alvin Jones was always one of the top drummers as far as I was concerned in the jazz business, and so I couldn’t believe he was calling me. But Alvin was leaving the group and I was excited and overwhelmed. So, yes, I went and in his group was Bobby Jaspar, who was a tenor saxophone player from London. Wilbur Little was the bass player. Tommy Flanagan was the piano player, and that was the group. So, when I joined that I couldn't believe I was sitting there with these guys, and then these are my heroes. So, I stayed with J.J. for a couple of years. We traveled around. Clifford Jordan joined the group later. So, we stayed together. I stayed with J.J. for about two or three years.

Jo Reed: You must’ve learned a lot during that time because you were young and it was J.J. Johnson, and it was a really formative time for you I would think.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Absolutely. Then being in New York I had opportunities to record with people like Wes Montgomery. Quite a few people.

Jo Reed: I have to give a shout-out to that Wes Montgomery. “The Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery.” That is an incredible album. Percy was on it too.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Percy and Tommy Flanagan, and Orrin Keepnews who was the manager and the owner of the Riverside Records. He took a liking to me and he used to call me for quite a few sessions. I was on quite a few albums, which was quite a honor for me to be chosen as the drummer.

Jo Reed: Well, you talked about New York as the place where tours began and tours were put together. But I’m just so curious what their jazz scene was like on the street. How many clubs were there? You were there at this extraordinary time in music.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes, it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s was quite a time in New York. There was more jazz clubs there than anywhere that I had ever been in my life, and so a couple of those tours that were organized there going to Europe, and all of those other places, I was able to be involved in some of those. There’s a guy named George Russell who was a writer, a composer. So, he organized a group and we went to Europe, and we went on a tour to Sweden, and we went to France, and we went a couple of other places, and we were booed in France because we were on a tour with Thelonius Monk, and Thelonius Monk went on before us and they booed him because he got up to do his little dance and they didn’t like that. The French people didn’t like that. So, they booed him and then we came on after him with the music that George Russell had, which was kind of ridiculous music for those people at that time. It was a little advanced. That's not what they expected in the jazz concert and they booed us too. So, that was my first experience of being booed, and it was a long way to travel to go somewhere and then play and then the people throw things at you <chuckles>.

Jo Reed: Yes, I would think. I have read so much about the Five Spot and I know you played there. Did you play there with Reggie Workman?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: I did. I played with Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman. We played there for several weeks and then I played the opening-- We opened, Cedar and I, and Reggie we opened for Thelonius for about four or five weeks, and then we played again and opened for Charlie Mingus’ sextet.

Jo Reed: What was that like?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: I remember one night Joe, Mingus was playing a bass solo and there was a guy sitting in the back talking, and he talked all through Mingus’ solo, and it was loud, and it got to be disturbing. So, Mingus kind of looked in his direction and the guy never did quiet down. It was a drummer named Sunny Murray. But Sunny Murray was talking to somebody and he was ignoring Mingus. So, Mingus snuck around the back of the club and got right up behind him and popped him on both ears as hard as he could, and then when he walked away Sunny Murray took the chair and hit it on Mingus’ back as he walked away, and it was always something every night. But this was a big one. That was one night. Max Roach came in to see us and he and Mingus had had a feud for the longest time. Something about business. So, Max was sitting on the front row with his arms folded across his chest and Mingus played a incredible bass solo. Max did not react at all in any way. So, Mingus took the bass, threw it on the floor, and stepped on it until it was small enough to put in a plastic bag. But I didn’t know at that time that he had a contract with the Kay Bass people who made basses and he could get another bass like nothing. But he smashed it up into little pieces and he did that for Max Roach, and Max still didn’t acknowledge any of that. So, that was another night with Mingus, and Mingus was always something.

Jo Reed: Who did you hang out with? Who were your musical buddies that you would hang with?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, the old Five Spot on West Fourth Street where Ornette Coleman used to play. That’s where Ornette was introduced to New York down there at this club, and I used to hang out down there quite a bit when I wasn’t playing. I would go down and listen to the music, and I kept going to see him because it was something about his music. It was attracting me. Sonny Rollins used to come in and get in the phone booth and close the door halfway so the light wouldn’t come on, and you couldn’t see who was in there, and he’d be in there listening to Ornette. The next night I looked up, Leonard Bernstein came in there from the New York Philharmonic to listen to Ornette, and then there was a big write-up in the paper about him. Then all of a sudden, he was accepted by the New York musicians. They started playing some of his compositions, and the next thing I know the MacArthur Foundation gave Ornette huge sums of money for him being a pioneer in their own music, and I felt the same way about Myles Davis. I think Myles Davis was a pioneer too because he kept changing his personnel and music. His music kept changing. He ran through a lot of different musicians and music. He’s another one of the few musicians that I really respected as far as them being original and finding their own way and their own music.

Jo Reed: In the early ‘60s, you and Bobby Timmons, and Ron Carter were a trio for a while.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes. Ron Carter was with Bobby Timmons and myself in our beginnings of Bobby Timmons’ career in New York as a solo pianist. It was Ron Carter and myself. We used to play in the Vanguard a lot of times and we recorded together, and we did a lot of things. We went to Europe. We did a lot together.

Jo Reed: Am right in assuming that there’s a special relationship between the drummer and the bass player?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, it should be because you’re both dealing with the time of the music, the rhythm of the music. So, if you don’t have a good relationship with a bass player, and you playing the drums, it can be a disaster because the bass player has to really pay attention to what the drummer is doing, and the drummer is not dealing with the harmonics of the song. They’re only dealing with the rhythm so they have the freedom of just concentrating on the beat of the music. Wherein, the bass player has to deal with the harmonics and the beat. So, he has two things to do and then he has to pay attention to what the drummer’s doing because they should be together on whatever they’re doing.

Jo Reed: You spent, what was it, a dozen years in Sweden, Denmark, and Scandinavia?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: At least, yes.

Jo Reed: What was the draw? Why did you move there?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, I was in this group with this guy named George Russell and we went on a tour of Scandinavia and Europe, and when I got to Stockholm, the guy named Okie [ph?] Abrahamson was the manager of a club called the Golden Circle, and he asked me if I wanted to stay there and be the house drummer, and I said yes. That’s how I ended up living in Stockholm for maybe 10 years and then I went on from there to another city called Gothenburg and then I moved from Gothenburg into Copenhagen, which was across the river, and then I stayed in Copenhagen for about five or six years as the house drummer. So, that’s how I got to Scandinavia.

Jo Reed: You played with tons and tons of people when you were doing that. With Dexter Gordon, and Clifford Jordan, and Dom Byas, and Webster. The list is endless. But I’m curious what does it take to be a good sideman, a good house drummer, a good house band member? What do you have to bring to the table?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, as a drummer you have to have something very special about rhythm, and my teachers were always people that they knew something about rhythm drummers. Kenny Clark, Max Roach, Art Blakey. These guys were my leaders and my heroes. So, in order to bring something to every person that you’re playing with, or group that you’re playing with, you have to pay attention and be respective of their compositions and what the tempos and the time that they’re playing, and things like that. You can’t be a drummer that’s off on your own trying to explore your own things. If you’re playing the drums with the Beatles, you have to be able to play what the Beatles are doing. So, when you have to be a part of whatever’s going on around you.

Jo Reed: Is this when you played with Sonny Rollins, that 40-minute version of “Four” when you were in Scandinavia?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes. Sonny Rollins was a unique player because he was rhythmically as astute as a drummer but he knew the harmony as well. So, he could do both things. So, Sonny Rollins would play back and forth with drummers, and exchange, and trade fours or eights, and if you could be astute to rhythm, you could listen to what he’s doing and you could trade back and forth, and that was one of the unique things about Sonny Rollins’ playing, and me with him. He played a week in this club called The Montmartre, which was wonderful. Sonny Rollins could explore and do all kinds of things.

Jo Reed: “Kawaida,” your first record as a leader and Mtume, your nephew, was part of it as was Don Cherry, and Herbie Hancock. Tell me how this came together.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: My nephew Mtume was involved in an organization called Us in Los Angeles, and they were teaching the culture of Africans to African Americans. Trying to make the African Americans learn something about the culture that we came from that we brought to this country.

Jo Reed: Did that influence the album?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: That did definitely influence the album. But I did have Don Cherry. Buster Williams was also on that record and Herbie played piano on one or two, and Don Cherry played on one or two, and Ed Blackwell played the drums on one or two, and I played some percussive instruments. Some other things other than drums. But that was at my first album as a leader.

Jo Reed: You are known for playing with the who’s who of hard bop and your interest in music is so much wider than that, and Ethan Iverson said you’re one of the few guys who could play real, real bebop and then play the new groove languages of people like Herbie Hancock, which you did. How long did you play with Herbie?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: About five years but this man Ethan Iverson is one of the greatest piano players I’ve ever seen in my life in my entire career. He could play any kind of music that you wanted to hear. He knew so many songs. He knows so much about music and not only jazz but other kinds of music as well. When he contacted me and asked me if I would consider playing in a trio with him and Ben Street, Ben is very flexible. He can do anything anybody wants him to do and of course, I was honored.

Jo Reed: Well, that trio with you, Ethan Iverson, and Ben Street. You guys made some extraordinary albums, and the breadth of the work is amazing. For example, the 2015 album “Philadelphia Beat.” You have some songs that you wrote and then you have “I Will Survive,” and they are all fabulous.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Ethan Iverson he had such an incredible repertoire. Then there’s another young man who I have been playing with that is a wonderful pianist as well as Ethan. His name is Emmet Cohen and Emmet can’t be more than 26-years-old or so by now. But he’s quite a piano player too. I’ve been doing some tours with him and a bass player named Russell Williams.

Jo Reed: Music has changed a lot since you started but that’s also true technically. Electronics really has changed bass playing so dramatically, I think. Do you prefer playing with an acoustic bass or do you have a preference?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Yes, I do. According to what we’re playing. What kind of music are we playing? If we’re playing hip hop, I need an electric bass. If we’re playing straight-ahead jazz, an acoustic bass is always the preference. Any other types of music, reggae, or any other type of music I use the electric bass when I’m playing, and this is what I wanted to say about jazz. The honor of having been chosen as a jazz master. You become a jazz master by opening yourself up to other cultures and other music from around the world, and once you learn something about other cultures and especially if you’re a drummer, you should know drums from all of these different rhythms around. The Latino people had their own type of rhythm. The Jamaican reggae beat is also different. The swing rhythm is also different. So, you have all of these different genres and then they’re all identifiable with the culture that goes along with it. So, that’s what I like to say the reason I like to thank jazz because it led me to all of these other types of music that exist.

Jo Reed: You’re known most particularly for being open to many types of music. I’ve heard you talk about the importance of hip hop, for example, when many jazz people push it away. But you recognize its importance to music.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: I recognize this because in the 1960s and ‘70s, they took away the instruments out of the schools. There’s more instruments. They used to give you violins and a bass, a guitar, a trumpet, a saxophone. The school would give you that. They stopped doing that at a certain period in our lives and once they did that these young people came up with this hip hop music. Scratching records number one and making their own music out of no instruments. Just making their own beats out of just a drum and the voice. So, I’m very respectable of these people who have made all of this music possible.

Jo Reed: You played with Yusef Lateef for years and you’ve said he was very influential for you for many reasons. I mean, musically but also personally. Tell us about him and working with him.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: We always call him Brother Yusef because he called everybody else brother. Now, Brother Yusef was a unique human being. Brother Yusef, he was one of the nicest people that you ever want to meet and he was a full-time student. He was always trying to learn something else. Another instrument, another culture, another something. He was busy as a student.

Jo Reed: Didn’t Yusef encourage you and everyone who played with him to compose, to try other instruments, to branch out?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Absolutely. He always asked us. You have to write a song to be in his group. “You must come to my arranging class and learn how to write songs if you don’t have one.” He was teaching at the time at the City College in New York and he put me and Kenny Barron, and Bob Cunningham, he made us come to his class, and now Kenny Barron has got music all over the place. I’ve written a few songs based on what I learned from Yusef and Bob had written a few. He taught us all how important it was to learn how to play other instruments as well as learn how to write music, and we did.

Jo Reed: The Heath Brothers were founded in 1975 with Stanley Cowell, I think, on the piano. Tell me about playing with your brothers and what was that like being on a stage with Percy and Jimmy, and how did you guys play together?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, we had our moments. A lot of times it was really wonderful especially when we have a little time off from each other and we could go off into our other endeavors, and then come back together as a group. We would bring all of that with us. Percy brought the Modern Jazz Quartet with him and Jimmy brought all of his arranging and all of that with him, and I did what I could do with the rhythms from around the world, and add them to my brother's music or to my own music. So, it was quite a pleasure to get together and to perform. Jimmy is quite a composer and he used to write for our group, and it was really special, and he made the Heath Brothers, the Heath Brothers, I think. We had three different guys up there that could play together and make music together, which is wonderful.

Jo Reed: Well, the Heath Brothers took a long hiatus and you guys didn’t record together for a while, and then you came back in 1997 with the album “As We Were Saying,” which is a great piece of work straight through. But the song “South Filthy” I think is a knockout.

Albert “Tootie” Heath: That’s Jimmy’s song and Percy named it “South Filthy.” It was supposed to be South Philly but Percy called it “South Filthy,” because when Percy was a young man and him and June were walking somewhere coming from a club, and he and June happened to be a Caucasian woman and Percy was a black guy, and they were walking down towards their car, and the policeman pulled up beside them and asked her, “Are you okay, miss?” Because of who she was with and so Percy named the song. After that, he said, “It’s time for me and you to leave this town.” So, that's when him and June moved to New York.

Jo Reed: In the mid-’90s the Modern Jazz Quartet, you ended up being the drummer for them for a little while with Percy of course was one of the members along with John Lewis and Milt Jackson.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: That was super interesting because Milt and John had an ongoing fight. Actually, Milt didn’t like what John-- his direction that he was taking the group in. The more classical type music than blues and rhythm and blues like Milt wanted to play. So, they have differences about everything. They would play cards before the concert and Milt would win them most of the time, and John would be not winning most of the time, and then they would go out and play some music that Milt hated, and he would be okay with it, and he would play right through it like if it was nothing. Milt Jackson was unbelievable but him and John were always having conflict. Yes, I mean, it was ridiculous and they’d been together for 40-some years but Milt never left. He never went anywhere. He stayed there and just fought with John constantly.

Jo Reed: You have a group called the Whole Drum Truth that consists entirely of drummers. That’s the entire ensemble, just drummers. What’s the adjustment when drummers are playing only with other drummers when that’s the only instrument?

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, it can be a disaster if you have the wrong people. Now you have to listen to each other, and you have to know the melodies of the music that we're playing. Now we’re playing as if we’re playing with the group that we play with. But we’re only playing our part that we play in the group. So, we had to be very quiet, and very sensitive, and listen to each other, and pay close attention to what each we’re doing because it’s all in unison. It’s the same thing each one of us is doing, and the more drummers you have, the more chances are it being a disaster. It’s a challenge to have just the drums.

Jo Reed: Briefly as we’re beginning to wrap up, you worked for so long at the Stanford Jazz Workshop working with younger musicians. High school and middle schoolers, and I’m curious what you saw in them, what they were interested in, and what you wanted to teach them. What you wanted them to get about music.

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Well, the wonderful thing was to see these young people on their way with their careers. A lot of those young people wanted to be educators. A lot of them wanted to be performers. So, they all had all of these different ambitions, and what I could help them with is to make sure that they stay open-minded, and you have to pay attention to other cultures and other music in order to be as good as you needed to be in the genre that you’re in. That was one of the main things I wanted to pass onto these younger people, and believe me it’s going to be a bunch of young people coming up behind me that just can't wait to get to get their hands on a jazz mastership, and they will.

Jo Reed: That was 2021 NEA Jazz Master, percussionist Tootie Heath. Mark your calendars for April 22nd. You won’t want to miss the celebration of the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters as the NEA in collaboration with SF Jazz presents a virtual tribute concert in their honor. With remarks from second gentleman and long-time jazz lover, Douglas Emhoff. The fun takes place on Thursday, April 22nd at 8:00 P.M. Eastern, 5:00 P.M. Pacific. The concert is free and available to watch online or listen to on the radio. You can find full details at You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed, stay safe, and thanks for listening.

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