Jimmy Heath

2003 NEA Jazz Master
Jimmy Heath

Photo by Tom Pich

Transcript of conversation with Jimmy Heath

We're listening to saxophonist, composer, arranger, educator and Jazz master, Jimmy Heath.  

Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Jimmy Heath has long been recognized as both a fluid, innovative  instrumentalist and a dynamic composer and arranger. Jimmy is the middle brother of the legendary Heath Brothers (Percy Heath, a Jazz Master as well; Tootie Heath is a drummer). Starting on alto saxophone (and acquiring the nickname "Little Bird" due to the influence Charlie Parker had on him), Jimmy switched to tenor sax in the 1950s. But as a tenor or an alto player, Jimmy Heath excelled and he has shared the stage with the legends of jazz. There are far too many to list here. But here are a few facts: In 1948 Jimmy performed in the First International Jazz Festival in Paris with Howard McGhee sharing the stage with Coleman Hawkins and Erroll Garner; one of Jimmy's earliest big bands in Philadelphia included John Coltrane and Benny Golson. Jimmy played in Dizzy Gillespie's big band for a few years. After which he teamed up with Miles Davis and then Milt Jackson and Art Farmer. During his career, Jimmy Heath has performed on more than 100 record albums including seven with The Heath Brothers and twelve as a bandleader. Jimmy has also written more more 100 original works, including  seven suites and two string quartets. Jimmy helped to create the jazz program at Queens College where he taught for 20 years. Little wonder that this week, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave Jimmy Heath a 2011 Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture. Other honorees this year include Stephen Sondheim, Maya Lin and Mikhail Baryshnikov). Of course, the NEA has NYC beat; we named Jimmy Heath an NEA jazz master back in 2003.  I had the opportunity to speak with Jimmy back in January at the 2011 Jazz Masters ceremony. I began our conversation by asking him, why he choose the saxophone as his instrument.

Jimmy Heath: Well, you know, in my family, my father was a clarinetist on weekends, auto mechanic for livelihood but he played the clarinet and my mom sang in the Baptist church. They had a lot of music in the house and so every child was offered an instrument of their choice. That was the way they thought life should be. My sister played piano until she met boys then she stopped. My brother, Percy, was older. He played the violin, went in the service, became a Tuskegee airman, second lieutenant. When he came out, I was already a professional because my father had offered me the instrument and I picked the alto saxophone. And later with my younger brother, he came along, and decided on drums.

Jo Reed: That's Tootie?

Jimmy Heath: Yeah.

Jo Reed: What was it about the sax?

Jimmy Heath: Well, the saxophone was fascinating to me because we had all these records in our home, jazz records, and I liked what I heard from Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges and that captured me. I said, "Well, that's what I want to play is the alto saxophone."

Jo Reed: Johnny Hodges was a beautiful player. I'm curious about something you said about Johnny Hodges, that he was like a vocalist.

Jimmy Heath: Well, Johnny Hodges was a singer on saxophone. He played a song just like a vocalist. His breath control and his sound was captivating. And Benny Carter was a person of technical expertise in a certain way and he could do everything. He could write music, he could- he had bands and he played great saxophone, trumpet and he was a versatile person.

Jo Reed: I read that what you do when you look at a song is that you really study the lyrics of something that you're going to play.

Jimmy Heath: Well, I learned that later. At first, I didn't and usually we were so wrapped up in the technique of the instrument and how to produce sounds, musical, but later on you find that the people who sing like a singer Ben Webster on tenor and Johnny Hodges communicated with an audience better and that's when I started to pay attention to the lyrics.

Jo Reed: About when was this?

Jimmy Heath: That wasn't in the early beginning as a saxophone player, you know? It had to be. Oh, I was playing probably 10 or 15 years before I really realized I got to try to make the horn sing.

Jo Reed: Your earliest gigs, recordings, were with Howard McGhee.

Jimmy Heath: Yes.

Jo Reed: What was that experience like for you?

Jimmy Heath: Well, Howard McGhee, a trumpeter, had a band and he and Milt Jackson are the people began to call me Little Bird because, by that time, I was listening to Charlie Parker and his technique and facility really blew my mind and I was trying to play like him. And Howard had performed with Charlie Parker. When he took me in his group, well, he took me to Paris in 1948.

Jo Reed: That was the first jazz festival ever.

Jimmy Heath: Yes, it was. The one that they credit as being the first is '49. I think that's the one...

Jo Reed: They missed a year.

Jimmy Heath: That was the one Charlie Parker and Miles. But the one that I went on in '48 was with the Grande Coleman Hawkins, as he was called in Paris. I was with Howard McGhee Sextet des Be Bop, they called us. The other group that was completely overwhelmed the French was the Slam Stewart Trio with John Collins on guitar and Errol Garner on piano. Errol Garner, he just took the French by storm. But I'm a young person, I had never been out of the country and Howard takes me on this tour to Paris and we stayed just in Paris for about, I guess, a week, four or five days or a week. And I had never flown but my brother, Percy, was in that group and he had just come out of being a Tuskegee airman and he consoled me on this flight all the way to Paris. It took 17 hours.

Reed: How did you first get to play with Dizzy Gillespie?

Jimmy Heath: Well, we followed the Dizzy Gillespie band around, me and my brother, Percy, everywhere they would play in the east, if they're playing in Delaware, New York or Philadelphia. We were so enamored of bebop and what it had, this new music. We would put on our artist's bowties and our berets like Dizzy and copy their costume and we would go see them and I wanted to be in that band so much and eventually I got in the band but Dizzy would recognize us down in front and say, "Oh, there's the Heath brothers from Philadelphia" because we would be following the band as fans of the music. Eventually, I started a band in Philadelphia and my band was patterned after Dizzy's band. And later on I would consider now that I had a feeder band into the Dizzy Gillespie band because Coltrane was in my band, Benny Golson was in my band, Nelson Boyd, Specs Wright, the drummer that I had, and we all went into Dizzy's band.

Jo Reed: What did you learn from Dizzy Gillespie?

Jimmy Heath: Dizzy Gillespie, to me, is the master teacher that I had a relationship with from the time I first got in his band until the time he passed away. I was completely in awe of the way he wrote music himself for a big band and he would show us, whenever you were in Dizzy's presence, he was always showing us something. If it's something rhythmically from the Afro-Cuban slant of music or harmonically at the piano, he was a teacher and everybody that played with Dizzy learned from him. And that was a lot of people. I mean, he just exuded music all the time, every time you were in his company. "Oh, that's a so and so, this is a minor, this is a minor flat five, this is a so and so" and he was always teaching.

Jo Reed: Did Dizzy help you with your composing?

Jimmy Heath: Oh, yeah. It was like being in a Dizzy Gillespie University.

Jo Reed: What was it like having John Coltrane in your band?

Jimmy Heath: Well, Coltrane had just gotten out of the navy and a trumpet player by the name of Bill Massey, who was playing with me, introduced me to ‘Trane. He says, "Both of us just got out the Great Lakes Navy Band" or something and I said to John, I said, "Man, you know, I got a band."  I said, "Would you be interested in playing alto?"  Because we both were playing alto saxophones. He said, "Yes." And that was it. We were both the same age, one month different in age, Trane September 23rd, me October the 25th of 1926. We both were playing alto saxophones. I just had the band and he was interested in playing in the band so we became close friends in a lot of ways, some unsavory ways, you know, with narcotics and stuff.

Jo Reed: Yeah, he had issues, too.

Jimmy Heath: Yeah. So he was not the Coltrane that you think of. He was learning the same as I was, you know?  We learned together. We used to go to the museum in Philly and listen to Stravinsky and western classical music together. We were studying Charlie Parker's solos written out and all that kind of stuff. So we were just buddies, hang out with girls and all kinds of closeness.

Jo Reed: Dexter Gordon had a big impact on you, didn't he?

Jimmy Heath: Well, Dexter Gordon had a impact on all of us when we wanted to play the tenor saxophone because he and Sonny Stitt were the, oh, what would you say, promulgators of the bebop style on the tenor saxophone. So the tenor being the fourth instrument higher, it was kind of economical reasons and also musical reasons, you know, when things happened, after World War II, and around Philadelphia, there were people in the taverns or bars or the clubs, they call them, would hire a trio, the fourth instrument usually was a tenor saxophone. You know, trying to escape the hold on you that Charlie Parker had, I said, "Well, maybe I'll get to tenor. Maybe I can get my own identity."  As long as you played alto and you were playing in the bebop style, everybody said, "Well, he's playing all the Charlie Parker stuff."  But they were, too, but it was on the tenor.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jimmy Heath: Charlie Parker was super influential.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you heard him?

Jimmy Heath: Mm hm. I went to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and Dizzy and Charlie Parker came there. They were on a concert and I had already gotten their records when I was on the road in a band called Nat Towles in 1945, I think, right out of high school, I went on the road with a band. I had heard when Dizzy and Bird put out so, when they came to Philly, this was around, I guess it was around '47 or '48, I heard them in a live performance and that was the first time, you know, that I heard it. I had all the records that had come out to that time and we were all in awe of Charlie Parker's incredible technique and skills as a saxophonist and a performer. So, when we heard him, in fact, that day, I had a friend that gave me a ticket and I was sitting downstairs in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and I heard later Coltrane and Benny Golson were together up in the balcony at that same concert because we all were in love with him. But Benny actually started tenor before Trane and I did.

Jo Reed: When did you start composing, Jimmy?

Jimmy Heath: I started composing probably in, I would say in 19-- trying to compose, I learned about composition when I was with Nat Towles' orchestra out in Omaha, Nebraska. We went all over. We toured as a dance band but I was taking close observance to the arrangements that were in that band from a few people that were writing like Wild Bill Davis, the organ player, had written an arrangement for Nat Towles. Nat Tolls, T-O-W-L-E-S, had Sir Charles Thomson, another pianist who went with Coleman Hawkins and J.J., people like that, he was writing for that band. So the people who had been in the band before me had written some great arrangements. I would start copying things and asking people in a very primitive way, "What note did you play on that chord I liked?  What note did you end the band?" and I would put it all together and figure out what chords they were.

Music up and hot…

Jimmy Heath: So it was never formal training as an arranger, that came way later. But I was able to put a few things together when I had that band in 1947, six and seven, maybe, '47/'48.

Jo Reed: You know, that's a criticism people have of you.

Jimmy Heath: Yeah.

Jo Reed: You don't play your own stuff enough.

Jimmy Heath: Yeah. Who said that?

Jo Reed: Gary Giddins, for one.

Jo Reed: Your own work is beautiful.

Jimmy Heath: But, you know, only one tune I get criticized for not playing it and that was from another musician and that was from Art Taylor, he had a group called Taylor's Wailers and he used to use my song, CTA, as a theme song. He said, "Man, you dumb so and so, you don't even play your own songs."

Jo Reed: You see?

Jimmy Heath: He's the only one. But everybody else, I play every gig I play, I play my own songs.

Jo Reed: You're a very modest man.

Jimmy Heath: I know, but, I mean, you know, how could you, you know, a lot of-- I've written, yeah, probably 140, 50 songs and some of them I haven't played in a long time.

Jo Reed: Well, it might be time to have a think about bringing them back.

Jimmy Heath: Well, you know, every recording I've made, I've had three or four or five of my songs on them. If that is not enough, I mean, I don't understand that. Music, to me, is very, very different in that no one instrument I am a person who likes the sound of a lot of different instruments. What my problem, I think, has been that I didn't play the saxophone alone as a quartet over and over and over on recordings. Only made probably three quartet records, okay?  I like the whole group. I like a sextet. I had a ten-tet. I like the big band. I like French horns, I like cellos, I had cello on a couple of my records, you know?  I like other instruments. I'm not a egomaniac. I call ‘em egoStravinskies because they're only them. I'm not the only voice. I'm too democratic, maybe, to have a bigger name in the music world. When I grew up and I used to go hear the big bands, the big band fascinated me. The big band is actually jazz's symphony orchestra. We have the most possibilities of sound. We can have a duet in the big band. Duke he had the sextet with the clarinet, trombone, trumpet and he made "Mood Indigo" and things and then he'd have- but the big band, you can't do that with a small group. You can't get that full democratic sound. I guess I'm a advocate of democracy in everything; in life, in music, and everybody has a say. And if I like a cello on my record, I may give the cello a solo, you know?  I did, for the Krono String Quartet, Orrin got me this deal.

Jo Reed: You're talking about producer Orrin Keepnews who's also a 2011 Jazz Master.

Jimmy Heath: Yes. He said, "Man, they want something to play for their encores in a jazz tradition. So they want to know if you could write a string quartet or would you transcribe something from Coltrane?"  And I did that, transcribed, and what I did was to give part of the solo to the second violin and they don't do that. The first violinist gets all the solos and the rest of them accompany him. And that's not democracy, for me. Why can't the second violinist play some of the solos?  Neither one of them could improvise and this was Coltrane's written out solo, you understand?  But why couldn't the second violin have a little bit of taste of it unless you're an improvisational person, then you got your own band, you take the most solos. I did not like going to see a group and the saxophone player, it's his group. He plays the melody and starts the song. He plays the first solo in every song. Then he lets the piano player and the bass player play and then they play fours and trade and they come back, play the next song, the saxophone player plays the melody and he plays the first solo. I don't- I didn't like that. Why can't the piano player the first solo and you play the second solo?  I mean, so people like to see a person who, that one person, and they got this star syndrome, which I hate…

Music up and hot…

Jimmy Heath: And there's no stars on earth. Stars are in the sky and, when one falls, it burns up. I just believe in equality. What's wrong with that?  Why can't we come to that?

Jo Reed: Now, did Dizzy have that in his band?

Jimmy Heath: No. <laughter> No. I always remember the first time Dizzy really heard John play, when we were in the band and we both were playing alto saxophones and we had a song written by Linton Garner, who's Errol Garner's brother, but he could write arrangements, called Minor Walk. It was the first night, because I used to get a solo on "Cool Breeze" – Tadd Dameron piece, and Trane had this solo on Minor Walk and Dizzy realized how great Coltrane sounded and it was one of the times he turned around, he was facing the audience and Trane got into such a good groove that he turned around and said something, some profanity, "Play M.F." <laughs> You know?  Because he realized that Coltrane was a talent. But, before that, we'd all take a little short solo. He had the solos out front. So he was another one, I mean, that's how you get a reputation.

Jo Reed: But what about Duke Ellington?

Jimmy Heath: Duke Ellington had a band, see, and that's what I like and he had people playing solos, Johnny Hodges, and he had Ben Webster, he had Harry Connie...

Jo Reed: Paul...

Jimmy Heath: Paul Gonsalves came after Ben Webster.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jimmy Heath: Because Paul Gonsalves actually was with Dizzy when me and Coltrane was playing altos. He was playing the tenor and he used to charm all the ladies and we didn't get any response after the gig. Everybody, "Oh, that's Paul, where's Paul?"  So that's another reason to change to tenor. <laughs> But I just like music so much and I like the different sounds of music. I love the saxophone and I get a kick out of playing the saxophone. That's my favorite but it's not the only instrument in the band.

Jo Reed: Well, you wrote two string quartets.

Jimmy Heath: Yeah. I like that. I wrote one symphonic work and I wrote a lot of extended works. I wrote a piece for Lincoln Center when they opened the new building where we were playing.

Jo Reed: The Jazz at Lincoln Center?

Jimmy Heath: Yeah. I wrote a piece called "Passion or Fashion" and it encompassed, I found out later, after I had written it, I had to change a lot of things around, one of Lyndon Johnson's speeches. Glenn Close narrated it that night on the opening concert. I really liked what she did with it and people liked it, too. Winton had commissioned four or five people. The concert was called Let Freedom Swing. Somebody wrote one about Malcolm X, someone wrote about Lyndon, somebody Eleanor Roosevelt, somebody, you know, it was about...

Jo Reed: Dr. King, I'm sure.

Jimmy Heath: Yeah. So that was a great night for me. I mean, but the first extended piece that I wrote that was called the Afro-American Suite of Evolution and I studied two years from a teacher who taught at Carnegie Hall upstairs in the back, his office, named Rudolf Schramm, from Leipzig, Germany, who taught the Schillinger system at NYU for 20 years or so. He taught Eubie Blake and Eddy Barfield and Mercer Ellington and a lot of people, Professor Schramm taught, including me because I wanted to learn how to write ragtime. I wanted to learn how to write for strings. I wanted to include all of this in this Evolution Suite that I wrote. I liked doing it so, since that time, I've written Upper Neighbor Suite for Canada and, you know, a lot of different ones. I wrote another one for Lincoln Center for Joe Henderson called In Praise. Right now, I'm involved in writing a commission for the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. I'm at work on that. So I like to write for all kinds of ensembles…

Jo Reed: You also, speaking of writing, have recently written a book.

Jimmy Heath: Yes.

Jo Reed: An autobiography.

Jimmy Heath: Right.

Jo Reed: The title, I Walked With Giants.

Jimmy Heath: Yes.

Jo Reed: Why that title?

Jimmy Heath: Because, like we are talking now, all of these people I'm naming, they are people who I associated with in a musical fashion and some of them socially but we performed together. Dizzy was a giant and a teacher. He was a role model as an entertainer and, you know, so he's a giant and everybody recognizes them as giants. Coltrane's a giant in our music. He's like Beethoven or Bach is in western classical music. I'm talking about in African-American classical music. Dr. Billy Taylor or Hank Jones or James Moody. All these people I have played with and they're all my friends and we have done a lot of things musically together so they are giants and it's a kind of a-- another reason, I would say, that, which is always a humorous reason, I'm a little guy. I'm 5'3 and those guys, some of them were giants physically. Randy Weston or...

Jo Reed: He's big.

Jimmy Heath: <laughter> Yeah, Dexter is 6'5" or something, you know what I mean?  So it's some humor in that title but not really the main focus of the title is the giants of music.

Jo Reed: I liked the way the book was put together, Jimmy. It's almost like a call and response. You write...

Jimmy Heath: Jazz.

Jo Reed: Yeah. It is, it's like jazz, the way you have different voices coming in all the time. It's exactly what you were talking about with not just liking the saxophone but wanting other voices. You did that in your autobiography, too.

Jimmy Heath: That's me.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jimmy Heath: That's the way I feel. That everybody should have their say. I'm a very democratic person in that now I have-- when I have my big band gigs, I got saxophone players and it's always nice to have- I don't want all the five saxophone players and just play my notes that I wrote. No, they all got to have a solo. Everybody in the band that can solo should be able to solo and that's not the way it's looked at by this star syndrome that America has, Hollywood. I think that'd be good in Hollywood. I may be wrong. Stars. But there are no stars. They're just people who are extremely talented in whatever field they are in but you got to find another word than star. The English language got a lot of adjectives they can use besides star.

Jo Reed: Final question.

Jimmy Heath: Yes?

Jo Reed: Who haven't you played with that you wish you could have played with?

Jimmy Heath: Duke Ellington. Count Basie. I've been on the stage and played before Basie came up but not in his organization. I wish I could have played in that band. If I could go back further than that, I wish I had been around to play in Jimmy Lunsford's band. I found that Jimmy Lunsford's band had so many talented arrangers at the time when Gerald Wilson was in there as a young kid writing music. He had so many arrangers and there was such a variety of good music coming out of that band. Every big band I used to go to see, the one that fascinated me was Glenn Miller. I went to see Glenn Miller at the Earl Theater in Philadelphia and, when they put the blue lights on the saxophone section and they were playing "Serenade in Blue," I could have cried. I said, "Oh, my god, I want to be up there like those people." That music sounds so-- it captured me. I got the record. I still got it, "Serenade in Blue" by Glenn Miller. I'm in love with music in all of its phases. I really love music.

Jo Reed: That was saxophonist, composer, arranger and 2003  Jazz Master Jimmy Heath.  

If you love jazz, mark your calendar for January 10 when NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Awards Ceremony, takes place at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The concert begins at 7:30 pm, we're webcasting it live. Go to arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information about this free event and the live webcast.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from Jimmy Heath leading and playing with the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra, live in concert, used courtesy of Berklee College of Music.

Excerpts of "Heritage Hum," "Gemini," and "One for Juan" from TURN UP THE HEATH performed by the Jimmy Heath Big Band, used courtesy of Planet Arts Recordings.

All of the music we heard was written by Jimmy Heath.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, Tim O'Brien, author of The Big Read selection, The Things They Carried.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Saxophonist, composer and arranger Jimmy Heath talks about his storied career and some of the jazz greats he’s played with.