NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Albert "Tootie" Heath

The youngest of the three Heath Brothers, Albert “Tootie” Heath is 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 has been 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.

Since the late 2000s, Heath has 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 leads 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 has 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. Living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 2013, Heath has immersed himself in the local jazz community.

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