Remembering Jimmy Heath

October 25, 1926 – January 19, 2020

A tribute to the beloved saxophonist, arranger and composer

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Tenor-saxophonist, flutist, arranger and composer Jimmy Heath passed away on January 19, 2020 at the age of 93.

Heath was born on October 25, 1926 in Philadelphia.

The brother of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, he grew up around music; his father loved big bands and his mother sang in her church choir.

He originally played alto-sax, working with the Nat Towles band during part of 1945-46 before forming his own group which was based in Philadelphia during 1946-49 and included his friend John Coltrane in the saxophone section along with Benny Golson and pianist Ray Bryant.

Heath made his recording debut (on alto and baritone) with trumpeter Howard McGhee in 1947 and he is heard on other early recordings with Kenny Clarke (in Paris), Gil Fuller and Dinah Washington; he was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in late 1949.

Nicknamed “Little Bird” because of the strong influence of Charlie Parker, Heath switched to tenor by the time he recorded with Miles Davis in 1953; he would later develop distinctive voices on flute and soprano-sax.

After 1953, drug problems kept Heath off of the scene (other than arranging from a Chet Baker Big Band date in 1956) until 1959.

Jimmy Heath returned to active playing that year, had a short stint with Miles Davis, and during the 1959-62 period led some of his finest recordings for the Riverside label in settings ranging from a quartet to a big band.

Heath became greatly in demand as a freelance arranger-composer and saxophonist; his best known originals include “Gingerbread Boy,” “For Minors Only,” “Picture Of Heath” and “CTA.”

He recorded with many top musicians through the years (from Freddie Hubbard and Elmo Hope to Blue Mitchell, Clark Terry and Art Farmer, often working with Milt Jackson.

After the breakup of the Modern Jazz Quartet in the mid-1970s, he often teamed up with Percy and Tootie Heath in the quartet called The Heath Brothers.

Jimmy Heath’s career never slowed down; in the 21st century he often worked with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, kept the Heath Brothers going after Percy’s death, made a fine album of his compositions with Roberta Gambarini, and wrote his autobiography I Walked With Giants.

Even at the age of 93, Jimmy Heath’s death was a sad surprise.

Here is Jimmy Heath in 2004 playing at a Tadd Dameron tribute concert with a big band, performing “If You Could See Me Now” with the arrangement written by pianist Eric Gould

-Scott Yanow


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