Jimmy Heath: 1926 – 2020

Jimmy Heath: 1926 – 2020

When the 93-year-old saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath stepped into the great beyond on Sunday, January 19, 2020, he left behind a rich history, a tremendous body of work, a beloved family and a collection of affectionately bestowed nicknames for his many colleagues, friends and disciples. One of the last legends of a bygone era, he painted his legacy proudly with both pen and horn.

Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Heath was reared in a musical household that spawned two other jazz legends — the late bassist Percy Heath, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, a veteran of sessions led by John Coltrane, Art Farmer and Benny Golson, Dexter Gordon, Yusef Lateef and other titans. Jimmy’s diminutive frame and allegiance to the sounds and stylings of Charlie Parker eventually earned him the nickname “Little Bird,” but his 5-foot-3 stature was the only thing small about him. Both his sound and personality spoke to the ages.

During Heath’s seven decades immersed in the music, he essentially traced — or drew — jazz’s evolutionary curve. Starting out as an alto saxophonist in dance bands, he quickly submitted to the draw of bebop and the lure of the tenor saxophone. Memorable associations with trumpet icons Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis followed, as did a string of notable leader dates for the Riverside imprint. In the ’70s, Heath began to engage in sibling revelry with the formation of the Heath Brothers, an electrified outfit with both a fusion-forward sound and an appreciation for a straight-line sensibility. Later in life he often found himself working with smartly charted big bands, both his own and others.

Heath proved equally influential as an educator, reaching generations of musicians through his work in the Jazzmobile program and his teaching and leadership at Queens College. But had Heath never wielded a saxophone or passed down his knowledge to a single pupil, his position in the jazz firmament would’ve still been cemented through his writing. A student of harmony driven by curiosity and firm creative impulses, Heath’s compositions caught many an ear and have long since been enshrined as canon. Here’s a glimpse at five essential tracks from his catalog:

“For Minors Only”  

The Thumper, Heath’s maiden voyage on Riverside, released in 1960, sets off with this spirited outing. A hard-bop happening that has Tootie Heath toggling between a Latin-leaning groove and swing time, it finds the composer’s fat-toned horn out front in the mix. Bookending his strutting solo are stands from trombonist Curtis Fuller and cornetist Nat Adderley. As with numerous Heath charts that would follow over the years, the writing here makes a three-horn frontline sound significantly larger than it should.


The lead-off track on 1962’s Triple Threat, “Gemini” demonstrates Heath’s abilities to expand the framework of the blues. With a waltzing gait, harmonic twists that skirt simple I-IV-V expectations, well-contoured lines and a bounding saxophone solo, Heath and his band — a sextet that steps outside of the norm with the inclusion of Julius Watkins on French horn — deliver with glee and good form. Cannonball Adderley would choose to dose the song with soul and up the tempo a bit with his own sextet, furthering its reach and expanding on Heath’s vision.

“Gingerbread Boy”

Heath’s most enduring composition, “Gingerbread Boy” has taken on a life of its own in the decades since its unveiling. Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet would immortalize the tune with muscular drive on 1967’s Miles Smiles, but the composer hit it first, three years earlier, on his own On the Trail. Joining forces with guitarist Kenny Burrell on the catchy and choppy head, Heath later opens his stride over comp king Wynton Kelly’s piano and the swinging foundation provided by bassist Paul Chambers and the ubiquitous Tootie Heath.

“Picture of Heath”

Emphasizing a love of wordplay and name games, Jimmy Heath proves a real picture of health while hurdling across the changes of this classic, off his 1975 Xanadu outing of the same name. Bassist Sam Jones bolsters Heath’s melodic takeoff, Barry Harris blows first and Billy Higgins has his way toward the end of the track. But the middle ground belongs to the tenorist. With the exception of a brief flirtation with a serrated sound, Heath works with a centered strength that would be a trademark from the beginning of his career on through to the end.


“C.T.A.” — which takes its name from the initials of one of Heath’s girlfriends in the ’50s, not the Chicago Transit Authority (as some have assumed) — found its way into various outings and ensembles across Heath’s life in music. Miles Davis adopted it in the early ’50s, and Heath revitalized it on his Grammy-nominated Little Man Big Band some four decades later. But the version heard at the end of Picture of Heath stands apart from the rest by openly embracing Monk-ish mannerisms in tone and tact. Heath, playing Charlie Rouse to Harris’ Monk, thrives over the springy action provided by Jones and Higgins.           

Dan Bilawsky, a career music educator and band director, writes about music for JazzTimes, JAZZed and All About Jazz.   

Image credit: Rovi

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