R.I.P. Jimmy Heath

Jimmy Heath was not just a musician. Jimmy Heath was a lifestyle, a mood, a way to make sense of the world.

The last time I saw Jimmy play was in 2016 at the Village Vanguard with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Al Foster. I never heard a set of Jimmy Heath where there wasn’t some down ‘n dirty blues, and that night he was particularly inspired on Sonny Red’s “Bluesville.” The snaky tenor lines burst through the air like soulful sparkles. It was a good reminder that Jimmy was the same age as John Coltrane, and that Jimmy and Trane had learned the blues together as teenagers in Philadelphia.

Jimmy was the middle child of one of the great jazz families. Percy was the elder, a major bassist for Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and eventually the bottom end of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Tootie was the younger, a quicksilver swinger who has played comfortably with everybody from Wes Montgomery to Don Cherry. For a time they joined together as the Heath Brothers, a band that must have appeared at every major jazz festival in the world.

When Jimmy, Percy, and Tootie played together, it was a conversation. Not just musically, but literally: They would talk to each other, the whole time, the whole gig. It was hilarious. They’d talk about who looked funny in the audience and who had the better hotel room that night. One time I saw Tootie play a loud cymbal crash during a piano solo, prompting Jimmy to yell, ‘That was a big one!” Tootie yelled back, “It had to be done!”

All the brothers had amazing verbal skills, they were all born comics and could riff like nobody’s business. After “Winter Sleeves,” one of the pieces in the Heath Brothers book, Jimmy Heath would address the audience in rhyme:

That piece was called, “Winter Sleeves”
based on a song called, “Autumn Leaves”
so I could collect the royalties
for my melodies.

The most familiar of Jimmy’s many compositions is probably “Gingerbread Boy,” thanks to a classic performance of Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. The tune’s jagged themes just sort of hang there, a set of questions and answers. Conversation in music, conversation on the bandstand. Miles recorded a few Jimmy Heath tunes and didn’t always give credit. “Miles! Could I have the royalties for my melodies….please?”

I Walked With Giants is Jimmy’s autobiography. It’s a valuable read, but no jazz master gives up all their secrets. Now that Jimmy is gone, he took a big part of what was living history with him.

Tootie told me a great story recently: While Jimmy was serving time at the Lewisburg Penitentiary, he put a band together that included William Langford, better known to jazz fans as The Legendary Haasan. When Langford decided to quit the prison band, he wrote Jimmy a letter to explain that he didn’t want to do it any more. Of course, Haasan saw Jimmy all day long, every day, at chow and exercise time etc. Still, Haasan sent Jimmy a letter.

I’m not sure what this story proves, exactly, except that it’s another reminder that when Jimmy played the blues, it was the real blues.

Jimmy Heath’s extensive discography deserves a serious critical overview. There’s a lot there, and most of it isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. As I type this, I’m listening to the truly brilliant composition “Six Steps” from Swamp Seed. The orchestration includes two french horns and tuba. Harold Mabern (also recently gone) gets the first say, Donald Byrd is supremely tasty, and then Jimmy himself tells it like it is. His brothers Percy and Tootie are in the rhythm section. Family, community, conversation, mystery, the spiritual, the unknowable, the slick, the smart, the surreal: Whatever I love about jazz, it’s all right here in this fabulous track.