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Mon, 10.25.1926

Jimmy Heath, Jazz Saxophonist born

Jimmy Heath

*On this date in 1926, Jimmy Heath was born.  He was a Black jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger, and big band leader. 

 James Edward Heath was born in Philadelphia.  His father, an auto mechanic, played the clarinet, performing on the weekends. His mother sang in a church choir. The family frequently played recordings of big band jazz groups around the house. His sister was a pianist, while his brothers were bassist Percy and drummer Albert.  

Heath originally played alto saxophone, but after the influence of Charlie Parker on his work for Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s, he earned the nickname "Little Bird" (Parker's nickname was "Bird"), and he switched to tenor saxophone.  During World War II, Heath was rejected for the draft for being under the weight limit. He performed with the Nat Towles band from late 1945 through most of 1946. In 1946 he formed his band, which was a fixture on the Philadelphia jazz scene until 1949.  John Coltrane was one of four saxophonists in this band who played gigs with Charlie Parker and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Although Heath recalls that the band recorded a few demos on acetate, it never released any recordings, and its arrangements were lost at a Chicago train station. The band dissolved in 1949 so Heath could join Dizzy Gillespie's band.  One of Heath's earliest big bands (1947-1948) in Philadelphia included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Specs Wright, Cal Massey, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant, and Nelson Boyd. Charlie Parker and Max Roach sat in on one occasion.  

Heath was arrested and convicted twice for selling heroin; he was an acknowledged addict. The first time, in the spring of 1954, he was sent to the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, Kentucky, where many musicians and celebrities (and other people) were given treatment. After release, in early 1955, still an addict, he was arrested again and served most of a six-year prison sentence in Lewisburg. He went cold turkey and was able to spend a lot of his time engaged in music.

While in prison, he composed most of the Chet Baker and Art Pepper album Playboys (1956).  He was released in 1959 and remained clean for the rest of his life; conditions of probation made it difficult, but he managed to start rebuilding his career.  

At a coming-home party the night after his release from Lewisburg Penitentiary, he met his eventual wife, Mona Brown, whom he married in 1960; they had two children, Roslyn and Jeffrey.  Heath was also the father of R&B songwriter/musician James Mtume.   

He briefly joined Miles Davis's group in 1959, replacing Coltrane, and worked with Kenny Dorham and Gil Evans. Heath recorded extensively as a leader and sideman. During the 1960s, he frequently worked with Milt Jackson and Art Farmer.  1975 he and his brothers formed the Heath Brothers, featuring pianist Stanley Cowell.  Jimmy Heath composed "For Minors Only," "Picture of Heath," "Bruh' Slim," and "CTA" and recorded them on his 1975 album Picture of Heath.  In the 1980s, Heath joined the Aaron Copland School of Music faculty at Queens College, City University of New York. With the rank of Professor, he led the creation of the Jazz Program at Queens College and attracted prominent musicians such as Donald Byrd to the campus.

On campus, he also served on the Board of the Louis Armstrong Archives and the restoration and management of the Louis and Lucille Armstrong Residence in Corona, Queens, near his home.  In addition to teaching at Queens College for over twenty years, he also taught at Jazzmobile.  Heath stood just 5 feet, 3 inches. He played in a jazz concert at the White House when President Bill Clinton borrowed his saxophone for one number.  He received a Grammy nomination for box-set liner notes of The Heavyweight Champion, John Coltrane, the Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino, 1995), and Grammy nominations for Little Man Big Band (Verve, 1994) and Live at the Public Theatre with The Heath Brothers (Columbia, 1980).  

Heath was a recipient of the 2003 NEA Jazz Masters Award.  In 2004, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Human Letters. During his career, Heath performed on over 100 albums, including seven with the Heath Brothers and 12 as a leader. He wrote more than 125 compositions, many of which have become jazz standards and have been recorded by other artists, including Art Farmer, Cannonball AdderleyClark Terry, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad JamalRay Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, J. J. Johnson, and Dexter Gordon. Heath also composed extended works, seven suites, and two string quartets and premiered his first symphonic work, Three Ears, in 1988 at Queens College, with Maurice Peress conducting.  

In 2010 his autobiography I Walked With Giants was published by the Temple University Press.  Jimmy Heath died on January 19, 2020, in Loganville, Georgia, of natural causes. 

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