Legendary Heath Brothers to Appear in Kensington

By IRA STEINGROOT Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 13, 2004

The most intriguing jazz event this summer is, without a doubt, the July 23 appearance by the Heath Brothers—bassist Percy, saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie”—as this year’s featured performers for Jazz at Coventry Grove II. This second annual benefit for Berkeley’s renowned Jazzschool will again be held in the jewel-like setting of a small outdoor amphitheater on a private estate in Kensington. Although the ticket price may seem steep at $150, it is actually a bargain when you consider the intimate nature of the event, the complementary food and beverages provided by some of the most esteemed names in Bay Area gourmandaise, the prospect of some fascinating conversation with four legends of jazz, and—finally—a performance by the three remarkable brothers along with their pianist of the last six years, Jeb Patton.  

Like so many other North Carolina African-Americans, the Heath family migrated to Philadelphia in the 1920s in search of work in the urban North. 81-year-old Percy Heath was born in Wilmington, but all three brothers grew up in Philadelphia, where their early friends included fellow bop players John Coltrane (also a N.C. native) and Benny Golson.  

During World War II, Percy was one of the pioneering Tuskegee airmen. When he got out of the Air Force in 1946, he used his separation pay to buy his first string bass. By the following year, he and brother Jimmy (born in 1926) moved to New York to join the nascent bop movement. The benjamin of the family, Tootie (born in 1935) made the move to the Big Apple in the late ‘50s. 

All the brothers have had more than successful careers with credits among the three of them on more than 900 albums alongside such jazz legends as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. Jimmy is a highly esteemed reed player and flutist, arranger, teacher, and composer. Among his many compositions, two recorded by Miles Davis have become jazz standards: “CTA” from the 1953 Bluenote album Young Man with a Horn, and “Gingerbread Boy” from the 1966 Columbia album Miles Smiles. Tootie is a master drummer whose services have been in constant demand ever since his debut recording with John Coltrane on Trane’s eponymous first album as a leader for Prestige in 1957. He is among the most sensitive, responsive and swinging of drummers with a subtle touch and tone that are always musical, even lyrical.  

Percy has been the most prominent of the three. He joined the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951 when bassist Ray Brown left that group and stayed with them when they became the Modern Jazz Quartet. Today, he is the only surviving member of the MJQ, among the greatest performing and recording aggregations in jazz history. What made this such an incredible combo was not just their formidable solo abilities, but their constant emphasis on group improvisation. There is a demanding yet noble commitment to mutual freedom since each player is actually soloing all the time. No one just keeps time and no two performances of the same song are identical. That is why Percy had no trouble playing with a post-bop player like Ornette Coleman. Jazz for such players is not a technique, style or vocabulary, but a spiritual path, one which all three of the Heath Brothers have followed. 

In spite of the fact that they had been recording for years, the three brothers had never all recorded together until Really Big in 1960, a Riverside album produced by Orrin Keepnews. Keepnews, one of the most important record producers in the history of jazz and a legend in his own right, will be joining them in interview and conversation at this event. They first performed as the Heath Brothers in 1975 when the MJQ temporarily disbanded. That was when I first saw them at the now defunct Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Although they appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival a few years ago, it has been a long time since they have performed in the Bay Area. When they get together they truly play music. It is obvious that they enjoy the creating of music and they are remarkably playful, free and inventive about it in the deepest sense. The fact that they are family just makes it that much more fun.