One of the famed Heath brothers, Jimmy Heath (b. 1926) has had a wide-ranging career. Whether on tenor, soprano, or flute, or as an arranger-composer, Heath has quietly made a strong impact on the jazz scene for the past 45 years, and he remains a vital force today.
The younger brother of the late bassist Percy Heath and the older brother of drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, Jimmy was born in Philadelphia. He was originally an alto saxophonist, picking up his early experience playing locally and in the Midwest with the Calvin Todd–Mel Melvin group in 1944 and Nat Towles in addition to heading his own band in Omaha during 1946-1947. Heath played alto with Howard McGhee (1947-1948), with whom he recorded, and with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and sextet, but was given the nickname of “Little Bird” because he was so strongly influenced by Charlie Parker. Heath soon wisely switched to tenor sax where his sound and style were much more original.
In the 1950s Jimmy Heath became as well known for his writing as for his playing, composing “C.T.A.” and writing arrangements for Chet Baker and Art Blakey although he did record a session with Miles Davis. However it was during 1959-1964 that he made his greatest impression as a player, cutting six memorable and diverse albums for the Riverside label that rank with his most significant work.
Heath leads an all-star group on The Thumper that includes cornetist Nat Adderley, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and Tootie Heath, contributing five originals including “For Minors Only.” Really Big features Heath’s writing for a tentette that has all of the Heath brothers, the Adderley brothers (Nat and Cannonball), and flugelhornist Clark Terry. His rearrangements of “Dat Dere” and “On Green Dolphin Street” make those standards sound like fresh originals. In contrast, The Quota is a blowing date that matches Heath with the fiery trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Julius Watkins on French horn. The same group returned nine months later for Triple Threat which introduced Heath’s “Gemini.”
Swamp Soul from 1963 has Heath’s charts for his tenor, trumpeter Donald Byrd, two French horns, a rhythm section, and the tuba of Don Butterfield, inventive arrangements that make the octet sound like an orchestra. The last of the Riverside dates, On the Trail, is a superior showcase for Heath’s tenor playing with a quartet, a session that introduced “Gingerbread Boy” and “Project S.”
While the Riverside projects are the high points of Jimmy Heath’s recording career, he has continued to be quite significant to jazz in the decades since. Heath was briefly with Miles Davis’s band, worked with Gil Evans and Kenny Dorham, and had a regular group with flugelhornist Art Farmer during 1965-1967. His “Gingerbread Boy” was recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet and he has arranged for many projects. In addition to occasional performances and recordings with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, during 1977-1983 he teamed up with his siblings to form the Heath Brothers.
Adding soprano and flute to his arsenal, Heath had many reunions with Dizzy Gillespie, worked as an educator, wrote the monumental Afro-American Suite of Evolution for a 30-piece band, and, from 1997 until Percy’s death in 2004, toured with the reunited Heath Brothers. While a straightahead player, he has kept his mind open to later styles (John Coltrane was not only a contemporary but a neighbor in Philadelphia) and excelled at playing in funkier settings. One of the last survivors of the bebop era, Jimmy Heath shows no signs of slowing down and his sound on his instruments remains as strong as his musical imagination is vivid.