When I discovered that saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s daughter, Roslyn, was employed by the same hospital at which I volunteered, I brought her an armload of LPs for Jimmy to sign. “Would you mind asking your Dad to autograph these?” I asked. Also, “Do you think he might want to have lunch?”
“I’ll ask him,” Roslyn replied. The following week she handed over my stack of signed LPs and relayed, “My dad says … ‘cool.’”
So began my weekly visits to the Heath house in suburban Atlanta. As a fellow saxophonist, I soon became the sole local musician friend to an isolated jazz legend and his lovely wife, Mona — a woman of beauty, strength and dignity, whose love for family is rivaled only by her love of the arts, especially jazz. They met in 1959, the day Jimmy was released from a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for heroin possession.
N.E.A. Jazz Master James Edward Heath was born in Philadelphia on October 25th, 1926, to a family immersed in music. His first gigs were with territory big bands. In 1946, he formed the Jimmy Heath Orchestra with fellow Philly resident John Coltrane playing second alto. A late 1940s sideman gig with bop trumpeter Howard McGhee found Heath playing New York’s storied 52nd Street and traveling to Europe for the first of many times.
In 1949, Heath recorded with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, initiating a longstanding friendship with the trumpeter. “Dizzy was such a warm person,” Heath recalled, “always willing to share everything he knew because he wanted the music to last.”
During the early 1950s, Heath was widely admired as a player, composer and arranger. He recorded under Miles Davis’ and J.J. Johnson’s leadership, supplying “Gingerbread Boy” and “C.T.A.,” both of which quickly became jazz standards. When Davis recorded the LP Collector’s Items
for Prestige, Miles stole credit for Heath’s bop composition “The Serpent’s Tooth.” “Whenever I’d see Miles,” Heath said, “I’d remind him about that song, and he’d peel a few hundred dollars off a roll of bills he was carrying.”
In 1959, Davis hired Heath to tour with his group. But what should have been the opportunity of a lifetime ended in disappointment. “We played L.A., Indiana, and Chicago,” Heath said. “But I got called back to Philly because I was on parole. Playing with Miles would have boosted my career. I probably would have ended up recording on Blue Note.”
Instead, Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones recommended him to Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records. “They told Orrin, ‘You need a Coltrane,’” Heath said. A string of excellent leader dates ensued, featuring Heath’s rough-and-tumble tenor and lilting soprano. He composed excellent tunes and supplied superb arrangements for his own record dates as well as those of his labelmates.
Heath stayed busy throughout his career. As a professor at Queen’s College, he influenced many lives. He released a wonderfully candid autobiography, I Walked with Giants.
Periodically, he recorded and toured with his brothers, bassist Percy and drummer Tootie, in The Heath Brothers Band — a crowd-pleasing favorite for their swinging music and comedic banter. He performed in 42 countries.
As it turned out, Jimmy and I never ate lunch together. When I arrived at his house, he’d often be talking with Sonny Rollins on the phone. He’d tell Sonny, “James Rozzi is here!” — as though he somehow saw us as the Three Musketeers. Around 2 p.m., after spending the morning with me listening to albums or reharmonizing standards, he’d suddenly stand and shuffle to the kitchen, where he’d eat peanut butter crackers. At 5’3” and 98 pounds, he didn’t seem to need much nutrition to maintain his high-energy level.
After battling prostate and bladder cancer for years, Jimmy died peacefully at home on January 19th, surrounded by his extended family. He was 93. - James Rozzi