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  • Jimmy Heath (2011)

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    (Photo by Stanford Jazz Workshop)

    If it is true that a man is known by the company he keeps, then saxophonist, composer and arranger Jimmy Heath is quite a man. His first recordings were in 1948 with trumpeter Howard McGhee in a band that included vibist Milt Jackson. A tour to Paris with Coleman Hawkins followed later that year, with a band that included McGhee, bassist Slam Stewart, and the man whom Jimmy describes as the hit of the tour, his fellow Pennsylvanian, pianist Errol Garner.

    Jimmy has led a big band on and off for six decades, and one of his earliest became a feeder for Dizzy Gillespie's late-40s band: bassist Nelson Boyd, pianist James "Hen Gates" Forman, and saxophinist Benny Golson were among those who moved on from Jimmy to Dizzy. Their relationship was a close one: "moving on" himself, Jimmy became part of Dizzy's band, and it was Dizzy who encouraged Jimmy to learn some piano, a skill that has proven invaluable in his composing and arranging. Six decades on, the relationship is somewhat reversed, Jimmy being a member of the illustrious Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star band.

    Growing up in and near Philadelphia, Jimmy's boyhood friends included his elder brother, bassist Percy (decades later, they and younger brother and drummer Albert—nicknamed "Tootie"—were the nucleus of the Heath Brothers Band, which also contains pianist Jeb Patton, whom Jimmy never tires of praising), pianist Ray Bryant, and fellow saxophonists John Coltrane and Benny Golson. Both 'Trane and Jimmy originally played alto saxophone, but in order to avoid comparisons with Charlie Parker (Jimmy was even known as "Little Bird"), both switched to the tenor in the early 1950s.

    The company Jimmy has kept since then has included a Who's Who of jazz royalty: bassist Sam Jones, pianists Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, trumpeters Clark Terry and Blue Mitchell, cornetist Nat Adderley, drummers Lewis Nash and Connie Kay, saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, Antonio Hart and James Moody, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton … the list goes on and on.

    Likewise, the pantheon of jazz greats who have performed and recorded Jimmy's compositions (over a hundred, among them "Gingerbread Boy", "C.T.A.", "Gemini", "Big 'P'", and "For Minors Only") includes, in addition to those listed above, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, J.J. Johnson, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, and Lee Morgan … again the list goes on and on.

    Now an octogenarian, Jimmy has garnered honor after honor, notable among them his 2003 NEA Jazz Masters Award. He's recently published his autobiography (with Joseph McLaren), "I Walked with Giants". Never was a truer word spoken.
    Pick Artist Album Song Label
    # 1 Take 6 Take 6 A Quiet Place Reprise
    # 2 Duke Ellington and John Coltrane Duke Ellington and John Coltrane Big Nick Impulse
    # 3 Charlie Parker Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes Just Friends Verve
    # 4 Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Rollins Duets Wheatleigh Hall Verve
    # 5 Miles Davis Porgy and Bess Summertime Columbia
    # 6 Bill Evans Together Again, with Tony Bennett Theme from "The Bad and the Beautiful" Rhino
    # 7 Dianne Reeves The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan I Remember Sarah Blue Note
    # 8 Dexter Gordon Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard Gingerbread Boy Columbia
    # 9 Sarah Vaughan The Divine Sarah Vaughan: The Columbia Years 1949-1952 (LP) Street of Dreams Columbia
    # 10 The Heath Brothers As We Were Saying Bop Agin Concord
    Book "I'm trying to write all the time. … I don’t read as much as I write. … I read something in the [New York] Times two days ago … [an] article about Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra and the Mosaic box set they're putting out. If anyone wants to hear some swing arrangements, I would highly endorse Jimmie Lunceford. … As Glenn Miller says in this article … Duke was good, and Basie was good, but Jimmie Lunceford's band could outplay both of them, and nobody knows about Jimmie Lunceford."
    Luxury Item "My wife!"
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