Pianist Monty Alexander puts it most succinctly. “There’s no one like him. He’s nonpareil.” Musicians of all generations revere saxophonist Jimmy Heath, praising his playing, his sound, his composing, arranging and orchestrating skills, his magic as a teacher, his humor, humility and humanity.
Born in 1926 in Philadelphia, Heath grew up on an active jazz scene with Coltrane and bebop. He played in Dizzy’s band and with Miles. Around 1950 both he and Coltrane switched from alto to tenor sax. Heath’s career was interrupted in 1954 when he went to prison on a drug charge. He used the time to woodshed, and when he was released in 1959 he worked hard to reestablish himself on the scene. He threw himself into composing and arranging while continuing an active performance career. He studied orchestrating, led a big band and recorded with numerous groups. His compositions are admired and have been performed by many notable musicians. In the 1970’s he formed a group with his brothers, bassist Percy (of MJQ) and drummer Albert “Tootie,” and eventually worked with his son, percussionist James Mtume. He was an early instructor at Jazzmobile and later directed the Jazz Studies master’s degree program in performance at Queens College (CUNY) where he taught for ten years. His list of accomplishments and honors is impressive.
The long overdue story of Jimmy Heath is a welcome addition to jazz literature because Heath has lived the history of jazz and personifies the best that the music has to offer. While this is his story, many of his contemporaries and students reflect on their relationship with Heath in the book. The thread running throughout is one of love. His contemporaries speak of the nurturing family in which Jimmy grew up and his loving marriage of 50 years. His students express deep admiration for not only the musical education they received from him but the life lessons they learned from his example. Jimmy Heath himself is not only a giant but a national treasure.
The book has a Forward by Bill Cosby and an Introduction by Wynton Marsalis and includes an index, discography, summation of Heath’s honors, list of compositions, short chronology, and even a list of the amusing nicknames he’s given fellow musicians.
Jimmy Heath, an NEA Jazz Master, is widely recognized as one of the greats in jazz. He is a saxophonist, composer, arranger, and educator.
Joseph McLaren is a Professor of English at Hofstra University, author of Langston Hughes: Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943, and editor of several additional titles.