Jazz Master of the Month: James "Jimmy" Edward Heath

Jan 7, 2016

Born in West Philadelphia, James "Jimmy" Heath was part of a musical family. His older brother Percy spent over forty years as bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and his younger brother Albert became a world renowned drummer. The three brothers are fondly referred to as “The Heath brothers.” Their mother called them “Lord Percy,” “King James,” and “Prince Albert.” 

Heath’s father bought him a saxophone in 1941. His curiosity prompted him to immediately take the instrument completely apart—a task he admits he would never ever attempt again in life. He eventually played sax at football games in his school marching band.

By 1946 Heath had formed his own big band, which included John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Charlie Parker and Max Roach, on different occasions during its performing period between 1947 and 1948.

By this time, Heath had been fondly nicknamed “little Bird,” after saxophonist Charlie Parker. Heath wrote intricate but beautiful charts that reflected his easygoing personality. But easygoing did not mean he wasn’t a demanding band leader. He made sure the music was played and memorized during rehearsals. Heath's music influenced Billy Taylor, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and many others.

One of Heath’s favorite students was Baltimore’s own saxophonist Antonio Hart. Heath made many appearances at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society, and was one of the first recipients of an Honorary Doctorate from Sojourner Douglas College.

Heath has contributed hundreds of compositions to the Jazz lexicon including such staples as “Gingerbread 

Boy,” "Project S,” ”Mongo’s Groove,” “C.T.A,” and at least ten commissioned orchestra suites.

After a brief stint with Miles Davis and the dissolution of the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet ), Heath and his brothers formed the Heath Brothers band.

Heath received a Grammy nomination for his recording “Live At The Public Theatre,” in 1980. That same year he toured Dakar, Senegal, performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Fortune, Clifford Jordon, Jimmy Owens and Brother Percy.

Among the many awards Heath has received is an Honorary Doctorate from Julliard and from Queens College (NY), NEA Jazz Masters Award, and the Living Legend Award.

Today, saxophonist Jimmy Heath is 89 years old. He has taught at major universities and is the father of R&B composer and musician James Mtume. He continues to make guest performing appearances playing and promoting his latest autobiography, I Walked With Giants.