Jimmy Heath Quartet
Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone; Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums; Paul West, bass; Jeb Patton, piano
Concert at Jewett Hall, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA
October 30, 2005
Close your eyes and roll back the clock five decades. Imagine sitting in a dimly lit lounge on the lower west side in New York City. It’s after most working people’s bedtime, you’re sitting at one of two dozen small disk shaped cocktail tables, your elbow not far from the patrons at the next table. Silvery gray cigarette smoke swirls through the spot lights trained on the tiny raised stage a few feet away. Ice clinks against highball glasses as customers sip scotch and talk in hushed tones. A man with a small build toting a big tenor saxophone walks quietly to the stage and begins to blow the sweetest swinging-est bebop you’ve ever heard. Jimmy Heath has come to town.
The superlatives about this 79 year old living legend were used up a long time ago. The man has shared bandstands with jazz greats of the twentieth century. Need a list? How about John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and more recently, Wynton Marsalis. Jimmy Heath began playing the horn in 1946 and he’s kept his groove for nigh unto sixty years. We should be so lucky to keep our grooves for just a chunk of that span.
Witnessing a concert like this in 2005 it’s impossible to ignore the poignant fact that his playing days are numbered. His star in the jazz firmament will always shine brightly. His music will remain, his presence will not. And don’t think that wasn’t on the minds of every boomer and twenty-something who jammed the Jewett Auditorium at Wellesley College on a recent Saturday night. We warmly applauded the man for the music he played at that moment, and for his contribution to the genre since the 1940s.
“Jimmy is one of the thoroughbreds,” said Miles Davis. Heath has performed on more than 100 albums, written more than 125 compositions, and seven suites and two string quartets. His compositions have been recorded by other artists including Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J Johnson, and Dexter Gordon. From 1987 to 1999, his career arc included a professorship at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queen’s College.
Heath was born into what’s been called jazz royalty. His older brother Percy was founder and the bassist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group that popularized jazz for the 43 years they were in existence. The actuarial tables caught up with Percy, who died earlier this year at the age of 81. Jimmy’s younger brother, Albert “Tootie” Heath, is a renowned drummer who’s played with the who’s who of American jazz and was part of tonight’s quartet.
These guys are not on a sunset reunion tour. The foursome was filled out with Paul West on bass and Jeb Patton on piano. West has performed with Ray Charles, Billy Holliday, Betty Carter, and Peggy Lee. Patton, the fourth member of the Heath Brothers group since 1998, is a former student of Jimmy Heath’s and a gifted pianist. Attired in dark suits and ties, they looked so very cool.
Their sets spanned a career and was like listening to the History Channel with a beat. The tempos of the songs varied but the jazz foundations didn’t. The songs were pitched by either Jimmy or the whole group, After that, each in turn got a piece of it stand on its head and give it back to the others. The underlying melody was never too far away, underscoring the group’s essentially swing heritage.
Arrangements like "Wintersleeves", with Jimmy’s tenor sax swooping up and down the keys; "On the Trail", a little riff on Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite; Thelonius Monk’s "Round Midnight"; "Gingerbread Boy" (written for Heath’s son); and "Day Dream" (written by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington) were multi faceted musical diamonds whose sparkle was refracted through instruments in the hands of masters.
When we get close to royalty, whether it’s jazz, poetry, or theater, some of their greatness rubs off on us and we feel elevated a notch above our normal stations in life. For a brief moment last week, the celebrity dust from Jimmy Heath’s slim shoulders transported us to jazz heaven.