Sax Great Jimmy Heath 'Walked With Giants,' And He's Still Here

Jan 11, 2014
Originally published on January 11, 2014 11:31 am

In the room he uses as a practice space and office in his apartment in Corona, Queens, Jimmy Heath recalls a hit record from long ago.

"It's a song Bill Farrell, a popular singer, had years ago," he says, and then sings: "You've changed, you're not the angel I once knew / No need to tell me that we're through / It's all over now, you've changed." Then the 5'3" musician with the big sound picks up his tenor saxophone and blows.

When "You've Changed" was a hit song in 1949, Heath was a 23-year-old bebopper, a disciple of the new jazz pioneered by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Heath played alto then, and already had his own big band in Philadelphia. John Coltrane was a sideman in Heath's band, and at the end of 1949, they both joined the orchestra of their idol, Dizzy.

"We were actually second string beboppers," Heath says. "Because we had heard Dizzy and Bird and they had set such a high curve to all of us who wanted to be like that — Trane and myself — we all were trying to be like them."

Because he played alto in the style of Parker, whose nickname was Bird, and because he's small in stature, Heath became known as Little Bird. When he left Dizzy's band, he switched to tenor saxophone.

"I wanted to get away from being called Little Bird," Heath says. "I liked the idea at first, but I wanted to be Jimmy Heath. So, I say, 'Well, I'll get the tenor and try this,' and you know, lo and behold, I still sounded like Bird on tenor."

But Jimmy Heath is more than an instrumentalist. He composes, arranges and orchestrates.

"He is one of the most important and essential soldiers in the armies of jazz's greatest players," says Phil Schaap, a curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center. "He wrote a piece that Charlie Parker used called 'Fiesta.' He doesn't get too much credit for that, just like he doesn't get credit for 'The Serpent's Tooth' that he did with Miles Davis. His compositions are great.

"Think about his translating the innovations of bebop into orchestral music," Schaap adds. "It's not an easy thing to do. It's been done infrequently, and he's done it now in several decades: the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s and teens."

On his new album, Togetherness, Jimmy Heath leads a big band at the Blue Note club performing his original compositions. Heath's affinity for big band music goes back to a time when the big bands were the biggest acts of the day. He heard them all and played with many of their star soloists. His 2010 memoir is called I Walked with Giants, a reference to Coltrane and Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Milt Jackson and Miles Davis.

Heath never reached the level of fame achieved by those jazz greats, but he's okay with that. "They're dead," Heath says, "and you become an icon when you're dead. I always say I'd rather be an acorn, and be alive."

At 87 years old, Jimmy Heath looks around his office — at his saxophones and flutes, at the stacks of sheet music, at his recordings and concert posters — and says there's no secret to his longevity.

"It's love! What else?" he exclaims. "Look at it. Nothing but love all around here, man. Music. See my closet? Full. That's all music, man. That's stuff I wrote. You know, all of that is music I wrote. Over here, in that case, is all the music; all in this cabinet, music. I've been in it all my life."

Jimmy Heath says he's going to be in it — as he puts it — "until he leaves."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jimmy Heath called his autobiography "I Walked with Giants." The saxophonist made his first recording in 1948 and has been a prolific composer, arranger and bandleader working with some of the biggest names in jazz for the past 65 years. At the age of 87, Jimmy Heath is still playing. His latest record called "Togetherness," is due out next week. Tom Vitale has his story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In the room he uses as a practice space and office in his apartment in Corona, Queens, Jimmy Heath recalls a hit record from long ago.

JIMMY HEATH: It's a song Bill Farrell, a popular singer, had it years ago. (Singing) You changed. You're not the angel I once knew. No need to tell me that we're through. It's all over now. You've changed.

VITALE: Then the five-foot-three musician with the big sound picks up his tenor and blows.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: When "You've Changed" was a hit song in 1949, Jimmy Heath was a 23-year-old bebopper - a disciple of the new jazz pioneered by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Heath played alto then, and already had his own big band in Philadelphia. John Coltrane was a sideman in Heath's band. At the end of 1949, they both joined the orchestra of their idol, Dizzy Gillespie.

HEATH: The jazz scene in Philadelphia - we were actually second-string beboppers. Because we had heard Dizzy and "Bird" and they had set such a high curve to all of us who wanted to be like that. Trane and myself, we all were trying to be like them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Because he played alto in the style of Parker, whose nickname was "Bird," and because he's small in stature, Heath became known as "Little Bird."

HEATH: I liked the idea at first. But I wanted to be Jimmy Heath.

VITALE: When he left Dizzy's band, he switched to tenor saxophone.

HEATH: I wanted to get away from being called "Little Bird." So, I say, well, I get the tenor and try this, and you know, lo and behold, I still sounded like Bird on tenor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Jimmy Heath is more than an instrumentalist. He composes, arranges and orchestrates.

PHIL SCHAAP: He is one of the most important and essential soldiers in the armies of jazz's greatest players.

VITALE: Phil Schaap is a curator of jazz at Lincoln Center.

SCHAAP: He wrote a piece that Charlie Parker used called "Fiesta." He doesn't get too much credit for that, just like he doesn't get credit for the "Serpent's Tooth" that he did with Miles Davis. His compositions are great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHAAP: Think about his translating the innovations of Bebop into orchestral music. It's not an easy thing to do. And he's done it now in several decades, the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s and teens.

VITALE: On his new album, "Togetherness," Jimmy Heath leads a big band at the Blue Note Club, performing his original compositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Heath's affinity for big band music goes back to a time when the big bands were the biggest acts of the day. He heard them all, and played with many of their star soloists. His 2010 memoir is called "I Walked with Giants" - a reference to Coltrane and Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Milt Jackson and Miles Davis. Heath never reached the level of fame achieved by those jazz greats, but he's OK with that.

HEATH: They're dead, and you become an icon when you're dead. I always say I'd rather be an acorn and be alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: At 87 years old, Jimmy Heath looks around his office - at his saxophones and flutes, at the stacks of sheet music, at his recordings and concert posters - and says there's no secret to his longevity.

HEATH: I love it, man. It's love. It's nothing but love all around here, man. Music. See my closet? Full. All of that's all music I wrote - music. I've been in it all my life.

VITALE: Jimmy Heath says he's going to be in it, as he puts it, until he leaves. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. EJ Leiderman wrote our theme music. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.