Jimmy Heath
National Visionary

Born October 25, 1926, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jazz saxophonist, arranger, composer

Jimmy Heath has long been recognized as a brilliant instrumentalist and a magnificent composer and arranger. He has performed with nearly all the jazz greats of the past 50 years, from Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis.

Heath was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 25, 1926. The middle brother of the legendary Heath Brothers—bassist Percy and drummer Albert (“Tootie”)— his genius first flourished in high school as an alto saxophonist. He garnered his first touring job while still a teenager with the Nat Towles band in Omaha, where he performed from 1945 to 1946.

Heath as a young man
In 1948 at the age of 21, Heath teamed with his older brother Percy, touring the United States and performing at the First International Jazz Festival in Paris with trumpeter Howard McGhee, and sharing the stage with Coleman Hawkins, Slam Stewart, and Erroll Garner. One of Heath’s earliest big bands (1947–1948) in Philadelphia included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Specs Wright, Cal Massey, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant, and Nelson Boyd. Charlie Parker and Max Roach sat in on one occasion. Heath and Coltrane joined their idol Gillespie in 1949 for a two-year stay. The Heath Brothers then teamed with Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, and Kenny Clark to form the Symphony Sid All-Stars.

Heath played alto sax until 1951, then switched to tenor sax. He notes two reasons for the switch: there seemed to be more demand in bands for tenor players, and he was finding the affectionate nickname of “Little Bird,” which fellow musicians had given him as a compliment, to be more in the nature of a drawback. As a gifted tenor saxophonist, he has created a personal way of playing that has been described as serene with an undertone of humor and passion.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
During his career, the triple Grammy Award nominee has performed on more than 100 record albums, including seven with The Heath Brothers and twelve as a leader. A legend in his own right, he has composed and arranged for such jazz greats as Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Ahmad Jamal, and Chet Baker. Many of his more than 125 compositions have become jazz standards, including “C.T.A.” He has also composed extended works—seven suites and two string quartets—and premiered his first symphonic work, “Three Ears,” in 1988 at Queens College (City University of New York) with Maurice Peress conducting.

Renowned worldwide, Heath is the first jazz musician to receive an honorary doctorate in music from Juilliard (2002), where he has also taught master classes. Heath was Professor of Music and head of the Jazz Masters program at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College for more than a decade. Retiring from that post in 1998, the school presented him with the President’s Award and endowed a chair in his name. Heath still maintains an extensive performance schedule and continues to conduct jazz workshops and clinics throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.

He and his wife Mona have three children.


Jimmy Heath's Wikipedia Page

Roundtable discussion with Jimmy Heath about Jazz and Hip-Hop

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/heathjimmy