In a typical act of modesty, NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath called his 2010 autobiography "I Walked with Giants," a title that humbly ignores the fact that this superb tenor saxophonist, composer/arranger and bandleader is himself a genuine jazz giant.
At 88, Heath, who performs in Hartford on Sunday, Oct. 4, has taken many giant steps over the decades through his associations with a host of jazz titans ranging from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, and, most especially, through his own milestone recordings and original compositions that are enshrined in the modern jazz canon.
Even with 89 looming only several weeks down the road, the apparently forever young Heath has a new recording coming out, which is called "Connecting Spirits" and features the rising, young Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini singing lyrics to his compositions.
The venerable but self-effacing, witty maestro, who's one of the last of the few remaining legends from the dawning of the Golden Age of Bebop in the 1940s, still regularly leads his premier combos crackling with his signature style rooted in elegant invention, hard-driving swing and, above all else, much feeling, warmth and lyrical expression.
"The African American input into the music of America is all about feeling. It's a love thing. Music has to have some love in it," Heath says by phone from his home in Queens, N.Y., where he has lived for many years with his wife, Mona.
"If you lose that feeling, that beat, it's all over. I tell anybody I'm dealing with, 'Look, when my pulse stops, I'm dead.' Music is exactly the same as life. No pulse, no life. So give me a pulse, give me a beat," he says, stressing swing as a crucial vital sign for African American classical music.
Heath, the Old Master with a head full of young ideas, brings his brand of swing, sophistication and feeling to Hartford as he leads his quartet on Sunday, Oct. 4, from noon to 4 p.m. at the West Hartford Rotary Club's 10th annual jazz brunch at The Hartford Club, a downtown architectural landmark at 46 Prospect St.
A noted educator with an unerring eye for spotting and nurturing young talent, Heath collaborates with acclaimed pianist Jeb "The General" Patton, one of his premier protégés, along with bassist David Wong, a Juilliard graduate who has studied with Ron Carter, and the dynamic drummer Winard Harper, a master of syncopation and nuance who has worked his rhythmic magic in the presence of other jazz giants, including Dexter Gordon and Betty Carter.
The Family Business
Heath and his brothers, bassist Percy Heath, who died at 82 in 2005, and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath (the fraternal nucleus of the original, celebrated Heath Brothers band) were virtually immersed in jazz growing up in Philadelphia, a city long noted as a rich source of jazz talent. Jazz clubs were booming when he was coming up, Heath recalls, and records sold like wildfire to millions of young fans who were listening to and connecting with the music.
"Music was right there in our house in South Philly. My mother sang in the church, and my father, who was an auto mechanic, played clarinet on weekends whenever he got it out of the pawn shop."
As young Heath got deeper into jazz — first as a worshipful Charlie Parker-loving alto saxophone player — his close-knit family opened the Heath hearth and home to out-of-town jazz eminences who were playing in Philadelphia. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson, for example, recalled enjoying fabulous meals and much warm hospitality at the Heaths' home, where only one commandment was enforced at the dinner table. You had to remain relatively quiet because Jimmy's dad always insisted on being able to hear every single note of the background dinner music, which often was his favorite Charlie Parker recording or something hip by some other jazz master of the era.
"Yeah, the music was very much in the house, and we were all buying records—Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, Glenn Miller. I heard all those bands when I was a kid," he says of his formative Philly years.
"I went to see Glenn Miller one time, and he knocked me out with 'Serenade in Blue' with all those blue lights flashing. I said to myself, 'I'm going to be like that when I grow up,'" he recalls of falling in love with the big band sound.
"Jazz was out there then, but now our stuff is in the background," he says, contrasting the music's hard times of today with back in the day when it reigned as America's popular music.
Jazz has, of course, fallen from that great height, but, he insists that contrary to endlessly repeated and greatly exaggerated reports of its death or imminent demise, jazz is not dead.
"You know, they were saying jazz was dead when I was a kid, and I'm going to be 89 on Oct. 25," he says, chuckling a bit.
"I'll be celebrating my 89th birthday," he adds, sounding a triumphant note for both himself and for jazz, "with a weeklong engagement at New York's Village Vanguard [the mecca of the jazz world]. So, I'm happy to say the music just keeps on going on."
>>JIMMY HEATH: Tickets for the West Hartford Rotary Club's 10th annual jazz brunch, noon to 4 p.m., at The Hartford Club, 46 Prospect St., Hartford, are $75, which includes two sets, a Mexican gourmet buffet/brunch prepared by master chef Leslie Tripp, plus free parking in the club's garage. Tickets and information: portal.clubrunner.ca/3332 and 860-409-6883. Profits support the Gifts of Music program and other local charities.