Jimmy Heath

Jimmy Heath, a tenor saxophonist whose sharp and lively compositions became part of the midcentury jazz canon — and who found new prominence in middle age as a co-leader of a popular band with his two brothers — died Sunday in Loganville, Georgia. He was 93.

His wife, Mona Brown, confirmed his death to WGBO, a public radio station in Newark, New Jersey.

Heath’s saxophone sound was spare but playful, with a beaming tone that exuded both joy and command. But his reputation rested equally on his abilities as a composer and arranger for large ensembles, interpolating bebop’s crosshatched rhythms and extended improvisations into fulsome tapestries.

He was a teenager touring the Midwestern dance circuit with the Nat Towles Orchestra in the 1940s when he became enamored with arranging. At first he could hardly read music, but he proved a                  quick study.

When a particular harmony struck him, he hounded his fellow horn players to tell him what notes they were playing, then pieced together the chords on sheet music. Before long he was writing for a 16-piece band of his own, whose lineup included future saxophone luminaries John Coltrane and Benny Golson.

His career in many ways tracked the life cycle of postwar jazz in the United States. After touring with dance bands, he moved on to the fresher, more cosmopolitan bebop style, playing in groups led by trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

Originally an alto saxophonist, he earned the nickname Little Bird for his ability to emulate the fleet playing of the bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, known as Bird. He soon switched to the tenor, partly to skirt the comparisons, and established himself as a central figure on the New York scene.

In the mid-1970s, when R&B and rock had eclipsed jazz’s popularity, he founded the Heath Brothers with his older brother, Percy, a bassist, and his younger brother, Albert, known as Tootie, a drummer. That band welcomed the electric instruments and strutting rhythms of a younger generation into its own distinctive style, which hopscotched between straight-ahead jazz and soulful fusion.

And when jazz began its ascent into the academy, Heath was among the veterans who shepherded the transition. In 1964 he became a founding faculty member at Jazzmobile, an organization that presented concerts and classes to young people in Harlem. Decades later he helped forge Queens College’s jazz studies program.

An avid communicator, Heath was particularly wily with wordplay. He called trumpeter Roy Hargrove “Roy Hardgroove.” Drummer Grady Tate became “Gravy Taker” because he snatched up so many good-paying gigs.

Heath titled his autobiography, written with Joseph McLarin and published in 2010, “I Walked With Giants,” a playful reference to his 5-foot-3 stature as well as to the fact that he spent much of his life working alongside the most lauded names in jazz.

Reflecting on his long career, Heath often said that although he never achieved as much renown as some of his contemporaries, he was satisfied. “You become an icon when you’re dead,” he told NPR Music in 2014. “I always say I’d rather be an acorn, and be alive.”

Yet from the 1990s, he did enjoy recognition as a jazz eminence. In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.

To his students, Heath was an ambassador from an earlier time who never lost his hunger for fresh inspiration. He often said most of his songs were inspired by the people he met. One was named simply “Nice People.”

James Edward Heath was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 25, 1926. His father, Percy, was a mechanic and laborer who played clarinet in the local Elks Club band; his mother, Arlethia, sang in their church’s choir. Jimmy moved to New York at 22, eventually landing a spot alongside his brother Percy in Gillespie’s pioneering bebop big band. Gillespie became Heath’s primary mentor.

Around this time, Heath’s life off the bandstand took a turn. After the breakup of his first marriage, he sought solace in heroin, which was then prevalent on the jazz scene. Even as gigs with the likes of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown raised his standing, his habit overtook him.

In 1955 he was imprisoned on drug charges. He kicked his addiction in prison, and as leader of the penitentiary’s big band he spent much of his time writing tunes and arrangements, as well as learning the flute.

He would sometimes smuggle out compositions and arrangements by giving them to his brother Tootie during family visits. The charts quickly made their way onto a few popular records, including Chet Baker and Art Pepper’s 1956 album “Playboys,” which included mostly Heath’s tunes and was later reissued as “Picture of Heath.”

Heath returned to Philadelphia drug-free in 1959, but the terms of his probation prevented him from touring. He was forced to pass up a spot as Coltrane’s replacement in the Miles Davis sextet that recorded the celebrated album “Kind of Blue.”

So he made his own way, mostly in the studio. He released a string of well-received albums for Riverside Records, including compositions like “Gingerbread Boy” and “For Minors Only” that would become staples of the jazz repertoire. Even when he recorded with just a sextet, his crafty arrangements gave the sense of a chattering, wall-to-wall conversation among bandmates.

He also found freelance arranging work, writing charts for Ray Charles and others. Eventually he became a staff arranger at Riverside.

On the day he left prison, Heath met Mona Brown, a visual artist, whom he married the next year. She was white, and her parents refused to attend the couple’s wedding; after the marriage, they stopped speaking to her. Eventually she and Heath moved to the apartment in Corona, Queens, where they would live for more than 50 years.

Besides his wife, he is survived by their daughter, Roslyn, and son, Jeffrey; Heath’s son from his first marriage, James Mtume, a percussionist, vocalist and songwriter with whom he occasionally collaborated; and his brother Tootie. Percy Heath died in 2005.

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