A Remembrance of Percy Heath

A Remembrance of Percy Heath
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Everything I know is from 40 years of John Lewis writing shit I couldn't play and had to learn how to do it... And the experience of playing the instrument for 50-some years. Maybe I have learned how to express certain things on the instrument.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz in May 2005.

Percy Heath could play the hell out of that big contrabass.

Played it for more than half a century. With Bird and Miles and Diz and 'Trane and Brownie and the venerable Modern Jazz Quartet and on and on. And if you're reading this you know that already, probably. He played in dumps; he played R&B. Played for next to nothing. But he also played in tuxedos with his great friends John Lewis
John Lewis
John Lewis
b.1920
piano
, Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
1923 - 1999
vibraphone
and Connie Kay
Connie Kay
Connie Kay
1927 - 1994
drums
in stunning concert halls all over the world. And held down the bottom with his brothers Tootie and Jimmy in the fun and classy band that bore their Heath Brothers name.

I didn't know him well, but I bet none of the above circumstances ever changed him. Percy Heath will be missed for his impeccable beat and his big, warm sound. But he'll be missed because he was as warm in soul and spirit as the tone the man summoned from the wood he caressed and the strings he thumped on stage. Big hearted and generous and gentle. And genuine. I can see him on stage, eyes closed, big grin. Doin' it! I can hear that solo on "Bags Groove" from The Modern Jazz Quartet: The Last Concert.

I met Percy Heath at length on a cold afternoon in January 2004 at New York City's Blue Note nightclub, a few hours before the Heath Brothers were to take the stage, sharing a bill with the great Hank Jones and his trio. We spoke about music and his life as part of my story assignment. We spoke on the phone a couple times. That's all. It was enough to see what a gentleman he was. He might like to talk about fishing near his Long Island home as much as Mingus or Monk or his idols Oscar Pettiford
Oscar Pettiford
Oscar Pettiford
1922 - 1960
bass
and Ray Brown
Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
. Talk he could. A first-rate story teller, Ol' Perce (as he sometimes referred to himself) was, indeed. His first album as a leader had just come out after all these years and Percy was happy with it, but took it all in stride.

He even wrote a lyric to the song, but there was no vocal on the record. "You got a wife that sings, man?" he said with a slick grin and an exaggerated quizzical look. Informed that was not the case, but that my sister Maureen could sing, he retorted with laughter, "well, we'll get her to do it. Knock Norah Jones right off the charts!" Later, he gave me a copy of the lead sheet and words, which I still treasure. But not without more ribbing, suggesting I print the lyric in the article, ..."maybe Norah [Jones] or somebody will say, 'Oh! And record it. [laughter]. Get ol' Perce a bigger boat!"

The conversation was speckled with stories and asides from a man who's seen it all and still had fun looking back at it. Mimicking the gravely voice of Miles Davis or the slick and abrupt cadence that Mingus could use, Percy was exact about his remembrances, at the age of nearly 80, and as grounded as his Italian bass. He considered himself lucky to be where he was, despite hardships, having no ax to grind against anyone. "Pop, he never taught us to hate anybody," he said fondly of his father, whom he obviously cherished.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and I had to beg off an invitation to dinner with him—that's how he was—for a prior commitment. We exchanged a few laughs later that night. Genuine and warm. Eyes sparkling. Having a taste. There are people a lot more qualified to tell Percy stories. So let the rest be his story.

A great deal of our conversation that day never made print, as often happens. But what follows is most of it, with some editing. Percy Heath eschewed the limelight, therefore it might be hard to find a lot written about this important bassist and this honorable man. This is Ol' Perce in Percy's own words. Have a taste and enjoy.

And Perce? Maintain, my man. I know you're still laughing at some of those stories. If you're not fishing, that is.

All About Jazz: The new CD, how did that come about?

Percy Heath: That I became a leader?

AAJ: Yeah. After all these years, the first CD under your own name.

PH: Right. I'm on quite a few recording with other people. And of course the Modern Jazz Quartet records were not under anybody's name. I wasn't a musical director, but as far as it being: not so-and-so and his band, those 45 or 50 recordings are under a partnership arrangement. Of course, I was playing what I was told on those. Then the Heath Brothers records are all no-name. Some of Jimmy's [recordings] we did earlier. Tootie had a record date way back when. I think they re-released it in Japan and they call it "Oops" now, but before it was another name under Tootie's leadership.

Finally this guy out in Little Rock [Ark.], Andy Collins, who had a label called Daddy Jazz. He's really a realtor, but he loves jazz. He and a group of wealthy jazz lovers in Little Rock had the [Heath] Brothers out there in a concert a few years back. He had done a production with Tootie. Tootie has a CD out with drums, demonstrations of all types of drums. And that was on Andy Collins' label. We got to talking and he said, "You never recorded on your own, as a leader."

Being a leader is only good for choosing the people who play and the songs that you play. Otherwise, it's the same pressure to perform the best you can. On all the 300 records [previous 300+ recordings Percy is on], I can always find some stuff I would rather not ever hear again. [Laughter] Even on this, being the bandleader, I couldn't reject some of the takes. The rationale is: if the general overall feeling of a recording, if it does something as a whole, then the minor miscues are forgotten, or not so important.

Anyhow, there's a lot of stuff on this new one I wish I'd done better, and a few of the other players might have done better. But you're always restricted by time in the studio. It's not an endless budget and you got to get it done and take what you get.

I feel pretty good about most of it, overall. As far as being a leader, I was lucky to have three-quarters of the Heath Brothers quartet with me. And I added Peter Washington, a tremendous young bassist. The idea of some of those things with two bassists, I'm a little disappointed on how it came off, but it was an inkling, and indication, of what I thought up when I composed that suite to my father [the four-movement "Suite for Pops"].

AAJ: Did you ever hear the band Ron Carter had years ago where he was out front with the piccolo bass and Buster Williams was on bass?

PH: Ray Brown did it with several bassists. It's been done before, but I had never done it. The way I composed that "Suite for Pop," part of it, was two lines—one descending and one ascending—and they crossed harmonically. That was the idea behind that composition.

I've heard Ray Brown on several records with other bass players. It's not the first time it's been done. Years ago I was involved with Bill Lee in a bass choir. There were nine basses. I don't know if that ever got recorded and released, but there were some performances around. He wrote some things for that. A bass choir.

AAJ: All jazz guys?

PH: Oh yeah. All jazz bass players.

So the idea of duplicate bassists is not mine. I remember when Duke Ellington had two bassists with him, after Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton
1918 - 1942
bass, acoustic
died. Junior Raglin was there, and Oscar Pettiford. I don't know if that was recorded. But I remember going to the Lincoln Theater in Philadelphia in 1940 or 41, right after Jimmy Blanton died.

AAJ: Do you ever feel overlooked, this being your first recording?

PH: No, man. I'm on enough records. My name's on enough records. That never bothered me at all. For 43 years with the [MJQ] Quartet, some with orchestras, some with string quartets. Lots of recordings with other formations, but the body of the work was just four people, and that's about as naked as you can get. The way the music was constructed—contrapuntal, four lines going along, as opposed to a rhythm section and a soloist.

AAJ: Seems like a lot of bass players don't ever get recordings.

PH: Charles [Mingus] had his name out there. Oscar Pettiford. Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
is the perennial bandleader, when he left Miles and started to play his own stuff.

I'm not the first, but it's the first for me.

AAJ: Is the bass not sexy enough? For example, Lonnie Plaxico
Lonnie Plaxico
Lonnie Plaxico
b.1960
bass
says he has trouble getting gigs for his band, in part because he plays the bass. It's sexier with a horn out front.

PH: It's not a matter of looking at you. I don't care. Jimmy's [Heath] standing in front of me most of the time. I don't care, as long as they hear me. [Laughs] I'm not that vain about being seen. The setup of the Quartet was that everything was visual, there was nobody out front playing an instrument. No soloist, trumpet and stuff like that. The formation we had with the piano, bass, drums and vibraharp—it wasn't necessary for anybody to be out front. In fact, the focus should have been on the music, not on the person.

That's why they limited even the movement, jumping around, showing and entertaining, which is part of some musicians' presentation, like Dizzy out front beating that barrel, the conga. I don't want to disrespect the conga [Laughter]. It was an inside joke. We'd say, 'Ah, he's beatin' that barrel again. [Laughter] Him out in front dancing around and clowning and entertaining. That was all a part of his presentation. Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
. He's dizzy and busy.

There's a little more humor going on with the Brothers, because we have a lot of jokes and camaraderie. It's in the music and in the presentation. So we get a little comedy going. It loosens up the audience too. The presentation. Like with these rap guys, the kids. There's always the dance and the movement to go along with the rhythm. No matter what they're saying, it's in time, it's rhythmic. Even if you can't understand—sometimes they have to print out the words so you know what they're talking about. For me, anyway. The young kids seem to follow it pretty well. But that presentation is different.

In jazz, my earliest recollection of role models in the black community was 15-or 17-piece orchestras that used to come on the so-called 'chitlin circuit. Black theaters in about six different cities, Chicago, Baltimore had one, Detroit had one, the Apollo in New York and the Lincoln Theater in Philadelphia, where I was growing up. These guys would come out immaculately dressed, all in uniform. The bandleader would come out. Lucky Millander would come out and he would wave his stick. It was a big show. The band was a part of the show. It was a complete vaudeville act. They had chorus girls. They had comedians. Singers. The band backed everything. Sometimes when the comedy part would go on, Cab Calloway
Cab Calloway
Cab Calloway
1907 - 1994
composer/conductor
would go out and come back in a new set of tails. Then for the evening show he would change. So costumes were a part of that theatrical staging at that time.

The Quartet used to dress all alike, so there'd be no leader out there waving around. That was the whole concept of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Those were the role models; those well-dressed, well-presented people. The music was serious. The band played a couple of numbers. I was at the Apollo with Lucky Millendar's band in about 1950, before I went with Dizzy. I was living up at Barry Harris' house in the Bronx. He got me the gig with Lucky Millander's band at the Apollo. The great production number was "Rhapsody in Blue." Fess [Millander] was up there. He couldn't read a note as big as a barn [chuckles] but he knew it and he waved his stick in time and gave everybody the cue, you know? He was so effective jumping up and down on a box there in front of the band, about two feet high. That was a leader.

Being a leader was never my ambition. But that role model before sports; before Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson. Before those role models, and the basketball guys. They are now role models for the kids. And rappers are now role models. At that time, we looked up to those [big band] guys. Not like the rock kids running around in jeans and t-shirts. These guys were dressed. I learned later, even if the collars were dirty, you could turn them inside out [laughter]. On the road, when you couldn't get to a laundry. You'd never know it from the third row.

We wore Brooks Brothers and other Ivy League clothes. We had them tailor made. We ended up, the Quartet, with very expensive uniforms. They'd last for 10 years, even though I'd sweat 'em up. They'd last for 10 years.

AAJ: On the new CD, the version of "Django" sounds like the Modern Jazz Quartet.

PH: It's the piece. It's the tune. However I did play the melody on the bass, in the beginning, which, for the whole 42 years I never did with the Quartet. It's a set bass part. The boogie woogie thing there, I had to quote that because it's really a part of the composition. It's really a different composition from most, structure-wise. It's not an eight-eight-bridge-eight type construction. It's different. Sometimes I quote —I don't know if you're familiar with a score John Lewis wrote for the film "No Sun in Venice." It was filmed in Venice, and this gondola is going down the grand canal. A really regal barge going down. John wrote a piece called "Cortège," which, actually, is almost "Django" again. It has the same feeling and some of the same notes. When I do "Django" live, I may stick a little a little "Cortège" in the introduction, before I go into the melody.

I always say John wrote "Django" twice [laughter]. He got a lot of mileage out of that.

I'm glad I included it, because I got a chance to play the melody finally.

AAJ: You had never done that before.

PH: No. Never. It was always the way it was recorded so many times, by so many people. I never played the melody.

I did a duet at Lincoln Center with Jeb Patton
Jeb Patton
Jeb Patton
b.1974
piano
and that's when it occurred to me... It's fun to do.

AAJ: He sounds, on that piece, like John. Was that on purpose?

PH: He's a student of Sir Sir Roland Hanna
Sir Roland Hanna
Sir Roland Hanna
1932 - 2002
piano
. I don't really get too much John Lewis out of his playing because John was so economical with notes. That's why for a long time John Lewis was underrated as a pianist. He composed every chorus as it went. He was a composer, even when he was a player. He was able to influence Milt [Jackson]. With his perfect pitch, he could get something from what John did and do something else over there. That's why the Quartet was so individual in its concept.

Jeb, on the other hand, is a student of Sir Roland Hanna, who was a great accompanist for many singers. He absorbed that style of Roland's, which is more dynamic. He's 26 years old now. He's a baby, but he's so far advanced and he's having so much fun. He's very inventive and a real exciting player. That "Century Rag" which is on that CD. I like that. I like everything he did on it. That's why I got him. That's why the leader chose the right pianist. [Laughter] Jeb Patton is a really exceptional talent.

Jeb studied at Duke University and went through that jazz program. Then he went to Queens College and studied with Sir Roland in an advanced jazz course. My brother Jimmy was teaching a jazz ensemble class in which Jeb participated. So when Jeb graduated and Jimmy had his 10 years in as a professor and resigned, Jimmy grabbed Jeb up for our group, for the Heath Brothers. He's been with us about six years now. He joined when he was 21.

I had to use him on there [the new CD], and of course my brother, Tootie. I think he's one of the most underrated drummers in this business. He even pleased John Lewis for a year, which was difficult to do after Connie [MJQ drummer Connie Kay] died. He was so perfect for what we did. Tootie said 'I could fit in the group because I've been listening to it all my adult life.'

So I used Albert. I wanted a little more presence on the CD [in the mixing] on the drums, but it didn't turn out. But it was the best we could do on the mix.

A recording of a jazz composition is just an indication of what you hear when you go to hear people play live. There's an exception. Like Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
1922 - 2004
sax, tenor
's solo on "Flying Home." If you didn't play that solo, you didn't play "Flying Home." The improvisation became the piece, and it had to be played every time or people would say, 'Oh man, that ain't "Flying Home."' [Laughter] Otherwise, jazz improvisation is spontaneous.

Like that "Century Rag" I just mentioned, what's on that record—Jeb plays so much more than that. That's the inkling. But to hear him expound on that live. He's inspired by the moment. That "Century Rag" was Sir Roland's composition. Roland recorded it himself. This is Jeb's arrangement of "Century Rag." There's another thing on there that he wrote, "Hanna's Mood." It was written before Roland passed, but in retrospect, it sounds like something in memory of him. It just happened that way.

That's on the CD, giving Jeb his due. He's been with the Heath Brothers six years, for crying out loud. We have to say 'the invisible pianist is Jeb Paton.' [Laughter] We have the three brothers, of course, but we do have a fourth member of the quartet. An identifiable member too. Jeb is something. He's Tatum influenced too, so that's another aspect of his playing, as opposed to John Lewis' economic, structure-as-you-go approach.

AAJ: How much composing do you do?

PH: I ain't no composer, man. I think up a line for a piece every now and then. I think up a melody. I'm not a composer. I wrote those few tunes on there and I composed, if you want to use that word, but I'm not a composer. I don't feel of myself as a composer. I'm working on a tune now. All of a sudden it came to me, a little line.

Jimmy is a composer. He actually sits down and writes songs and compositions and arrangements. He's been doing it as far as I can remember. When I first came home from the Air Force (1946) and Lieutenant Heath decided to be a bebopper. I wore sandals, grew a beard and bought a beret and hung out with the cats. I had never heard any of that music down in the South where I was with the Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama. I ended up in Kentucky. When my roommate got killed, he was from Philadelphia, I had enough time in and I was sort of in between wars and I had proven that I could fly those machines that they say we couldn't. Momma was proud, but she was scared of me being in those airplanes. They were pretty dangerous machines, but what the hell. I was 21 years old. 'They'll do this?' 'Yeah. We'll do it....' Then when I got out, Jimmy quit his position with a dance band in the Midwest.

We called him "professor" then because we got an old upright piano, put it in the living room of my mother's house and there was music going on all day while Jimmy was composing and learning the new bebop harmonies, which he had heard on the road. He said, "You coming home, man, and get a bass? I'm coming home too, to see what's happening with this music."

Even at that time, Jimmy had a 16-piece band in Philadelphia. There were some great players around there. I didn't know enough at that time to play with the band. Nelson Boyd was the bassist with Jimmy's band. John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
was in that band. Jimmy copied arrangements off the records. Jimmy's band was playing Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
1914 - 1993
vocalist
's arrangements and Dizzy Gillespie band arrangements. He'd sit down and copy the saxophone section, the brass section and everything else.

So he's the composer. A tune writer? Ok. I'll take that. [Laughter].

Actually most of Milt Jackson's compositions were like a line that he played on the vibraharp. The arranger, John Lewis, would take it and make it a piece, a composition. Jimmy did some too, for Milt. But Milt, for years, just couldn't put it down like he wanted.

So, I'm not a composer there, R.J. [Laughter]. Just a tune writer, baby. And not too many of those.

But this suite, the sad part, the Prelude, is just how I felt when Percy Heath Sr., my man, baby, passed. Nice guy, my father. He's the one that started all of us playing. He was a clarinetist in the Philadelphia Independent Elks band. My Mother, Alethea, was a choir singer in the 19th Street Baptist Church. And her mother, we called her Fat Momma, to differentiate between Momma and Fat Momma. When I was 11 or 12 I was singing on a kiddie hour at that time on Sunday morning, kids on the radio. Joe Wilder was there playing the trumpet with a plunger. He was 13. I was 12.

Then at that time I was singing with my grandmother and my mother and her cousin as the Family Four gospel quartet. We used to go to all these little gatherings. I was playing my little violin on occasion for these little teas to raise money for the church. Me and a guitarist. We used to call him Rev. Bennie, he was so religious. We'd play these little songs at these teas I couldn't really play the violin that much. I got out of junior high school, the seventh grade or something, that was the end of the violin.

That Lincoln Theater [in Philly], that kiddie hour was connected with that, so that's how I got to go backstage on opening show on Friday afternoon. By being on the show, you were able to go to this theater and meet these bands. That's why I was so impressed with these bands, like Claude Hart, Don Redman. Swing bands. Black swing bands. Lucky Millander. Fats Waller. Everybody. I could go backstage and say, "Oh yeah. I'm gonna be in show business." Then I lost my voice when I was 14. My voice changed and that was the end of that. [Laughter]

AAJ: You could have been singing on the new CD! [laughter]

PH: Oh, yeah. Right. [laughter].

That "Love Song" has lyrics. It's introduced in the beginning, just the cello alone. I say cello. It is a cello, a Kay legitimate cello, which is strung like a bass.

Ray Brown and another guy, I forget who it was, he collaborated with an engineer-type guy out in California to widen the finger board a little bit, beyond the neck, the Kay cello, and incorporate machines, like guitar machines, instead of the pegs. That's why it's called a jazz cello.

Oscar Pettiford had a cast on his wrist and he could move his fingers. He couldn't play the bass but he configured the tuning on a regular cello—he'd tune it up like a bass and just play the hell out of it, and made a four-sided recording of it. He just messed up everybody. O.P. had perfect pitch. Any place he'd put his finger, that's it.

And of course Ron Carter was a cello player, in the beginning, before he switched to bass. And there were some other cello players who played the cello in jazz.

Anyhow, it's not my innovation. When the Quartet took its time off—Milt wanted to do something else. He wanted to be a bandleader again. He didn't want to play Bach and those things that we were playing that made us different from other jazz groups and got us into some places where jazz had never been played, actually. It was the Milt Jackson Quartet in the beginning anyhow, then it became the Modern Jazz Quartet. He always wanted to play blues and ballads.

He's the greatest vibraphonist I ever heard. I like Gates too, Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
1908 - 2002
vibraphone
. And Terry Gibbs
Terry Gibbs
Terry Gibbs
b.1924
vibraphone
and Bobby Hutcherson
Bobby Hutcherson
Bobby Hutcherson
b.1941
vibraphone
, and that young man coming up, Stefon Harris
Stefon Harris
Stefon Harris
b.1973
vibraphone
. They're all good vibe players. And Gary Burton
Gary Burton
Gary Burton
b.1943
vibraphone
, who teaches at Berklee [school of music, Boston]. They all play excellent. Even Tyree Glen, the trombone player, he was a vibes player too. But Milt Jackson! [Laughter] Boy, he did more with those two mallets than anybody.

To be between him and John Lewis for 40 years, I shouldn't have got my salary, I was having so much fun up there with those guys.

The idea of that formation was different then. It was the Milt Jackson quartet and we were like a rhythm section for him in the beginning, until John started to change the approach and the format. Every now and then, Jackson would get itchy and want to do his thing. And he would get Mickey Roker and Ray Brown and John Clayton and a lot of other people, make records with them and go on the road when he could afford it, with Cedar [Walton] and do his bebop thing, which was marvelous.

But during that interim, the Heath Brothers got together, in the idle 70s. Jimmy was playing flute, Tootie was playing flute, drums and all kind of percussive instruments. Stanley Cowell was with us and he had a kalimba, tuned with so many notes. There were two scales, almost, on this African thumb piano. He doubled on that. Jimmy played all the saxophones and flute. Ol' Percy was just playing the bass. So I asked [Ray] Brown, I said "Hey, Ding..." I used to call him Ding-Dong [imitates a walking bass line, "ding-dong, ding-dong..."] He was the ding-dong daddy of us all, for that walking [bass line] that he did.

He showed me how to hold the bass. When I first bought a bass in 1946 he came down to the house—all the musicians came. Momma used to make a nice home-cooked meal for them—Jackson, Lewis, Brown and Klook [drummer Kenny Clarke] were part of Dizzy's band. They came down to the house with a couple of other members of the band to have a nice home-cooked meal. I met him [Ray Brown] there in 1946 and I just had bought a bass and said, "Hey man, I'm gonna be a bassist too." Then he showed me how to hold it. He said, "P, you got to get your spider together [forms left hand fingers in the shape of a large spider]. You can't just grab it like that." You know, around the neck with all the hand. He said, "You gotta stand up on your thumb and walk your fingers, like a spider."

So anyhow, that's how Jackson felt. I played with Milt Jackson with Howard McGhee
Howard McGhee
Howard McGhee
1918 - 1987
trumpet
. I'd been playing about a year, a little more. And I was playing at the bebop Mecca in Philadelphia, the Downbeat. I was in the rhythm section with Jimmy Golden [piano] and Charlie Rice
Charlie Rice
Charlie Rice
b.1920
drums
[drums] and Jimmy Oliver, our saxophonist, who could play every lick Pres had ever played and couldn't read a note, but he could play. This was the house band. And they would bring in headliners to play with this local rhythm section. That's when I met Howard McGhee.

But I met Jackson down at the house. Back then we would go see Bird and Miles and everybody else and offer them to come down to the house and eat and whatnot. Dizzy. Of course his family was in Philly. That's how I got to play with Milt Jackson. I had a gig up there at the Downbeat and I got the band up there, cause I was the bassist and I got Milt and a trumpet player and Jimmy [Heath] to be a sextet up there; a trumpet player out of Dizzy's band, Bill Massey. Milt had been my friend since then.

Then Howard McGhee got his sextet together. Milt was in that. He was doubling on piano. Which they all did. They never hired a pianist, most of them at that time. Even with Dizzy's quintet, Jackson would play the piano, get up and play the vibes while Jimmy played the piano, or Dizzy would accompany. Eventually, Howard McGhee did hire a pianist. That was when Jackson left. Milt played with me in that formation, and Dizzy's formation. I played with him in his quartet. This is going back to 1947. I'd been playing a year. Then the whole length of the quartet.

So the [MJQ] hiatus came. Milt went and played with Woody Herman and a bunch of other things at the time.

That's when I asked Ray Brown, "Hey Ding, you got one of them things?" He said, "Yeah, I got one in the garage." Because all the bass players jumped on it [the jazz cello], and then gave it up. Ray made records on it. Ron Carter made records on the cello. Sam Jones played the hell out of it. That man was a real underrated bassist. He died too young. But a lot of bass players went and tried to do this thing.

None surpassed Oscar Pettiford. He was my mentor. I used to follow him around. He'd say, "Come on Percy," he'd take a cello after he made these records. He'd take it and we'd go on anybody's gig. He'd go over to the bandstand and say, "Come on Percy, play the bass" behind him. He'd play two songs on the cello, have a few drinks and go to another place. O.P.'s native ID would come out and he'd want to rumble. "I'd say, Come on O.P. Let's go home, man." It'd be 4 o'clock in the morning.

Anyhow, Brown called me from the airport a few months later because I had to find something else to do from the Heath Brothers. He called me from the airport and said, "Hey P, I sent that thing on for you." I said, "Hey Ding, thanks man." "He said, "You're going to have to use three." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You'll dig it," and hung up and split. So here comes this cello in this crate. I'm trying to play it. I sit down and try to play it like the bass. What he meant was: I had to use three fingers, because the thing is so small, if you try to put four fingers in there you're out of tune. It just didn't work mechanically. So that's why I play the thing with three fingers.

But anyhow, that's why I got it in the first place. I'm having a lot of fun with it now.

To preface this CD, I had written this "Love Song" which I haven't been able to get a vocalist to do it. But the lyrics are very nice too... It's a nice tune, but I played the melody mostly, because I could never...

It's weird. Like when Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
first started Headhunters recordings with this modal repetitious bass line on and on. He'd say, "How you like it, P?" He gave me the recording. I'd say, "It's nice, Herbie, but you could have put the bass on a loop and sent [the bassist] home." He said, "Oh no, P, we build on that." I said "Well Herbie, you'd never build on me, because I couldn't play that same four notes for 20 minutes if you were gonna shoot me." [Laughter]. My head just doesn't work like that. I gotta be doing a melody of my own, indicating the harmonic structure of the piece. That's what John Lewis taught me. In the beginning, he wrote out these lines and this little space for improvisation on some chords.

How long have I been playing now? Whatever it is. 1947 on. Close to 57 years. People say, what about the arco? I never tried it much, except the finger exercises that Mingus gave me when John Lewis said, "Percy, you don't know enough to play the music I'm gonna write. You gotta get some lessons."

So I went to Charles and told him I want to take some lessons. He said [in dead-on, Mingus imitation, abrupt and gruff] "P, you're puttin' me on, man. If I could play the blues like you, I wouldn't want no lessons." I said, "No, Charles, I'm serious, man." So he gave me some exercises in which I used the bow, to concentrate on intonation.

That instrument is so demanding, intonation-wise and physically. I used to play pretty in tune, but there's a few things on this CD I wish I hadn't done. Which is on all of them anyhow. I'm really critical of that. But it's the best I could do at this age. You lose it, I guess. I'm glad I finally got to choose those pieces.

There's a variety on there, which really cover a lot of different aspects of how I feel about jazz. There's one piece I wrote which has a lyric too, "No More Weary Blues. There used to be a blues out, called "Weary Blues, a blues record when I was growing up, by a blues singer; a guitarist. This little melody I put on there—incidentally, Tootie is playing the New Orleans beat on that particular piece—it was supposed to be in a different style than just straight ahead swing, bebop. So that is on the CD. It just shows the different moods.

It reflected me, because I started out playing very early with a rhythm and blues band [lead by] Joe Morris, a trumpet player from Lionel Hampton's band. I was on the road with them, I guess for about a year... in late 47 or 46... back then. You want to know who was in that rhythm and blues band? [grinning and animated] Elmo Hope
Elmo Hope
Elmo Hope
1923 - 1967
piano
, the pianist; Philly Joe [Jones] was the drummer, Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
was one of the saxophones, and Matthew Gee was a trombone player. Joe was the trumpeter. His brother-in-law, Michael Moore, was a baritone player. It was a full band, man. We went on the road with a show with Wynonie Harris. I made a record with them that was like a mini-hit for Atlantic, [sings] "shake a hand, shake a hand..."

I started out with that kind of background with Joe Jones playing "de-dook-de-dat, de-dook-de-dat, de-dook-de-dat..." that old rhythm and blues beat, man. We had a good time. But I was developing all along, I guess.

I finally got with the biggies in the bebop era. Sonny Rollins. When I first moved to New York he lived over on Sugar Hill, 148th and St. Nicholas Avenue. I got with Kenny Drew and Sonny Rollins. Jackie McLean was a young kid. He used to come up. And Kenny Dorham used to hang out up there. We'd go to Arthur Taylor's house when his mother went to work and jam and rehearse for this $10 gig that we had at the Rockland Palace or something like that. It was a long way getting to be the bandleader [on the new CD][Laughter].

AAJ: You recorded with Miles. Did you ever tour with him?

PH: We played around New York together. We played Birdland.

Oh man. I was in Birdland in early 1950... whenever Fats Navarro
Fats Navarro
Fats Navarro
1923 - 1950
trumpet
died. It was his last gig. Fats was sick. It was a sextet with Miles and Fats and Mad Lad [Leo Parker] on baritone. Bud Powell on piano and Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
on drums. I was in heaven, man. [Laughter] I would say [looking at his watch], "Oh man, where are they? It's time to hit!" [Laughter] I was there an hour ahead.

Miles was responsible for me really becoming known on recordings. Those records that we made in the 50s. Miles had left Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and was creating his style to get away from Dizzy and all the trumpet players trying to play like Dizzy.

Fats Navarro. Whew! Fats Navarro, I think, was Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
's idol. That style. Warm, baby. I mean soulful!

Miles came up with his own concept within the range he had on trumpet. It was beautiful. It was a very creative period for Miles Davis and I loved it and we had a good time. Kenny [Clarke] had come back from Paris and formed [Milt] Jackson's quartet. And Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
1928 - 2014
piano
. The Prestige stuff. And the early Blue Note stuff.

I was the house bassist on most of those dates with Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, his first record dates. I made records with Thad Jones. Mostly all the trumpet players. I was on Clifford Brown's first record.

On those Miles records, we were called the All-American Rhythm Section. That original "Walkin'" man, Lucky Thompson [tenor sax] had his eyes closed. [Producer] Albert Lions was in the booth trying to get him to stop. At that time they had to limit time on recordings. Otherwise they couldn't get it on the air. You had to get a three-minute record. But anyway, they couldn't get Lucky's attention so Albert said, "Keep on going." They made it like a two-parter. [Laughter] But man, when me and Klook and Horace got up under him, boy, Lucky Thompson had a good time!

When that rhythm section locks in—they used to say they 'locked in'—that means there's some moments, some times, R.J., when on the bandstand you just get a feeling of elation. It's just spiritual, the connection between the pulse and what's going on. It doesn't happen constantly, because you couldn't stand it. You couldn't stay in there. Klook used to grunt and say, "Ahhh, don't go in there." [Laughter] If it was approaching that pinnacle. [Laughter] It's like when you play with Charlie Parker. You'd say, "What the hell am I doing here? Don't let me mess this up." Cause Bird just took it, man. He didn't need you, really. Charlie Parker... man, playing with Charlie Parker, man... what are you doing?

Anyhow, I was on a lot of records with a lot of people. But so-called bandleader? I'm, happy about it because the photography and everything, the packaging is wonderful. Carol Freidman did the photography and her assistant, Tina. They get credit on the CD. It was a tremendous effort on everybody's part to make it.

AAJ: Are you going to do more?

PH: I got a few more runes in my head if we can get rid of a few thousand of these, I guess. [Laughter] We're not shooting for the six million like those kids sell. That's not the market for this kind of music.

The art form called jazz is developed over so many years from slave hollows, if you will. From the time when drums weren't even allowed. Through the gospel feeling, swing, improvisation. There are the ingredients to me that have to be in the so-called art form of jazz. These things have to be there. You can hyphenate, so-and-so jazz and this-other jazz, and you may sell more records to please a younger audience that may not be educated to listen to the music and understand its development. And you gotta be telling a story, man. You just can't be playing notes. Kids come out of music school and they play a lot of notes, all the scales and sequences, things that they learned. Sure, that's wonderful. But like Lester [Young] said, you got to learn what to leave out in order to be able to relate some kind of a human experience. You've got to convey emotions, like a gypsy violinist who can make you cry or make you laugh, just with the notes.

That's the way I feel about this music. I appreciate young players with a facility and the technical advantage that they have over me. I'm limited in that way and musical knowledge. Everything I know is from 40 years of John Lewis writing shit I couldn't play and had to learn how to do it. [Laughter] And the experience of playing the instrument for 50-some years. Maybe I have learned how to express certain things on the instrument. It seems to be easier for me to do on the cello. These people seem to hear what I'm doing. I could probably do the same thing on the bass, but the human ear doesn't hear that frequency as well as up higher.

This "Love Song," I tried to do it alone to start off the whole thing. The whole CD, I'm pleased with the content, but I'm probably never going to be pleased exactly with every note I play. Forget it, man

When we first went to Japan in 1963, a disc jockey over there took us to a jazz place and this quartet had piano, bass, drums and vibraharp. Just like the Modern Jazz Quartet. I think at that time, we might have had two 10-inch recordings. And they had learned note-for-note everything on there. And this bassist was smiling, looking at me and playing the same wrong note I played on the record, which I wanted to suck it off of there if I could. [Laughter] And he was smiling and playing it. [Laughter] It is the gospel truth. [Laughter]

Kids come up and say, "Mr. Heath, do you give lessons?" I say, "What lessons? Listen to the records and see what's on them. And don't play those mistakes." Naturally, they don't know where the mistakes were, but I did and cringe every time. {Laughter]

R.J., are you player, or just a lover? [Laughter]

AAJ: A lover. No. I play a little bit... Self taught. Just for fun...

PH: Yeah. That's it. It's enough to give you a knowledge and appreciation. I know you may step out. [Laughter] You're going to get a band together one day and get out there. "I got my band," and write it up. [Laughs] But anyway, this interview's taking place up here in the Blue Note where the Brothers are playing. It's one of the premiere clubs. The ones that stay, like the Vanguard. And now the Iridium. I think we're going to go there later in the year. I think it's the end of May or somewhere. Anyway, we're going in there next. Anyway, there's a few venues to play, club-wise.

Of course the Quartet [MJQ] had gotten out of clubs and we played concert halls. It not only changed the way the music was played, but the way it was presented. Therefore we were able to play 500-seat halls. We never commanded the money Milt thought we should get. [as Milt:] "These rock guys make a million dollars." I said, "Yeah, but they're playing in stadiums with 10,000 kids out there screaming. That's not what we're presenting. We can't compete with them, money-wise." But we were making enough in those days.

Making a living out of jazz, I was fortunate to be able to do that. I have Percy III, my wife June, who as been with me since we were eating 75-cent fish and chips for dinner up on Sugar Hill when we first moved out of Philly. She's still with me. We have a place in Montauk [Long Island, NY] where we wanted to be. My middle son, Jason, is staying with me. My youngest son, Stewart, is there. I got a boat. A beach buggy. I ain't rich. I ain't got nothing in the bank. I told them all, "I'm 80 now. I ain't gonna be around too much longer. I ain't got nothing to leave you but the bass. Auction it off, because it's a 300-year-old instrument now."

It's an Italian bass, from Cremona, a Ruggeri. Barry Goldstein who takes care it for me and restored it for me, he loves it. And I told him, "Barry, when I go, baby, put this bass up for sale. There'll be enough for my family to live on for awhile." [Laughter]

My father only left me love and understanding of life. With our mixed heritage, a far as heritage, there's a lot of different things in the Heaths. Pop, he never taught us to hate anybody. From this day in, until he died, we called each other 'boy.' Why? Because when I was about 12 or 13, to be called 'boy,' I'm ready to rumble. Because down south where we used to go to my grandparents and all, everybody was a 'boy' or an 'uncle.' If you were black. That used to irritate me. "I ain't no boy." Of course, I was a boy. But Pops used to say, 'Boy? That ain't nuthin. So what if he called you 'boy.'" He used to say "If you do that job better than that other guy, you're going to get that job. I don't care what color he is." That was his philosophy, my father.

He was so proud of us as musicians, being a clarinetist and all. He didn't live long enough to see us perform together, but he used to come and see us individually. Tootie with Lester Young and other people. Jimmy on his own. Pop was so proud of our accomplishments. And my sister, who is older than I am. She used to give piano lessons until she got to be about 16 and discovered boys. [Laughter] She threw that out. So that's the Heath linage.

AAJ: Your approach to the bass. Is it the sound, the rhythm, feel, notes?

PH: The choice of notes... well, George Mraz
George Mraz
George Mraz
b.1944
bass
is downstairs. [Scheduled to play on the double bill with Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010
piano
this particular evening] He was a violin player and he plays so much on the bass, facility-wise. I never concentrated too much on improvising that way. My concept was to create a line—because the bass itself replaced the tuba in the stage bands, jazz bands, as early back as the marching bands... the difference between when they had a stage band and a marching band was when they gave it that feeling of jazz, which was the Afro 6/8 feeling, as opposed to the strict eighth notes. It was syncopated. All those rhythms really came from Africa anyhow. But that rhythm that was given to the music, when they couldn't even play the drums because they feared some conspiracy or something. But if they picked up an instrument, anything they picked up they put that rhythm in it. On a minuet or whatever. It had that feeling that was born in them.

The way I felt about it was with the string bass replacing the tuba, the job was relegated to have pulse and notes. Harmony. But it being the ground bass, the lowest sound in the formation, I felt that it should be a line going along—which was part of what John [Lewis] taught me, contrapuntally. There were four lines going along there with the Modern Jazz Quartet, which harmonically phrases the composition.

My concentration and my concept of bass playing is to have a melody, which indicated the harmonic progressions of the composition and maintained the pulse. Not too much skipping around. There's a lot of boogety-boogety going on. It's OK. But you gotta know where "one" is. One, two, three, four. This music is 4/4 music.

Miles turned around one time. Me and Buhaina [Art Blakey] kind of scrambled the beat... We over-did something and came back smiling. I planned it. And Miles said [in perfect Miles imitation] "Where was 'one.' I couldn't find 'one.'" So you gotta know where "one" is.

I'm gonna give out my lesson, here. So read this and don't ask me.

[Counts off four beats, hand clapping on two and four] Two and four are accented in the feeling of the music. That's the swing. So on "one" you have to establish the tonality. "Two" is a strong beat... You can think of lesser notes in the triad [on two and four] to lead into the note on the weaker beat—the beat that's stronger, you don't need a strong note. In creating a line with that in mind, that this thing is going to swing, you can use a leading tone on the beats that are weak, and lead into the strong beat.

The first time I played the blues with Miles [Blue Haze, Prestige, 1954] Bob Weinstock put out the lights in the studio and said "play a slow blues." Dave [Schildkraut, saxophonist on the date] said "Percy, walk a couple of courses." Ol' Perce started playing the music. What did I use? I used an old blues line of [Count Basie bassist] Walter Page. And embellished it with other notes in between. This guy, I forget his name, printed in Downbeat magazine back there in '54 when I was the new star or something, wrote out the bass line and analyzed it. He said "Oh here Percy, you did so-and-so..." I said, "Oh shit, I did?" [Laughter] I did that? He analyzed it clinically. My whole concept was being there at the bottom for the improviser to know where it's going. I wouldn't come in on the third or the second of a chord as a first beat. What chord is that? You're establishing a new harmony.

That's my concept of bass. That's what I knew. Back then with Miles and those people, what they heard in Percy is that Baptist beat that I had. Had a good beat. I didn't know too many notes, but I was learning. I didn't play too many wrong notes because I didn't know but three notes in the chord to play in those early recordings. [Laughter]

PH: The sound, that's another thing on the bass. Everybody starts overplaying with the bass. Pulling, slapping, bam, bang. Strong. I got a picture of me with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and one string is pulled way back over on the other string. I'm pulling that hard. I used to get blisters. I did learn, in time, that the sound that was created, the richest sound, was the balance between the pressure in the left hand and the force that you use to reproduce that [with the right hand]. So it's a feeling between them. By doing that, you also have the liberty to accent. It's not just monotone like amplified guitar, that monotone. I hate those amplifiers, because it doesn't reproduce what you can do. You can hit one louder and whatnot, but it's only going to be what the amplifier reproduces.

But the contrabass moves the air in the room. You feel it! If you take your shoes off playing the bass, man, you feel it in the floor. That vibration. So the sound of the contrabass is very important. That's why electric bass doesn't sound good in a swing group. Bobby Cranshaw does very well with it, as far as emulating the bass. Some other people have these pre-amps and all that; sorta sounds as close to the bass as it can. They're easy to carry around [Laughter]. Kids ask me, "Mr. Heath, how many basses do you have." I say, "That's it." I cannot get that sound out of any other instrument. I've had that once since 1956. It's quite an instrument. I'm just lucky to have that.

When we used to play with symphony orchestras, all seven or eight bass players would come down after we'd taken a break... "What kind of bass is that you have?" I'd say "It's a Ruggeri, Giovani Ruggeri." They'd say, "I told you it was a Ruggeri." They'd start to analyze it because not too many jazz players had instruments like that. Cremona bass. It was over 250 years old when I got it in 1956 in Berlin. So it's about 300 years old now.

It's restored by Barry Goldstein. He loves it. His father was my bass repair man and he's taken over the business. It's prima.

And he had some strings made for me for the cello that wouldn't keep breaking by tuning up that low C to an E. They used to break all the time. So Barry has had some strings made for me. Don't tell too many people because he didn't make but so many. [Laughter]

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