A Remembrance of Percy Heath, Part 1-2

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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 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 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 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. 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 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.


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