A Remembrance of Percy Heath, Part 2-2

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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.
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