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 is downstairs. [Scheduled to play on the double bill with Hank Jones 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 linebecause 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 alongwhich 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 beatthe 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.