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First Time I Saw...

MJQ: Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise

By Published: November 8, 2006
That evening at The Tonight Show, they played "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" and "I'll Remember April." It was a life-changing moment for me. This was a whole other way to think about music, I realized gradually. It was like discovering a color I'd never even seen before.

It was all still so new to me, I did not even have the language to formulate the questions. I was still too new at jazz to know that Percy Heath had been part of it all since the beginning, since Bird and Dizzy. Since Monk and Bud. He was already in the history books. To me he was simply the bassist with The MJQ, a job so large and important that I could only assume he must have spent his entire musical life focused only on this.

Finally, I manufactured a question simply as a reason for staying there with him in the bleeding light behind the bar at the foot of the narrow, legendary stairway.

"Do you ever play with any other groups?"

He smiled without looking up from his long silvery bass strings. His face was long and sculptured with high cheek bones. His precise hairline and jaw repeated the curve of his bass. It reminded me of an Egyptian mask, or a face carved into the marble on some cornice on a Greek temple. He laughed silently but he did not answer my question. He seemed a little embarrassed by it, as if it would have been some kind of PR faux pas for him to acknowledge that he did, on occasion, stray from the dark monastic brotherhood of the MJQ to play in some more profane context.

I restated my question: " Who else do you like to play with, besides the MJQ?"

His brown eyes darted around the nebulous space where the walls bled into shadows, as if searching for an escape. My persistence had made him uncomfortable but I could not let go of his attention now. I inched closer, hoping to engage his eyes.

At last, too kind, too much a gentleman not to answer, he replied.

"Well," he said finally, "I guess Miles."

This was at a time just before anyone but musicians and astute music critics knew there was going to even be a MILES. Heath used only Miles's first name the way that the insiders who had played among the Giants, always did—"Miles," "Sonny," "Bud," "Diz." "Max." "Percy." There was only one of each.

I had heard the name, but the sound, the revelation that would be Miles Davis, had not reached me yet. Had not, in fact, really happened yet to the planet, but was only just about to.

"Miles Davis?" I asked innocently, proud of my ability to put the last name to the first. Percy Heath nodded.

"You ever make any records with him?" I asked.

Again, the fear of making some kind of P.R. misstep flickered beneath his polite smile, but again, too much the gentleman, he replied. "Yeah. There's one coming out soon called 'Walking'."

And that was it. More than I had hoped for, actually. I had something now, a small treasure to take away with me. A conversation, albeit only a few sentences long, had happened between Percy Heath, and myself. I took it away with me into the midnight of the Vanguard's tiny angular space, to my miniature table where I waited with my friends for the music to start. For The Quartet to materialize on stage. I did not share the conversation with my friends or anyone but only mentioned in passing that I had seen Percy Heath back there behind the bar.

"What was he doing?" one of my buddies asked me.

"Tuning up," I said casually, giving away not one iota more of my precious exchange with Percy Heath than I had to, keeping it close and private until it became a true part of my slowly expanding musical memory.

And then it was time to hear him play.

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