I Walked With Giants
Jimmy Heath/Joseph McLaren
Softcover; 344 pages
Temple University Press
The title alone of Jimmy Heath's marvelous memoir speaks volumes about the man. The NEA Jazz Master is himself an acknowledged giant among his peers and his choice to name the book as he did is an indication of both his great humility and self-effacing humor (in this case regarding his height). Heath is a clever wordsmith (the book contains an appendix listing the numerous nicknames he has bestowed upon his colleagues) and an astute chronicler of the events within and surrounding his life, making his entertainingly told story as much social history as autobiography.
Beginning with the affectionate foreword by fellow Philadelphian Bill Cosby, we are made aware of the important role family played in the musical development of the saxophonist and his two equally accomplished siblings, Percy Heath and Albert Heath, world renowned as the Heath Bothers. Wynton Marsalis' introduction is only the first of the volume's numerous testimonials heaping praise upon a man possessed with too much humility to blow his own horn with the unmitigated passion with which his many colleagues speak of him.
Benny Carter, Curtis Fuller, Benny Golson, Roy Haynes, Milt Jackson, Billy Mitchell, James Moody and Clark Terry are just some other giants whose words help tell the important story that stretches from the tailend of the big band era up to today. Heath's own recounting of life on the road with the Nat Towles Big Band and its many trials with difficult travels in the days of Jim Crow racism is in itself historically important. The stories of his own development as an early bebopper known as "Little Bird" with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane add further insight into that most important period of jazz history.
Heath doesn't mince words when speaking of his drug addiction, incarceration or the unpleasant aspects of the music business and it is his unabashed honesty that is a great part of the book's refreshing charm. Yet overall this is a tome of a life full of great joy and few regrets.