A Remembrance of Percy Heath

R.J. DeLuke By

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Everything I know is from 40 years of John Lewis writing shit I couldn't play and had to learn how to do it... And the experience of playing the instrument for 50-some years. Maybe I have learned how to express certain things on the instrument.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz in May 2005.

Percy Heath could play the hell out of that big contrabass.

Played it for more than half a century. With Bird and Miles and Diz and 'Trane and Brownie and the venerable Modern Jazz Quartet and on and on. And if you're reading this you know that already, probably. He played in dumps; he played R&B. Played for next to nothing. But he also played in tuxedos with his great friends John Lewis, Milt Jackson and Connie Kay in stunning concert halls all over the world. And held down the bottom with his brothers Tootie and Jimmy in the fun and classy band that bore their Heath Brothers name.

I didn't know him well, but I bet none of the above circumstances ever changed him. Percy Heath will be missed for his impeccable beat and his big, warm sound. But he'll be missed because he was as warm in soul and spirit as the tone the man summoned from the wood he caressed and the strings he thumped on stage. Big hearted and generous and gentle. And genuine. I can see him on stage, eyes closed, big grin. Doin' it! I can hear that solo on "Bags Groove" from The Modern Jazz Quartet: The Last Concert.

I met Percy Heath at length on a cold afternoon in January 2004 at New York City's Blue Note nightclub, a few hours before the Heath Brothers were to take the stage, sharing a bill with the great Hank Jones and his trio. We spoke about music and his life as part of my story assignment. We spoke on the phone a couple times. That's all. It was enough to see what a gentleman he was. He might like to talk about fishing near his Long Island home as much as Mingus or Monk or his idols Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown. Talk he could. A first-rate story teller, Ol' Perce (as he sometimes referred to himself) was, indeed. His first album as a leader had just come out after all these years and Percy was happy with it, but took it all in stride.

He even wrote a lyric to the song, but there was no vocal on the record. "You got a wife that sings, man?" he said with a slick grin and an exaggerated quizzical look. Informed that was not the case, but that my sister Maureen could sing, he retorted with laughter, "well, we'll get her to do it. Knock Norah Jones right off the charts!" Later, he gave me a copy of the lead sheet and words, which I still treasure. But not without more ribbing, suggesting I print the lyric in the article, ..."maybe Norah [Jones] or somebody will say, 'Oh! And record it. [laughter]. Get ol' Perce a bigger boat!"

The conversation was speckled with stories and asides from a man who's seen it all and still had fun looking back at it. Mimicking the gravely voice of Miles Davis or the slick and abrupt cadence that Mingus could use, Percy was exact about his remembrances, at the age of nearly 80, and as grounded as his Italian bass. He considered himself lucky to be where he was, despite hardships, having no ax to grind against anyone. "Pop, he never taught us to hate anybody," he said fondly of his father, whom he obviously cherished.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and I had to beg off an invitation to dinner with him—that's how he was—for a prior commitment. We exchanged a few laughs later that night. Genuine and warm. Eyes sparkling. Having a taste. There are people a lot more qualified to tell Percy stories. So let the rest be his story.

A great deal of our conversation that day never made print, as often happens. But what follows is most of it, with some editing. Percy Heath eschewed the limelight, therefore it might be hard to find a lot written about this important bassist and this honorable man. This is Ol' Perce in Percy's own words. Have a taste and enjoy.

And Perce? Maintain, my man. I know you're still laughing at some of those stories. If you're not fishing, that is.

All About Jazz: The new CD, how did that come about?

Percy Heath: That I became a leader?

AAJ: Yeah. After all these years, the first CD under your own name.

PH: Right. I'm on quite a few recording with other people. And of course the Modern Jazz Quartet records were not under anybody's name. I wasn't a musical director, but as far as it being: not so-and-so and his band, those 45 or 50 recordings are under a partnership arrangement. Of course, I was playing what I was told on those. Then the Heath Brothers records are all no-name. Some of Jimmy's [recordings] we did earlier. Tootie had a record date way back when. I think they re-released it in Japan and they call it "Oops" now, but before it was another name under Tootie's leadership.

Finally this guy out in Little Rock [Ark.], Andy Collins, who had a label called Daddy Jazz. He's really a realtor, but he loves jazz. He and a group of wealthy jazz lovers in Little Rock had the [Heath] Brothers out there in a concert a few years back. He had done a production with Tootie. Tootie has a CD out with drums, demonstrations of all types of drums. And that was on Andy Collins' label. We got to talking and he said, "You never recorded on your own, as a leader."

Being a leader is only good for choosing the people who play and the songs that you play. Otherwise, it's the same pressure to perform the best you can. On all the 300 records [previous 300+ recordings Percy is on], I can always find some stuff I would rather not ever hear again. [Laughter] Even on this, being the bandleader, I couldn't reject some of the takes. The rationale is: if the general overall feeling of a recording, if it does something as a whole, then the minor miscues are forgotten, or not so important.

Anyhow, there's a lot of stuff on this new one I wish I'd done better, and a few of the other players might have done better. But you're always restricted by time in the studio. It's not an endless budget and you got to get it done and take what you get.

I feel pretty good about most of it, overall. As far as being a leader, I was lucky to have three-quarters of the Heath Brothers quartet with me. And I added Peter Washington, a tremendous young bassist. The idea of some of those things with two bassists, I'm a little disappointed on how it came off, but it was an inkling, and indication, of what I thought up when I composed that suite to my father [the four-movement "Suite for Pops"].


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