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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"].

AAJ: Did you ever hear the band Ron Carter had years ago where he was out front with the piccolo bass and Buster Williams was on bass?

PH: Ray Brown did it with several bassists. It's been done before, but I had never done it. The way I composed that "Suite for Pop," part of it, was two lines—one descending and one ascending—and they crossed harmonically. That was the idea behind that composition.

I've heard Ray Brown on several records with other bass players. It's not the first time it's been done. Years ago I was involved with Bill Lee in a bass choir. There were nine basses. I don't know if that ever got recorded and released, but there were some performances around. He wrote some things for that. A bass choir.

AAJ: All jazz guys?

PH: Oh yeah. All jazz bass players.

So the idea of duplicate bassists is not mine. I remember when Duke Ellington had two bassists with him, after Jimmy Blanton died. Junior Raglin was there, and Oscar Pettiford. I don't know if that was recorded. But I remember going to the Lincoln Theater in Philadelphia in 1940 or 41, right after Jimmy Blanton died.

AAJ: Do you ever feel overlooked, this being your first recording?

PH: No, man. I'm on enough records. My name's on enough records. That never bothered me at all. For 43 years with the [MJQ] Quartet, some with orchestras, some with string quartets. Lots of recordings with other formations, but the body of the work was just four people, and that's about as naked as you can get. The way the music was constructed—contrapuntal, four lines going along, as opposed to a rhythm section and a soloist.

AAJ: Seems like a lot of bass players don't ever get recordings.

PH: Charles [Mingus] had his name out there. Oscar Pettiford. Ron Carter is the perennial bandleader, when he left Miles and started to play his own stuff.

I'm not the first, but it's the first for me.

AAJ: Is the bass not sexy enough? For example, Lonnie Plaxico says he has trouble getting gigs for his band, in part because he plays the bass. It's sexier with a horn out front.

PH: It's not a matter of looking at you. I don't care. Jimmy's [Heath] standing in front of me most of the time. I don't care, as long as they hear me. [Laughs] I'm not that vain about being seen. The setup of the Quartet was that everything was visual, there was nobody out front playing an instrument. No soloist, trumpet and stuff like that. The formation we had with the piano, bass, drums and vibraharp—it wasn't necessary for anybody to be out front. In fact, the focus should have been on the music, not on the person.

That's why they limited even the movement, jumping around, showing and entertaining, which is part of some musicians' presentation, like Dizzy out front beating that barrel, the conga. I don't want to disrespect the conga [Laughter]. It was an inside joke. We'd say, 'Ah, he's beatin' that barrel again. [Laughter] Him out in front dancing around and clowning and entertaining. That was all a part of his presentation. Dizzy Gillespie. He's dizzy and busy.

There's a little more humor going on with the Brothers, because we have a lot of jokes and camaraderie. It's in the music and in the presentation. So we get a little comedy going. It loosens up the audience too. The presentation. Like with these rap guys, the kids. There's always the dance and the movement to go along with the rhythm. No matter what they're saying, it's in time, it's rhythmic. Even if you can't understand—sometimes they have to print out the words so you know what they're talking about. For me, anyway. The young kids seem to follow it pretty well. But that presentation is different.

In jazz, my earliest recollection of role models in the black community was 15-or 17-piece orchestras that used to come on the so-called 'chitlin circuit. Black theaters in about six different cities, Chicago, Baltimore had one, Detroit had one, the Apollo in New York and the Lincoln Theater in Philadelphia, where I was growing up. These guys would come out immaculately dressed, all in uniform. The bandleader would come out. Lucky Millander would come out and he would wave his stick. It was a big show. The band was a part of the show. It was a complete vaudeville act. They had chorus girls. They had comedians. Singers. The band backed everything. Sometimes when the comedy part would go on, Cab Calloway would go out and come back in a new set of tails. Then for the evening show he would change. So costumes were a part of that theatrical staging at that time.

The Quartet used to dress all alike, so there'd be no leader out there waving around. That was the whole concept of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Those were the role models; those well-dressed, well-presented people. The music was serious. The band played a couple of numbers. I was at the Apollo with Lucky Millendar's band in about 1950, before I went with Dizzy. I was living up at Barry Harris' house in the Bronx. He got me the gig with Lucky Millander's band at the Apollo. The great production number was "Rhapsody in Blue." Fess [Millander] was up there. He couldn't read a note as big as a barn [chuckles] but he knew it and he waved his stick in time and gave everybody the cue, you know? He was so effective jumping up and down on a box there in front of the band, about two feet high. That was a leader.

Being a leader was never my ambition. But that role model before sports; before Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson. Before those role models, and the basketball guys. They are now role models for the kids. And rappers are now role models. At that time, we looked up to those [big band] guys. Not like the rock kids running around in jeans and t-shirts. These guys were dressed. I learned later, even if the collars were dirty, you could turn them inside out [laughter]. On the road, when you couldn't get to a laundry. You'd never know it from the third row.

We wore Brooks Brothers and other Ivy League clothes. We had them tailor made. We ended up, the Quartet, with very expensive uniforms. They'd last for 10 years, even though I'd sweat 'em up. They'd last for 10 years.
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