A Remembrance of Percy Heath

R.J. DeLuke By

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AAJ: You recorded with Miles. Did you ever tour with him?

PH: We played around New York together. We played Birdland.

Oh man. I was in Birdland in early 1950... whenever Fats Navarro died. It was his last gig. Fats was sick. It was a sextet with Miles and Fats and Mad Lad [Leo Parker] on baritone. Bud Powell on piano and Art Blakey on drums. I was in heaven, man. [Laughter] I would say [looking at his watch], "Oh man, where are they? It's time to hit!" [Laughter] I was there an hour ahead.

Miles was responsible for me really becoming known on recordings. Those records that we made in the 50s. Miles had left Charlie Parker and was creating his style to get away from Dizzy and all the trumpet players trying to play like Dizzy.

Fats Navarro. Whew! Fats Navarro, I think, was Clifford Brown's idol. That style. Warm, baby. I mean soulful!

Miles came up with his own concept within the range he had on trumpet. It was beautiful. It was a very creative period for Miles Davis and I loved it and we had a good time. Kenny [Clarke] had come back from Paris and formed [Milt] Jackson's quartet. And Horace Silver. The Prestige stuff. And the early Blue Note stuff.

I was the house bassist on most of those dates with Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, his first record dates. I made records with Thad Jones. Mostly all the trumpet players. I was on Clifford Brown's first record.

On those Miles records, we were called the All-American Rhythm Section. That original "Walkin'" man, Lucky Thompson [tenor sax] had his eyes closed. [Producer] Albert Lions was in the booth trying to get him to stop. At that time they had to limit time on recordings. Otherwise they couldn't get it on the air. You had to get a three-minute record. But anyway, they couldn't get Lucky's attention so Albert said, "Keep on going." They made it like a two-parter. [Laughter] But man, when me and Klook and Horace got up under him, boy, Lucky Thompson had a good time!

When that rhythm section locks in—they used to say they 'locked in'—that means there's some moments, some times, R.J., when on the bandstand you just get a feeling of elation. It's just spiritual, the connection between the pulse and what's going on. It doesn't happen constantly, because you couldn't stand it. You couldn't stay in there. Klook used to grunt and say, "Ahhh, don't go in there." [Laughter] If it was approaching that pinnacle. [Laughter] It's like when you play with Charlie Parker. You'd say, "What the hell am I doing here? Don't let me mess this up." Cause Bird just took it, man. He didn't need you, really. Charlie Parker... man, playing with Charlie Parker, man... what are you doing?

Anyhow, I was on a lot of records with a lot of people. But so-called bandleader? I'm, happy about it because the photography and everything, the packaging is wonderful. Carol Freidman did the photography and her assistant, Tina. They get credit on the CD. It was a tremendous effort on everybody's part to make it.

AAJ: Are you going to do more?

PH: I got a few more runes in my head if we can get rid of a few thousand of these, I guess. [Laughter] We're not shooting for the six million like those kids sell. That's not the market for this kind of music.

The art form called jazz is developed over so many years from slave hollows, if you will. From the time when drums weren't even allowed. Through the gospel feeling, swing, improvisation. There are the ingredients to me that have to be in the so-called art form of jazz. These things have to be there. You can hyphenate, so-and-so jazz and this-other jazz, and you may sell more records to please a younger audience that may not be educated to listen to the music and understand its development. And you gotta be telling a story, man. You just can't be playing notes. Kids come out of music school and they play a lot of notes, all the scales and sequences, things that they learned. Sure, that's wonderful. But like Lester [Young] said, you got to learn what to leave out in order to be able to relate some kind of a human experience. You've got to convey emotions, like a gypsy violinist who can make you cry or make you laugh, just with the notes.

That's the way I feel about this music. I appreciate young players with a facility and the technical advantage that they have over me. I'm limited in that way and musical knowledge. Everything I know is from 40 years of John Lewis writing shit I couldn't play and had to learn how to do it. [Laughter] And the experience of playing the instrument for 50-some years. Maybe I have learned how to express certain things on the instrument. It seems to be easier for me to do on the cello. These people seem to hear what I'm doing. I could probably do the same thing on the bass, but the human ear doesn't hear that frequency as well as up higher.

This "Love Song," I tried to do it alone to start off the whole thing. The whole CD, I'm pleased with the content, but I'm probably never going to be pleased exactly with every note I play. Forget it, man

When we first went to Japan in 1963, a disc jockey over there took us to a jazz place and this quartet had piano, bass, drums and vibraharp. Just like the Modern Jazz Quartet. I think at that time, we might have had two 10-inch recordings. And they had learned note-for-note everything on there. And this bassist was smiling, looking at me and playing the same wrong note I played on the record, which I wanted to suck it off of there if I could. [Laughter] And he was smiling and playing it. [Laughter] It is the gospel truth. [Laughter]

Kids come up and say, "Mr. Heath, do you give lessons?" I say, "What lessons? Listen to the records and see what's on them. And don't play those mistakes." Naturally, they don't know where the mistakes were, but I did and cringe every time. {Laughter]

R.J., are you player, or just a lover? [Laughter]

AAJ: A lover. No. I play a little bit... Self taught. Just for fun...

PH: Yeah. That's it. It's enough to give you a knowledge and appreciation. I know you may step out. [Laughter] You're going to get a band together one day and get out there. "I got my band," and write it up. [Laughs] But anyway, this interview's taking place up here in the Blue Note where the Brothers are playing. It's one of the premiere clubs. The ones that stay, like the Vanguard. And now the Iridium. I think we're going to go there later in the year. I think it's the end of May or somewhere. Anyway, we're going in there next. Anyway, there's a few venues to play, club-wise.

Of course the Quartet [MJQ] had gotten out of clubs and we played concert halls. It not only changed the way the music was played, but the way it was presented. Therefore we were able to play 500-seat halls. We never commanded the money Milt thought we should get. [as Milt:] "These rock guys make a million dollars." I said, "Yeah, but they're playing in stadiums with 10,000 kids out there screaming. That's not what we're presenting. We can't compete with them, money-wise." But we were making enough in those days.

Making a living out of jazz, I was fortunate to be able to do that. I have Percy III, my wife June, who as been with me since we were eating 75-cent fish and chips for dinner up on Sugar Hill when we first moved out of Philly. She's still with me. We have a place in Montauk [Long Island, NY] where we wanted to be. My middle son, Jason, is staying with me. My youngest son, Stewart, is there. I got a boat. A beach buggy. I ain't rich. I ain't got nothing in the bank. I told them all, "I'm 80 now. I ain't gonna be around too much longer. I ain't got nothing to leave you but the bass. Auction it off, because it's a 300-year-old instrument now."

It's an Italian bass, from Cremona, a Ruggeri. Barry Goldstein who takes care it for me and restored it for me, he loves it. And I told him, "Barry, when I go, baby, put this bass up for sale. There'll be enough for my family to live on for awhile." [Laughter]

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 line—because 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 along—which 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 beat—the 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.

That's my concept of bass. That's what I knew. Back then with Miles and those people, what they heard in Percy is that Baptist beat that I had. Had a good beat. I didn't know too many notes, but I was learning. I didn't play too many wrong notes because I didn't know but three notes in the chord to play in those early recordings. [Laughter]

PH: The sound, that's another thing on the bass. Everybody starts overplaying with the bass. Pulling, slapping, bam, bang. Strong. I got a picture of me with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and one string is pulled way back over on the other string. I'm pulling that hard. I used to get blisters. I did learn, in time, that the sound that was created, the richest sound, was the balance between the pressure in the left hand and the force that you use to reproduce that [with the right hand]. So it's a feeling between them. By doing that, you also have the liberty to accent. It's not just monotone like amplified guitar, that monotone. I hate those amplifiers, because it doesn't reproduce what you can do. You can hit one louder and whatnot, but it's only going to be what the amplifier reproduces.

But the contrabass moves the air in the room. You feel it! If you take your shoes off playing the bass, man, you feel it in the floor. That vibration. So the sound of the contrabass is very important. That's why electric bass doesn't sound good in a swing group. Bobby Cranshaw does very well with it, as far as emulating the bass. Some other people have these pre-amps and all that; sorta sounds as close to the bass as it can. They're easy to carry around [Laughter]. Kids ask me, "Mr. Heath, how many basses do you have." I say, "That's it." I cannot get that sound out of any other instrument. I've had that once since 1956. It's quite an instrument. I'm just lucky to have that.

When we used to play with symphony orchestras, all seven or eight bass players would come down after we'd taken a break... "What kind of bass is that you have?" I'd say "It's a Ruggeri, Giovani Ruggeri." They'd say, "I told you it was a Ruggeri." They'd start to analyze it because not too many jazz players had instruments like that. Cremona bass. It was over 250 years old when I got it in 1956 in Berlin. So it's about 300 years old now.

It's restored by Barry Goldstein. He loves it. His father was my bass repair man and he's taken over the business. It's prima.

And he had some strings made for me for the cello that wouldn't keep breaking by tuning up that low C to an E. They used to break all the time. So Barry has had some strings made for me. Don't tell too many people because he didn't make but so many. [Laughter]


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