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A Remembrance of Percy Heath

R.J. DeLuke By

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AAJ: On the new CD, the version of "Django" sounds like the Modern Jazz Quartet.

PH: It's the piece. It's the tune. However I did play the melody on the bass, in the beginning, which, for the whole 42 years I never did with the Quartet. It's a set bass part. The boogie woogie thing there, I had to quote that because it's really a part of the composition. It's really a different composition from most, structure-wise. It's not an eight-eight-bridge-eight type construction. It's different. Sometimes I quote —I don't know if you're familiar with a score John Lewis wrote for the film "No Sun in Venice." It was filmed in Venice, and this gondola is going down the grand canal. A really regal barge going down. John wrote a piece called "Cortège," which, actually, is almost "Django" again. It has the same feeling and some of the same notes. When I do "Django" live, I may stick a little a little "Cortège" in the introduction, before I go into the melody.

I always say John wrote "Django" twice [laughter]. He got a lot of mileage out of that.

I'm glad I included it, because I got a chance to play the melody finally.

AAJ: You had never done that before.

PH: No. Never. It was always the way it was recorded so many times, by so many people. I never played the melody.

I did a duet at Lincoln Center with Jeb Patton and that's when it occurred to me... It's fun to do.

AAJ: He sounds, on that piece, like John. Was that on purpose?

PH: He's a student of Sir Sir Roland Hanna. I don't really get too much John Lewis out of his playing because John was so economical with notes. That's why for a long time John Lewis was underrated as a pianist. He composed every chorus as it went. He was a composer, even when he was a player. He was able to influence Milt [Jackson]. With his perfect pitch, he could get something from what John did and do something else over there. That's why the Quartet was so individual in its concept.

Jeb, on the other hand, is a student of Sir Roland Hanna, who was a great accompanist for many singers. He absorbed that style of Roland's, which is more dynamic. He's 26 years old now. He's a baby, but he's so far advanced and he's having so much fun. He's very inventive and a real exciting player. That "Century Rag" which is on that CD. I like that. I like everything he did on it. That's why I got him. That's why the leader chose the right pianist. [Laughter] Jeb Patton is a really exceptional talent.

Jeb studied at Duke University and went through that jazz program. Then he went to Queens College and studied with Sir Roland in an advanced jazz course. My brother Jimmy was teaching a jazz ensemble class in which Jeb participated. So when Jeb graduated and Jimmy had his 10 years in as a professor and resigned, Jimmy grabbed Jeb up for our group, for the Heath Brothers. He's been with us about six years now. He joined when he was 21.

I had to use him on there [the new CD], and of course my brother, Tootie. I think he's one of the most underrated drummers in this business. He even pleased John Lewis for a year, which was difficult to do after Connie [MJQ drummer Connie Kay] died. He was so perfect for what we did. Tootie said 'I could fit in the group because I've been listening to it all my adult life.'

So I used Albert. I wanted a little more presence on the CD [in the mixing] on the drums, but it didn't turn out. But it was the best we could do on the mix.

A recording of a jazz composition is just an indication of what you hear when you go to hear people play live. There's an exception. Like Illinois Jacquet's solo on "Flying Home." If you didn't play that solo, you didn't play "Flying Home." The improvisation became the piece, and it had to be played every time or people would say, 'Oh man, that ain't "Flying Home."' [Laughter] Otherwise, jazz improvisation is spontaneous.

Like that "Century Rag" I just mentioned, what's on that record—Jeb plays so much more than that. That's the inkling. But to hear him expound on that live. He's inspired by the moment. That "Century Rag" was Sir Roland's composition. Roland recorded it himself. This is Jeb's arrangement of "Century Rag." There's another thing on there that he wrote, "Hanna's Mood." It was written before Roland passed, but in retrospect, it sounds like something in memory of him. It just happened that way.

That's on the CD, giving Jeb his due. He's been with the Heath Brothers six years, for crying out loud. We have to say 'the invisible pianist is Jeb Paton.' [Laughter] We have the three brothers, of course, but we do have a fourth member of the quartet. An identifiable member too. Jeb is something. He's Tatum influenced too, so that's another aspect of his playing, as opposed to John Lewis' economic, structure-as-you-go approach.

AAJ: How much composing do you do?

PH: I ain't no composer, man. I think up a line for a piece every now and then. I think up a melody. I'm not a composer. I wrote those few tunes on there and I composed, if you want to use that word, but I'm not a composer. I don't feel of myself as a composer. I'm working on a tune now. All of a sudden it came to me, a little line.

Jimmy is a composer. He actually sits down and writes songs and compositions and arrangements. He's been doing it as far as I can remember. When I first came home from the Air Force (1946) and Lieutenant Heath decided to be a bebopper. I wore sandals, grew a beard and bought a beret and hung out with the cats. I had never heard any of that music down in the South where I was with the Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama. I ended up in Kentucky. When my roommate got killed, he was from Philadelphia, I had enough time in and I was sort of in between wars and I had proven that I could fly those machines that they say we couldn't. Momma was proud, but she was scared of me being in those airplanes. They were pretty dangerous machines, but what the hell. I was 21 years old. 'They'll do this?' 'Yeah. We'll do it....' Then when I got out, Jimmy quit his position with a dance band in the Midwest.

We called him "professor" then because we got an old upright piano, put it in the living room of my mother's house and there was music going on all day while Jimmy was composing and learning the new bebop harmonies, which he had heard on the road. He said, "You coming home, man, and get a bass? I'm coming home too, to see what's happening with this music."

Even at that time, Jimmy had a 16-piece band in Philadelphia. There were some great players around there. I didn't know enough at that time to play with the band. Nelson Boyd was the bassist with Jimmy's band. John Coltrane was in that band. Jimmy copied arrangements off the records. Jimmy's band was playing Billy Eckstine's arrangements and Dizzy Gillespie band arrangements. He'd sit down and copy the saxophone section, the brass section and everything else.

So he's the composer. A tune writer? Ok. I'll take that. [Laughter].

Actually most of Milt Jackson's compositions were like a line that he played on the vibraharp. The arranger, John Lewis, would take it and make it a piece, a composition. Jimmy did some too, for Milt. But Milt, for years, just couldn't put it down like he wanted.

So, I'm not a composer there, R.J. [Laughter]. Just a tune writer, baby. And not too many of those.

But this suite, the sad part, the Prelude, is just how I felt when Percy Heath Sr., my man, baby, passed. Nice guy, my father. He's the one that started all of us playing. He was a clarinetist in the Philadelphia Independent Elks band. My Mother, Alethea, was a choir singer in the 19th Street Baptist Church. And her mother, we called her Fat Momma, to differentiate between Momma and Fat Momma. When I was 11 or 12 I was singing on a kiddie hour at that time on Sunday morning, kids on the radio. Joe Wilder was there playing the trumpet with a plunger. He was 13. I was 12.

Then at that time I was singing with my grandmother and my mother and her cousin as the Family Four gospel quartet. We used to go to all these little gatherings. I was playing my little violin on occasion for these little teas to raise money for the church. Me and a guitarist. We used to call him Rev. Bennie, he was so religious. We'd play these little songs at these teas I couldn't really play the violin that much. I got out of junior high school, the seventh grade or something, that was the end of the violin.

That Lincoln Theater [in Philly], that kiddie hour was connected with that, so that's how I got to go backstage on opening show on Friday afternoon. By being on the show, you were able to go to this theater and meet these bands. That's why I was so impressed with these bands, like Claude Hart, Don Redman. Swing bands. Black swing bands. Lucky Millander. Fats Waller. Everybody. I could go backstage and say, "Oh yeah. I'm gonna be in show business." Then I lost my voice when I was 14. My voice changed and that was the end of that. [Laughter]


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