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A Remembrance of Percy Heath

R.J. DeLuke By

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AAJ: You could have been singing on the new CD! [laughter]

PH: Oh, yeah. Right. [laughter].

That "Love Song" has lyrics. It's introduced in the beginning, just the cello alone. I say cello. It is a cello, a Kay legitimate cello, which is strung like a bass.

Ray Brown and another guy, I forget who it was, he collaborated with an engineer-type guy out in California to widen the finger board a little bit, beyond the neck, the Kay cello, and incorporate machines, like guitar machines, instead of the pegs. That's why it's called a jazz cello.

Oscar Pettiford had a cast on his wrist and he could move his fingers. He couldn't play the bass but he configured the tuning on a regular cello—he'd tune it up like a bass and just play the hell out of it, and made a four-sided recording of it. He just messed up everybody. O.P. had perfect pitch. Any place he'd put his finger, that's it.

And of course Ron Carter was a cello player, in the beginning, before he switched to bass. And there were some other cello players who played the cello in jazz.

Anyhow, it's not my innovation. When the Quartet took its time off—Milt wanted to do something else. He wanted to be a bandleader again. He didn't want to play Bach and those things that we were playing that made us different from other jazz groups and got us into some places where jazz had never been played, actually. It was the Milt Jackson Quartet in the beginning anyhow, then it became the Modern Jazz Quartet. He always wanted to play blues and ballads.

He's the greatest vibraphonist I ever heard. I like Gates too, Lionel Hampton. And Terry Gibbs and Bobby Hutcherson, and that young man coming up, Stefon Harris. They're all good vibe players. And Gary Burton, who teaches at Berklee [school of music, Boston]. They all play excellent. Even Tyree Glen, the trombone player, he was a vibes player too. But Milt Jackson! [Laughter] Boy, he did more with those two mallets than anybody.

To be between him and John Lewis for 40 years, I shouldn't have got my salary, I was having so much fun up there with those guys.

The idea of that formation was different then. It was the Milt Jackson quartet and we were like a rhythm section for him in the beginning, until John started to change the approach and the format. Every now and then, Jackson would get itchy and want to do his thing. And he would get Mickey Roker and Ray Brown and John Clayton and a lot of other people, make records with them and go on the road when he could afford it, with Cedar [Walton] and do his bebop thing, which was marvelous.

But during that interim, the Heath Brothers got together, in the idle 70s. Jimmy was playing flute, Tootie was playing flute, drums and all kind of percussive instruments. Stanley Cowell was with us and he had a kalimba, tuned with so many notes. There were two scales, almost, on this African thumb piano. He doubled on that. Jimmy played all the saxophones and flute. Ol' Percy was just playing the bass. So I asked [Ray] Brown, I said "Hey, Ding..." I used to call him Ding-Dong [imitates a walking bass line, "ding-dong, ding-dong..."] He was the ding-dong daddy of us all, for that walking [bass line] that he did.

He showed me how to hold the bass. When I first bought a bass in 1946 he came down to the house—all the musicians came. Momma used to make a nice home-cooked meal for them—Jackson, Lewis, Brown and Klook [drummer Kenny Clarke] were part of Dizzy's band. They came down to the house with a couple of other members of the band to have a nice home-cooked meal. I met him [Ray Brown] there in 1946 and I just had bought a bass and said, "Hey man, I'm gonna be a bassist too." Then he showed me how to hold it. He said, "P, you got to get your spider together [forms left hand fingers in the shape of a large spider]. You can't just grab it like that." You know, around the neck with all the hand. He said, "You gotta stand up on your thumb and walk your fingers, like a spider."

So anyhow, that's how Jackson felt. I played with Milt Jackson with Howard McGhee. I'd been playing about a year, a little more. And I was playing at the bebop Mecca in Philadelphia, the Downbeat. I was in the rhythm section with Jimmy Golden [piano] and Charlie Rice [drums] and Jimmy Oliver, our saxophonist, who could play every lick Pres had ever played and couldn't read a note, but he could play. This was the house band. And they would bring in headliners to play with this local rhythm section. That's when I met Howard McGhee.

But I met Jackson down at the house. Back then we would go see Bird and Miles and everybody else and offer them to come down to the house and eat and whatnot. Dizzy. Of course his family was in Philly. That's how I got to play with Milt Jackson. I had a gig up there at the Downbeat and I got the band up there, cause I was the bassist and I got Milt and a trumpet player and Jimmy [Heath] to be a sextet up there; a trumpet player out of Dizzy's band, Bill Massey. Milt had been my friend since then.

Then Howard McGhee got his sextet together. Milt was in that. He was doubling on piano. Which they all did. They never hired a pianist, most of them at that time. Even with Dizzy's quintet, Jackson would play the piano, get up and play the vibes while Jimmy played the piano, or Dizzy would accompany. Eventually, Howard McGhee did hire a pianist. That was when Jackson left. Milt played with me in that formation, and Dizzy's formation. I played with him in his quartet. This is going back to 1947. I'd been playing a year. Then the whole length of the quartet.

So the [MJQ] hiatus came. Milt went and played with Woody Herman and a bunch of other things at the time.

That's when I asked Ray Brown, "Hey Ding, you got one of them things?" He said, "Yeah, I got one in the garage." Because all the bass players jumped on it [the jazz cello], and then gave it up. Ray made records on it. Ron Carter made records on the cello. Sam Jones played the hell out of it. That man was a real underrated bassist. He died too young. But a lot of bass players went and tried to do this thing.

None surpassed Oscar Pettiford. He was my mentor. I used to follow him around. He'd say, "Come on Percy," he'd take a cello after he made these records. He'd take it and we'd go on anybody's gig. He'd go over to the bandstand and say, "Come on Percy, play the bass" behind him. He'd play two songs on the cello, have a few drinks and go to another place. O.P.'s native ID would come out and he'd want to rumble. "I'd say, Come on O.P. Let's go home, man." It'd be 4 o'clock in the morning.

Anyhow, Brown called me from the airport a few months later because I had to find something else to do from the Heath Brothers. He called me from the airport and said, "Hey P, I sent that thing on for you." I said, "Hey Ding, thanks man." "He said, "You're going to have to use three." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You'll dig it," and hung up and split. So here comes this cello in this crate. I'm trying to play it. I sit down and try to play it like the bass. What he meant was: I had to use three fingers, because the thing is so small, if you try to put four fingers in there you're out of tune. It just didn't work mechanically. So that's why I play the thing with three fingers.

But anyhow, that's why I got it in the first place. I'm having a lot of fun with it now.

To preface this CD, I had written this "Love Song" which I haven't been able to get a vocalist to do it. But the lyrics are very nice too... It's a nice tune, but I played the melody mostly, because I could never...

It's weird. Like when Herbie Hancock first started Headhunters recordings with this modal repetitious bass line on and on. He'd say, "How you like it, P?" He gave me the recording. I'd say, "It's nice, Herbie, but you could have put the bass on a loop and sent [the bassist] home." He said, "Oh no, P, we build on that." I said "Well Herbie, you'd never build on me, because I couldn't play that same four notes for 20 minutes if you were gonna shoot me." [Laughter]. My head just doesn't work like that. I gotta be doing a melody of my own, indicating the harmonic structure of the piece. That's what John Lewis taught me. In the beginning, he wrote out these lines and this little space for improvisation on some chords.

How long have I been playing now? Whatever it is. 1947 on. Close to 57 years. People say, what about the arco? I never tried it much, except the finger exercises that Mingus gave me when John Lewis said, "Percy, you don't know enough to play the music I'm gonna write. You gotta get some lessons."

So I went to Charles and told him I want to take some lessons. He said [in dead-on, Mingus imitation, abrupt and gruff] "P, you're puttin' me on, man. If I could play the blues like you, I wouldn't want no lessons." I said, "No, Charles, I'm serious, man." So he gave me some exercises in which I used the bow, to concentrate on intonation.

That instrument is so demanding, intonation-wise and physically. I used to play pretty in tune, but there's a few things on this CD I wish I hadn't done. Which is on all of them anyhow. I'm really critical of that. But it's the best I could do at this age. You lose it, I guess. I'm glad I finally got to choose those pieces.

There's a variety on there, which really cover a lot of different aspects of how I feel about jazz. There's one piece I wrote which has a lyric too, "No More Weary Blues. There used to be a blues out, called "Weary Blues, a blues record when I was growing up, by a blues singer; a guitarist. This little melody I put on there—incidentally, Tootie is playing the New Orleans beat on that particular piece—it was supposed to be in a different style than just straight ahead swing, bebop. So that is on the CD. It just shows the different moods.

It reflected me, because I started out playing very early with a rhythm and blues band [lead by] Joe Morris, a trumpet player from Lionel Hampton's band. I was on the road with them, I guess for about a year... in late 47 or 46... back then. You want to know who was in that rhythm and blues band? [grinning and animated] Elmo Hope, the pianist; Philly Joe [Jones] was the drummer, Johnny Griffin was one of the saxophones, and Matthew Gee was a trombone player. Joe was the trumpeter. His brother-in-law, Michael Moore, was a baritone player. It was a full band, man. We went on the road with a show with Wynonie Harris. I made a record with them that was like a mini-hit for Atlantic, [sings] "shake a hand, shake a hand..."

I started out with that kind of background with Joe Jones playing "de-dook-de-dat, de-dook-de-dat, de-dook-de-dat..." that old rhythm and blues beat, man. We had a good time. But I was developing all along, I guess.

I finally got with the biggies in the bebop era. Sonny Rollins. When I first moved to New York he lived over on Sugar Hill, 148th and St. Nicholas Avenue. I got with Kenny Drew and Sonny Rollins. Jackie McLean was a young kid. He used to come up. And Kenny Dorham used to hang out up there. We'd go to Arthur Taylor's house when his mother went to work and jam and rehearse for this $10 gig that we had at the Rockland Palace or something like that. It was a long way getting to be the bandleader [on the new CD][Laughter].


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