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Albert "Tootie" Heath: Class Personified


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Jazz has moved on, hip-hop has moved on and pop has moved on. It goes on. I'm happy to be here, able to do what I do.
—Albert "Tootie" Heath
This article was first published on All About Jazz on March 9, 2015.

Albert "Tootie" Heath is among the drummers who lived—and thrived—during what many call the golden age of jazz, the '40s, '50, early '60s. He's enjoyed the fruits of a varied and historic career, but never stayed put. Just kept working. He admires the musicians of today and the direction of jazz. The Philadelphia native extols hip-hop for its status in today's music world. On the way to age 80 at the end of May, he is still growing and learning.

The youngest of the famed Heather brothers [bassist Percy Heath is the oldest, followed by saxophonist/composer Jimmy Heath], and the drummer for the renowned Heath Brothers quartet, has an open mind and a big heart. Friendly and affable, it seems he would be hard-pressed to say a bad word about anyone. It's the way he was raised, in Philadelphia in a close family. He also lived in Europe for about a dozen years, as an artist in a living, breathing art form where people's attitudes toward such were different; more respectful.

Heath is a positive person; forthright, jovial and intelligent. He has confidence, but no destructive ego. And, like his brothers, he doesn't lack for stories and has a sparkling knack for telling them. He watched Charles Mingus box someone's ears in a nightclub, and saw Thelonious Monk's artistry and antics at the iconic Five Spot, among so many other experiences.

Listening to his new CD, Philadelphia Beat, and the resourceful intricacy he brings to each of the 12 tunes with bandmates Ethan Iverson and Ben Street, one is hard-pressed to think this drum master is still learning. But his open attitude, musical curiosity and ability to see a bigger picture won't allow him any other recourse. The next time he plays, he'll be in the moment, reacting to what's there and trying to give it a twist that was unforeseen. That's the way he still does it. It stems from the world in which he grew up as a young man and young musician in the fertile Philadelphia scene, with the cream of New York's crop.

"I had the opportunity to play with some of the greatest people," says Heath of the period decades ago. "During that time, those people were not really considered great. They were just good players. John Coltrane was not the Coltrane he was when he died. Sonny Rollins developed into the icon that he is. Ornette Coleman was around. I never got a chance to play with Ornette, but I played with Don Cherry. I wanted to play with Ornette but I never got the opportunity."

He chuckles before adding, "But he's still around, so maybe it will happen."

Today, he's still playing with vital musicians. Philadelphia Beat is the third recording with Iverson and Street. It was recorded in Philly and consists of a variety of styles and songs from disparate eras. Monk's ""Bye Ya," Milt Jackson's "Bags Groove," Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," the pop song "I Will Survive" and even a Bach tune, "Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns DieStimme." Heath's drumming is full of dexterity and taste. His ears are open. He both reacts and directs. He swings and uses an array of devices some of which would confound younger players, if not at least bring appreciative smiles to their faces. Sometimes he can be so old school, he's new again.

"It brings out a whole other aspect of my growing. Ethan and Ben are guys that have taken me on a little different journey," says Heath from his Santa Fe, New Mexico home where he moved last fall from Los Angeles. "It's getting to be more and more exciting. I'm allowed to explore and do different things. At almost 80 years old, I've got an opportunity to dig deep in myself. Even play a few of my own compositions and things that I don't get chance to do. Since Percy died, Jimmy has become the musical director of the Heath Brothers. He plays his own music. I don't blame him... It's fun. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying I get the chance to do a lot of things Ethan and Ben Street that I don't do with my brother."

The drummer doesn't pick all the music for the recordings. Some stuff is discussed among the group. Suggestions might be made and Heath will have the final say. Then they go to work on them. They don't over work them. The band is tight, and because of that, they feel free to be themselves and to reach for things—something Heath has always admired in musicians.

"The three of us have found each other musically. We are exploring things that we haven't done before," he says. "Ben has a reputation as a guy that's the avant-garde groups' choice. He's kind of known for that. And Ethan is known for the music of the The Bad Plus. When we get together, we don't play any of that. We don't play any Bad Plus. We don't play any Heath Brothers. We don't play any of the Andrew Cyrille music that Ben plays. We do our own stuff and it's really fresh."

The group did a tour last rummer and hopes to get a string of concerts going later in the year. [The played the Village Vanguard in early March]. When they hit the stage, "We have a spontaneous performance. It's all about improvisation. We improvise with our music as well as our arrangements and everything. Everything is improvisation," Heath says.

That quality is freshness is something Heath values. When the aforementioned Ornette Coleman burst onto the New York City scene more than 50 years ago, Heath was there. That music, not based on chords or melodies, baffled some and irritated others. Some slowly came around to appreciate it. Heath was right there in the room. His attraction was immediate, an indication of his widespread fondness for many genres.

He recalls, "That music wasn't 'outside' to me. It was fresh. It had a wonderful feeling. I loved Ornette and Don Cherry and Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins. They were the most creative young guys to come around at that time. Because everyone was trying to be Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. These guys went in a total different direction. It wasn't that foreign and it wasn't that 'out' to me."

At the time of Coleman's famous Five Spot run that introduced the world's jazz capital to the new, audacious style, Health lived nearby the club. "He played there for a year and people were coming. I lived just around the corner so I used to go in there and listen to those guys. And I loved it. I used to see people like Sonny Rollins hiding in the phone booth listening. Max Roach came in there. Leonard Bernstein. John Lewis and [his brother] Percy from the MJQ. Other people came down there. They were kind of endorsing it, but it took time."

In his early years, Heath also played a prolong gig at the Five spot, in a trio with Roland Hanna and Detroit bassist Ernie Farrow. They played opposite a group led by Mingus for a time, and later the Monk group. He would hear them six nights a week. "With Mingus it was drama and with Thelonious it was drama. The place was packed every night."

Mingus could be volatile, and it didn't matter if it was public or not.

"Mingus had a fight one night with Sunny Murray, a drummer, who was sitting in the back talking one night while Mingus was playing," Heath recounts. His telling is such that one can imagine being seated at one of the tables, the years peeled back and suspended. "Mingus kept looking up to get his attention to see if he would shut up. He didn't, because he was engrossed in conversation. So Mingus put his bass down, walked around the whole club and went behind Murray. He took both hands and hit this guy on both his ears as hard as he could. Of course the club emptied out. Murray took a chair as Mingus was walking away and slammed it across Mingus' back. Most people had escaped by then."

Retribution? Heath slyly recalls, "The next night Mingus brought a big butcher's knife. He threw it down on the stage and he said, 'Y'all think I'm going to let that young man come in here and kick my butt, you're crazy.' He threw the knife down in the stage and that's where it stayed all night. But Sunny Murray didn't come back that night."

"Thelonious, there was always something with him," says Heath. "One night he was back in a chair in the dressing room, which was the kitchen. We were the warmup group. He would come in while we were playing and go straight to the bar and order so many drinks, it looked like he had one on each finger. He would go in the kitchen and drink that. One night, he drank them all. I don't know what he had before he got there, but it was a bit much. He was asleep in the chair. Mr. Chan, he was the chef. He never said anything. He wouldn't even speak to us. He would be cooking and busy. This night he turned and looked at us—Thelonious was sitting in the chair, asleep and it was his turn to go on—and Mr. Chan said, 'Hmm. Look at Mr. Monk now.' That was it. We all just laughed. He woke up and went out and played. Everything was OK... There was always some drama. Nica [Pannonica Rothschild, the famed "jazz baroness"] was there in the front row with her cigarette holder and those perfumes she used to wear. It was a great period."

The roots of the musical Heath brothers, however, was in Philadelphia. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was one of the hotbeds of jazz, and outstanding musicians abounded. But "the root was rhythm and blues. Not necessarily jazz. I played around with a lot of rhythm and blues groups. Bull Moose Jackson. Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Lynn Hope. There was a lot of R&B music. I was influenced because of the popularity of the music and not so much jazz. But the jazz took over. My brother Jimmy was the one instrumental in influencing me to play jazz. Percy was not even playing. He was in the military [Tuskegee Airmen] and he was 13 years older than me. So I was like a pain in the ass little brother."

With brother Jimmy as a guide, Albert listened to Dizzy and Miles and the modern musicians. His brother was also beginning to form and lead his own big band that would start playing the arrangements of Gillespie and other noted bands that were making recordings.

"John Coltrane was in the big band. Specs Wright was the drummer. He had four or five trumpet players. It was a huge band. They'd have section rehearsals in our parents' house because it wasn't big enough to have the whole band in there, 18 pieces or so. So the trumpets would come one day, the reeds the next. The drummer and the bassist would be there a third day. I got a chance to see a couple performances. That was one of the major influences for me to be interested in jazz."

The drummer would hook up with pianist Bobby Timmons, who lived around the corner from the Heaths. Sometimes Jimmy Garrison, who had moved up from Florida, would be the bassist. "There was Lee Morgan also. We had a few gigs together. We played a few bars and Lee was so young. He was 14 or 15. This guy could play, like, man! We were older than him, so we could play in the bars. But Lee's brother used to bring him. This little kid used to come in and play trumpet unbelievable," Heath remembers.

In a group called the Hightones, he with John Coltrane and Shirley Scott on organ and and Bill Carney. They played bars around Philadelphia. Coltrane "was more like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt at that time. He hadn't really found himself yet. I think he found himself when he had Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison and that group. That's when Coltrane really developed. His period with Miles Davis was a little like Dexter. He was finding himself. He was working on it all the time. In Philly at that time, he could play better than most of the saxophonists around. He could really perform."

Carney sang and played some percussion. He was married to Scott at the time and led the band. Says Heath, "Bill used to ask him to get on the bar and honk, like the tenor players used to do in those days. [Called bar-walking tenor, aimed at inciting the crowd]. To get the crowd excited and maybe we could get another weekend in the club. People would come to see this guy get on the bar. And he hated it. But he would get up there and start out with the honking. But then he would go crazy and just start playing. It was so exciting. We did get more opportunities to play in those places over and over again. That group stayed together around Philly for maybe three or four years. "

For a time Heath played in the house rhythm section at the Showboat with guests including Lester Young, Stan Getz and Oscar Pettiford. In Philly's Blue Note he played a week with Monk. There were plenty of gigs to be had and the musicianship was good. But by 1958, at the age of 23, he moved to New York and joined J.J. Johnson's band. It was a move that expanded his career.

But at first, "it was overwhelming," he says. "Number one, I took Elvin Jones' place with J.J. I couldn't believe he called me up to play. He sent me an album to listen to. Of course, I had heard Elvin with J.J. and I was aware of Elvin's creativity and his style of playing. J.J. was wonderful. Elvin got a chance to really blossom. All of a sudden, he was leaving the group. J.J. called me and asked me if i wanted to join. I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Man, what am I going to play after Elvin Jones played all these wonderful arrangements?' I was going to play these arrangements, but it wasn't Elvin Jones. It was me. I had to come up with something. I couldn't do Elvin. So I had to try to be myself. I kind of developed playing with J.J. With Clifford Jordan, Nat Adderley. Freddie Hubbard joined the group. Cedar Walton was there for awhile. McCoy Tyner was there. Tommy Flanagan for awhile. That's where I met Tommy. I ended up playing in Tommy's trio the last years of his life around New York and traveling with him a little bit. I did about the last two years and he got sick after that."

He played around the vibrant scene with people like Herbie Hancock and Barry Harris and Ron Carter, whom he calls "a gentleman, one of the nicest people I know and one of the greatest musicians I know." Another important part of Heath's life, musically and otherwise, was his association with Yusef Lateef.

"He was one of my main influences about religion and being a man and just being positive and very serious about music. I learned all these things from Yusef. He used to encourage us to write and bring some music in for us to play as a group. Kenny Barron was always able to do it. Because of his piano knowledge, it was easy for him. I did come up with a few songs and Bob Cunningham as well. Some of it is recorded and some of it is not. But I learned so much."

Lateef encouraged the drummer to join his arrangement class, where he learned about atonal music and things like tone poems. The saxophonist/flutist/composer's focus impressed the young drummer.

"He was studying for one of his doctorate's at the time, I believe from NYU. We were playing at Slug's on the lower east side. It was a popular place. There were no dressing rooms. It was a bar. It was a joint. On his break, he would be sitting at the piano, working on his dissertation. After the break was over, he would be ready to play the next set. At intermission, we would be fooling around at the bar, talking to people, running around in the club. Yusef would be very serious and very dedicated and focused on doing what he was doing. He wrote his dissertation in Slug's. That was one. Then he got another doctorate at University at Amherst. He went to mecca three or four times and became al-Hajj, which is a high position in Islamic religion. He became al-Hajj Dr. Lateef. This guy was achieving unbelievable things at the age or 60 or 70. He was wonderful."

During this segment, late 1960s and into the 1970s, Heath moved to Sweden. But Lateef kept him in the band, where Heath would join European tours and sometimes travel back to the U.S. to do gigs. "I did that for quite a few years. I lived in Sweden and came back every summer and played with Yusef. That was 11 or 12 years of my life. It was wonderful."

His jump to Sweden was prompted by a trip he made with George Russell, Garnett Jnr Brown, Joe Farrell, Don Cherry and Cameron Brown. They were in he midst of a tour when a club owner asked heath if he wanted to be in the house band, playing with musicians that would come in to headline, including luminaries from the U.S. Heath bit. He returned to New York to pack. he spent the next seven years mostly in Sweden and the four after that in Denmark.

"I played Montmartre [Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen] with everybody. Sonny Rollins, Yusef, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Don Byas. You name them. Everyone that came to Denmark, I played with them. Myself and Neils-Henning [Orsted Pedersen] and Kenny Drew in a trio."

He was back in the U.S. in the '70s, and continued to prosper. Among the things he was able to do was play with the Modern Jazz Quartet, a famous group where his brother Percy played bass and pianist John Lewis was a dominant voice. "That was their final year. I traveled with them for one year. We went all over the world. China. Eastern Europe. Brazil. California to New York. That was it. They disbanded after that... Playing with my brothers was amazing. Percy at one time was busy with the MJQ, so we didn't have him all the time. Then when MJQ decided they had enough, Percy was with us totally. We had a great time."

Later Albert, Jimmy and Percy formed the Heath Brothers, a band that had various sidemen in the early years. The Heath Brothers of the late 70s and into the '80s was "the family tree, the experience we had with our family. Our mother and father. We had a lot of stuff in common and we could play together like we knew each other inside and out. It was a great experience." The band would take breaks, but continued regularly as a quartet with Jeb Patton on piano. After the death of Percy in 2005, bassist David Wong has taken up the bass chair for tours.

Heath continues to be a sideman with various artists when he's not playing with brother Jimmy or working with his trio. He also has a DVD project coming out in which he presents the history of the drum. "It's a DVD about some of the people that have gone before me that I respect and have brought along some of the tradition." It will be unveiled in New York City soon, one such event scheduled for the New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music.

"It goes beyond jazz," says Heath. "It starts out in Africa and goes to Puerto Rico with an Indian woman playing bata drums. Then I introduce the swing guys. Then go on to my mentors and people who influenced me, like Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams. I talk about all of these people in the presentation and I show some of the signature rhythms of theirs. It's a demonstration plus a video thing." He hopes to bring it to colleges around the country, where he would present the DVD and also be there to answer questions and lead discussions.

Many of the young drummers are highly schooled, but the historical presentation would help give them a feel for the roots of their instrument. It's valuable even for non-drummers who need to understand how rhythms have developed over time.

But Heath understands that time moves on. Progress is made. Eras disappear.

"I don't live in New York anymore, but when I go back I hear all these new young people that are wonderful. The music has gone totally somewhere else. It's high tech. It's very academic. I always say it kind of left the heart and went to the head," says Heath. "It's good. There's nothing wrong with that. It has to move. We're sending letters from our wristwatches now. So how can we have music that's not advanced and technical?"

Many drummers don't use older styles in their push for new or genre-bending experiments. That, too, is OK.

"They don't play with people that are old school. So they have to play contemporary. They have to play the music of today. The old school, leave to the old guys... these guys can do more stuff with one hand than I can do with everything. They come and see me and we laugh and talk. They go on and do what they do, and I do what I do. Until I'm dead, and some other guys, the tradition is going to be around. And there's some young people too that want to play in this tradition. But I think music has moved on."

Unlike many his age, Heath believes "hip-hop has played a strong role in helping it move on. Hip-hop is one of the most unbelievable genres. It's worldwide, without any distribution of recordings. It's all over the world. You go to China, you see guys with their pants down on their butts and tattoos on their heads, saying all kinds of crazy stuff and doing hip-hop. I think the music has moved on. Jazz has moved on, hip-hop has moved on and pop has moved on. It goes on. I'm happy to be here, able to do what I do."

Heath observed, and loved, drummers that were younger than him that became highly important, like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. "They were trend setters. Like Elvin. They didn't play like Philly Jo and Max Roach and Art Blakey. They went somewhere different. This is what happens with music. We take what went on before and we enhance it. We develop. We keep growing. That's what's happening now... The young people playing today are well-equipped musicians and they can take the music anywhere they want to take it."

Unflappable, amiable and classy, Heath says simply, "I'm happy that I can still perform and do what I'm doing and be influenced by it. Also maintain my roots and the stuff that I came up with. That's something the young people don't really have because they didn't come up with this. They have something different. I'm happy that I'm able to share whatever it is that I do with what's going on today. I'm very pleased with the music of today."

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