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Albert "Tootie" Heath: Class Personified

R.J. DeLuke By

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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
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 Sir 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.
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