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Percy Heath

Percy Heath is an NEA Jazz Master

The American jazz musician and bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Percy Heath, began his musical apprenticeship in 1946, after Air Force service. It was just the right time. Though the double bass had always been used sporadically in jazz, performers capable of advancing both its rhythmic and harmonic role into a distinctive jazz-bass language were arriving on the scene more slowly than trumpeters, saxophonists or pianists.

But by the 1940s, the place of the bass had significantly changed. Swing specialists like Pops Foster, John Kirby and Walter Page had brought animation, drive and swing - as well as harmonic breadth - to bass technique, and Duke Ellington's young star, Jimmy Blanton, had added a soloistic agility that rewrote the book on the instrument. This was the bass world that Heath entered. His playing became the quintessence of a style that suited the complex demands of a modern jazz ensemble. Like Blanton's successors, Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford - contemporaries on the late-1940s American scene - Heath was precise in his intonation, buoyant and springy in feel and capable of spontaneous counter-melodies that enhanced the frontline's playing. He always sounded as if he was pushing the beat, rather than sitting contentedly on top of it.

If Heath had an advantage in understanding how an instrument designed for a supporting role might best coexist with partners, it was because he was raised in one of the most respected of jazz families (rivaled only by the Jones brothers, Elvin, Thad and Hank). He had worked alongside his saxophone-playing brother Jimmy in trumpeter Howard McGhee's band in 1947, and when youngest brother Al caught up on drums in the 1950s, the three sometimes performed together.

Music had been in the Heath family from Percy's earliest memories. His parents had a gospel quartet, and he began his career on violin, playing in church in Philadelphia, where the family had moved from his birthplace in Wilmington, North Carolina.

After service as a fighter pilot in WWII, Heath began studying double-bass at the Granoff School of Music, Philadelphia. Within months, he was good enough to join the house-band at the city's Down Beat Club, where he met the bebop trumpeter Howard McGhee, who had played with Charlie Parker. By 1947, Percy and Jimmy Heath were touring with McGhee's sextet, and the following year they appeared at the first Festival International de Jazz in Paris.

By the end of the 1940s, Percy had moved to New York, and become a busy freelance bassist. He worked with many of the younger stars of jazz, including Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, regularly appearing with the latter's band from 1950 to 1952. Before the end of the engagement with Gillespie, Heath had made the move that would shape the rest of his career. His principal bass model, Ray Brown, was leaving a quartet led by bop vibraphonist Milt Jackson, with drummer Kenny Clarke and the classically trained pianist, John Lewis.

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