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Sax man Jimmy Heath, 80, celebrates jazz and life

Annette John-Hall
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA--There is no historical marker erected at the house on 1927 Federal St., but there probably should be. Because it was there, in Percy and Arlethia Heath's South Philadelphia rowhouse, where jazz superstars mingled.

Ellington. Basie. Bird. Diz. They'd all come to the Heath house after gigs at the old Earle Theatre at 11th and Market, and feast on Arlethia Heath's down-home cooking.

Those visits were heaven for the Heath boys -- Percy Jr.; James, or Jimmy; and Albert, nicknamed Tootie -- musicians themselves. They'd watch their idols in wide-eyed wonder.

Sixty-some years later, saxophonist Jimmy Heath chuckles fondly at the memories. What better way to celebrate his 80th birthday than to come home and jam with young musicians, encouraging and inspiring them just like his heroes did for him?

A member of the renowned Heath Brothers, and a National Endowment for the Arts "American Jazz Master," Heath is a legend now. Mona Heath, 74, Jimmy's wife of 46 years, jokes that the key to greatness is survival because "if you survive, you become one of the great ones."

But Heath's greatness stems from more than reaching octogenarian status. Besides his sophistication on the tenor sax -- "if you know Jimmy Heath, you know bop," Dizzy Gillespie once gushed -- the Grammy-nominated musician has played with such greats as Miles Davis and John Coltrane and is a highly regarded composer and arranger. He recently retired from Queens College, in New York, where he taught master classes for 12 years.

Mona Heath believes that teaching connected her husband to new generations of musicians and kept him relevant. Unlike other jazz musicians who didn't get the recognition they felt they deserved, "Jimmy never felt bitter," she says. "His teaching kept him working hard on his skills."

"When you teach, you learn," Heath says. He's calling from his home in Flushing, N.Y., near Shea Stadium. "I starting teaching in Philly with Sam Reed, who was the director of the band of the old Uptown Theater. (Pianist) Bobby Timmons and (bassist) Jimmy Garrison, they both played with Coltrane. I was one of their mentors. My mentor was Dizzy Gillespie ... It's a continuum, is what it is."

Percy Sr. and Arlethia Heath began the cycle. Jazz lovers, they owned records of all the `30s and `40s big bands. When Jimmy went away to school in Wilmington, N.C., at 14, his father sent him an alto sax.

"At my size (5-foot-3), I was too small to play sports," Heath says. "After my father sent me that sax, that was it."

Back in Philadelphia at age 21, he formed his own big band, whose members included Coltrane, Benny Golson and Ray Bryant. Charlie Parker used to sit in from time to time, and would sometimes borrow Heath's horn (Heath also played alto sax). Parker nicknamed Heath "Little Bird."

But like many contemporaries, drug addiction derailed Heath's career. He served four years and five months in prison from 1955 to `59 for a drug-related transgression he's not willing to discuss just now.

"It's all in the book," he says of his forthcoming memoir "I Walked With the Giants," to be published by Temple University Press. But Heath does say: "That (drug) life will lead you straight to hell."

Once out of prison, he stayed clean and met and married Mona, an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Over the years, he wrote more than 125 compositions, and in 1975 he formed the Heath Brothers.

"Jimmy was always my main influence," says Albert "Tootie" Heath, via telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "He's helped me with composition and harmony ... Any question I had, he had an answer."

At 71, Tootie Heath says, "I always tell Jimmy I want to be just like him when I grow up."

Tootie and Jimmy will reunite next month for a New York gig. Sadly, their brother Percy, who earned acclaim as a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, will not be there. He died of cancer last year at 81.

"We miss Percy," Tootie Heath says, "but we understand things can't stay the same."

And so the cycle continues. Jimmy Heath just finished recording "Turn Up the Heath," which was produced by his son, percussionist James Mtume, who penned the blockbuster hit "Juicy Fruit" in the mid-`80s. Heath plans to do a hip-hop/big band record with his son and grandson, Faulu Mtume, who manages Philadelphia neo-soul singer Bilal.

"That's three generations," Heath says proudly.

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