Born in Philadelphia on October 25, 1926, saxophonist Jimmy Heath comes
from two important Jazz families, the one that produced his brothers,
bassist Percy and drummer Al ("Tootie") - and the somewhat larger family
of great Philadelphia saxophonists like John Coltrane, Sonny Fortune, Benny
Golson, Bill Barron and so many more.
Growing up in a musical household where all the children were encouraged
to pursue music, Jimmy took up the alto saxophone at the relatively late
age of fourteen, forming his first band while still in his teens. Like many
young reedmen of that era, he was enamored with Charlie Parker,
preferring his more modern stylings over the classic sound of greats like Johnny
Hodges and Benny Carter.
In 1947, Jimmy moved to New York to join the band of trumpeter Howard
McGhee, switching to the tenor sax following the tradition of the
bop-style tenor of Dexter Gordon. Two years later he began a four year stint with
his idol, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, alongside Coltrane. Here he not
only was featured as a player, but also as an arranger and composer.
In 1955, following the unfortunate malaise that plagued so many of the
post-Parker musicians, Jimmy’s narcotics problem led to his
incarceration for nearly four years, an outrageous reality of the moral hypocrisy
that further victimized such great artists as Gene Ammons and Tadd Dameron.
Upon his release in 1959, Heath briefly played with Miles Davis and
began to receive serious recognition. His composition, 'Gingerbread Boy,'
stayed in Miles’ repertory for many years and is now a Jazz classic. Forming his own group that same year, Heath made a series of fine recordings for Riverside during the ‘60s, establishing himself as one of Jazz’ top saxophonists and composers.
In 1975 he premiered his 'Afro-American Suite of Evolution,' commissioned
by Jazzmobile, for which he also taught for ten years. That same year he
formed the Heath Brothers with Al and Percy, performing together off and
on for many years. In 1988, he began a ten-year tenure teaching at the
Aaron Copland School of Music at New York’s Queens College. Overcoming a bout with cancer, Jimmy continues to perform all over the world with his own groups, most recently including his protégé, altoist Antonio Hart.