Jimmy Heath

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Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath 1998.jpg
Heath in 1998
Background information
Birth nameJames Edward Heath
Also known asLittle Bird
Born (1926-10-25) October 25, 1926 (age 92)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
GenresJazz, bebop, hard bop
Occupation(s)Musician, educator, composer, arranger
InstrumentsTenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute
Years active1940s–present
LabelsRiverside, Limelight, Impulse, Atlantic, Verve, Xanadu, Landmark, SteepleChase
Associated actsHeath Brothers, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Curtis Fuller, Julius Watkins, Nat Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell
WebsiteOfficial website

James Edward Heath (born October 25, 1926),[1] nicknamed Little Bird, is an American jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger and big band leader. He is the brother of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert Heath.


Heath originally played alto saxophone, but, after the influence of Charlie Parker on his work for Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s, he earned the nickname "Little Bird" (Parker's nickname was "Bird") and he switched to tenor saxophone.[1]

During World War II, Heath was rejected for the draft for being under the weight limit. From late 1945 through most of 1946 he performed with the Nat Towles band. In 1946 he formed his own band, which was a fixture on the Philly jazz scene until 1949. John Coltrane was one of four saxophonists in this band, which played gigs with Charlie Parker and also at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Although Heath recalls that the band recorded a few demos on acetate, it never released any recordings, and its arrangements were lost at a Chicago train station. The band dissolved in 1949 so that Heath could join Dizzy Gillespie's band.[2]

One of Heath's earliest big bands (1947-1948) in Philadelphia included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Specs Wright, Cal Massey, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant, and Nelson Boyd. Charlie Parker and Max Roach sat in on one occasion.

Heath was arrested and convicted twice for the sale of heroin; he was an acknowledged addict. The first time, in the spring of 1954, he was sent to the federal Prison Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, where many musicians and celebrities (and other people) were given treatment. After release, In early 1955, still an addict, he was arrested again, and served most of a six-year prison sentence in Lewisburg. He went cold turkey, and was able to spend a lot of his time engaged in music. While in prison he actually composed most of the 1956 Chet Baker and Art Pepper album Playboys.[1] He was released early, on May 21, 1959, and has been clean ever since; conditions of probation made it difficult, but he managed to start rebuilding his career. At a coming-home party the night after his release, he met his eventual wife, Mona Brown, whom he married in 1960; they have two children, Roslyn and Jeffrey.[3]

He briefly joined Miles Davis's group in 1959, replacing Coltrane, and also worked with Kenny Dorham and Gil Evans.[1][4] Heath recorded extensively as leader and sideman. During the 1960s, he frequently worked with Milt Jackson and Art Farmer.[1]

In 1975, he and his brothers formed the Heath Brothers, also featuring pianist Stanley Cowell.[1]

Jimmy Heath composed "For Minors Only", "Picture of Heath", "Bruh' Slim", and "CTA" and recorded them on his 1975 album Picture of Heath.[5]

In the 1980s, Heath joined the faculty of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in the City University of New York. With the rank of Professor, he led the creation of the Jazz Program at Queens College and attracted prominent musicians such as Donald Byrd to the campus. He also served on the Board of the Louis Armstrong Archives on campus, and the restoration and management of the Louis and Lucille Armstrong Residence in Corona, Queens, near his own home.[6] In addition to teaching at Queens College for over twenty years, he has also taught at Jazzmobile.[4] Heath was a recipient of the 2003 NEA Jazz Masters Award.[4] In 2004, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Human Letters.[7]

In 2010, he released his autobiography “I Walked With Giants” (Temple University Press).

Heath is also the father of R&B songwriter/musician James Mtume.[8]


He received Grammy nomination for box set liner notes of The Heavyweight Champion, John Coltrane, the Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino), 1995, Grammy nomination for Little Man Big Band (Verve), 1994 and for Live at the Public Theatre (Columbia), with The Heath Brothers, 1980.


As leader[edit]

With the Heath Brothers[edit]

  • 1975: Marchin' On (Strata-East Records)
  • 1978: Passin' Thru (Columbia Records)
  • 1979: Live at the Public Theatre (Columbia Records])
  • 1979: In Motion (Columbia Records)
  • 1980: Expressions of Life (Columbia Records)
  • 1981: Brotherly Love (Antilles Records)
  • 1981: Brothers and Others (Antilles Records)
  • 1997: As We Were Saying (Concord Records)
  • 1998: Jazz Family (Concord Records)
  • 2009: Endurance (Jazz Legacy Productions)

As sideman[edit]

With Nat Adderley

With Donald Byrd

With Benny Carter

With Stanley Cowell

With Continuum

With Miles Davis

With Kenny Dorham

With Charles Earland

With Art Farmer

With Curtis Fuller

With Red Garland

'With Bunky Green

With Albert Heath

With Elmo Hope

With Freddie Hubbard

With Milt Jackson

With J. J. Johnson

  • All Stars (with Clifford Brown) (Blue Note, 1953) reissued as The Eminent J.J. Johnson Vol 1 (1957)

With Carmell Jones

With Sam Jones

With Herbie Mann

With Howard McGhee

With Blue Mitchell

With the Modern Jazz Quartet

With Don Patterson

With Pony Poindexter

With Julian Priester

With Don Sickler

  • The Music of Kenny Dorham (Reservoir, 1983)

With Don Sleet

  • All Members (Jazzland, 1961)

With Cal Tjader

With Charles Tolliver

With Gerald Wilson

With Nancy Wilson


  1. ^ a b c d e f Allmusic biography
  2. ^ Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. ISBN 9780472101610.
  3. ^ Heath, Jimmy; McLaren, Joseph (2010). I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 80–90. ISBN 978-1-4399-0198-4.
  4. ^ a b c Friedwald, Will (July 19, 2010). "A Jazz Colossus Steps Out". The Wall Street Journal. New York: Dow Jones & Co. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved July 20, 2010.
  5. ^ "Picture of Heath - Jimmy Heath | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved January 1, 2018.
  6. ^ Berman, Eleanor. "The jazz of Queens encompasses music royalty", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 1, 2006. Accessed October 1, 2009. "When the trolley tour proceeds, Mr. Knight points out the nearby Dorie Miller Houses, a co-op apartment complex in Corona where Clark Terry and Cannonball and Nat Adderley lived and where saxophonist Jimmy Heath still resides."
  7. ^ CUNY.edu Archived September 8, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ National Endowment for the Arts. "NEA Jazz Masters: Jimmy Heath". National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on March 20, 2012. Retrieved July 20, 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  9. ^ Allmusic review

External links[edit]