Percy Heath

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Percy Heath
Heath performing in New York City, June 1977
Heath performing in New York City, June 1977
Background information
Born(1923-04-30)April 30, 1923
Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedApril 28, 2005(2005-04-28) (aged 81)
Southampton, New York, U.S.
GenresJazz, cool jazz
Instrument(s)Double bass

Percy Heath (April 30, 1923[1] – April 28, 2005)[2] was an American jazz bassist, brother of saxophonist Jimmy Heath and drummer Albert Heath, with whom he formed the Heath Brothers in 1975. Heath played with the Modern Jazz Quartet throughout their long history and also worked with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk and Lee Konitz.


Heath was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, United States, and spent his childhood in Philadelphia.[1] His father played the clarinet and his mother sang in the church choir. He started playing violin at the age of eight and also sang locally. He was drafted into the Army in 1944, trained with the Tuskegee Airmen, graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant pilot,[3] but saw no combat.[2]

Deciding after the war to go into music, he bought a stand-up bass and enrolled in the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia.[2] Soon he was playing in the city's jazz clubs with leading artists.[1] In Chicago in 1948, he recorded with his brother on a Milt Jackson album, as members of the Howard McGhee Sextet.[1][4] After moving to New York in the late 1940s, Percy and Jimmy Heath found work with Dizzy Gillespie's groups.[2] Around this time, he was also a member of Joe Morris's band, together with Johnny Griffin.

It transpired that other members of the Gillespie big band, pianist John Lewis, drummer Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, and bassist Ray Brown, decided to form a permanent group; they were already becoming known for their interludes during Gillespie band performances that, as stated, gave the rest of the band much-needed set breaks – that would eventually become known as the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ).[1] When Brown left the group to join his wife Ella Fitzgerald's band, Heath joined and the group was officially begun in 1952, with Connie Kay replacing Clarke, who left in January 1955. The MJQ played regularly until it disbanded in 1974;[2] it reformed in 1981 and last recorded in 1993.

In 1975, Percy Heath and his brothers formed the Heath Brothers with pianist Stanley Cowell.[1] He would sometimes play the cello instead of the bass in these later performances.

As a sideman, Percy performed on approximately 300 recording dates in a career of over 57 years.[5]

In 1989, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.[6]

In 2003, at the age of 80, Heath released his first album as a leader through the Daddy Jazz label.[2] The album, entitled A Love Song, garnered rave reviews and served as a fitting coda for his illustrious career. It featured brother Albert Heath on drums, bassist Peter Washington and pianist Jeb Patton.[7]

Percy Heath died, after a second bout with bone cancer, two days short of his 82nd birthday, in Southampton, New York.[2] The month after his death, bassist William Parker recorded the tribute album For Percy Heath.

Heath was an avid striped bass fisherman, and surfcaster, who could be found on many a day, along the surf line of his beloved Montauk Point. He was well respected by the community, and his fellow fishermen. He also relished time away from the stage on his fishing boat, appropriately named "The Fiddler" kept in Montauk as well.On May 27, 2006, a plaque was set into a 5,000lb stone, at Turtle Cove, at Montauk Point, as a memorial. The ceremony was attended by his wife June, and three sons. [8]


As leader[edit]

  • A Love Song (2003), with Jeb Patton (piano), Peter Washington (bass), Albert "Tootie" Heath (drums)

As a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet[edit]

As sideman (partial list)[edit]

With Cannonball Adderley

With Nat Adderley

With Paul Bley

With Clifford Brown

With Ruth Brown

With Kenny Clarke

With Miles Davis

With Paul Desmond

With Art Farmer

With Stan Getz

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Benny Golson

With Dexter Gordon

With Urbie Green

With Albert Heath

With Jimmy Heath

With Elmo Hope

With Milt Jackson

With J. J. Johnson

With Duke Jordan

with Lee Konitz

With John Lewis

With Howard McGhee

With Wes Montgomery

With Sonny Rollins

With Michel Sardaby

  • Night Cap (Sound Hills, 1970)

With Zoot Sims

With Kai Winding


  1. ^ a b c d e f Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Who's Who of Jazz (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 196. ISBN 0-85112-580-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Percy Heath | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved July 28, 2021.
  3. ^ "Tuskegee Airmen Pilot Listing". Tuskegee University. Retrieved 2023-01-19.
  4. ^ Milt Jackson discographyThe Howard McGhee Sextet with Milt Jackson - Howard McGhee, Jimmy Heath, Milt Jackson, Will Davis, Percy Heath, Joe Harris, (Savoy MG 12026)
  5. ^ "BROTHERLY JAZZ / THE HEATH BROTHERS DVD". Retrieved July 28, 2021.
  6. ^ Frank Grace. "Jazz bassist Percy Heath succumbs to cancer". Retrieved July 28, 2021.
  7. ^ "A Love Song - Percy Heath | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 28, 2021.
  8. ^ "A tribute to Long Island legend Percy Heath". Archived from the original on 2012-09-04. Retrieved 2012-01-19.

External links[edit]