"THAT'S MY home, man."
Asked what returning to Philadelphia means to him, Jimmy Heath is terse and direct. But it's clear from the finality with which he asserts those words that Heath sees the concept of home as universal and needing little elaboration.
The implications of returning to the place that formed you are too numerous to list in a brief conversation, and so deep that his tone of voice is enough to make the experience understood. The same can be said for family, and when the legendary saxophonist returns to perform at Rutgers this week, at his back, as he has been so often throughout their lives, will be brother Albert "Tootie" Heath, manning the drums. The difference these days is the absence on the bass of oldest brother, Percy, who died in 2005.
"We miss him all the time," Jimmy said from his home in Queens, N.Y. "At first it was very difficult. There's nothing like a brother, and he was the elder statesman of the family."
The remaining Heath Brothers are going strong, the quartet now completed by bassist David Wong and longtime pianist Jeb Patton. They'll soon release their first CD without Percy, "Endurance." It's an apt title, one that addresses the brothers' long history, their survival of the vicissitudes of the music industry over more than a half-century, their continued strength in the face of loss and changing tastes - and it does all that in one word, typical of Jimmy Heath's understated personality. Speaking to the brothers, even at the ages of 82 and 73, living on opposite coasts, Jimmy and Tootie fall easily into their older brother/younger brother roles.
Jimmy is pensive and authoritative, the obvious leader, a role he has long fulfilled as the most prominent composer, arranger and bandleader when the brothers team together.
Tootie is more open, casual and jocular, quick to defer to his elder siblings while supplying their propulsive backing. The Heaths grew up in South Philly, first on Gerritt Street and later a few blocks away on Federal, where they were inundated with music from an early age.
"My entrance into music had no beginning and no end," recalled Tootie from his home in Altadena, Calif., just outside Los Angeles.
"Ever since I can remember, my parents played the wonderful music of the '30s and '40s on a windup Victrola in the house, and I heard Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Dinah Washington, Marian Anderson, the Five Blind Boys. I had the best teachers in the world, from my mother and father to both my brothers."
"When I started, there was a lot of music in Philadelphia," Jimmy said, rattling off a list of players he saw at area clubs. His own contemporaries included fellow tenor giants John Coltrane and Benny Golson, both of whom played in Heath's big band in the late '40s. "We were close to New York, and the hip music came to Philly. And we wanted to be like them."
It would be impossible to track the three brothers' history in jazz, which encompasses much of the music's history and virtually every major name in the canon. One major name that stands out is Dizzy Gillespie, whose big band employed both the elder brothers near the beginning of their careers, and with whom Jimmy continued to play until the trumpet legend's death in 1993.
Percy, however, split with Gillespie along with other members of the big band's rhythm section to form the Modern Jazz Quartet, the influential group which explored the conjunction between jazz and classical music.
He remained with the quartet for 22 years, then reunited with the group in 1981, playing sporadically for the rest of the decade and into the early '90s. Tootie, being roughly a decade younger than his brothers, has a foundation in hard bop and more modern sounds, with an extensive resumé including stints with J.J. Johnson, the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet, Herbie Hancock and Yusef Lateef. He continues to keep his ear attuned to new sounds. "I'm still interested in the direction of music - I'm speaking of all genres, not necessarily jazz," Tootie said.
"I'm interested in the way that music or art should express the times. I think hip-hop and all of the other genres that have come about after jazz are expressive of what's going on in the world today. We have quite a difficult world right now with wars and the economy; the earth is suffering, so the music has to express that. I'm always aware of these things, and I try to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and present whatever I feel is going on today when I'm given the forum to do that in the form of a drum solo."
Jimmy has long enjoyed a reputation as one of jazz's foremost arrangers, developing from his time with Gillespie to write and arrange for both big bands and smaller ensembles. "They both are desirable to me," Jimmy said.
"The big band is our symphony orchestra. That's the biggest sound we can get. In western classical, they have string quartets and then they have the symphony orchestra. Well, the big band is our symphony orchestra in that we can get all of those small combinations out of it. Ellington had a sextet when he played 'Mood Indigo,' but he'd have the big sound whenever he'd want it. It's the complete musical experience to write and play in a big band."
"I've been growing with my brother Jimmy as a composer and arranger for 50 or 60 years, and watching him develop," Tootie said. "He's becoming more and more interesting as a writer. He's constantly exploring, and I think he's one of the top jazz composers and big-band writers of our time. He's grown tremendously since he had a big band in Philadelphia that copied Dizzy Gillespie."
The Heath Brothers didn't officially form as a unit until 1975, though the three had played together often over the years and of course shared the intuitive camaraderie of siblings.
"The difference in a family situation is like being on a team when you know all of the guys," Tootie said.
"You know where they're going to be when you get the ball. You know everybody's moves. I don't know exactly what Jimmy's going to do, but I understand his path in music, so I'm able to supply him with what he needs and he supplies me with what I need."
"We had a bond," Jimmy said. "When we played, we could hit some real deep grooves because we had the same parents and the same upbringing.
"It adds a togetherness that I never got from anybody else. I think that the audience could tell that we were brothers. We had a lot of fun. We had some disagreements, like all brothers, but there are times when things would get closer than it would be with anyone else." *