Jimmy Heath, a professional jazz musician for more than four decades, is as firmly rooted in the be-bop idiom as any player active today. But he started with earlier forms of jazz.
"I was just out of high school," he recalls, "and me and another saxophone player, a trumpet player and a piano player who played boogie-woogie style used to go over to Jersey and work in this carnival. We were known as the Dixie Red Hots."
The Philadephia-born multireed player remembers neighborhood jam sessions that included saxophonist John Coltrane, drummer Philly Joe Jones (who died earlier this month), and his older brother, bassist Percy Heath of Modern Jazz Quartet fame.
"At times I'd have a whole rehearsal of a big band set up in the living room and people would stand around at the windows and listen from the street. It was very valuable the way everyone wanted the same thing, to get familiar with the repertoire and develop their music. Nobody was thinking about being famous or rich or anything. It was just everybody wanted the music to be right."
Heath will bring his quartet to Woodie's Hilltop Pub Friday and Saturday. Tony Perone will be on guitar, Stafford James on bass and Akira Tana at the drums. The leader will perform on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute.
The roster of Heath's associations is long. There were the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Evans, the combos of Howard McGhee, Miles Davis and Clark Terry, the many groups under his own name and the units he has shared with his brothers Percy and drummer Albert (Tootie) Heath. The unit known as the Heath Brothers folded when the Modern Jazz Quartet reunited last year, taking up Percy's attention, and youngest brother Albert formed his own group.
If Heath's reputation as be-bop blower par excellence is already secure, his role as composer continues to grow. "I first got interested in writing at the time I was with Nat Towles' band, not necessarily composition, but orchestration at that time, and then composition came." Heath had already contributed quite a few tunes to the book of jazz standards, including "Gingerbread Boy" and "Gemini," when he was awarded a New York State Council of the Arts grant in 1974 to work on his "Afro-American Suite of Evolution," which has been performed at New York's Town Hall, the Monterey Jazz Festival and in Winnipeg, Canada.
"I'd like to get it recorded," says Heath of his magnum opus, "but it's a lot of people involved." The piece requires a full orchestra with choir and string section and deals with the entire course of Afro-American music from field hollers to avant-garde.
"Composition is a personal thing," says Heath, "you just have to work hard on it. Then when you get it you realize that somebody already got that song," he says, chuckling, "and then you have to change it. It's like Duke Ellington says, 'All the songs have been written and it's just rearranging it now.' It's almost true."
Heath's faith in the music he has loved for nearly half a century finds expression in his excitement over the youngsters he sees coming up. "I heard a kid recently when I was in Aspen, Colo., doing a big band workshop. He's 14 and he's a great saxophone player. And trombonist Slide Hampton tells me he saw a girl in Sweden that's 9 that could play the trombone like Jack Teagarden and had a concept like J.J. Johnson. So with a few young people like that, this music is going to be here forever."