Mr. Heath, who was 93, died Jan. 19 at his home in Loganville, Ga., where he had lived for the past three years. The death was confirmed by his daughter, Roslyn Heath, who did not specify a cause.
Mr. Heath was part of a family of notable jazz musicians that included his older brother, Percy, the longtime bassist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and a younger brother, Albert or “Tootie,” a drummer. Beginning in the 1970s, they often performed and recorded together as the Heath Brothers.
Jimmy Heath began his career as an alto saxophonist dubbed “Little Bird,” in part for his stylistic debt to the bebop master Charlie Parker, who was known as Bird, and in part for his 5-foot-3 stature.
In the late 1940s, Mr. Heath led a jazz band in his native Philadelphia that included future saxophone stars Coltrane and Benny Golson. He later joined a groundbreaking big band led by Gillespie, the influential bebop trumpeter Mr. Heath considered his mentor.
“Man, you cannot imagine what those years were like unless you were actually there,” he told Newsday in 1991. “Ideas were bouncing off everywhere at every jam session. You couldn’t wait to hear whatever Bird or Dizzy were doing and how it could inspire you in whatever it was you were doing.”
By the early 1950s, Mr. Heath had switched from alto to the larger, deeper-toned tenor saxophone to forge a musical identity away from Parker’s inescapable shadow.
“I think the saxophone is a very romantic instrument,” Mr. Heath said on “CBS Sunday Morning” in 1996. “The saxophone lends itself to the emotions of the listener. Different saxophones have a different voice.”
In addition to being an accomplished saxophonist, he also became a leading composer and arranger, with several tunes that have entered the canon as jazz standards. His boppish “C.T.A.” first appeared on a recording he made in 1953 with trumpeter Miles Davis, and “For Minors Only” debuted on a 1956 recording featuring trumpeter Chet Baker and alto saxophonist Art Pepper. His 1964 composition “Gingerbread Boy” has been recorded by Davis and many others and may be his best-known tune.
Like some jazz musicians of his era, Mr. Heath became addicted to heroin and in 1955 was convicted of dealing drugs. At a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., he organized a jazz band among the inmates and continued writing music — which he smuggled out through visitors.
After his release in 1959, Mr. Heath said his time behind bars may have kept him alive.
“Prison knocked a hole in my life,” he told the Hartford Courant in 2010. “But in retrospect, it was like a blessing because some my friends who continued to do the stupid thing died young.”
Over the next five years, he released six albums on the Riverside label, including his first as a leader, “Thumper.” Davis wanted him to take over Coltrane’s place in his group, but one of the conditions of Mr. Heath’s probation was that he could not travel more than 50 miles from Philadelphia — a severe handicap for an itinerant jazz musician.
Later, after the restriction was lifted, he worked with leading musicians of the time, including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Art Farmer, as well as vibraharpist Milt Jackson before forming the Heath Brothers band.
“Like his writing, his playing has a candid, sage authority that never calls undue attention to itself,” Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins wrote in 2001. “Its meaning stems from feeling, not technique.”
James Edward Heath was born Oct. 25, 1926, in Philadelphia. His father was a mechanic who played the clarinet, his mother sang in church choirs, and the family often played music at home. He began playing the saxophone in earnest at 14.
“When I was about 15 or 16, I went to hear the Glenn Miller band,” Mr. Heath recalled in a 2007 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “When they put the blue lights on the saxophone section and they played, ‘Serenade in Blue,’ I was in heaven. And I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, and that’s where I want to be, on the stage playing beautiful music.’ ”
After completing high school in Wilmington, N.C., where his family lived before moving to Philadelphia, Mr. Heath became a full-time musician. He moved to New York at age 22.
In the 1960s, Mr. Heath began teaching with the Jazzmobile program, which took musicians into New York neighborhoods. For more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, he led a graduate program of jazz studies at Queens College in New York, where he taught a new generation of musicians.
In later years, Mr. Heath had a career resurgence that included the Grammy-nominated “Little Man, Big Band” (1994) for which he wrote, arranged and performed as a soloist. He appeared on more than 100 recordings and was honored in 2003 as an NEA Jazz Master, one of the country’s highest honors for jazz musicians.
A documentary about Mr. Heath and his brothers, “Brotherly Jazz,” was released in 2006. Four years later, he published “I Walked With Giants,” an autobiography written with John McLaren.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Mona Brown, and their daughter, Roslyn Heath, both of Loganville; a son from an earlier relationship, musician James Mtume; his brother, Albert “Tootie” Heath; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A son from his second marriage, Jeffrey Heath, died in 2010.
Although he was considered a part of the bebop generation, Mr. Heath said he was equally influenced by the earlier swing music of Miller, the Dorsey brothers and the lyrical saxophone styles of Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Don Byas.
“When you hear all these different sounds you incorporate all of them,” he said in the 2007 NEA interview. “You put them in the pot, mix it all up, and you come out with your own sound.”
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