An AJMF Conversation with Jimmy Heath

“I think that there’s a closeness in our history. There’s a closeness in being dissed by other races of people that’s in common. We have that in common, yeah...”
— Jimmy Heath

National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, Jimmy Heath, who was born on October 25, 1926, has long been recognized as a brilliant instrumentalist and a magnificent composer and arranger. Jimmy is the middle brother of the legendary Heath Brothers (Percy Heath/bass and Tootie Heath/drums), and is the father of Mtume. He has performed with nearly all the jazz greats of the last 50 years, from Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis. 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. During his career, Jimmy Heath has performed on more than 100 albums and has written more than 125 compositions, many of which have become jazz standards and have been recorded by other artists including Art Farmer, Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie J.J Johnson and Dexter Gordon.


Joe Alterman: I was curious when you first became aware of Jewish people and what that meant to you, if anything. 

Jimmy Heath: Well, I lived in a block in Philadelphia, in South Philly, and on the corner where we lived was a Jewish business, a laundry. The son in there was named Boomy. Boomy and I used to play together in the street when we was kids. That's my first dealing with Jewish people. I was maybe 10 to 12 years old, something like that.

I went on the road with a band in Nebraska after I got out of high school, and when I left the band and went back to Philly, I started my own band because I had heard the Dizzy [Gillespie] Big Band. Anyway, on trombone, the first Jewish cat that I had in my band was Joe Steinberg, trombone player, in Philly. The other person was a tenor player who got out of the service. His name was Melvin "Ziggy" Vines. Ziggy Vines. And a guy named Al Steele. I don't know what [religion] he was, but they both were the best white guys around Philly playing tenor saxophone at that time.

I remember Ziggy coming around my house. He liked my sister Liz, very pretty girl. He tried to make out with her.  She was the oldest in the family and was practicing to play piano until she met boys. But Ziggy was a great tenor player around Philly. 

Me and Red Rodney even went to Israel together. We were in a group called “Dedicated to Diz" or something like that. I was shocked when we got to the customs going in. He had family in Israel in Tel Aviv and I thought he would walk right through customs. No, no, they checked him just as seriously as they checked everybody else. 

I went to Israel two or three times. I went to Jerusalem. I went to Tel Aviv, and I went to a kibbutz. We played on a kibbutz. We played there with the Dizzy group with Slide Hampton. But that was later, you know?

Back in Philly around the time we were talking about, I met Joe Segal. His parents had a place on South Street in Philadelphia, some kind of a business. I don't remember what it was, but eventually Joe Segal went to Chicago, and everybody thinks he's a Chicagoan, but I'm probably one of the only guys still living that knows that Joe Segal came from Philly. He has been a jazz club owner in Chicago for the last maybe 50 years or more. He’s had many clubs. He got the NEA award. But he’s still got the club. He's the same age as me. His birthday is before mine, so he had his 93rd already.

Richie Goldberg was an alto player who worked in the gambling casinos in Las Vegas when they used to have bands. Not machines and stuff like they do now. I used to like Richie’s sister Alice. So there was relationships going on in Philly, and then later making the records for [Jewish record producers] Orrin Keepnews and Don Schlitten. 

Ed Levine was a friend of mine who wanted to play and he couldn't play, so he then ended up being…

JA: Was he your manager for a while?

JH: Yeah, he was. Ed is still around. He's big-time now. He and Peter Keepnews and Gary Giddins and them all went to school together out in the West somewhere. Iowa or somewhere like that. Peter and Gary ended up being writers, and Ed got into this business. Well, now he's judging, going around and critiquing restaurants and stuff like that. Ed is a good family friend of Tootie and Percy and all of us.

JA: The relationship between Jews and blacks is a hugely important one that is both extremely prolific, complicated and deeper than it often appears on the surface. Take the band called the Symphony Sid All-Stars, which featured you, Percy, Miles, JJ Johnson, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke. But it was named for the Jewish deejay Symphony Sid…

JH: Well, he had a big rep.

JA: But it wasn’t named for any of the band members and some people today say, "Well, that's just like the Jewish businessman to put his name on the band that he's not in.” What do you say to that?

JH: Well, he had a rep for playing jazz in New York, and that was big. And so he took the band on the road. He loved the music! And he was a deejay. That's his thing. He was a big-time deejay, a jazz deejay, bigger than anybody else in the country for playing jazz! 

There were guys in Chicago, I remember deejays in Chicago and stuff, but Symphony Sid was like the one that everybody talked about, because he was in New York, the jazz capital of the world.

JA: I found a quote from Cedar Walton where he said that he was in heaven when he heard Symphony Sid say his name on the air, even when he mispronounced it.

JH: It got the audience, so we laid with it.

JA: So it was okay?

When we went to Europe with the Clark Terry Band [1974], [Jewish saxophonist] Arnie Lawrence and I decided to be roommates. When we went to Germany, man, Arnie was nervous. He was scared about everything. I said, ‘Now you know how I feel in America. It’s not comfortable, is it?’” 

JH: It was okay, and we all could accept when we went to Cleveland, Ohio, or someplace like that, and the brothers from the hood came out to hear the jazz, and a brother asked me, "Well, who's Symphony Sid?" 

I said, "He's the deejay." 

He said, "Well, what does he play?" 

I say, "He plays records. He plays us on the air!” 

Some of the people who came out to hear the music wanted to know why his name was up there. Others knew that it was a Symphony Sid thing. And Symphony Sid I think had a black woman. I do know George Wein had a wife, Joyce, who was black.

Now, Rudy Schramm. That's my teacher. Schramm is German Jewish, and he was my orchestration teacher for two years. He taught on the eighth floor in Carnegie Hall. He also had a column in the Allegro magazine, the union paper in the New York 802, about the Schillinger System. 

He was a teacher at NYU, and he was a very nice man to me. He said, "I like you because you work very hard on everything." When you give me an assignment, I'm going to work on it, because I wanted to learn how to write for strings and all of that. I'd already been writing on records before I ever studied anything with him, so I could write in a big band, but I wanted to write for symphony orchestra, so I studied with Schramm for two years. Schramm told me that one of his students was…the old man who lived to be 100?

JA: Eubie Blake?

JH: Eubie studied with Rudolph Schramm. I'll tell you who else - the guy that played saxophone with Cab Calloway. And I think Mercer [Ellington], Duke’s son, studied the Schillinger System, which is still going. Some of the avant-garde cats like Muhal Richard Abrams and other cats like Charles Stepney, who wrote all the horn parts for Earth, Wind and Fire, used to carry Schillinger books around all the time.

Everybody was aware of the Schillinger System. The Schillinger System is a numeric system, and Schramm himself told me, "Heath, one student came to me one day and said, 'Professor Schramm, would you play something that Schillinger wrote?'" So Schramm played this composition and the student’s like, 'Is that what you're teaching me?’” [expressing distaste] He couldn't use it.

So Schramm, being a teacher and knowing traditional harmony, he mixed the two, traditional harmony and the Schillinger system, and he called it the Schramm System.

And it was very practical, you know? You're still doing the same things when you're studying harmony, traditional harmony. But the Schillinger System, it affords you ways of, to me, numerically looking at things from a number system, and then you can figure out things…You could figure out if you say “Giant Steps,”…okay, when you go from a root chord to a minor third to a fourth and to the minor thirds, you can figure out things, and that is good for connecting sections.

My first extended piece when I was studying with Professor Schramm was the “Afro-American Suite of Evolution.” I wanted to start out with drums from Africa when we were being brought over here as slaves, and then we got here and went into the field hollers. We all ended up working in the field. Then we go into the church, then we go into the ragtime, then we go into the boogie-woogie or something, then we go to the swing, and we go to bebop, then we go to the avant-garde, so I tried to cover the whole thing. I wanted strings in certain sections, and the choir, and the crossing section with the strings, so I studied with him for two years.

The Schillinger System is very useful in orchestrating, if you're going to connect. If I want to connect a blues section to a ballad section or something. “I've got this interlude and you know,” with the numerical [system], you can do all kinds of stuff. I say, "Oh man, maybe I'll go in fourths, and maybe I'll go whole steps, and I'll get there," you know? It's like I've got this right here [pointing to sheet music on his desk], one of my tunes. I'm in D flat. I go to E flat and go back and all this, you know? It helps with your transposition and numerical. That's what it is. Schillinger is a numerical system, and it's still around.

JA: When I look at the Jews that were in the music business, although it‘s important to keep in mind that they did have a business to run and keep open, it often feels like a balance between being good businessmen and being greedy.

JH: Yeah, yeah. There were some gold diggers. And some other people that are really artistically connected. Some are financially connected, and some are philanthropists such as Daphne Orenstein, and Maria Fisher. Now Maria Fisher is the one…she was a member of the Beethoven Society, but she loved Monk's music, and she's rich, and she helped to start the Thelonious Monk Institute. 

JA: I was curious what you thought of someone like Irving Mills. While he puts his name as co-composer on Duke Ellington pieces that he didn’t compose, Duke is quoted saying, "He always preserved the dignity of my name." Cab Calloway said, "He broke so many barriers for us that you couldn't count them." So it's like a balance between doing really good stuff and kind of shady stuff.

JH: Well, they were making money off of the art, but they also had the ability to present the art to more people. It's a give and a take. You know, if you ain't got nobody to put it out on the market, and you've got all this great music and nobody hears it, what the hell is happening? If the people have the connections with the general public, you know, you've got to take the…and they’ve got to make some money out of it. That's how I like to figure those.

JA: I found this quote from Ben Sidran [There Was A Fire: Jews, Music And The American Dream] I wanted to read to you. I'm curious if you would think this is a good sum up, in a way. It says, "The Jews preserved the roots of black American culture. These small independent labels were responsible for preserving a huge spectrum of American music, from Thelonious Monk to Muddy Waters, and in the process helped elevate American street life to the realm of high art. And not just the manufacturing and marketing of this music was in Jewish hands. For example, bebop was difficult for many jazz fans to comprehend, but Jewish writers such as Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler and Nat Shapiro took up its cause, explaining to the average fan just why this new music was important, while Symphony Sid similarly championed its cause." So it's like preserving and championing. Would you agree with that?

JH: Yeah. Yeah. I would have to. If I didn't have Orrin Keepnews to record me and put my record out, then I wouldn't have been nothing. 

Here comes two companies in my lifetime that tried to…black companies, and they didn't do well. They didn't have the connections. About the biggest word in any language is connections, and there are all kinds of connections, good and bad. But the connections to the world, a lot of the Jewish people had the connections in the movie industry and everything, you know?

And sometimes they would present stuff that was very degrading, but we had to go through a period. It became different along the way, and now up until this guy Trump took over, and now he's trying to turn the clock back. But you know, in my life, I owe so much to Dr. Howard Brofsky, jazz trumpet player, and Maurice Peress. They're both Jewish friends of mine forever. They're the ones who got me a gig at Queens College as a professor. I had done one year or so up in Connecticut, Housatonic Community College up in Bridgeport, and then I did one in City College in New York, because John Lewis was going to teach a semester and then he decided not to and I got a gig up there. From that, I got the gig at Queens College. Queens College is basically Jewish. Most of the professors at Queens are Jewish.

When I left I made sure that my students got the gig. Antonio Hart, he's been there 18 years now. I was only there 10 and I retired. And I still get a pension from Queens.

JA: That's great. And Howard helped you because you-

JH: They helped me because they knew what I could do. They knew I could do the job, whether I had the documents or not. I didn't have no degrees. I had a degree from life, like what Barry Harris has said, “University of the Streets." But I had a history. I had been everywhere playing around the world when I got at Queens. 

What happened was, and it was very ironic because the Queens College was given control of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives which is around the corner from where I live in Corona now…there was a woman who was the [college’s] president and when she found out [about the development with the Armstrong House] she said [imitating a deep southern accent], “Jimmy” - she’s a country lady - “Jimmy, can you get some people to play at Louis Armstrong's house? They're going to name it a national landmark, and Queens College is going to run the institution there." 

I say, "Yeah." So when I called [prospective performers], all I had to do was call and say "Louis Armstrong” and they’d say “Yeah.” This is 1987. I called Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Clark Terry, Red Rodney, Wynton Marsalis, Jabbo Smith. It was big. Then, on top of that, I called Dexter [Gordon] because he had played with Louis in Louis’ band. I called Illinois Jacquet. 

When I got all them people for this night to show at the Armstrong House and make their appearance, all the press and all of that…when I came up for tenure…I was a tenured professor from then on.

JA: I know you made Queens College a destination for jazz students.

JH: Well, I was there. Antonio [Hart] now has been there ... Then [Michael] Mossman, I got him in later, and Sir Roland Hanna, I got him there. Now as far as…that’s the important ones in my life as far as getting me in the educational field at a high level. And there ended up being a masters' in jazz performance. A masters' degree!

JA: Did you ever meet Louis Armstrong? He had some deep Jewish connections. 

JH: My experience with Louis Armstrong was at a club they had in Harlem, up around 126th and 7th Avenue or something, and we were playing in there, me and Blue Mitchell, and Louis Armstrong came in. Louis Armstrong said, "You guys are cooking up there." Then he says, "I just got out of the hospital. They wiped my ass and everything." I'd never met him before and he dropped that one on me.

Okay, so now these other people…Stan Getz, I know him from performing and using dope together. Who else now? Maria Fisher and Daphne Orenstein, I mentioned. Now this guy is over in Jersey, Tim Newman, a trombone player. He's at William Paterson [University]…Dr. David Dempsey. They run the jazz program and I play over there all the time. Then I've got [Bob] Brookmeyer. He was a great ... He and Clark [Terry] recorded “Gingerbread Boy”, and they called it “The Gingerbread Man” or something, I don't know. Another one of my friends, he just sent me an arrangement he did, he's just trying, starting to write big band music, Michael Weiss. Michael Weiss is a friend of mine, and my Jewish connection. David Schroeder?

“Well, they were making money off of the art, but they also had the ability to present the art to more people. It’s a give and a take. You know, if you ain’t got nobody to put it out on the market, and you’ve got all this great music and nobody hears it, what the hell is happening? If the people have the connections with the general public, you know, you’ve got to take the...and they’ve got to make some money out of it. That’s how I like to figure those.”

JA: Yeah, NYU! 

JH: Rob Schneiderman. Man, that boy can play. He did something else, though. He's doing something else now, Schneiderman. But yeah, he's a good friend. I played with him out in San Diego. He was out there.

JA: I read where one of the highlights of Mezz Mezzrow's life was when he got put in the colored wing of the jail he was thrown into. He often described himself as a link between the races. Leonard Chess grew up in Chicago's “Jew Town", which was considered a buffer zone between the white neighborhood and the black neighborhood. And then Charlie Parker successfully convinced club owners and audience members that Red Rodney was an albino, and had him sing the blues. And then I've heard it argued that Benny Goodman was able to serve as a cultural bridge between both the black and white musical worlds, because he like many other Jewish artists was able to understand both. It seems like from these quotes there's like a scale of white to black, and Jews are somewhere in the middle. Is that true? You know what I'm trying to say? It's a …

JH: Yeah, yeah, but you know, there's another guy, Fields his name was. Played with Lionel Hampton, and when he went down South he'd put on pancake makeup and shit. And would be disguising himself as ...Yeah, because he's a white guy.

JA: Well, is it weird? Like when Mezz Mezzrow says, "I'm a link between the races," is that offensive or is that true?

JH: If he felt that way himself?

JA: Yeah. 

JH: Yeah, I can't deny that. 

I think that there's a closeness in our history. There's a closeness in being dissed by other races of people that's in common. We have that in common, yeah…

What the Nazis did to the Jewish people, what these people do. When we went to Europe with the Clark Terry Band [1974], Arnie Lawrence and I decided to be roommates. When we went to Germany, man, Arnie was nervous. He was scared about everything. I said, 'Now you know how I feel in America. It's not comfortable, is it?’” 

Arnie ended up splitting and moving over to Jerusalem, and he was trying to get people together over there.

JA: Have you ever listened to any Jewish cantorial music?

JH: I guess so. I've heard it. I didn't know what it was called. I've heard Jewish music.

JA: I found this quote from Ornette [Coleman]. He says, "I was once in Chicago and a young man said, 'I'd like you to come by so I can play something for you.' I went to his basement and he put on the Cantor Josef Rosenblatt and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying all in the same breath. I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't find those notes. Those are not notes. They don't exist.'" When I hear that, I think of Billie Holiday. I feel like there's a commonality between cantorial music and Billie Holiday.

JH: Well, she had a style that was crying. She was crying from love lost. “My man don't love me, treats me oh so mean,” [singing] and all that kind of stuff.

JA: I heard historian Lewis Erenberg compare it. He said there's a shared history of oppression as well as a common use of the blue note and the wail. He said that the blue note and the wail makes Jews and blacks natural allies in the music world.

JH: Yeah. 

JA: I found this Stan Getz quote. He said, "Every time I try to play black it comes out sounding Jewish.”

JH: Yeah, Getz has got a crew with him. Yeah, my brother Percy was going to kick Getz's ass when we went to Cuba. 

When we went to Havana, Cuba, Columbia Records put an all-star jazz band together with was everybody that was on the label. Hubert Laws on the flute, Tony Williams on the drums, my brother Percy and myself, because my brother Tootie had split, Willie Bobo. “Silly Bobo” [laughing]. We had Dexter and Getz and me, and they had Arthur Blythe, alto player from the San Francisco area. “Black Arthur”, they called him, and Cedar Walton, and Woody Shaw. So when we got down to Cuba, it was funny. There was a couple of Cuban guys, reporters or something, and they came up. "Oh, where's Mr. Getz?" That was the first person they asked for. I said, "That's him, that tall guy over there." They went over to Dexter. They say, "Mr. Getz?" And Dexter [laughing]…

I remember Lester [Young] said, “What do cats say about Stan Getz and Lester Young?” He says, "What Lester plays, Stan gets!”

Stan was a great saxophone player, but he was kind of arrogant. He got a lot of respect. He made a lot of bread, and some of us weren't making that kind of money. You know, we objected to the fact that we created the music, and the white guys make more, you know?

So you know, but that was the way the country is, and it's still like that. You know, Trane didn't make all that money until he died, then his family and him got ... He made a reputation, super, super, super. You know, but I mean, we make a living, man.

I don't need nothing. I've got enough to last my few years, what I've got, whatever I've got left. We made money, but the fact is that jazz music was put on the back burner. 

JA: How about Benny Goodman being named the ‘King of Swing’?

JH: Oh yeah. But he wasn't. Basie was the King of Swing.

JA: I love that Benny Goodman desegregated his bands.

JH: Benny was cool. Sure, he was cool, but I like Artie [Shaw] better. I liked his Gramercy Five. Artie had a warmer clarinet style.

JA: There's a lot of Jewish booking agents, record producers, concert promoters, club owners, managers, critics, composers and musicians. But when you think of Jews in jazz, what component do you think was most significant, or does it all go together?

JH: I like some of the arrangers and composers. The writers, the composers, I like that side of the music as well as performance. Individual performances, you know? 

I don't know if he was Jewish, man, but I liked Zoot Sims better than Getz. I liked Zoot's warmth in his playing, man.