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Percy Heath

A Love Song is the fine new CD from legendary bassist PercyHeath on Daddy Jazz Records and, shockingly, the octogenarian’s band leading debut. Brother to saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert"Tootie" Heath, it is no hyperbole to say that Percy has worked with the most important jazz artists of the last sixty years--there's simply no more accurate way to describe a career that includes dates with the likes of Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Miles, Trane and Ornette alongside his long tenures with both the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Heath Brothers. We spoke with Percy by phone at his home in Long Island to talk about the new album and his lifetime of achievement in and out of jazz.

Jazz Review: I've been listening to and enjoying the new CD...

Percy Heath: Oh, thank you.

Jazz Review: And I'm somewhat amazed that it's your first as a bandleader.

Percy Heath: (laughter)

Jazz Review: So I guess the question has two parts, why did it take so long for you to put out an album under your own name, and why now?

Percy Heath: Well, it's coming out now because I had the opportunity to do it now. (Producer)Andy Collins and Bill Siegel asked me to record some of my compositions, and that's how the album came about. Of course, I've made records with other people and as far as being a leader, that doesn't mean too much to me. My name being up above everybody else's,it doesn't matter. You still have to perform on your instrument on any recording. The only difference here on this recording is I got pick the tunes and the people that play with me.

Jazz Review: Right, but one of the things I like about the record is that you really are featured here. The first track ("A Love Song") is an unaccompanied solo, and the rest of the band doesn't come in right away on the second ("Watergate Blues"), setting the tone for the album.

Percy Heath: The first thing you hear is the cello. "A Love Song" is a composition of mine. It also has lyrics and I try to 'sing' it on the cello. But anyhow, that's the opening statement, to identify the recording as being me.

Jazz Review: Right.

Percy Heath: And other than Tootie, I chose the piano player from the Heath Brothers for the last five years, Jeb Patton. The addition of the other bass (Peter Washington) was necessary to give me a chance to play the cello with a rhythm section. All the times I played it on the Heath Brothers' records, I overdubbed it with myself on the bass underneath.

Jazz Review: So, how was it working with another bass player?

Percy Heath: Well, it's fun you know. Another bass player--it's not just another bass player. Peter Washington is quite a young talent. On the suite that I wrote for my father ("Suite for Pop"), it had two different bass lines opposite each other. So to avoid overdubbing and what not, we added the second bass. You know, it's a fugal thing, contrapuntally.

Jazz Review: This kind of leads into your family. You have a very musical family and I understand your father was an important part of all that.

Percy Heath: Oh, my father? He was responsible for us having instruments growing up. (laughter) My father bought instruments for us, when I was about seven years old he bought me a violin. You know, he was a clarinet player and my mother was a choir singer in the Baptist church. So there was music in the family all along, it was in the background we had. We had music in the house all the time.

Jazz Review: And you're still playing music with your brothers.

Percy Heath: I've been playing with my brothers since the (Modern Jazz) Quartet members died and left me here alone. We had a chance in the seventies,too. Milt Jackson wanted to do some other things without the Modern Jazz Quartet, and I had a chance to play with my brothers. Besides, my father had just passed, so the three brothers had gotten together. He'd heard us individually and he was very proud of us, and he was very proud of the fact that I was a Tuskegee Airman. (noise in background) That's my wife June, she's in the kitchen...no, she didn't throw nothing at me. (laughter)

Jazz Review: Well, that's good! (laughter)

Percy Heath: Yeah, I met her in 1947, too, the year after I bought a bass.

Jazz Review: That's a pretty big year...you meet your wife, get your bass....

Percy Heath: Yeah, right, man. I met John Lewis and Milt Jackson, and Ray Brown and Kenny (Clarke) back then, in '46 when I just bought the bass. All my relationships just seem to go on and on and on, man.

Jazz Review: Yeah, I was going to say something about that. It's sort of amazing to think about the MJQ, how long that group lasted with the same musicians.

Percy Heath: That was another partnership, too. That's why I said I didn't have to be a leader. There, we were equally responsible; in the Quartet each person had his responsibility other than playing the instrument. John Lewis was the musical director and wrote most of the music. Mr. Milt Jackson was the vibe-harp player and publicity guy. I was to handle the finances and play the bass, and Connie Kay was, the promoter in England told him (affects upper class British accent) "Oh, you're a Minister of Transport." (laughter) So Connie Kay, he was in charge of getting us where we had to go. And the brothers, we had a few chances to play on recordings back during our other separate careers, and we appeared on a couple of Jimmy's things and one of Tootie's albums as brothers. We recorded some things in the seventies and the eighties as the Heath Brothers and it's always been like partnerships, so I've never been too concerned about being The Leader. (The Modern JazzQuartet) was actually a corporation and everybody shared equally in the finances, and whatever successful things we had. Forty-three years! That's a record, I think, in any kind of music.

Jazz Review: I can't think of another band like that.

Percy Heath: We stayed together because we had built an audience for several generations, and we had an audience that appreciated our style and recognized that. And I hope the Brothers will establish that same rapport--which we have, you know, because it's a family thing. The Heath Brothers really are brothers (laughter) and we have fun playing with each other.

Jazz Review: Any last thoughts on the new album?

Percy Heath: Well, I’d like to mention the beautiful photographs that Carol Friedman took and the excellent packaging by Tina Anderson. The packaging is exceptional and I think they should be credited. And, you know, it’s nice to have done this thing on my own and to be able to play some of my compositions. That suite for my father had never been done in its entirety; I’d done a few pieces of it on a Heath Brothers record.

Jazz Review: It’s a beautiful piece.

Percy Heath: Oh, thank you. It’s just trying to express how I felt when my father died. Then the thoughts of all the good times we had changes the flavor of it. After the initial shock and feeling sadness of it and trying to put that down, to realize the fun we had. It became a joyous celebration to try and celebrate his life and his passing, and what he gave to us. It gives us a chance to expose various feelings and emotions the whole CD sort of gives a variety of music that I’ve been associated with. "Django," the rendition with me playing the melody, is quite different than any of the other recordings.

"A Love Song" at the beginning to play the cello, the jazz cello which Oscar Pettiford started. He had a cast on his wrist, so he couldn’t move his fingers. So he just took a cello, a regular cello, and tuned it like a bass on a recording and kind of messed up all the bass players. (laughter) He had perfect pitch, but some of the other players that tried it later, they shouldn’t have done it. But Sam Jones did a great job with it. And when the Heath Brothers got together, my brothers were doubling on other instruments. So I asked Ray Brown, who had designed this thing and he sent me one, so I had a second instrument. It seemed like an appropriate instrument to play here.

Jazz Review: Percy Heath, thanks for your time.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Percy Heath
  • Interview Date: 2/1/2004
  • Subtitle: Leader
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