R.I.P. Jazz Master James Edward Heath, 10/25/26 – 1/19/20
Jimmy Heath, a prolific saxophonist, composer and bandleader played alongside some of the biggest names of jazz, including Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Heath brought the bebop he loved to big bands — and into the 21st century.
Heath is best known as a saxophonist, but he wrote and arranged music throughout his life. In 2013, when he was 87 years old, he told NPR it was important to be a complete musician. “Not just to stand up and improvise,” he stressed. “You know, you got to compose. I want to be a person who can compose, and leave something here for posterity.”
Heath left hundreds of compositions that were performed by his own bands, and others.
Jimmy Heath developed a big sound on his saxophone. But he was a little man — 5’3″. For most of his life, his colleagues on the bandstand called him “Shorty” and “Little Bird” (a reference to saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was nicknamed “Bird”).
“My father told me about that. He was a small guy,” Heath said. “He says, ‘Jimmy, you just got to work harder as a little person. Because the big guys get all of the girls, and all of the gigs. They get everything. But if you pursue your profession, and music, like I do, every day, just like before you came in here, I was practicing. And things like that, you can overcome these myths.'”
Jimmy Heath had to overcome more than myths. He beat a very real heroin habit, and went on to perform and record for more than half a century. He also taught for 20 years at Queens College in New York. Heath said the reason he was able to do all that was simple.
“I’m going to do this until I leave. This is all I love. It’s a matter of love. If you love what you do, and you can make a living at it, What’s better?”