Jimmy Heath, 93, Jazz Saxophonist and Composer, Is Dead



At Town Hall in 1976, Mr. Heath presented the premiere of his first long-form piece, “The Afro-American Suite of Evolution.” John S. Wilson of The New York Times called it “an illustrative survey for which Mr. Heath showed his versatility by composing segments that caught the spirit of the various periods.” Mr. Heath considered the concert to be a turning point in his career.

The Heath Brothers released their debut album, “Marchin’ On,” that same year. The group featured Percy, who had become one of the world’s best-known bassists through his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet; Tootie, who had recently worked with Herbie Hancock; and the pianist Stanley Cowell. The album included Jimmy’s four-part “Smiling Billy Suite” (dedicated to the drummer Billy Higgins), which laced saxophone, flute and the Central African mbira, or thumb piano, into a viscous groove.

“It was a time of transition in the jazz world,” Mr. Heath wrote in his autobiography. “I was trying to evolve and create music that was acceptable to the generation of the ’60s and ’70s. In fact, I’ve been told by certain people that they started listening to jazz as a result of what the Heath Brothers were recording.”

The band went through a series of personnel changes; Tootie left after two albums and a guitarist, Tony Purrone, came on board, as did Mtume, Mr. Heath’s son, on percussion and vocals. The Heath Brothers’ Columbia album “Live at the Public Theater,” released in 1980, was nominated for a Grammy.

The group went on hiatus in the mid-1980s, after Percy Heath joined a reunited Modern Jazz Quartet, but the three brothers came together again in the late 1990s. Tootie and Jimmy continued to record and perform after Percy’s death.

In 1986, Mr. Heath took over the fledgling jazz program at Queens College, helping to create its master’s curriculum. During his 10 years there, he experienced his most fertile period as a composer of large-scale works.

In 1993, his Verve album “Little Man, Big Band” was nominated for a Grammy. Also that year, he jammed with President Bill Clinton at a White House jazz concert produced by the Thelonious Monk Institute, where he served on the board of advisers.

Mr. Clinton borrowed Mr. Heath’s saxophone to play on a blues and, with Mr. Heath’s help, found the right key. As Mr. Heath recalled in his book, “He stumbled, but he landed on his feet.”

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