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The Heath Brothers Are Back Where It All Began

SOURCE: Published: 2009-05-05
Jimmy Heath "THAT'S MY home, man."

Asked what returning to Philadelphia means to him, Jimmy Heath is terse and direct. But it's clear from the finality with which he asserts those words that Heath sees the concept of home as universal and needing little elaboration.

The implications of returning to the place that formed you are too numerous to list in a brief conversation, and so deep that his tone of voice is enough to make the experience understood. The same can be said for family, and when the legendary saxophonist returns to perform at Rutgers this week, at his back, as he has been so often throughout their lives, will be brother Albert “Tootie" Heath, manning the drums. The difference these days is the absence on the bass of oldest brother, Percy, who died in 2005.

“We miss him all the time," Jimmy said from his home in Queens, N.Y. “At first it was very difficult. There's nothing like a brother, and he was the elder statesman of the family."

The remaining Heath Brothers are going strong, the quartet now completed by bassist David Wong and longtime pianist Jeb Patton. They'll soon release their first CD without Percy, “Endurance." It's an apt title, one that addresses the brothers' long history, their survival of the vicissitudes of the music industry over more than a half-century, their continued strength in the face of loss and changing tastes - and it does all that in one word, typical of Jimmy Heath's understated personality. Speaking to the brothers, even at the ages of 82 and 73, living on opposite coasts, Jimmy and Tootie fall easily into their older brother/younger brother roles.

Jimmy is pensive and authoritative, the obvious leader, a role he has long fulfilled as the most prominent composer, arranger and bandleader when the brothers team together.

Tootie is more open, casual and jocular, quick to defer to his elder siblings while supplying their propulsive backing. The Heaths grew up in South Philly, first on Gerritt Street and later a few blocks away on Federal, where they were inundated with music from an early age.

“My entrance into music had no beginning and no end," recalled Tootie from his home in Altadena, Calif., just outside Los Angeles.

“Ever since I can remember, my parents played the wonderful music of the '30s and '40s on a windup Victrola in the house, and I heard Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Dinah Washington, Marian Anderson, the Five Blind Boys. I had the best teachers in the world, from my mother and father to both my brothers."

“When I started, there was a lot of music in Philadelphia," Jimmy said, rattling off a list of players he saw at area clubs. His own contemporaries included fellow tenor giants John Coltrane and Benny Golson, both of whom played in Heath's big band in the late '40s. “We were close to New York, and the hip music came to Philly. And we wanted to be like them."


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