The brilliant careers of Philadelphia's Heath Brothers--bassist Percy, saxophonist/composer/arranger Jimmy, and drummer Albert Tootie"--are traced in Brotherly Jazz
, an absorbing new documentary being released on DVD today. Produced by Danny Scher and directed by Jesse Block, the film features extensive concert footage of the Heaths as well as new interviews with an array of friends and fellow musicians; fascinating archival material about the Heaths' family life and early professional activities; and rarely seen footage of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other bebop figures.
It's a great honor to have something documented on the family, especially now that Percy is gone," says Jimmy of the film. Coming from the same source is a unique happening. Whenever we performed, we always showed the audience that we were a family. All of us played with everybody over the years, but when we played together, it was a happy feeling. The audience could feel it."
The Evolution of Brotherly Jazz
The 70-minute film's centerpiece is a July 2004 concert held at Coventry Grove, a 300-seat amphitheater at producer Scher's Kensington, California home. The occasion was a fund-raiser for Berkeley's Jazzschool, but Scher immediately saw the musical and historical significance of the evening, which turned out to be one of the last times the brothers shared a stage before Percy's death in April 2005, two days shy of his 82nd birthday.
The original intent was just to film the performance," says Scher, but it was Jesse's role as video director of the Monterey Jazz Festival that helped turn the Heaths' performance into a full-fledged documentary. As we interviewed some of the artists performing at Monterey, we realized that there was a bigger story to tell about the Heath Brothers than just their wonderful music. We ended up with a film that not only documents their individual and collective careers, but explores the problems, such as drugs and racism, that they and many of their musician contemporaries faced."
San Francisco-based Jesse Block, with extensive experience as a music video and film director, found the project especially rewarding because it allowed me the freedom to help develop a story and present it in a way that is both entertaining and educational. With most films I direct, it is usually the performance that is most memorable. With this project, it was three equal parts--memorable performance, a loving family, and a rich history--that made it worth all the work we put into it before releasing it to the public."
In a series of revealing interviews in the film, the Heath brothers tell their stories. Percy talks about his stint as a Tuskegee Airman, his bass lessons from Ray Brown, and his lengthy tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Jimmy discusses the painful years he spent in prison and how he definitively turned his life around. And youngest brother Tootie" admits that had it not been for my older brothers, I might have gone astray and become a doctor or lawyer."
Among the musicians interviewed in Brotherly Jazz are Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Taj Mahal, Jack DeJohnette, Christian McBride, and Marian McPartland. Impresario George Wein, producer Orrin Keepnews, and newsman Peter Jennings -- a close friend of Percy's -- also offer reminiscences and observations.
Jimmy & Tootie Heath Today
As he approaches his 80th birthday (October 25), Jimmy Heath is enjoying a much-deserved wave of recognition, with a new big band CD (Turn Up the Heath, on Planet Arts) and a busy performance schedule. He held forth last week at the Blue Note in New York, and will spend his birthday headlining a concert at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. The following day, he'll present a master class for musicians at the Jazzschool in Berkeley.
Jimmy will appear next month (11/09 - 12), with Hank Jones and Ron Carter, at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh, where the film will be screened. Brotherly Jazz premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 2005, and has also been seen at the Mill Valley Film Festival (October 2005), the Miami Jazz Film Festival (August 2006), and the In-Edit Music Documentary Festival in Barcelona, Spain (October 2006).
In addition to continuing his work with the family business, Tootie Heath is involved with an all-percussion ensemble called The Whole Drum Truth, which features master drummers such as Ben Riley, Billy Hart, and Ed Thigpen. As the proverb says, 'Those of us who stand on the shoulders of our ancestors stand tall,'" observes Tootie. I am a person who believes in what occurred before me, the ancestors of my profession, so to speak. I am always getting permission from them before I do any performing. I was fortunate enough to know some of my brothers' mentors, so I could draw on all of that."
As his big brother Jimmy puts it most succinctly, Happiness is the Heath Brothers."
Producer Danny Scher
In 2006, after producing concerts for almost 40 years, including 24 years as an executive at Bill Graham Presents, Danny Scher produced Brotherly Jazz, his first film, which brings him back to his original love of jazz history and music. Danny began promoting concerts while attending high school in Palo Alto, CA in the late 1960s, with artists such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Cal Tjader, Jon Hendricks, and Vince Guaraldi. He went to work for Bill Graham in 1975 after earning an MBA at Stanford, and booked concerts ranging from rock and jazz to stadium events, Broadway shows, and closed-circuit boxing. Since leaving BGP in 1999, he has run his own concert promotion and consulting company, DanSun Productions.
Director Jesse Block
San Francisco-based Jesse Block has been Video Director of the Monterey Jazz Festival since 2003. Prior to that he worked for ten years as a director for Black Entertainment Television / BET on Jazz programs featuring John Lee Hooker, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Milt Jackson, Diana Krall, and many others. In addition to Brotherly Jazz, three of his films have been shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival (Electric Guitarslinger, John Cipollina; 25 Years & Runnin' Live at Sweetwater, Hot Tuna; Strings & Frets Play Great Guitarists). Some of his other credits include Dan Hicks's 60th Birthday Concert Tribute, Todd Rundgren Live from San Francisco, Panasonic Jazz Festival, and the San Francisco Jazz Festival.