Born: April 30, 1923 in Wilmington, NC
Died: April 28, 2005 in Southampton, NY
By Todd S. Jenkins
Bassist Percy Heath was the Modern Jazz Quartet’s secret weapon, perhaps the most subtle member of an outfit known for its hip delicacy. An ideal rhythm section partner, and the last surviving member of the MJQ, “Big P” died of bone cancer on April 28, 2005, two days shy of his 82nd birthday.
Heath was the eldest of three musical brothers, the others being saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Their father, a clarinetist, and mother, a church singer, encouraged the boys to pursue music early on. Percy’s first instrument was the violin, which he played until he entered the service. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, based out of the Army Air Corps in Alabama. Following his discharge, Heath enrolled at Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music, where he began playing the bass for the first time.
It didn’t take long for Heath to adjust to the large instrument; soon, in fact, he was gigging around Philly and working as house bassist for the Downbeat club. In 1947 he and brother Jimmy ventured to the bigger streets of New York, where they immersed themselves in the swelling bebop scene. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were among the first New Yorkers to call upon Percy for rhythm support. Trumpeter Howard McGhee hired both brothers and took them to Europe to perform at Paris’ first-ever jazz festival.
In 1950 the brothers joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band, where they met several like-minded musicians. One of them, pianist John Lewis, had recently worked with Miles Davis in exploring a more reserved, cerebral form that was being dubbed “cool jazz”. Lewis was interested in delving further into those ideas with a chamber jazz ensemble, and he asked Percy if he would be interested in joining. The bassist agreed. Vibraphonist Milt “Bags” Jackson and drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke rounded out the first lineup of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which became the principal outlet for the four men’s talents from 1952 through 1974.
In the MJQ Heath’s subtle drive melded beautifully with the drumming of Clarke, and even better with the more pristine Connie Kay who took over the drum stool in 1955. In spirit, if not in melodic leads and composing, Heath was an equal contributor to the all-rhythm quartet, which crafted such timeless tunes as “Django” and “The Golden Striker”. Heath took occasional side jobs, such as his surprisingly effective role on Ornette Coleman’s second album, Something Else! (Contemporary, 1956). He appeared with Jackson on Miles Davis’ Bag’s Groove (1954), graced Sonny Rollins’ The Sound of Sonny (1957), and played on more than three hundred other sessions in the course of his career.
When the MJQ disbanded in 1974, their fortunes wavering, Heath decided to work more with his brothers. The Heath Brothers band was formed soon thereafter, filled out by players like pianist Stanley Cowell and guitarist Tony Purrone (Brotherly Love, Antilles, 1981). Percy became more prominent, taking the lead on certain tunes and playing the cello as a pizzicato instrument as Oscar Pettiford had successfully done in the 1950s. The Heath Brothers continued to tour and record after the MJQ’s much-heralded reunion in 1981. Brother Tootie became the MJQ’s drummer in 1994 after Connie Kay’s passing, but not long afterwards, when Percy announced that he was tired of touring, the legendary quartet was permanently dissolved.
Following his retirement, Heath continued to play at times with his brothers, though most of his days were spent relaxing at his home in Montauk, New York. In 2002 Heath realized the longtime dream of leading his own record date, A Love Song (Daddy Jazz, 2004).
Percy Heath is survived by his brothers, Jimmy and Albert; his wife, June; and his sons, Percy III, Jason and Stuart.