Percy Heath: Walking Bass and Talking True

I’ve lately been enchanted by a couple of Percy Heath features produced by Artists House and posted on the internet. In the first, the great bassist, who’s 91st birthday anniversary is today, discusses a Who’s Who of jazz greats and recalls a wonderful range of experiences with the kind of humor and language that today is widely understood but was once unique to black musicians. Percy’s gratitude and humility for a life fulfilled and well-spent is a joy to hear in itself.  But it takes a special kind of grace to not only survive life in the jazz business, but in Percy’s case, to seek alternatives to dreams deferred by racism and Jim Crow customs.

Percy Heath; photo by Francis Wolff

Percy Heath; photo by Francis Wolff

Music was a prominent part of the Heath household. In addition to singing, Percy played violin through his junior high school years, but he never gained much skill on the instrument and tended to envy bass players who “didn’t squeak.” When he was drafted into the Army in 1944, he trained with the Tuskegee Airmen and flew with the Army Air Forces. The experience inspired his goal of becoming a airline pilot. But the prospects for finding employment in commercial aviation in the ’40’s were slim to none for blacks, so as he relates in these interviews, Lieutenant Heath, a straight arrow military man, decided to follow his younger brother and other hipsters then forging a new course for jazz.

Heath had to find another course when it came to marriage, too. Philadelphia in the late ’40’s was hostile to interracial marriage. so Percy and his beloved June moved to New York in 1949 where they were married.  At the time of Percy’s death in 2005, they’d been married for 66 years.

Percy and Jimmy Heath

Percy and Jimmy Heath

Percy proved to be a quick study as a bassist, and well before he was confident about his knowledge of harmony, he had a strong sense of time and a rich tone that made him in demand around Philly. There he played with his brother Jimmy and other locals, including Clifford Brown and John Coltrane, and with visiting jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. From there it was a few short steps to working with Dizzy Gillespie, and in 1952, Percy joined the Modern Jazz Quartet as it was coming into its formal existence.  (The group had originated as Gillespie’s rhythm section in the mid-40’s with John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, and Kenny Clarke.)   The rest, of course, is history.

Go here for a delightful conversation between Percy, Jimmy and Gary Giddins where the brothers recount their experiences as young jazzmen deeply involved in the world of modern jazz in Philadelphia and New York.

In an earlier post about Lester Young, I recalled the good-natured goofing that Percy did on my name 15 years ago at the Litchfield Jazz Festival.  For the details on what he said “Ol’ Les Young” would have called me, go here.

We’ll hear Big P in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode with his brothers Jimmy and Albert, the MJQ, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, and Miles Davis.

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