Jimmy Heath Celebrates 90 Years with ‘Legendary’ Concert in NYC


Jimmy Heath (far left) conducts a large ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Oct. 21 in celebration of his 90th birthday.

(Photo: Frank Stewart)

Nearing 90, Jimmy Heath remains a vital and vibrant force in jazz, a link to the music’s rich tradition and a beacon into its bright future. On Oct. 21, just days preceding his birthday, the 2003 NEA Jazz Master stepped into the spotlight in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room to celebrate his important legacy in a program fittingly titled Life Of A Legend.

In a decades-long career as a saxophonist, composer, arranger, educator and, more recently, lyricist and author, Heath has a forged a unique path, one marked not only with intelligence and sophistication, but also humility and humor.

Taking center stage to a well-deserved standing ovation, he noted the grandeur of the room and recalled having to wear a hard hat when he first visited the site, then under construction, with his late brother, bassist Percy Heath, and the guitarist George Benson. “So I was here in the beginning,” he said with understandable pride.

The celebrant kicked off the music displaying his considerable talents as an arranger with, as he described it, “a tribute to one of my mentors, Charles Christopher Parker.”

His orchestration of the classic “Yardbird Suite” for the 17-member big band comprised of top-tier instrumentalists started slowly at an easy tempo, with richly harmonized horns drawing out the famous melody, then stepped up into a swinging medium tempo with trombonist Steve Davis’ boppish solo, as Heath led the audience in clapping along to the beat.

Conducting the ensemble with a palpable energy that belied his impending nonagenarian status, Heath threw his whole body into the task, his hips swaying and arms swinging in a veritable dance, signaling reed and brass backgrounds and summoning additional soloists: pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong and altoist Antonio Hart.

After introducing his stirring arrangement of “Till There Was You” with a humorous tale of hearing the song played by the Dorsey band on a visit to the Earle Theatre with fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane, Heath picked up his tenor and launched into the beautiful ballad. His burnished sound drifted airily atop the trombones.

Soloing with unbridled emotion, he made the melody his own, inserting a quote from “On The Trail” that mimicked the sound of a braying mule before closing out with a breathtaking cadenza.

Showcasing the depth of Heath’s compositional skill, Stanley Cowell took over the piano chair to perform a section from The Afro-American Suite Of Evolution, a rag dedicated to Eubie Blake that demonstrated the composer’s mastery of the early jazz form and his ability to make it modern.

After a collegial conversation between Heath and longtime musical associate Slide Hampton—touching not only on their tenures with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Stars and mutual admiration for each other as arrangers, but on the broader topics of family, U.S. politics and Donald Trump—Cowell was joined on stage by fellow veterans Jon Faddis on trumpet, Rufus Reid on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. Also joining the ensemble was young tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, whom Heath introduced as the winner of the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, for which he was one of the judges.

The quintet played a pair of Heath pieces, “New Picture” (the title track of his 1985 Landmark Records album) and “CTA” (the Heath classic first recorded with Miles Davis back in 1953), the former with cool warmth, the latter with fiery exuberance. The composer, casually seated on an adjacent stool, looked on with smiling approval.

On the next section of the ambitious program Heath brought out vocalist Roberta Gambarini, a fellow member of the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, to sing lyrics written to accompany his compositions, including some from their recent release Connecting Spirits: Roberta Gambarini Sings The Jimmy Heath Songbook With The Heath Brothers Band.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Heath updated the arrangements originally written for small group, with fresh orchestrations for big band composed especially for the evening.

Beginning with a new piece, “Moody’s Groove For Love,” the Italian-born singer demonstrated her impeccable tone and diction as she sang the memorializing lyric, engaging in call-and-response dialogue with the band, then swinging mightily, riffing wordlessly behind Heath’s tenor solo wailing during her own scat section.

Heath introduced the ballad “A Mother’s Love” with a thinly veiled reference to an unnamed presidential candidate, then ended the singer’s set with “Life In The City”, a funky narrative number that he conducted after noting, “When you leave New York, you’re going nowhere.”

The show ended with an exhilarating blowout on Heath’s best-known composition, “Gingerbread Boy,” featuring solos by all the horns, beginning with the tenors of Heath, Bobby LaVell and Mike Lee, followed by trombonists Steve Davis, Luis Bonilla, Ron Wilkins and Jeff Nelson, then trumpeters Michael Philip Mossman, Greg Gisbert, Frank Greene and Freddie Hendrix and finally altoists Antonio Hart and Mark Gross with baritone saxophonist Frank Basile.

Solos by rhythm section members Patton, Wong and drummer Evan Sherman ushered in the song’s final rousing chorus. A standing ovation was followed by the spontaneous singing of “Happy Birthday” by the audience and departing orchestra to end the historic evening.

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