Tootie Heath: The Lost Blindfold Test


​Albert “Tootie” Heath with friends en route to a live Blindfold Test at New York University in spring of 2018. From left: Ashley Kahn, Russell Hall, Heath, Jimmy Cobb and Emmet Cohen.

(Photo: Courtesy Ashley Kahn)

Editor’s Note: The following was an assignment that writer Ashley Kahn received not for DownBeat, but for another fine jazz magazine that is currently not publishing — one that had a monthly column that very closely resembled DownBeat’s Blindfold Test. It was never published, so we’ve decided to honor Albert “Tootie” Heath, who passed on April 3, by publishing it here.

It was spring of 2018, and the idea was to pick up drummer legend Albert William “Tootie” Heath at New York’s LaGuardia airport along with pianist Emmet Cohen and bassist Russell Hall, treat them to lunch, and then conduct a Blindfold Test with Tootie for New York University’s jazz program. Cohen helped pull the event together and NYU students would attend. The trio was in the middle of a tour, and the next day they would perform at the Side Door in Lyme, Connecticut, for a two-day run.

What it turned into was a series of unexpected twists and lots of laughter. A traffic snarl in the Midtown Tunnel led us to enter Manhattan far uptown in Harlem, driving directly past the apartment building where Jimmy Cobb lived. And — lo and behold — there was Tootie’s old friend exiting the local grocery store. The impromptu reunion lasted an hour, filled with hugs, storytelling and photo-taking. Lunch included more stories and merriment.

Tootie, then 83, was not unfamiliar with Blindfold Tests. He had done one in 2013. I had prepared a variety of tracks focusing on drummers: Elvin Jones with J.J. Johnson. Bernard Purdie with Yusef Lateef. Philly Joe Jones with Miles Davis. Tootie’s nephew James Mtume. Karriem Riggins.

Perhaps it was the social nature of the day or the classroom setting. Tootie’s garrulousness and irreverence were in full swing that evening. Each minute or two of music would lead to more than a half-hour of unfiltered opinions, memories, rants and insights. Two hours later, we had made it through three of the tracks. The students applauded energetically while I wondered what could be done with the recording of the event. Here are excerpts of that lost Blindfold Test, which became so much more.

Old and New Dreams

“Guinea” (Old And New Dreams, ECM, 1979) Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Dewey Redman, tenor saxophone; Charlie Haden, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums.

Heath: I want to ask these young people a question first, and then you can ask me one. How many instruments did you hear on this recording? What did you hear, brother? Quartet, quintet? You heard a quintet? Young lady? You don’t know what you heard. When you heard the quintet, what’s the fifth instrument you heard?

Student: Drums.

Heath: See, I left that out. You know why? Because he was to me very abstract, the drummer was. I couldn’t figure out what his part was in this. He wasn’t keeping time. He wasn’t playing no melody. He was over here somewhere and they were going over here.

I don’t know why they called it jazz, because it had nothing to do with jazz. It’s their expression. They’re expressing themselves. Don Cherry, with all the folk music that he knows, it could be called free folk, but it’s not jazz. What’s jazz? You know what I mean? Each one of us has a different definition of the word jazz and some people even refuse to call their music jazz. Yusef Lateef wouldn’t call his music jazz.

Kahn: Do you want to guess who this is?

Heath: I’m scared because it might be somebody’s mother or father in here. I don’t want to guess who it was. [A slide projection of Old And New Dreams appears onscreen.] That’s “the Traveler” on trumpet, Don Cherry. We called him the Traveler because he would show up anywhere in the world. And Charlie Haden is on bass, and is that Blackwell? He was from New Orleans. He could really be amazing. He could play some really great rhythms that identify with the marching bands, but he wasn’t doing it on this. None of them were doing their regular stuff. That shows you that you can play music and step out of your character or your culture and be abstract. You might not get paid but you will be abstract. I did not recognize Blackwell in this particular setting. Like I couldn’t tell that was Charlie Haden, either. Because they have identifiable things they do. If you had some Ornette Coleman we could hear Blackwell at his normal self. But Don Cherry was very normal. I loved Ornette because there was structure to his music: there was a beginning, an ending. There was a bridge sometimes. It was easy for me to follow close in the way I learned music.

Kahn: Why don’t we move onto the next one?

Heath: OK. Show it with some structure. Bring it!

Dizzy Gillespie

“Oo-La-La” (Capitol Records, 1950)

Gillespie, Don Slaughter, Elmon Wright, Willie Cook, trumpets; Charles “Majeed” Greenlee, Matthew Gee, Sam Hurt, trombones; Al Gibson, Jesse Powell, John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Paul Gonsalves, saxophones; Floyd Smith, guitar; John Acea, piano; Al McKibbon, bass; Francisco Pozo, bongos; Carlos Duchesne, congas; Charles Wright, drums; Joe Carroll, vocals.

Heath: I can tell you exactly who that was. No doubt about it. That was Dizzy’s big band — Joe Carroll singing and James Moody playing the saxophone. [slide appears] That was Trane? Get outta here, man. And Specs Wright playing drums!

Charles Specs Wright — that was my teacher. He was a great reader — that’s why they called him Specs. He had everything but with small groups this guy could really play. Dizzy had a drummer named Teddy Stewart who got sick, and my brother Jimmy was playing alto in the band at the time, so Dizzy asked him if he knew a drummer because they were in Philadelphia, and he said yeah, I know a guy named Specs, he’s getting out of the army in a couple of days. Specs came in and read Dizzy’s whole book — that’s why you see Dizzy loving him right there [in photo.]

Charles had lots of things happening for him around Philadelphia that he couldn’t make because of his obligations to his number one, which was Carmen McRae. He played with her for a few years and then he went with Cannonball Adderley and his brother Nat. So he gave me some of the things that he was supposed to do. The first one he gave me, I was scared to death. I couldn’t have been more than 16, 17 years old and he said, “Listen, man, you can do this week with Lester Young.” I said, “Oh, my god, how can I be the drummer with Lester Young? I’m too inexperienced and I just can’t play good enough.” He said, “Yeah, you can do it. So I did it once and then I got comfortable with it, so whenever Lester would come to Philly, and if he couldn’t get Specs, he would get me.

Let me tell you this story before we go on any further: Lester was quite an experience. He could make you sound like you knew what you were doing. His playing was so easy and identifiable. It would give you a lot of confidence in your music. As a drummer all you had to do was stay out of the way. If you knew how to do that you were good. He used to say, “Just a little ‘tichi-boom,’” which meant the cymbal, tink-a-tink. He’d call it “tichi-boom.”

So I subbed with Lester. I did it with Thelonious Monk. I said, “Oh, my god, Thelonious Monk, that’s the biggest thing in the world!” Thelonious would come in the club like three minutes before it was time to start, not take off his coat or hat, just sit down at the piano and never turn around. No “hi guys” or nothing to us both, me or the bass player, Jimmy Bond. We never knew whether he liked or hated us. He just played what he played. But he had something going on with his feet up under the piano that was fascinating for me because I’m watching everything he does. I think he was a frustrated dancer.

Another time Specs got me a job with this group led by Oscar Pettiford — Oscar on bass, Stan Getz on saxophone and the piano player was a local guy named Jimmy Golden from Philadelphia. But Pettiford had a reputation for smacking people if he didn’t like what you were playing, and I’m scared to death, anyhow. But Specs said, “Go do it, you can do it, don’t worry about it.” I think Stan Getz also felt it because he comes over, puts his arm around me and said, “Man, don’t worry about Oscar, Oscar just gets a little crazy about drummers sometimes.”

It didn’t come to that. But 20 years later I’m in the airport, and I ran into Stan Getz and I said, “Stan, you remember that time I played with you and Pettiford in Philadelphia?” He said, “Of course I remember.” Now he always had an unbelievable sense of humor, and I had just opened myself up for this. Stan said, “Of course I remember that. That was the worst shit I ever heard in my life.” [laughter]

But anyway, Specs Wright sending me on gigs around Philadelphia put me in those positions and put confidence in me to play with these people because I thought I didn’t belong with them.

Kenny Garrett

“Wayne’s Thang” (Triology, Warner Bros., 1995) Garrett, alto saxophone; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass; Brian Blade, drums.

Heath: The rhythm was incredible. Brian Blade is a great player, man. I’ve seen him. He’s unbelievable. I call him Brian Razorblade. He’s so sharp. His foot pattern was one they use a lot in Nigerian drumming. I identify it as Nigerian sound. Can you start it again?

Listen to the foot stuff, the bass drum. Now he went into swing after that. You can see how a rhythm can set something up that would get the audience’s attention. That’s the thing about hip-hop music — they have a constant beat from the beginning to the end. They say a lot of dumb words … I shouldn’t say they’re dumb words, but they’re a lot of words that will offend a lot of people, but the rhythm is always consistent.

For instance, on Jay Z’s new one [The Story Of O.J.], he says something about O.J.’s ethnicity. We know who O.J. was, right? It’s kind of hard to listen to that stuff because if you’re not of that culture you’re left out a lot of times because you don’t know what they’re talking about. So the song he says, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.,” and the beat is pumping it up. It has a strong message in there.

A lot of the hip-hop music I consider the new music of today, not jazz. I don’t really listen to that much of it, but when it’s a big record like Jay Z’s, they always have some kind of statement saying something that’s very relevant to the time. We gotta pay attention to what’s happening in the world — bridges falling down, people shooting up schools. Something needs to be done about guns. We have to make some music about these things and we don’t do that in jazz anymore, but Duke Ellington and those guys used to do it. They’d make a political statement. Make sure your music, your art is expressing the times.

That’s the only hope we have in changing this system we got, because the system sucks and it’s been doing that for generations, and old people like myself, we back down and we don’t do nothing about it. It’s your turn. You guys have to vote and get out there and say, “OK, no, this ain’t happening.” We’re still dealing with our racial dislikes and all that stuff, but it’s all about culture and jazz should represent the time. We got a whole lot of stuff we need to cover and not just our own trip about how many chords you can play or stuff like that. [pause] That’s all I would say about it.

Kahn: Going back to the track itself: Did you like that?

Heath: I liked it, yeah. I’m a drummer. I like the drums. DB

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