Jimmy Heath, 1926 – 2020
SJW is mourning the loss of beloved faculty artist Jimmy Heath, who passed away on January 19 at the age of 93. It’s impossible to overstate the influence that Jimmy had in the course of the 25 years he taught at SJW’s summer immersion programs and performed at the Stanford Jazz Festival. He, along with his brothers Percy and Albert, were an integral part of the SJW experience for thousands of students. The Heath Brothers provided several lifetimes of advice and direction on everything from the nuts and bolts of learning to play jazz to the never-ending spiritual journey that is part of becoming a jazz musician. Students who were fortunate enough to work with Jimmy as their combo leader, master class teacher, or composing and arranging guru had a direct connection to the greats who invented bebop, such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, all of whom shared the stage with Jimmy at some point in his long career.
Jimmy’s warmth and humor invited students to open up and communicate deeply with him. His mastery of bebop and improvisation were inspiring and could be intimidating, yet his focus on his love for the music and for the musicians around him made his teaching entirely accessible.
The depth of Jimmy’s influence has been made very evident as many SJW alums and faculty have expressed their grief in social media since his passing. Here are just a couple from among the outpouring on Twitter: trombonist/composer/arranger Jacob Garchick tweeted, “When I was a know-nothing, free jazz-loving 15 yr old at Stanford Jazz Camp in 1992, Jimmy Heath was my combo director, and introduced me to the concept of playing ii-V-Is, standards, and bebop!” Drummer Matt Wilson wrote, “Mr. Jimmy Heath, Thank you for your artistry, imagination, dedication, stories, kindness and support.” Jazz at Lincoln Center broke the news with, “The master saxophonist, composer, and bandleader was one of the most beloved and generous jazz icons of all time, an invaluable source of inspiration and personal support for younger generations.”
Jimmy’s recognition as an NEA Jazz Master acknowledged his long and prolific career as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and sideman. He performed with countless jazz greats, from Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis. In 1948 at the age of 21, he performed in the First International Jazz Festival in Paris with McGhee, sharing the stage with Coleman Hawkins, Slam Stewart, and Erroll Garner. One of Jimmy’s earliest big bands (1947-1948) in Philadelphia included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Specs Wright, Cal Massey, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant, and Nelson Boyd — and Charlie Parker and Max Roach sat in, too.
Jimmy wrote more than 125 compositions, many of which have become jazz standards, and have been recorded by artists such as Art Farmer, Chick Corea, Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, and Dexter Gordon.
Honor this late, great giant of jazz by searching for his recordings and compositions on YouTube, and treat yourself to a listen. Peruse the photos we’ve posted here. And dig into his fantastic interview with the late pianist Marian McPartland, on an episode of her Piano Jazz show: