By Suzanne Cloud
It was quite a place to grow up for a young man. His home at 1927 Federal Street in South Philadelphia was the place for musicians to hang and jam with his much older brothers: saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Percy Heath. So it wasn’t hard to imagine that young Albert Heath, named “Tootie” by his grandfather for tutti-frutti ice cream in his youth, would follow in his famous brothers’ footsteps to be named a 2021 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Not bad for a kid who would steal up to the projects in North Philly with drummers Mickey Roker, Eddie Campbell, and Lex Humphries to jam with bassist Jimmy “Spanky” DeBrest, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and pianist McCoy Tyner.
Heath told me in a phone interview, “South Philly gangs and North Philly gangs didn’t get along too well so we had to be careful, but Lee made sure we were left alone.”
Heath would meet the greatest jazz giants at the time — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, the entire Ellington Band — and some, like Trane, would end up in his brother Jimmy’s big band.
In a 2015 interview with All About Jazz, Heath said, “It was a huge band. They’d have section rehearsals in our parents’ house because it wasn’t big enough to have the whole band in there, 18 pieces or so. So, the trumpets would come one day, the reeds the next. The drummer and the bassist would be there a third day…That was one of the major influences for me to be interested in jazz.”
But the most important instrumentalist to Heath was the drummer in that big band: Charles “Specs” Wright, another Philly phenom, who took the young Heath on as a student. According to an interview with pianist Ethan Iverson (who has been working and recording with Heath), “Specs Wright was very technical, a great reader, wonderful smooth hands, clean, the “4”s were exact.” In fact, the reason everyone called him “Specs” was because no musical manuscript was too much for him. As Heath retold the story in an online oral history, “Specs could read the specks off a sheet of music!”
Soon the drummer was running around with the likes of pianist Bobby Timmons (who lived around the corner), bassist Jimmy Garrison, a singer fresh up from Florida who fell in love with the bass when he met Percy Heath, saxophonist Sam Reed (whose mom made the best coconut cakes for them after school), and the 15-year-old trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan.
The friends played a few gigs in bars around Philly until the mid-1950s when Heath joined the Hightones with John Coltrane, organist Shirley Scott, and Bill Carney, who sang and played percussion.
“Sam Reed and me used to play down the shore too[Atlantic City], with an R&B crooner Buddy Trenier, who sang like Billy Eckstine,” Heath says. “Bobby Timmons was the piano player.” Later, Heath explains they would play in the house rhythm section at a famed Philly jazz nightclub called The Showboat, with headliners such as Lester Young and Oscar Pettiford. Heath even played a week at the Blue Note on Ridge Avenue with Thelonious Monk. By 1958, at the age of 23, Heath moved to New York to play with J.J. Johnson and start a wider career working and recording with the best in jazz.
Heath left the warm chrysalis of the Philadelphia jazz community, which his family was foundational in building, ultimately playing with a diversity of artists from Nina Simone (her first album Little Girl Blue) to Herbie Hancock (The Prisoner).
How does a family who loves music build a dynasty? By imbuing their children with a love of music and adventure. Heath’s mother enjoyed gospel — Mahalia Jackson was her favorite — and loved to sing. His father was a mechanic who listened to John Phillip Sousa. “My father used to play the clarinet on Saturdays and go to practice in the Elks Marching Band on Sundays. On Mondays, he put the horn in the pawn shop on his way to work and then pick it up the next Friday.”
Heath said that the people on his street weren’t musical, but that “We were the people who brought the music to the neighborhood.” Even sometimes when “music” might not have been the best operational term: As a young man starting out, he once led a group consisting only of the drums and two horns.
In a 2015 interview on NPR’s Jazz Night in America, he said “That’s a real strange instrumentation. I mean, most people need the bass, and a lot of people like a piano in there or some melodic chordal instrument — and we didn’t have any of that. But the place across the street from where I lived, some adult people were good enough to let us come in there and play. It must have been awful. And one guy came up and gave us 75 cents as a tip. He was drunk, of course, and he walked away — ‘Oh, you kids are great.’ And I realized: That’s a quarter apiece. Hey man, we can get paid doing this!”
An educator and a versatile drummer who by his resume can play nearly any genre of music, Heath remains a member of one of Philly’s most prestigious jazz families, and told his story with dynamism and joy. And he’s not finished. He also opined that, “once everything opens up again” (after COVID), he’ll be back playing with his trio.
To catch his latest project, listen to his album Philadelphia Beat. Or if you want a taste of his sublime drum solo work with Sonny Rollins check out St. Thomas. Then you need to move on to all the rest of the music this 85-year-old hometown hero has made his life.
Originally published by WRTI: 90.1 January 19, 2021