Philadelphia Jazz Dynasty — Albert “Tootie” Heath

Suzanne Cloud
5 min readJan 24, 2021

By Suzanne Cloud

Photography by Michael Perez

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.

Lee Morgan, Bigsby Memorial Free Library

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!”



Suzanne Cloud

Writer, historian, jazz singer-songwriter, PhD American Studies. Author of Images of America: Philadelphia Jazz and the play “Last Call at the Downbeat”