Jazz legend Jimmy Heath dies at age 93

Jimmy Heath, the illustrious saxophonist who helped carry the bebop sound into the 21st century, has died. He was 93.

Heath was primarily known as a saxophonist, but it was his talent as a composer and arranger, especially for large ensembles, that cemented his legacy in the jazz canon.

Throughout a career spanning 75 years, Heath released 18 records as a leader and 10 more with the Heath Brothers. He was featured on countless more recordings as a sideman, performing on albums by Miles Davis, Nat Adderley, Benny Carter, Johnny Hartman, Nancy Wilson and many more.

Known for being small in size but big in sound, Heath was nicknamed “Little Bird” after the influence of Charlie Parker.

Heath died of natural causes on the morning of Jan. 19, 2020, in Loganville, Ga., surrounded by family.

“Heath was more than just a sax player and a composer,” says JAZZ.FM91 on-air host Heather Bambrick. “He was a mentor to both his contemporaries and those who followed him. And he was very much respected and highly regarded as being involved in bringing bebop to succeeding generations.”

Heath was born on Oct. 25, 1926, in Philadelphia. He was part of a musical family; his sister Elizabeth played piano, his older brother Percy played bass, and his younger brother Albert, or “Tootie,” played the drums.

In the late 1940s, Heath’s band — which featured John Coltrane, Benny Golson and others who went on to become known names — became a fixture of Philadelphia’s jazz scene before dissolving in 1949 so that Heath could join Dizzy Gillespie’s band. In 1959, he briefly replaced Coltrane in Miles Davis’s group.

Heath struggled for years with an addiction to heroin, and he spent a good part of the 1950s in federal prison before quitting cold turkey. The night after his release in 1959, Heath met his wife-to-be Mona Brown at a homecoming party; the two were married the following year.

In 1975, Heath, Percy and Tootie formed the Heath Brothers, with Stanley Cowell at the piano.

Heath became an educator in the 1980s, teaching at Queens College in New York for more than 20 years. There, he led the formation of the school’s jazz program and attracted high-profile musicians such as Donald Byrd.

Heath was a recipient of the 2003 NEA Jazz Masters Award.

In 2010, he published his autobiography, I Walked With Giants.

At the time of his death, Heath’s wife of 60 years was at his side, along with their children Mtume and Rozie and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.