About Jimmy Heath

2019 Donald Meade Legacy Jazz Griot Award Recipient Jimmy Heath

Dr. Jimmy Heath

The Donald Meade Legacy Society in conjunction with the African American Jazz Caucus confers the 8thAnnual Donald Meade Legacy Jazz Griot Award to the honorable and honored artist Jimmy Heath.


Musician and jazz composer Jimmy Heath was born on October 25, 1926 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Percy Heath Sr. and Arlethia Heath. He attended Walter George Smith School in South Philadelphia and graduated from Williston Industrial School in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1943.


Both of the Heath’s supportive parents were music lovers and amateur musicians. Their mother, Arlethia, a Sumter, South Carolina native, sang in the church choir and played popular music on the phonograph at home. Percy Sr., their father, who was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, was a clarinet player. They met in Wilmington and migrated to Philadelphia in 1924 shortly after Percy Jr. was born. They both enthusiastically encouraged their four children (their sister Elizabeth was a pianist) to learn to play an instrument.


Jimmy Heath embodies the history of jazz.  In his 60 years on the jazz scene, the saxophone great has appeared on more than 125 records as both a composer and player.  At 14 he began studying saxophone and by 21 moved to New York with Percy to play with trumpeter Howard McGhee.  In 1949 he became a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet and big band.  Heath’s alto saxophone style at the time was so reminiscent of Charlie Parker that it earned him the nickname “Little Bird.”  After a switch to tenor saxophone and a brief stint with the Miles Davis Quintet, Heath formed his own group.  With Art Farmer as co-leader, Heath’s group recorded and toured throughout the ’60s.  During this time, Heath played with Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, James Moody, Clark Terry, and others.  In 1975 he formed the Heath Brothers with Percy and Tootie and pianist Stanley Cowell.  In this group, Heath played tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone as well as flute.


One of Heath’s earliest big bands (1947-1948) in Philadelphia included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Specs Wright, Cal Massey, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant and Nelson Boyd.  Charlie Parker and Max Roach sat in on one occasion. 

“I am not sure how or where I found out about the JAZZMOBILE, which afforded the opportunity for youngsters from the inner city to meet, study with, and discuss musical problems with some of their idols,” said former student Kenny Forsh. “But I registered for the beginning class and began to participate and study with Jimmy Heath, who along with his colleagues, genuinely cared about the students and trained them accordingly demanding hard work and diligence, but yet were patient with their various teaching styles and methods. Mr. Heath made learning challenging and interesting but would never hesitate to demonstrate a particular phrase or take timer to write some musical notation in your notebook. It was such a vibrant and rewarding learning experience.”  


Jimmy Heath’s positive influence and life lessons were invaluable to the many lives he touched during his extensive  career as an unquestionably gifted musician, composer, arranger, educator, mentor, jazz icon as well as devoted father, husband, family man and true friend to so many.


At 92, Jimmy Heath remains a vital and vibrant force in jazz, a link to the music’s rich tradition and a beacon into its bright future. In 2016, just days preceding his birthday, the 2003 NEA Jazz Master stepped into the spotlight in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room to celebrate his important legacy in a program fittingly titled Life Of A Legend.


In a decades-long career as a saxophonist, composer, arranger, author and educator, Heath has a forged a unique path, one marked not only with intelligence and sophistication, but also humility and humor.  

Taking center stage to a well-deserved standing ovation at Lincoln Center, he noted the grandeur of the room and recalled having to wear a hard hat when he first visited the site, then under construction, with his late brother, bassist Percy Heath, and the guitarist George Benson. “So I was here in the beginning,” he said with understandable pride.  


As an educator, Heath has taught at JAZZMOBILE, Housatonic Community College, City College of New York, and Queens College, where he retired from full-time teaching in 1998. He holds honorary degrees from Sojourner-Douglass College and the Juilliard School and has a chair endowed in his name at Queens College. He continues to conduct workshops and clinics throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Known for his commitment to developing the talents of up-and-coming jazz musicians, Jimmy Heath served as an Artist-in-Residence at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and A member of the Institute’s Board of Trustees. 

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Jimmy Heath accepts the Jazz Griot Award

Dr. Jimmy Heath accepts the 2019 Donald Meade Jazz Griot Award

VideoJimmy Heath feat. by WDR BIG BAND - Bruh Slim

Jimmy Heath feat. by WDR BIG BAND - Bruh Slim

Jimmy Heath Where's the Melody, Where's the Harmony?

Jimmy Heath Where's the Melody, Where's the Harmony? Interview between documentary takes.