Percy Heath

Bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet

'We probably make as much money as any jazz group," Percy Heath said of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His bass playing anchored the quartet's music from soon after its birth in 1951 until its first demise in 1974. He was there when, unable to resist the offer of a huge fee for a tour of Japan, the band came together again in 1980:

Percy Heath, bassist and cellist: born Wilmington, North Carolina 30 April 1923; married (three sons); died Southampton, New York 28 April 2005.

'We probably make as much money as any jazz group," Percy Heath said of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His bass playing anchored the quartet's music from soon after its birth in 1951 until its first demise in 1974. He was there when, unable to resist the offer of a huge fee for a tour of Japan, the band came together again in 1980:

We spend a good deal of our money on the road just to live right. We consider that we're of such calibre and station that we should stay in the best places and eat the best food.

Inspired by the chamber-music aspirations of its pianist leader John Lewis, the quartet played with a sober dignity at all times and invariably wore morning dress on stage. It played to sell-out houses all over the world and the quality of its music thoroughly merited the prestige that it gained.

Unusually for a black man in the United States, Heath flew as a fighter pilot in the Second World War, having trained with the Army Air Corps in Alabama.

The Heath family was dedicated to music. Percy Heath's father played the clarinet and his mother sang in the church choir. Growing up in Philadelphia, Heath first took up the violin and sang in the family's gospel quartet. His younger brothers Jimmy and Albert also became professional jazz musicians.

Following his discharge from the Air Corps, Percy began to study the double bass in 1946 at the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia. He learned so quickly that, after playing with local groups, he and his brother, the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, joined the trumpeter Howard McGhee's band the following year and travelled with McGhee to play at the first Festival International de Jazz in Paris. This was one of the first American Bebop groups to play in Europe.

Heath progressed rapidly on his instrument (in the early Fifties he recorded with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and other leaders) and eventually joined the Bebop quartet led by the vibraphone player Milt Jackson. John Lewis was in this group and, when Lewis began writing a more formal repertoire for the band, it was decided to rename it the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis suggested to Heath that, faced with the more formal music, he should take further lessons on the bass. His efforts paid off, and the quartet rose swiftly to the head of the group of small jazz groups, like Dave Brubeck's and Gerry Mulligan's, that toured the world's concert halls each year.

The bass was a vital pivot in the MJQ, as it was universally known, and Heath's leading role in Lewis's formal compositions such as "Django" and "Vendome" enhanced his growing reputation as one of the best of the jazz bassists. He also drove the band along with great swing in its looser blues performances like "Bag's Groove".

When the MJQ first disbanded in 1974 Heath and his brothers formed another quartet - the Heath Brothers. At this time Heath took up playing the cello as well as the bass, and he featured the smaller instrument to good effect on some of the new quartet's recordings.

Heath became disillusioned with the playing of the younger musicians he found about him. He felt that the instantly identifiable musical personalities displayed by the earlier players - such as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins - had been lost in the uniformity of later generations of musicians:

Jazz players express things that they experience in life ultimately . . . It seems that some of that identity is lost now with young people that come out of music schools playing scales and sequences.

Reformed during the Eighties, the MJQ went on into the Nineties and, after it had been together for more than 40 years, was as much in demand as ever and worked regular seasons at the Café Carlyle in New York. When the band's drummer Connie Kay died in 1994 it was thought that the group would disband, but it didn't and Percy Heath's brother Albert took over on drums. Eventually Percy Heath decided that he'd had enough of life on the road, and, rather than replace him, the other members decided to break up the MJQ. They came together for one final time for a recording date in 1997.

Heath recorded an album called A Love Song in 2004. It was his first recording as a leader. In retirement he spent much of his time fishing. "All those years on the road were to pay for the fishing," he said.

Steve Voce



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