A lesson needn't be formal to be valuable, and so in that spirit, today for Music Education Monday here's a video of the veteran saxophonist Jimmy Heath (pictured) answering questions posed by high school students from the Tucson Jazz Institute's ensemble devoted to the music of Duke Ellington.
Posted in May of this year, the footage was shot for Passing the Torch, an upcoming documentary film about Heath by Bret Primack, aka the Jazz Video Guy. (You can find out more about the film, and if you like, contribute to its crowd-funding campaign, here.)
Heath, named an NEA Jazz Master in 2003, is a Philadelphia native and is part of a family of professional musicians that also includes his brothers, the late bassist Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath; and his son, the percussionist and producer James "Mtume" Forman.
He's been involved in jazz education since the 1980s, when he joined the faculty and helped create the jazz program at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in the City University of New York. And as one of the few surviving musicians from the post-World War II bebop era, he's got a lifetime of fascinating experiences to share with students.
Born in 1926, Heath was rejected by the draft board in WWII for being underweight, and instead began working in the music business. Originally an alto saxophonist, he performed around Philadelphia with the Nat Towles band in 1945 and '46, then formed his own group, which lasted until 1949. Heath's big band included at various times future jazz luminaries such as saxophonists John Coltrane and Benny Golson, trumpeters Cal Massey and Johnny Coles, pianist Ray Bryant, and more, but never released any recordings.
Nicknamed "Little Bird" during this period, Heath switched to tenor saxophone in the late 1940s to try to downplay frequent comparisons with Charlie Parker. As fate would have it, though, he wound up dissolving his own band to work with Parker's most famous collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie, forming a friendship that would last for decades.
Health also played briefly with Miles Davis in 1959 after Coltrane left Davis' band, and over the years has performed with many other well-known jazz musicians including Kenny Dorham, Gil Evans, Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, and more. Contemporary listeners may know him best for his work in the Heath Brothers, a band he formed in 1975 with his brothers and pianist Stanley Cowell that has continued as a working unit into the present day.
You can see Heath's Q&A session with the Tucson students in the embedded video window below. As a bonus, after the jump you can see another video in which Heath drops some wisdom, talking in 2011 to Jazz Times magazine about why the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster when working up new material always learned the lyrics as well as the music.