A legend about Oscar Peterson has it that a skeptical jazz critic went to one of the pianist’s later concerts to verify the common adage that Peterson played like four pianists at once. When asked whether Peterson still lived up to his reputation, the peevish critic said, “Nah, he doesn’t sound like four pianists. Only two.”
Now a few months shy of his 79th birthday, drum legend and newfound Santa Fe resident Albert “Tootie” Heath still plays like four drummers, combining dynamism, subtlety, and rhythmic complexity in equal parts. Local skeptics can judge for themselves when Heath performs at the Museum Hill Café on Friday, Feb. 28. Heath is unusually active for a jazz musician of any age. He spent the last six weeks of 2013 in Copenhagen, playing six nights a week in the resurrected version of a club where he performed several decades ago. “I lived there for about three years and was in the house band. We used to play six nights a week then, too,” Heath told Pasatiempo shortly before leaving town for that engagement. It was followed in late January with a series of shows at Smalls in New York City, where he played with pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus and bassist Martin Nevin. “I like those young guys, man,” Heath said. “They can do everything — they play Bach, Thelonious [Monk], Miles Davis — originals. All in one concert.” Heath, as bandleader, Iverson, and bassist Ben Street released Tootie’s Tempo in August 2013.
Heath grew up in Philadelphia in a family that was supportive of music. “My mother sang in the church choir, and my father played the clarinet in this marching band. It was something he loved. He used to practice Saturday, and on Sunday he’d go to rehearsal. Then on Monday, he’d put his horn in the pawn shop on the corner, and he’d get maybe three, four dollars. He’d get it back out on the weekend and do that same thing every week until he finally lost it.” His father would also fill the house with music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Coleman Hawkins, playing the latest records on his hand-crank phonograph. Not surprisingly, Heath and his two older brothers all became jazz musicians — and titans of their instruments. Because saxophonist Jimmy and bassist Percy were a good deal older than Heath (8 and 12 years respectively), they established themselves while Heath was still living at home, meaning that the aspiring drummer had a chance to rub shoulders and occasionally sit in with many top players passing through Philadelphia. “Bands like Ellington’s orchestra would come to our house, and my mother would cook dinner for them,” he remembered. “Coltrane was always in the house with my brother. They both played alto [at the time]. We began playing in this club in Philly called Red Rooster, and Coltrane got a chance to make a recording. He got Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and me. I couldn’t believe it. It was his first as a leader.”
Heath has played with virtually every hard bop player of consequence over the last 60 years. His recording credits include sessions with Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Milt Jackson, and a group called The Heath Brothers that he and his brothers established in the 1970s. Heath still plays with Jimmy (now aged 87); Percy passed away in 2005 and is still fondly remembered by his youngest brother for his remarkable achievements. Percy was a gifted mechanic recruited by the Air Force to work on airplanes. His test scores in the training program were so high that he joined a very small trial group of young African American men who were permitted to enter flight school. Despite the racially motivated interference on the part of many of the white officers running the school, Percy passed the training and became part of the Tuskegee Airmen, famous for being the first group of African American pilots.
“I remember he came home once, and he had on this dark coat and light gabardine pants, a leather bill on his hat with an insignia, and his lieutenant bars on his shoulder. He was a second lieutenant. He was an officer, in the United States Air Force.” After World War II, Percy left the Air Force. “He decided he’s going to learn to play bass. In two years, he was in New York recording with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.” Percy later became a founding member of the highly successful Modern Jazz Quartet, a group that Heath joined for one year. “We did a tour of the world. China, Eastern Europe, California, New York. It was fabulous. I made more money in that one year then I did in my whole career up to today.”
Prior to that, Heath earned his living as a sideman for a revolving number of hard-bop players. He got his break in the 1950s, when he moved to New York to replace Elvin Jones (best known for his work with Coltrane) in trombonist J.J. Johnson’s band. Heath ended up living on the same block as Jones on5th St. in Manhattan during one of the most vibrant periods in the history of jazz. He remembers getting hired for three-month stints at bars like The Five Spot, where he would open for Thelonious Monk one week and Charles Mingus the next. Following gigs that often lasted until daybreak, Heath said that “we used to have jam sessions on the roof of our apartments. It was during the day, when everyone was out of the building. Only musicians were up there.”
Though Heath might not be initiating any jam sessions on the roof of his new Santa Fe home, he is already displaying characteristic energy in becoming involved with the local music community. His first weekend in town, he remembers going down to the Lensic Performing Arts Center to see drummer Terri Lyne Carrington play with Esperanza Spalding and Geri Allen. The show was sold out, so he went around back and peeked into a high window at about eye level. “I saw a bass scroll, and there’s Esperanza warming up.” After he caught her attention, the show organizers let him inside and gave him a seat where he’s most comfortable — right onstage. “That was my introduction to Santa Fe. It was great.” ◀
Tootie Heath plays at the Museum Hill Café (710 Camino Lejo, 505-984-8900) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, with Andy Zadrozny and Bert Dalton. Tickets are $25; reservations can be made by calling 505-983-6820. Visit www.santafemusiccollective.org.