Classic rhythm

Photo Bob Barry/Jazzography

Santa Fe’s Albert “Tootie” Heath hasn’t played the drums for a live audience since March. It’s the longest hiatus he’s had in 63 years of performing with legendary jazz musicians in venues all across the world.

“Tootie is one of the few masters we have left,” says New Mexico native and jazz guitarist Greg Ruggiero, whose concert with Heath in May was canceled. “He is the drummer on one of the most important jazz guitar recordings of all time, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. This is one of my ‘desert island’ records.”

Heath practices almost every day in the Santa Fe apartment that he shares with his wife. They met in Los Angeles in the 1970s and moved to Santa Fe in 2013. “Wherever she would go I would follow her. I still follow her,” Heath says. “She’s here in the living room with me right now.”

When Heath plays, it’s a study in control and rhythm. At 85, his movements are precise, but he’s still clearly feeling the music. He doesn’t need to flash a huge grin to demonstrate that he’s having a hell of a time. It’s more than evident in the zestful way he makes a beat. He does smile on occasion. “It depends on who I’m playing with and who I’m playing for,” Heath says. “If I’m happy, I’ll smile.”

Over the course of his career, Heath, played with many of the most talented figures in jazz, including John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, and many others.

Although the pandemic made live performances impossible for most of 2020, Heath did receive recognition for his accomplishments as a legendary jazz drummer. In October, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honored Heath as a 2021 Jazz Master. Heath joins 161 other masters, including luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. The award, first presented in 1982, includes a $25,000 fellowship.

“Admired by fellow musicians both past and present, Tootie is just the kind of honoree this award is meant for: someone who has mastered many different styles of jazz while always allowing his personality to shine through,” says Ann Meier Baker, director of music and opera at the NEA. “In addition, in his role as a teacher and mentor on and off the bandstand, Tootie nurtures the next generation of jazz musicians.”

Heath’s two older brothers also received the award last year, and Heath’s close friend, bassist Reggie Workman, was honored with it as well. Workman called Heath to congratulate him, and the two joked about the timing. “Damn, they almost waited too long,” Heath says. “They were waiting for he and I to leave the planet before they gave it to us, but we fooled them. We didn’t leave; we stayed here.”

Often labeled a hard bop jazzist, Heath grew up as bebop exploded. Bebop is a free-flowing form of jazz that usually involves a trio or quartet. Hard bop integrates more rhythm and blues and gospel. Heath, though, isn’t crazy about the description.

“I think they labeled me as that. I never considered myself to be anything but a drummer and accompanying musician. They’d give you a title in a minute,” Heath says. He also found inspiration in world percussion. “Playing the drum, I realized that it was the most important instrument in most cultures around the world and the drum was very expressive, and without the drums, a lot of the music around the world wouldn’t have had its punch.”

Roots in South Philadelphia

Heath was born in South Philadelphia in 1935 to a beautician and an auto repairman. (His grandfather gave everyone in the family nicknames and called young Albert “Tootie.”) The Heaths had an interest — and aptitude — for music. His mother admired and sang, and his father was a fan of the blues and played the clarinet. Heath’s brothers were both talented musicians: Percy, 12 years older, played bass, and Jimmy, nine years Tootie’s elder, was a tenor saxophonist. Both were already playing in high school and professionally by the time Tootie came of age.

His family was not the only influence on his music. South Philly brimmed with sound in the early 1950s. A neighborhood marching band in particular struck a chord with Heath. “I lived across the street from a drum and bugle corps that they called the Lincoln Post, and they came out once a week and practiced in the street and I became influenced by them.”

One day, Heath and some high school friends played their instruments on the street as the marching band went past. They managed to make a dollar. It was Heath’s first professional gig.

In high school, Heath played the trombone briefly while he waited for the drum seat in the band to become available. He was playing with legendary saxophonist John Coltrane before he was old enough to drink. Coltrane was a friend of Heath’s brother Jimmy and had played with and for Jimmy since 1946. “He was in the first band my brother had. They used to have rehearsals in the house. That’s how I met Coltrane,” Heath says. “He wasn’t famous, he just played well, better than most people. I wasn’t nervous.”

Then, he got the call to play with another great. “This bass player was named Jimmy Bond and was a friend of mine from Philadelphia, and Jimmy Bond got the call to play at the Blue Note, and they said, ‘Do you know a drummer?’ ” Heath says. “He chose me to come in and play with Thelonious [Monk, the jazz pianist]. Neither of us had played with Thelonious before.” At the time, Heath was still establishing himself on the Philadelphia music scene.

“Thelonious didn’t talk to you and never told you what he was going to do. Coltrane was a little different, a little more human,” Heath says. “Thelonious didn’t act human.” Even so, Heath managed to keep up.

From jazz musician to jazz master

In the early 1950s, Heath took gigs all over Philadelphia. “I played in a club called the Showboat with Lester Young and others. It was all in a group with Coltrane called the Hightones,” Heath says. “We used to play in a lot of clubs local in Philadelphia.” Heath also broke into recording, with Coltrane and Simone.

He moved to New York in 1958 and moved in with his brother Percy in an apartment by the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. The New York Giants football team still played in the stadium and Heath could see games from their window. Heath drummed four nights a week, sometimes more. During one stretch, he played every night at a club called the Five Spot Café for about three months in a trio that opened for Coltrane and pianist Charles Mingus.

In addition to his live performances, Heath also lent his talents to albums. “For Riverside Records, for a period, I was kinda like a house drummer and worked on a lot of recordings,” Heath says. The New York-based company worked with some of the premier jazz talents of the age, including Monk, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans.

Of his many recordings, Heath counts his work with Herbie Hancock in the late 1960s among his favorites. He’s especially fond of an album called The Prisoner. “I enjoyed that music because it was very experimental. Herbie allowed us to be as experimental as possible and play his music. I had played with him and his group about five years before that.”

The 1960s were a tumultuous time in the United States, and Heath took an opportunity to live overseas. “I was playing with George Russell’s group, a sextet, and he was going to Europe on a tour and I got the chance to play in his band,” Heath says. While in Sweden, Heath took a job as a house drummer. He stayed there and lived in Denmark until the mid-1970s.

“It was quite different because it was during the Black rights period when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were active. All the racist things happening in the United States were happening overseas, but I didn’t know it because it didn’t affect me as much because I was always considered a more official person because I was a musician,” Heath says. “I got really scared when Malcolm got killed. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and I said, OK, I better get out of town.”

Heath, though, always planned to return to the United States. He moved to Los Angles in the mid-1970s and formed a group with his brothers. Because of the age gap, they hadn’t played together much in their youth. “It was one of the most important parts of my career because it was a chance to play my brothers’ arrangements,” Heath says. The Heath Trio included Percy and Jimmy, as well as pianist Stanley Cowell. The group played together until Percy passed away in 2005.

Around that time, Heath also started to perform with The Whole Drum Truth, an all-percussion quartet, with a rotating selection of drummers. The group sometimes features legends like Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, and Willie Jones III. “We do it as if the horns are there, but we don’t hear it,” Heath says. “We just do the percussive parts for most of the songs.” The Whole Drum Truth has played all across the United States and even performed in South Africa.

In his many decades in jazz, Heath has noticed that the genre has not stayed static. “It’s changed tremendously because of the people coming out of these universities and schools with a whole different approach to music than I have had,” Heath says. Over the past few decades, Heath has taught at a number of workshops, including one at Stanford University. “It’s more experimental and advanced, because the teachers now are quite educated in things that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn. Music has totally changed.”

Former student Willie Jones III, holds his mentor in high regard.

“If you check out records like Bobby Timmons’ In Person, Kenny Dorham’s Trompeta Toccata, and Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda, you can hear how he’s constantly reaching creatively while still swinging,” Jones says. “Even now, when I hear him with the Emmett Cohen trio, he’s always organically searching for a different way to uplift the music.”

Guitarist Ruggiero also holds Heath in high esteem. “To play with Tootie is to have the opportunity to experience the real beat and feeling of this music. The most important thing to absorb and pass on is the feel. It’s not something that can be taught, it must be experienced over and over again from a master. Tootie’s joy and sense of humor is apparent in every beat he plays.” ◀

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