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I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath

Joseph Jimmy; McLaren Heath

Publication Year: 2010

Composer of more than 100 jazz pieces, three-time Grammy nominee, and performer on more than 125 albums, Jimmy Heath has earned a place of honor in the history of jazz. Over his long career, Heath knew many jazz giants such as Charlie Parker and played with other innovators including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and especially Dizzy Gillespie. Heath also won their respect and friendship.

In this extraordinary autobiography, the legendary Heath creates a “dialogue” with musicians and family members. As in jazz, where improvisation by one performer prompts another to riff on the same theme, I Walked with Giants juxtaposes Heath’s account of his life and career with recollections from jazz giants about life on the road and making music on the world’s stages. His memories of playing with his equally legendary brothers Percy and Albert (aka “Tootie”) dovetail with their recollections.

Heath reminisces about a South Philadelphia home filled with music and a close-knit family that hosted musicians performing in the city’s then thriving jazz scene. Milt Jackson recalls, “I went to their house for dinner…Jimmy’s father put Charlie Parker records on and told everybody that we had to be quiet till dinner because he had Bird on…. When I [went] to Philly, I’d always go to their house.”    Today Heath performs, composes, and works as a music educator and arranger. By turns funny, poignant, and extremely candid, Heath’s story captures the rhythms of a life in jazz.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. ix-x

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Foreword: In the Basement

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pp. xi-xiii

We have to start with family, with the grandparents and the parents, all of the people who offered support. Jimmy’s father, Pop, played clarinet in the Elks Quaker City Marching Band in Philadelphia, and Mom sang in the choir after leaving Wilmington, North Carolina. Mom and Pop didn’t do this for a living, and it...

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pp. xv-xvi

The authors thank the following people—some of whom have gone on to the big bandstand in the sky—for their assistance or contributions: Monty Alexander, Dave Bailey, David Baker, Ed Berger (Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University), Howard Brofsky, Dave Brubeck, Ray Bryant, Benny Carter, Ron Carter, Joe Chambers, Johnny Coles, Stanley Cowell...

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pp. xvii-xviii

I guess the old bard summed it up years ago: “To be or not to be.” And then Dizzy went on to qualify it: “To BE, or not . . . to BOP.” What we choose determines what we will be. Choosing is serious business. The most provocative memoirs inspire us to make informed choices in our own lives. That’s why we love to check out other people’s lives. From the pen of a...

Part One: First Chorus (1926–1949)

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1. Finding a Rhythm: Philadelphia and Wilmington, North Carolina

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pp. 3-19

My parents were Carolinians but from different states. My father, Percy, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on March 19, 1898, and my mother, Arlethia, in Sumter, South Carolina, on June 4, 1903. They moved to Philadelphia in 1923. My grandmother on my mother’s side was Ella Wall, and her husband was Sandy. My mother and...

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2. Big Band Connections

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pp. 20-41

When I was with the Nat Towles Orchestra, in the band was a saxophonist from Kansas City, Missouri, named Clifford Jedkins. He was an ultra-modernist who claimed he had a tenor saxophone that was once Charlie Parker’s. Clifford was one of the most unique...

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3. Organizing and Melodizing

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pp. 42-57

...ill Massey was a trumpet player who lived in darby, Pennsylvania, gether at great Lakes. Trane was playing alto when he came out of the navy. one day i was having a rehearsal and in walked Bill Massey and his cousin, Calvin Massey, from Pittsburgh. Calvin and i became good friends. He played in my band along with Coltrane, and he and Coltrane became ...

Part Two: Second Chorus (1949–1969)

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4. High Note–Low Note: Dizzy and Miles

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pp. 61-77

While I was living at Howard McGhee’s in New York in 1949, I became close to Gil Fuller, the orchestrator for Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Bill Massey and I used to do handyman jobs for Gil. He was a landlord and had several apartments, and we helped paint some of them. He was also some kind of policeman, and I think he had a...

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5. Sharp Dissonance to Smooth Harmony with Mona

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pp. 78-98

This part of my life was entangled with drugs, so it wasn’t the most productive musical time for me. That would come later, after 1959. Despite my drug use, I did develop musically because the environment was always conducive to learning. I was around future giants like...

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6. On the Riverside

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pp. 99-125

Since I had signed with Riverside Records earlier in 1959, I was allowed to go to New York that fall to record my first album, The Thumper. I took a letter from my probation officer to Orrin Keepnews at Riverside, and he signed it to show that I had been in New York. Since I had played with Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers and they were available for...

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7. Maintaining the Groove

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pp. 126-142

By late 1963 into 1964, things started to get rough. Riverside was in bad shape as a company. According to the liner notes, my last Riverside album, On the Trail, which was recorded in the spring of 1964, featured Paul Chambers, Tootie, Kenny Burrell, and Wynton Kelly. This was the first time I recorded “Gingerbread Boy” and two of my other...

Part Three: Third Chorus (1969–1986)

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8. Stretching Out: Jazz Transitions

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pp. 145-161

Mona and I took the family to Europe on some of the gigs I had as a soloist. Children could travel for free if they were under a certain age. I took the family to Europe in 1969 and 1972. In 1969, we went to Vienna, where I had a performance at the America House with the Austrian Radio Sextet, including Art Farmer. Farmer, who...

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9. Marchin’ On: The Heath Brothers

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pp. 162-181

My musical direction changed when my brothers and I organized the Heath Brothers ensemble. The Modern Jazz Quartet had been on a hiatus from 1974, and that created the opportunity for Percy, Tootie, and me to get together and form a family group....

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10. “For the Public”: The Heath Brothers

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pp. 182-202

The albums with the Heath Brothers marked the peak of my recording success. Passing Thru sold eighteen thousand copies, In Motion, twenty-five thousand, and Live at the Public Theater, thirty thousand. We were working regularly as the Heath Brothers and establishing a reputation. Even now, people approach me and mention that they first knew...

Part Four: Fourth Chorus (1986–)

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11. Reharmonization: Queens College

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pp. 205-229

When Mona and I got on the plane for the States after my operation that summer in 1986, I was still feeling a little weak. Just before we were about to take off, something went wrong with the engine; smoke was coming out of it. We just sat there for about an hour and a half until they fixed it. All I could think of was the seven-hour flight...

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12. Up-Tempo Mode

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pp. 230-252

I had some really good students at Queens. Some of them haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. One of my saxophone students was Donald Hanson, an exceptional player, who was teaching in the school system. Other students of mine were Alan Mandel and Antonio Hart, who was nominated for a Grammy in 1998, “Best Jazz Instrumental Solo,” for a...

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13. Aroma of the Roses

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pp. 253-272

When the new millennium rolled around, I thought about how long I had been a professional musician and all the giants I had known. It really hit me when Jimmy Cobb, who was with Miles in 1959, and I were asked to attend the book signing for Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, by Ashley Kahn...

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14. Endless Stroll

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pp. 273-284

The year 2007 was also a good one. On March 3, I was part of a ceremony in Washington, D.C., honoring all the living Jazz Masters. Billy Taylor was involved in organizing the event, where we received the Living Jazz Legend Award. Thirty-three of us showed up; the rest were either working or ill. It was quite a celebration, with James Earl Jones as...


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pp. 285-308


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pp. 309-322

E-ISBN-13: 9781439902004

Publication Year: 2010