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Notations from Jimmy Heath...Part II

Jimmy Heath is the crème de la crème of jazz. He’s written more than 125 compositions and has been on 100-plus albums. At the age of 90, the jazz legend and beloved saxophonist and big band leader continues, indeed, to keep the music alive.

Read Part I here.

Did you enter this world with jazz already in your heart or did you pick it up later on?

I was born with parents that had jazz in their hearts and all their children consequently had jazz in their hearts at home. My sister, the oldest, played piano, until she met boys and that was the end of the piano. My brother –  the older one –  played the violin and later the bass. Then me, the saxophone. Next, my younger brother played trombone, then drums and he’s been on drums all of his life. My father played clarinet; my mother sang in the church choir. So we had jazz in our home.

What would you play for someone not conversant in jazz?

The most used composition in the history of America and music is a blues structure – the 12-bar blues. Everybody can usually lock into that. It’s not complicated to them. Sometimes the melodies are complicated, but the duration and repetition of the 12-bar blues is the most understood composition in music. You can go anywhere in the world – I have done it – playing 12-bar blues. It’s greater than any composition written, as far as your audience to be with you.

Please fill in the blank: The other day I heard the song _______ and I thought I’d like to add that to my repertoire.

When I hear one that I like I don’t usually forget it. You know, I’m very locked into Ellingtonia as well as Broadway Americana. All of those songs have great harmonic progressions and melodies. I find that lacking in day’s world; there’s no melody and no harmony. Just words and a beat.  


I like some of everything. I don’t have blinders on. Not closed up on anything. I like Bach from way back and I can like hip-hop from today. It’s all who’s playing it and how good they’re doing it. There’s some good in everything.

Other than the saxophone, what instrument do you appreciate the most?

The piano. Dizzy told me – I met him in 1946 – when I told him I wanted to compose and write music. He said, “Man, you got to learn something about the keyboard.” He showed me some things on the piano and I just showed some people in Miami that I’m playing with this band tomorrow night. I showed them what Dizzy showed me in 1946. It’s still a revelation to some people.

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