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.

Part I of II. Read Part II here.

If you could travel back in time, what era would you go to?

Before me, it was the swing era and that held over into the bebop generation. Bebop swings too, but just more intricate and maybe a little faster tempo. Going back means slowing down and that’s good for a person 90 years old!

What language does jazz speak to you?

Jazz, to me, is improvisation and creating music on the spot, not reading it on the spot and not creating it on the paper. Creating your own musical story while standing in front of an audience. That’s the height of jazz that you can get. The improvisational people that I was raised with were incredible in that respect. They could play something different every night – that’s why I wrote my book I Walked with Giants – Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. These people were creating instant music.

How is the music you play today different than when you first expressed music?

Back in the day when I came up, everybody was unique because they weren’t studying all the same data on the computer of the recordings of other people. They had their own voice in music and in different states. If you’re in Texas, you’d play different than in New York or in Chicago. Now it’s getting to be “send in the clones.” They [emerging musicians] have so much data. Everybody wants to be Coltrane, or Bird, which you can’t be. I was called “Little Bird” when I was playing alto. I switched to tenor, because I wanted to find Jimmy Heath somewhere.

If you could sit down and talk with one jazz musician who’s passed, who would that be?

Dizzy. That’s my mentor. That’s who we’re honoring at the concert I’m playing. He was such a strong influence on everyone who played an instrument. The people liked him. His personality is endearing to everyone. He was in the Blue Note in New York a year before he passed away. He, James Moody, Bob Cranshaw, Elvin Jones, Slide Hampton and Kenny Barron on the piano. He got sick at that time and he lasted 10 months after that. I think about him just like I do my mother and father and my family members who have passed to the next place. I think of them every day.