Jimmy Heath

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About Jimmy Heath

Although he earned the nickname Little Bird for the way he evoked the bebop sound of Charlie “Bird” Parker, saxophonist Jimmy Heath ended up with a reputation as one of the strongest and most influential composers of the post-bop era, writing standards like “For Minors Only” and “Gingerbread Boy.” Born in Philadelphia in 1926, he grew up in a deeply musical family that included his older brother, the bassist Percy Heath, and younger brother, the drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Jimmy formed a big band in Philadelphia in 1946 that included future greats like John Coltrane, Benny Golson, and Johnny Coles during its four-year run, which ended when he moved to New York City to join Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Heath switched from alto to tenor to avoid the Parker comparisons before spending the second half of the ’50s serving two prison terms for drug possession, quitting cold turkey, and elevating his commitment to the music. While incarcerated, he wrote tunes that appeared on the popular 1956 Chet Baker and Art Pepper album Playboys, later reissued as Pictures of Heath. Following his release in 1959, he worked briefly with Miles Davis and made a few albums in the 1960s. In the mid-’70s he re-emerged with his family group the Heath Brothers and spent the next several decades as a gray eminence of jazz, continuing to cut small- and big-band albums until his death at age 93 in 2020.

Philadelphia, PA, United States
October 25, 1926
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