The saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who has died aged 93, flew the flag for bebop – that hyperactive, melodically cryptic, highwire-act of a jazz idiom – with grace, wit and originality throughout a seven-decade career.
He worked with jazz modernisers as eminent as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, and became both a sought-after saxophone improviser and an ingenious big-ensemble composer. He also helped to pioneer the breakthroughs in jazz education that would eventually put a marginalised music into the mainstream of college and conservatoire life.
Heath was the middle member of a celebrated jazz family, and he often performed with his brothers, the bassist Percy (a cornerstone of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and the drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. An elegant saxophonist with a light, clarinettish tone, Heath could nevertheless approach tunes with the muscular vigour of a bebop heavyweight such as Dexter Gordon, and the influence of the free-jazz innovator Coltrane could even be distantly audible too.
In the jazz circles of late 1940s Philadelphia, Heath was nicknamed Little Bird for his small stature and his roots in the bebop-defining sax methods of Charlie “Bird” Parker. He was a brilliant arranger, working the agile pirouettes, skewed sounds and earthy inflections of jazz into the fabric of complex pieces that fizzed with infectious energy. His own best known compositions, such as CTA, the blues waltz Gemini, Gingerbread Boy and When Sonny Is Blue, became jazz standards, adopted by players including Davis and the Adderley brothers.
Heath was born in Philadelphia, began playing the alto saxophone when he was 14, and was making his living with it five years later. His father, Percy Sr, was a car mechanic who played the clarinet in marching bands at weekends and introduced Jimmy to the instrument, and his mother, Arlethia, sang in the local church choir.
Rejected for the second world war draft on account of his slightness, Heath toured with the New Orleans bassist and bandleader Nat Towles’s group in 1945-46, but then formed his own local big band in Philadelphia, modelled on the audacious swing-to-bop chemistry of Gillespie’s new orchestra. Heath’s ensemble included several Philly players who were to become stars later, including Benny Golson and Coltrane.
Heath moved to New York at 22, eventually landing a spot alongside Percy Jr in Gillespie’s big band, and also in the trumpeter’s sextet. During 1947-48, the brothers also played in the bebop trumpeter Howard McGhee’s group, appearing with it at the first Festival International de Jazz in Paris.
In 1950 Heath switched to tenor sax, and his musical identity quickly acquired a more distinctive strength. From 1952 to 1953 he was working with Davis’s band – and though later in the decade arranging and composing took up an increasing proportion of his time, he did co-lead a bop-oriented quintet with another trumpet star, Kenny Dorham. The Davis connection was also periodically re-established, with Heath occasionally deputising for Coltrane in the famous first Davis quintet in 1959 and 1960.
However, Heath’s progress during the 50s was hampered, like that of a number of his jazz contemporaries at the time, by an addiction to heroin. He spent 1955-59 in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, following convictions for dealing. He kicked the habit during that period, learning the flute, and smuggling compositions out of the institution that would turn up on jazz recordings of the era, such as the famous Chet Baker/Art Pepper cool-bop album Playboys.
Probation stipulations following Heath’s release initially stopped him returning to the road, but freelance arranging (for Ray Charles, among others) and studio recording and staff-arranging work for the Riverside label restored his profile.
Heath was thus in his 30s before he recorded under his own name, and on his debut album The Thumper (1960), which featured Nat Adderley on trumpet, he immediately impressed the jazz world with the warm authority of his composing on such striking tracks as For Minors Only.
In his own groups during the 60s, Heath often appeared with his siblings, in ensembles that were sometimes augmented by Nat and Cannonball Adderley, and also by Sun Ra’s saxophonist Pat Patrick. A signature Heath ensemble style began to evolve, built around sonorous, Gil Evans-like low-brass effects, and homages to 30s jazz-orchestral innovators including Jimmie Lunceford.
Much of Heath’s most trenchant tenor-sax improvising on disc was also captured in this period, sounding authoritative and surefooted even up against partners including the young trumpet firebrand Freddie Hubbard and the pianist Wynton Kelly on 60s albums that included The Quota and On the Trail.
In the following decade Heath worked extensively with the trumpeter Art Farmer and pianist Stanley Cowell, with his brother Al on drums – his arranging talents continuing to make small bands sound much larger than they really were. Heath’s son, the singer/percussionist James Mtume, appeared with his father’s bands from the late 70s, as did the guitarist Tony Purrone. There continued to be occasional appearances with Gillespie, and after Gillespie’s death in 1993, Heath celebrated his former employer’s music in tribute concerts at such venues as Lincoln Center in New York.
Writing and arranging occupied Heath extensively in the 80s, but he did sporadically record for the Muse label. His saxophone playing, full of character as ever, became increasing economical and unusual, with as much being said in the pacing and spaces as any note-rammed stream of jazz virtuosity.
In the mid-80s Heath also began expanding the educational work he had begun with the New York jazz-outreach organisation Jazzmobile in 1964. He pioneered a jazz course as a professor at Queens College, City University of New York, remaining in that role until 1998.
His big band continued to perform into the 90s – his composing achievements in that field having included the fine orchestral works Afro-American Suite of Evolution (1975), Smilin’Billy (1976, written with Ornette Coleman’s drummer Billy Higgins in mind) and Praise (1994).
Heath was nominated for Grammy awards three times, and was presented with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award in 2003. His autobiography, I Walked With Giants, was published in 2010.
He is survived by his second wife, Mona Brown, and their daughter Roslyn; and by James, from his first marriage, seven grandchildren seven great-grandchildren and his brother Albert.
• James Edward Heath, saxophonist, born 25 October 1926; died 19 January 2020