Jimmy Heath, a Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist and composer who performed with such greats as Miles Davis and John Coltrane before forming the popular family group the Heath Brothers in middle age, has died. He was 93.
Heath’s grandson Fa Mtume told The New York Times that he died Sunday (Jan. 19) at his home in Loganville, Georgia. The cause of death was not immediately given.
Heath, a native of Philadelphia, had been playing jazz since the 1940s, in the early days of bebop. He was mentored by Dizzy Gillespie, idolized Charlie Parker, whose nickname was “Bird,” and would become known as “Little Bird” for how well he emulated Parker’s fluid style.
Heath overcame his battles with heroin addiction, which landed him in prison in the mid-1950s, and had a long and productive career. He wrote most of the material for the Chet Baker-Art Pepper album Playboys, recorded with everyone from Davis and Coltrane to Milt Jackson and Gil Evans, worked on charts for Ray Charles, and released several of his own albums.
In the 1970s, he helped found the Heath Brothers, which also featured brothers Percy Heath on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. Their albums included Marchin’ On and the Grammy-nominated Live at the Public Theater. In 1993, he received a Grammy nomination for his own Little Man, Big Band album (Heath stood just 5 feet, 3 inches) and played in a jazz concert at the White House, when President Bill Clinton himself borrowed his saxophone for one number.
In 2003, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, which noted that “By combining his versatile style of performing and his outstanding writing and arranging abilities, he has set a high standard of accomplishment in the jazz field.”
Survivors include Tootie Heath; his second wife, Mona; and a child from each of his marriages. His son from his first marriage, James Mtume, became a Grammy-winning musician and songwriter who helped write the Stephanie Mills hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” Another son, Jeffrey, died in 2010. Percy Heath died in 2005.