Albert Heath, jazz drum virtuoso, is dead at 88

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Albert Heath, jazz drum virtuoso, is dead at 88
He accompanied stars like John Coltrane and worked frequently with his brothers. “I’ve always thought I was a master,” he once said. Few disagreed.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Albert Heath, a virtuoso jazz drummer who collaborated with luminaries such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone and Herbie Hancock; performed and recorded with his older brothers, Percy and Jimmy; and for a few years played alongside Percy in one of the great jazz ensembles, the Modern Jazz Quartet, died Wednesday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 88.

The cause of his death, at a hospital, was leukemia, his stepson Curt Flood Jr. said.

Heath, who was known as Tootie, was primarily a bebop and hard bop drummer but was adept in a range of styles. In 2020, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, an honor that his brothers had received earlier.

He accepted the news with a mixture of humility and self-confidence.

“I am honored that they acknowledged me,” he told The Santa Fe New Mexican, “but it doesn’t mean anything because I’ve always thought I was a master.”

Heath’s career had its origins with his family in Philadelphia, where his father played clarinet in an Elks marching band, his mother sang in a church choir and his brother Jimmy, a saxophonist, brought members of his big band — including his fellow saxophonist John Coltrane — to the Heaths’ house.

“They’d have section rehearsals in our parents’ house because it wasn’t big enough to have the whole band in there, 18 pieces or so,” Heath said in an interview with the website All About Jazz in 2015. “So the trumpets would come one day, the reeds the next. The drummers and the bassists would be there a third day.”

His career began early. As a teenager, Tootie — he was given the nickname by his paternal grandfather because he loved tutti-frutti ice cream — played a weeklong gig as part of a pickup ensemble backing Thelonious Monk at the Blue Note in Philadelphia. Monk did not tell the musicians what he wanted them to play.

“He never turned around and said hello,” Heath said in an interview for the NEA in 2021. “He never turned around and said, ‘Thank you,’ ‘Goodbye,’ ‘I hated you guys’ or ‘I liked you guys,’ or whatever, and I never heard him say a word in the microphone to anybody.”

In 1957, when Coltrane was working with Heath, pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers at a club in Philadelphia, he hired them for what became the album “Coltrane,” his first as a leader.

Over the next two years, Heath began a prolific career as a session musician, appearing on albums by Garland (“Groovy”), saxophonist Cannonball Adderley (“Cannonball Takes Charge”), Coltrane (“Lush Life”) and Simone (“Little Girl Blue”).

He went on to perform with trombonist J.J. Johnson’s band and, briefly, with the Jazztet, a sextet led by trumpeter Art Farmer and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson.

Reviewing a Jazztet performance in San Francisco in 1961, Russ Wilson of The Oakland Tribune described Heath’s drumming as “extraordinary.” He added, “Besides fast hands and excellent rhythm, he is graced with the good taste that marks great drummers and is evidenced by their willingness to subordinate their sound to that of the group.”

Heath left for Europe in 1965 and stayed there for a decade, living in Sweden and Denmark. He found more opportunities to perform there and in Western Europe than he had in the United States, where he had to deal with racism, Flood said in a phone interview. In Europe, Flood said, “He was treated like a rock star.”

He returned often enough to become part of Hancock’s sextet in the late 1960s and to record two albums with him, “The Prisoner” and “Fat Albert Rotunda.”

In 1970, Heath released his first album as a leader, “Kawaida” (Hancock and Jimmy Heath were among the musicians who accompanied him). Three years later he released another, “Kwanza (The First).” His other albums included “Tootie’s Tempo” (2013) and “Philadelphia Beat” (2014), with Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass.

Albert William Heath was born May 31, 1935, in Philadelphia. His father, Percy Sr., was an auto mechanic. His mother, Arlethia (Wall) Heath, was a hairdresser. His brother Jimmy, who was eight years older, was his first music teacher, but he also took lessons from Specs Wright, the drummer in Jimmy’s band.

Albert, Jimmy and Percy had played together on occasion, but in 1975 they made their partnership official when they formed the Heath Brothers, initially with Stanley Cowell on piano.

Their freewheeling brand of jazz was captured on several albums, including “Marchin’ On” (1975), “Passin’ Thru (1978) and “Straight Ahead” (2009), which was released after Percy died in 2005.

In a review of the brothers’ performance, with Jeb Patton on piano, at the Village Vanguard in 2003, Ben Ratliff of The New York Times wrote, “Albert cultivated a solo from the barest rustling, beginning with tambourine and bass drum alone; it represented the antithesis of most drummers’ showcases, never getting loud.”

Heath joined the Modern Jazz Quartet, of which Percy was a founding member, in 1994, after the quartet’s longtime drummer Connie Kay died. He remained until the quartet broke up in 1997.

In addition to Flood, Heath, who lived in Santa Fe, is survived by his wife, Beverly (Collins) Johnson Heath, whom he married in 1976, after her divorces from baseball player Curt Flood and Richard Johnson; two sons, Jens Heath, from his marriage to Anita Petersson, which ended in divorce in 1974, and Jonas Liedberg, from his relationship with Margaretta Liedberg; two stepdaughters, Shelly and Debbie Flood; another stepson, Scott Flood; a sister, Elizabeth Heath, nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Over the past 25 years, Albert Heath led a trio, with Iverson and Street, and the Whole Drum Truth, an all-drum ensemble with a rotating membership.

“You should pay attention to music from all around the world that use different drums,” Heath told The New Mexican in 2020. “There are a lot of different types of folk music and music of different countries that drummers should be astute to.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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