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Jazz April Birthday #30: Percy Heath

Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet for its entire run (1952-1974), Percy Heath had only been playing bass for about four years when he joined the band.

Heath also recorded with most of the leading musicians in modern jazz, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

All three Heath brothers were professional musicians.  Percy's first instrument was the violin, and he began playing bass as a student at the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia in 1946, after he served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, where he trained as a pilot.  He was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.  Percy also played cello, which he tuned like a bass.

He moved to New York City in 1947 with his brother Jimmy, a saxophonist and composer, and in 1950 they both joined Dizzy Gillespie's group.  He also worked with his siblings in The Heath Brothers band.

Percy Heath appears on more than 300 recordings.  His only recording as band leader "A Love Song" was released in 2004, just before his 81st birthday.

"The music was so good for so long. I remember standing there between Milt Jackson and John Lewis and wondering if I should really be getting paid for having this much fun." --Percy Heath, interview with Mike Zwerin, 2003

Percy Heath featured on cello:

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.
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