Mr. Heath, whose compositions became part of the midcentury jazz canon, found new prominence in middle age as a co-leader of a band with his two brothers.
Jimmy Heath at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards ceremony in Manhattan in 2013. Besides performing, he was also known for his abilities as a composer and arranger.Joshua Bright for The New York Times
Jimmy Heath, a tenor saxophonist whose sharp and lively compositions became part of the midcentury jazz canon — and who found new prominence in middle age as a co-leader of a popular band with his two brothers — died on Sunday at his home in Loganville, Ga. He was 93.
His grandson Fa Mtume confirmed his death.
Mr. Heath’s saxophone sound was spare but playful, with a beaming tone that exuded both joy and command. But his reputation rested equally on his abilities as a composer and arranger for large ensembles, interpolating bebop’s crosshatched rhythms and extended improvisations into lush tapestries.
He was a teenager touring the Midwestern dance circuit with the Nat Towles Orchestra in the 1940s when he became enamored with arranging. At first he could hardly read music, but he proved a quick study.
When a particular harmony struck him, he hounded his fellow horn players to tell him what notes they were playing, then pieced together the chords on sheet music. Before long he was writing for a 16-piece band of his own, whose lineup included the future saxophone luminaries John Coltrane and Benny Golson.
His career in many ways tracked the life cycle of postwar jazz in the United States. After touring with dance bands, he moved on to the fresher, more cosmopolitan bebop style, playing in groups led by the trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
Originally an alto saxophonist, he earned the nickname Little Bird for his ability to emulate the fleet playing of the bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, known as Bird. He soon switched to the tenor, partly to skirt the comparisons, and established himself as a central figure on the New York scene.
In the mid-1970s, when R&B and rock had eclipsed jazz’s popularity, he founded the Heath Brothers with his older brother, Percy, a bassist, and his younger brother, Albert, known as Tootie, a drummer. That band welcomed the electric instruments and strutting rhythms of a younger generation into its own distinctive style, which hopscotched between straight-ahead jazz and soulful fusion.
And when jazz began its ascent into the academy, Mr. Heath was among the veterans who shepherded the transition. In 1964 he became a founding faculty member at Jazzmobile, an organization that presented concerts and classes to young people in Harlem. Decades later he helped forge Queens College’s jazz studies program.
An avid communicator, Mr. Heath was particularly wily with wordplay. He called the trumpeter Roy Hargrove “Roy Hardgroove.” The drummer Grady Tate became “Gravy Taker” because he snatched up so many good-paying gigs.
Mr. Heath titled his autobiography, written with Joseph McLarin and published in 2010, “I Walked With Giants,” a playful reference to his 5-foot-3 stature as well as to the fact that he spent much of his life working alongside the most lauded names in jazz.
Reflecting on his long career, Mr. Heath often said that although he never achieved as much renown as some of his contemporaries, he was satisfied. “You become an icon when you’re dead,” he told NPR Music in 2014. “I always say I’d rather be an acorn, and be alive.”
Yet from the 1990s on, he did enjoy recognition as a jazz eminence. In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.
To his students, Mr. Heath was an ambassador from an earlier time who never lost his hunger for fresh inspiration. He often said most of his songs were inspired by the people he met. One song was named simply “Nice People.”
James Edward Heath was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 25, 1926. His father, Percy, was a mechanic and laborer who played clarinet in the local Elks Club band; his mother, Arlethia, sang in their church’s choir. Jimmy moved to New York at 22, eventually landing a spot alongside his brother Percy in Gillespie’s pioneering bebop big band. Gillespie became Mr. Heath’s primary mentor.
Around this time, Mr. Heath’s life off the bandstand took a turn. After the breakup of his first marriage, he sought solace in heroin, which was then prevalent on the jazz scene. Even as gigs with the likes of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown raised his standing, his habit overtook him.
In 1955 he was imprisoned on drug charges. He kicked his addiction in prison, and as leader of the penitentiary’s big band he spent much of his time writing tunes and arrangements, as well as learning the flute.
He would sometimes smuggle out compositions and arrangements by giving them to his brother Tootie during family visits. The charts quickly made their way onto a few popular records, including Chet Baker and Art Pepper’s 1956 album “Playboys,” which included mostly Mr. Heath’s tunes and was later reissued as “Picture of Heath.”
Mr. Heath returned to Philadelphia drug-free in 1959, but the terms of his probation prevented him from touring. He was forced to pass up a spot as Coltrane’s replacement in the Miles Davis sextet that recorded the celebrated album “Kind of Blue.”
So he made his own way, mostly in the studio. He released a string of well-received albums for Riverside Records, featuring compositions like “Gingerbread Boy” and “For Minors Only” that would become staples of the jazz repertoire. Even when he recorded with just a sextet, his crafty arrangements gave the sense of a chattering, wall-to-wall conversation among bandmates.
He also found freelance arranging work, writing charts for Ray Charles and others. Eventually he became a staff arranger at Riverside.
On the day he left prison, Mr. Heath met Mona Brown, a visual artist, whom he married the next year.She was white, and her parents refused to attend the couple’s wedding; after the marriage, they stopped speaking to her. Eventually she and Mr. Heath moved to an apartment in Corona, Queens, where they would live for more than 50 years. She survives him.
In addition to her and his grandson Fa Mtume, he is survived by their daughter, Roslyn Heath-Cammorto; a son from his first marriage, James Mtume, a percussionist, vocalist and songwriter with whom he occasionally collaborated; his brother Tootie; six other grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Another son, Jeffrey, died in 2010. Percy Heath died in 2005.
Jimmy Heath and his wife had moved to Georgia three years ago.
At Town Hall in 1976, Mr. Heath presented the premiere of his first long-form piece, “The Afro-American Suite of Evolution.” John S. Wilson of The New York Times called it “an illustrative survey for which Mr. Heath showed his versatility by composing segments that caught the spirit of the various periods.” Mr. Heath considered the concert to be a turning point in his career.
The Heath Brothers released their debut album, “Marchin’ On,” that same year. The group featured Percy, who had become one of the world’s best-known bassists through his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet; Tootie, who had recently worked with Herbie Hancock; and the pianist Stanley Cowell. The album included Jimmy’s four-part “Smiling Billy Suite” (dedicated to the drummer Billy Higgins), which laced saxophone, flute and the Central African mbira, or thumb piano, into a viscous groove.
“It was a time of transition in the jazz world,” Mr. Heath wrote in his autobiography. “I was trying to evolve and create music that was acceptable to the generation of the ’60s and ’70s. In fact, I’ve been told by certain people that they started listening to jazz as a result of what the Heath Brothers were recording.”
The band went through a series of personnel changes; Tootie left after two albums and a guitarist, Tony Purrone, came on board, as did Mtume, Mr. Heath’s son, on percussion and vocals. The Heath Brothers’ Columbia album “Live at the Public Theater,” released in 1980, was nominated for a Grammy.
The group went on hiatus in the mid-1980s, after Percy Heath joined a reunited Modern Jazz Quartet, but the three brothers came together again in the late 1990s. Tootie and Jimmy continued to record and perform after Percy’s death.
Mr. Heath took over the fledgling jazz program at Queens College in 1986, helping to create its master’s curriculum. His 10 years there were his most fertile period as a composer of large-scale works.
In 1993, his Verve album “Little Man, Big Band” was nominated for a Grammy. Also that year, he jammed with President Bill Clinton at a White House jazz concert produced by the Thelonious Monk Institute, where he served on the board of advisers.
Mr. Clinton borrowed Mr. Heath’s saxophone to play on a blues number and, with Mr. Heath’s help, found the right key. As Mr. Heath recalled in his book, “He stumbled, but he landed on his feet.”
Mariel Padilla contributed reporting.
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