Heath has been performing jazz music since the 1940s after he was rejected from the World War II draft for being underweight. The 88-year-old saxophonist went on to work with jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. In 1975, he and his brothers formed a band called Heath Brothers.
Heath is originally from Philadelphia but moved to Queens in 1964 to escape the city and row houses. In fact, fellow musician and trumpeter Clark Terry was the one who helped Heath and his family settle into Corona.
“Clark Terry and I lived in the very same co-op complex,” Heath said. “I wanted to find a place where there were some trees and where I could put my kids in school and Terry was the one to get me here.”
Terry recently passed away at the age of 94. Besides playing his own music, Heath plans to include a tribute to his friend in the program at Flushing Town Hall along with tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. The pieces by Fitzgerald and Bennett were chosen in order to honor some of Queens’ greatest talents.
Many of the Queens Jazz Orchestra members are also members of the Jimmy Heath Big Band. In fact, two of the orchestra’s members are Antonio Hart, a professor of jazz studies, and Michael Mossman, the director of jazz studies, both at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. In the 1980s, Heath was a professor at the school and was one of the individuals to spearhead the creation of a jazz program at the college. Hart was one of Heath’s students.
“It’s always been important to teach jazz,” Heath said. “I was fortunate enough to have mentors before they started to have jazz programs in the universities.
“During my time, you’d have to go out and perform in the jazz clubs throughout the world and learn from doing instead of having somebody tell you what to do.”
Some of Heath’s favorite countries where he’s performed includes Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Australia and China. Two weeks ago, he returned from Cologne, Germany, where he played alongside the WDR Big Band for a DVD project.
It’s surprising to hear that although he’s been performing for decades, Heath finds it to be a constant struggle.
“You always have to be your best and present music that is understood by your audience without watering your own concept too much,” he said. “You have to find a happy medium of presenting music that you think is good plus what the audience wants.”
And while he has nothing against people’s taste in music, he’s found that taste changes in every generation.
“The audience now is less musical than it used to be, in that popular music of today is usually a beat with somebody rapping or talking over it,” Heath said. “There’s not enough melody or harmony in today’s music than it was in my time.”
In terms of present day musicians, there are a few artists that Heath is a fan of. He’s a Beyoncé fan and enjoys a number of songs that rapper Ludacris put out about a decade ago. He thanks his family for keeping him up with current music.
“When you have grandchildren and great children, they tell you who’s doing what and you take it or you leave it,” he said.
As for now, Heath and his band are going to try to entertain the audience at Flushing Town Hall with a variety of music such as historical and contemporary sounds.
In the future, he’ll be performing in Connecticut and Chicago. And he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“The only time I’m slowing down is when life is over.”