How Drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath Learned to Play Jazz

Albert "Tootie" Heath plays two sets at Dazzle on Saturday, April 7.
Michael Perez
Albert "Tootie" Heath plays two sets at Dazzle on Saturday, April 7.
The list of jazz legends that 82-year-old drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath has gigged with over six decades is extensive. Early on in his career, Heath, younger brother of saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Percy Heath, cut his teeth around Philadelphia with heavies like Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant. He says while he was still in high school, he got a chance to play a weeklong stint with Thelonious Monk at the Blue Note in Philadelphia.

Charles “Specs” Wright, who took Heath under his wing and gave him drum lessons, was on the road with singer Carmen McRae and couldn’t make the Monk shows, so he asked Heath if he wanted to fill in for him.

“He said, ‘Man, you want to play with Monk?’” I said, ‘Of course!’ But I was a little nervous about it because Monk was such a huge hero and I loved his music. I’ve known about Thelonious all my life. He said, ‘You can do it. Go ahead and do it.’”

Heath recalls Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a jazz patron known as “Nica” and a good friend of Monk’s, driving Monk to the gigs.

“Nica used to drive in from New York in the Bentley, and he would sit out in front of the club until maybe five to ten minutes before the time to start, and then he would come in, and we would just start playing,” Heath says. “He spent all his intermissions out in the car with her.”

After moving to New York when he was nineteen years old, Heath landed a job in trombonist J.J. Johnson’s sextet after Elvin Jones left the drum chair. “It was really interesting and a learning tool for me to really learn how to play with a group," Heath says.

During the mid-’50s, Heath played on the debut albums of both Nina Simone and John Coltrane. Since Coltrane had played in a band with Jimmy Heath, he knew about the younger drummer’s skills.

“So when he did his first recording as a leader, he used me on it as a drummer, which I was surprised and very excited about, because Philly Joe [Jones] was available, and all those other people were available,” Heath says. “And he chose me, and that was quite an achievement for me. I was really excited and pretty nervous about that recording because of the people who were on it. Paul Chambers, for instance, was the top bass player of that time, and I think Mal Waldron was on one side of it. Maybe Red Garland was on one, too. But Mal Waldron was a New Yorker, and a trumpet player named Johnnie Splawn, and baritone was Sahib Shihab. I was pretty nervous, and honored to be chosen to be on that recording.”

While Jimmy Heath helped connect his younger brother with Coltrane, he also introduced him to many jazz legends who would drop by the family’s house when they were in town for gigs, including some of the world’s best drummers, like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke, who talked to a young Heath about the drums.

“He always said I had a particular intelligence about playing the drums, which I had no idea I had, because all I knew is that I could copy whatever Max Roach and Art Blakey did to a certain extent,” Heath says of Clarke. “But I never played in a group that played that music that they played. But Kenny Clarke said that I had a lot of talent, and I was a good potential drummer. He said that in his book, so that was really quite a compliment from him.”

Heath says he learned by listening to the albums of Blakey and Roach, but he credits his brother Jimmy as the main person he was really trying to mimic, because he was into music more than anyone he knew.

“Between Jimmy’s friends and Jimmy himself, they were my teachers,” Heath says. “I hadn’t even started to play yet. But I could experience them playing. Then I figured out maybe I should try to play the drums. Jimmy didn’t give me much help on the drums, but musically he gave me a lot of help.

“He always told me to learn the piano as well, so that I could learn some harmony and write a little bit. I tried that, but that was more difficult for me than playing the drums. I think the drums came easy for me, plus I was able to establish myself quicker playing drums than playing piano. So I did, and I got more opportunities to play with people playing the drums. Nobody ever called me to play piano.”

Heath last performed at Dazzle in 2014, with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street, with whom he recorded two albums: 2013's Tootie's Tempo and 2015's Philadelphia Beat. He'll play at the venue again on Saturday, April 7; this time around, he’ll be joined by pianist Emmet Cohen and bassist Russell Hall. Three months ago, the three musicians, along with saxophonist Benny Golson, recorded Masters Legacy Series Vol. 3 Featuring Benny Golson and Tootie Heath.

“It was quite interesting, because I hadn’t played with Benny in many years,” Heath says. “Benny is also from Philadelphia, and I was also in his group, the Jazztet, with he and Art Farmer back in the ’60s and ’70s. We did a few recordings and a little traveling. I haven’t played with Benny in years. It was quite an honor to be on a recording with him. I think he played beautifully, and so did Emmet.”

Tootie Heath Trio, featuring Emmet Cohen and Russell Hall, 6:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, April 7, Dazzle, 303-839-5100, $15-$35.