Percy Heath: Modern Jazz Quartet bassist Born: April 30, 1923 in Wilmington, NC

Died: April 28, 2005 in Southampton, NY

By Todd S. Jenkins

Bassist Percy Heath was the Modern Jazz Quartet’s secret weapon, perhaps the most subtle member of an outfit known for its hip delicacy. An ideal rhythm section partner, and the last surviving member of the MJQ, “Big P” died of bone cancer on April 28, 2005, two days shy of his 82nd birthday.

Heath was the eldest of three musical brothers, the others being saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Their father, a clarinetist, and mother, a church singer, encouraged the boys to pursue music early on. Percy’s first instrument was the violin, which he played until he entered the service. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, based out of the Army Air Corps in Alabama. Following his discharge, Heath enrolled at Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music, where he began playing the bass for the first time.

It didn’t take long for Heath to adjust to the large instrument; soon, in fact, he was gigging around Philly and working as house bassist for the Downbeat club. In 1947 he and brother Jimmy ventured to the bigger streets of New York, where they immersed themselves in the swelling bebop scene. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were among the first New Yorkers to call upon Percy for rhythm support. Trumpeter Howard McGhee hired both brothers and took them to Europe to perform at Paris’ first-ever jazz festival.

In 1950 the brothers joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band, where they met several like-minded musicians. One of them, pianist John Lewis, had recently worked withMiles Davis in exploring a more reserved, cerebral form that was being dubbed “cool jazz”. Lewis was interested in delving further into those ideas with a chamber jazz ensemble, and he asked Percy if he would be interested in joining. The bassist agreed. Vibraphonist Milt “Bags” Jackson and drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke rounded out the first lineup of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which became the principal outlet for the four men’s talents from 1952 through 1974.

In the MJQ Heath’s subtle drive melded beautifully with the drumming of Clarke, and even better with the more pristine Connie Kay who took over the drum stool in 1955. In spirit, if not in melodic leads and composing, Heath was an equal contributor to the all-rhythm quartet, which crafted such timeless tunes as “Django” and “The Golden Striker”. Heath took occasional side jobs, such as his surprisingly effective role on Ornette Coleman’s second album, Something Else!(Contemporary, 1956). He appeared with Jackson on Miles Davis’ Bag’s Groove(1954), graced Sonny Rollins’ The Sound of Sonny (1957), and played on more than three hundred other sessions in the course of his career.

When the MJQ disbanded in 1974, their fortunes wavering, Heath decided to work more with his brothers. The Heath Brothers band was formed soon thereafter, filled out by players like pianist Stanley Cowell and guitarist Tony Purrone (Brotherly Love, Antilles, 1981). Percy became more prominent, taking the lead on certain tunes and playing the cello as a pizzicato instrument as Oscar Pettiford had successfully done in the 1950s. The Heath Brothers continued to tour and record after the MJQ’s much-heralded reunion in 1981. Brother Tootie became the MJQ’s drummer in 1994 after Connie Kay’s passing, but not long afterwards, when Percy announced that he was tired of touring, the legendary quartet was permanently dissolved.

Following his retirement, Heath continued to play at times with his brothers, though most of his days were spent relaxing at his home in Montauk, New York. In 2002 Heath realized the longtime dream of leading his own record date, A Love Song (Daddy Jazz, 2004).

Percy Heath is survived by his brothers, Jimmy and Albert; his wife, June; and his sons, Percy III, Jason and Stuart.



Percy Heath, (30 April 1923 - 28 April 2005), was a jazz musician, famous for position as double bass player for the Modern Jazz Quartet.

He was the brother of tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and drummer Albert Heath, with whom he formed the Heath Brothers in 1975. Heath also worked with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery and Thelonious Monk. At the age of 81, he released his first album as bandleader through the Daddy Jazz label. The album, titled A Love Song, garnered rave reviews and served as a fitting coda for Heath's illustrious career.

Heath was born in Wilmington, North Carolina and spent his childhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father played the clarinet and his mother sang in the church choir. He started playing violin at age 8 and also sang locally. He was drafted into the Army in 1944, becoming a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, but saw no combat.

Deciding after the war to go into music, he bought a stand-up bass and enrolled in the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia. Soon he was playing in the city's jazz clubs with leading artists. In Chicago in 1948, he recorded with his brother on a Milt Jackson album as members of the Howard McGhee Sextet. After moving to New York in the late 1940s, Percy and Jimmy Heath found work with Dizzy Gillespie's groups. Around this time, he was also a member of Joe Morris's band, together with Johnny Griffin.

It transpired that other members of the Gillespie big band, pianist John Lewis, drummer Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, and bassist Ray Brown, decided to form a permanent group; they were already becoming known for their interludes during Gillespie band performances that, as says, gave the rest of the band much-needed set breaks---that would eventually become known as the Modern Jazz Quartet. When Brown left the group to join his wife Ella Fitzgerald's band, Heath joined and the group was officially begun in 1952, with Connie Kay replacing Clarke soon afterward. The MJQ played regularly until it disbanded in 1974; it reformed in 1981 and last recorded in 1993.

In 1975, Percy Heath and his brothers formed the Heath Brothers with pianist Stanley Cowell. He would sometimes play the cello instead of the bass in these later performances.

He died, after a second bout with bone cancer, two days short of his 82nd birthday, in Southampton, New York.

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The Modern Jazz Quartet Live, The Modern Jazz QuartetRare Treasures, The Modern Jazz QuartetThe Modern Jazz Quartet At Music Inn With Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 - EP, Sonny RollinsPyramid, The Modern Jazz QuartetBlues On Bach, The Modern Jazz Quartet


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