Jazz Saxophone Legend Jimmy Heath Has Died The saxophonist and composer — an artist who wrote for Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and who nurtured John Coltrane — died Sunday at age 93.
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Jazz Saxophone Legend Jimmy Heath Has Died

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Jazz Saxophone Legend Jimmy Heath Has Died

Jazz Saxophone Legend Jimmy Heath Has Died

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath died of natural causes this morning at his home in Georgia. He was 93 years old. In a career that spanned seven decades, Heath was a prolific performer, composer and bandleader. He played with some of the biggest names in jazz, like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. From New York, Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Jimmy Heath is best known as a saxophonist, but he wrote and arranged music throughout his life. In 2013, when he was 87 years old, he told me it was important to be a complete musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIMMY HEATH: Not just to stand up and improvise, you know? You got to compose. I want to be a person who can compose and leave something here for posterity.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY HEATH BIG BAND'S "A SOUND FOR SORE EARS")

VITALE: Heath left hundreds of compositions that were performed by his own bands and others. Phil Schaap is curator of jazz at Lincoln Center. He says one of Jimmy Heath's most important contributions was bringing the bebop revolution of the 1940s to succeeding generations.

PHIL SCHAAP: Moses is dead. The tablets are still here. Well, Jimmy Heath read the commandments of jazz, and he got the tablets from the great prophets. And he used them his way to great benefit. And he even fed it back towards the prophets, you know. Miles Davis used his stuff. Charlie Parker used his stuff. And John Coltrane was nurtured by Jimmy Heath.

VITALE: James Edward Heath was born October 25, 1926, in Philadelphia. His sister, Elizabeth, played piano. His older brother, Percy, played violin and bass. And his younger brother, Tootie, played the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HEATH: Yeah, my father played the clarinet. He was an auto mechanic for a living, but he played the clarinet on weekends. He'd get it out of the pawn shop and play in a marching band in Philadelphia. But my mother sang in a church choir. And we were privileged (ph) to have all these great recordings in our home, you know? We heard all the bands. The big bands were prominent at that time.

VITALE: Jimmy Heath developed a big sound on his saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY HEATH'S AND CLIFFORD BROWN'S "TURNPIKE")

VITALE: But he was a little man, 5-foot-3. For most of his life, his colleagues on the bandstand called him Shorty and Little Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HEATH: My father told me about that. He was a small guy. He says, Jimmy, you just got to work harder as a little person 'cause the big guys get all of the girls, all of the gigs. They get everything. But if you pursue your profession and your music, like I do every day, you can overcome these myths.

VITALE: Jimmy Heath had to overcome more than myths. He beat a very real heroin habit and went on to perform and record for more than half a century. He also taught for 20 years at Queens College in New York. Heath said the reason he was able to do all that was simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HEATH: I'm going to do this till I leave. This is all I love. It's a matter of love. If you love what you do and you can make a living at it, what's better?

VITALE: And Jimmy Heath was one of the best.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY HEATH BIG BAND'S "LOVER MAN")

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