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Percy Heath

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Percy Heath, (April 30, 1923 – April 28, 2005), was a jazz musician, most famous for his 40+ years as the double bass player for the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). He is the brother of tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and drummer Tootie Heath, with whom he formed the Heath Brothers in 1975. Heath also worked with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, 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. 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, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, and Ray Brown, decided to form a group that would eventually become known as the Modern Jazz Quartet. When Ray Brown left the group to join his wife Ella Fitzgerald’s band, Percy Heath joined and the group was officially begun in 1952. The MJQ played regularly until its disbanding in 1974.

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