In the room he uses as a practice space and office in his apartment in Corona, Queens, Jimmy Heath recalls a hit record from long ago.
“It’s a song Bill Farrell, a popular singer, had years ago,” he says, and then sings: “You’ve changed, you’re not the angel I once knew / No need to tell me that we’re through / It’s all over now, you’ve changed.” Then the 5’3″ musician with the big sound picks up his tenor saxophone and blows.
When “You’ve Changed” was a hit song in 1949, Heath was a 23-year-old bebopper, a disciple of the new jazz pioneered by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Heath played alto then, and already had his own big band in Philadelphia. John Coltrane was a sideman in Heath’s band, and at the end of 1949, they both joined the orchestra of their idol, Dizzy.
“We were actually second string beboppers,” Heath says. “Because we had heard Dizzy and Bird and they had set such a high curve to all of us who wanted to be like that — Trane and myself — we all were trying to be like them.”
Because he played alto in the style of Parker, whose nickname was Bird, and because he’s small in stature, Heath became known as Little Bird. When he left Dizzy’s band, he switched to tenor saxophone.
“I wanted to get away from being called Little Bird,” Heath says. “I liked the idea at first, but I wanted to be Jimmy Heath. So, I say, ‘Well, I’ll get the tenor and try this,’ and you know, lo and behold, I still sounded like Bird on tenor.”
But Jimmy Heath is more than an instrumentalist. He composes, arranges and orchestrates.
By Tom Vitale
Originally published at NPR.org