Albert “Tootie” Heath
The youngest of the Heath Brothers, ALBERT “TOOTIE” HEATH was raised in a close musical household. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Philadelphia – despite its infamous blue laws – was a hotbed for Jazz, with an abundance of outstanding musicians, a thriving nightlife, and a frequent destination for New York artists. Older brother Jimmy was beginning to helm his own big band, transcribing and playing the recorded arrangements of Dizzy Gillespie.
A true “big band,” they were forced to have sectional rehearsals in the Heath residence at 1927 Federal Street, since the combined living / dining room space wasn’t big enough to accommodate the whole group. “So the trumpets would come one day, the reeds the next. The drummer and the bassist would be there a third day…I would come home from school and here’s these guys with all of these saxophones out, and the music all over the dining room table…That was one of the major influences for me to be interested in Jazz,” Tootie recalls. Their mother Alethia provided home-cooked meals for the musicians.
At 14, Heath acquired his first drum set, and his primary teacher was the noted drummer Specs Wright. At 16, he was working in his first band – the Bebop Trio – right across the street at Lincoln Post American Legion hall. “We got paid $7.50 for the three of us, and we couldn’t play anything,” he reminisces. “Somehow, myself and trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonist Sam Reed, who were my schoolmates, had an opportunity to play at this place…they’d heard us rehearsing or something, but they liked it…So that was my first professional job! And I’ll never forget that. That’s a real strange instrumentation. I mean, most people need the bass, and a lot of people like a piano in there or some melodic instrument, and we didn’t have any of that…I was trying to be Max Roach as hard as I could. And I couldn’t even keep time…I don’t see how we got paid for it, I really don’t. You know, when I reflect back on it, it had to be just awful…but at the time…I thought we were doing something…We can get paid doing this!”
Heath’s serious musical education began in the early ‘50s when he was part of the house rhythm section at Philadelphia’s legendary Showboat, backing touring Jazz stars. “I was with people where I was outclassed most of the time I was on the bandstand, and they were still so kind to me,” he says. “I learned so much.” At Philly’s Blue Note, he played a week with Thelonious Monk. In 1957, Tootie moved to New York, replaced Elvin Jones in J.J. Johnson’s band, and first recorded on John Coltrane’s debut album. Heath subsequently relocated to Copenhagen, working six nights a week in Sweden and Denmark, prompted by a club owner requesting that Tootie join a house trio backing visiting headlining musicians Sonny Rollins, Yusef Lateef, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.
Returning to the U.S. in the ’70s, Tootie played with Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and later helped form the Heath Brothers, “the family tree, the experience we had with our family…our mother and father. We had a lot of stuff in common and we could play together like we knew each other inside and out.”
Philadelphia Beat is the latest recording with his current trio, recorded in Philadelphia and encompassing a variety of styles. Tootie recently moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico from Los Angeles. The nickname comes from his grandfather, who said “toot toot” upon seeing Albert for the first time.