Obituary: Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath

    The tutti-frutti loving drummer provided undemonstrative propulsion for Coltrane, Lateef and the MJQ and brushed out the beat for Nina Simone

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    Albert Heath at the Montreux jazz festival in 1970 as part of the Yusef Lateef Quartet. Photo © Harry Monty

    Youngest of the three Heath brothers, Albert “Tootie” Heath died in Santa Fey, New Mexico, 3 April 2024 at the age of 88. Born in Philadelphia 31 May 1935, Albert played hard-bop style drums in various combos, including, in 1975, the Heath Brothers band with tenor saxophonist Jimmy and Percy on double bass. They stayed and played together for three decades, recording and appearing at concerts and in clubs. In an interview with him conducted in 2009 Albert said “I always felt that this music was a tradition that was handed down to me by my family.” His father played clarinet and Albert described his dad as “a weekend clarinettist”. During the week he was an auto mechanic. His mother sang in a choir at the Baptist church.

    Al Heath was known throughout his career as Tootie, a nickname he claimed his grandfather had given him because of his love of tutti-frutti ice cream as a child. He first got into jazz by paying attention to his older brothers, who were listening to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ben Webster and Don Byas. The drummers he listened to were Max Roach, Art Blakey and Specs Wright, the latter a local Philadelphia percussionist who was in Jimmy’s band and took Albert on as a student. There was always music in the Heath home when the brothers were very young with records by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson being played regularly and instruments available for the boys to play from an early age.

    The Heath home in Philadelphia was always open house and musicians went there to jam and practise. John Coltrane visited often as he was a close friend of Jimmy Heath. While still a teenager Albert became house drummer at the Blue Note club in Philadelphia. It was there that he got the chance to play with visiting musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Lester Young. On his 22nd birthday he made his recording debut on Coltrane’s eponymous first album as a leader, for the Prestige label. Later the same year he accompanied Nina Simone on her first studio album, and it was Albert who played the crisp, shuffling brushes on her hit record My Baby Just Cares For Me.

    Settled in New York by 1960, Albert joined the Jazztet, a popular group co led by trumpeter Art Farmer and tenorist Benny Golson. He began to get several club gigs then and recorded frequently. One highly successful album was The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery, where Heath linked up with brother Percy and pianist Tommy Flanagan to provide a turbo-charged rhythm section. Asked in an interview how he got that gig Albert said he couldn’t remember. He then said “Maybe Orrin Keepnews called me when Philly Joe Jones didn’t show up or something.” He added that Art Taylor once joked that his whole career was based on Philly Joe not turning up.

    Albert went on a world tour with The Modern Jazz Quartet for the last two years of their existence, replacing Connie Kay. He adapted to their way of playing after guidance from pianist John Lewis. It wasn’t easy. Lewis and Milt Jackson were, apparently, always falling out as Lewis wanted to play more of his longer compositions and Jackson just wanted to play his blues pieces. According to Albert, the two had to be kept apart constantly, travelling in different cars but coming together successfully as soon as they started to play. Such are the ways of the jazz life. Albert “Tootie” Heath though, seems to have negotiated the jazz life successfully. In addition to his known recordings there is a sparkling session, just issued on Resonance Records, featuring Yusef Lateef live in Avignon, France that has Tootie on drums and, on one track, playing Indian flute.

    Heath claimed that drummers had a responsibility to be happy. “We think we need to make everything happen,” he told an interviewer in 2009. “But it’s not true; everything is already happening – all you need to do is find your place.” Albert Heath found his place quickly. He wasn’t loud or dominant like Blakey, Roach or Philly Joe although he admired all three. He was though, a steady, swinging drummer who could drive a band without excessive volume levels.