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Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath obituary

Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath performing with the Heath Brothers at the New Orleans jazz and heritage festival in 2005. Photograph: Clayton Call/Redferns

Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath performing with the Heath Brothers at the New Orleans jazz and heritage festival in 2005. Photograph: Clayton Call/Redferns© Photograph: Clayton Call/Redferns

The drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who has died aged 88, was a member of one of the most distinguished American jazz families. Where the Detroit scene had its Joneses (the brothers Thad, Hank and Elvin) and New Orleans its Marsalises (Ellis and his sons Wynton, Branford, Jason and Delfeayo), Philadelphia had the Heaths.

Albert, universally known since childhood as Tootie, was the youngest of the three brothers who would each go on to be awarded the status of Jazz Master by the US National Endowment for the Arts.

The oldest, Percy, born in 1923, spent 40 years playing double bass with the celebrated Modern Jazz Quartet in concert halls around the world. Jimmy, born three years after Percy, played tenor saxophone in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis before becoming a jazz educator and a bandleader in his own right.

Tootie, born in 1935, was the latecomer, and not until 1975, when all three had long since established their reputations, did they come together to form a band called the Heath Brothers, touring and recording for the next three decades.

Their father, Percy Heath Sr, was a motor mechanic who played the clarinet in a marching band at weekends. Their mother, Arlethia (nee Wall), sang in a Baptist church choir. Music was ever present in the household, with the records of Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington on the gramophone and instruments for the sons to play from an early age.

When 15-year-old Jimmy formed a big band, the parents welcomed their boys’ friends into the house for rehearsals. Some, such as John Coltrane and Benny Golson, Jimmy’s contemporaries, friends and fellow saxophonists, would become world-famous. The infant Albert would sit at his toy drum kit, listening to them and taking it all in.

His maternal grandfather gave him the nickname Tootie on account of his love of tutti-frutti ice cream. It stuck, along with the love of music. He began studying the trombone but took up the drums seriously at 11 years old, and before long he was able to sneak in to local clubs to hear such famous bebop drummers as Max Roach and Kenny Clarke. The drummer with his brother Jimmy’s band, Charles “Specs” Wright, became his teacher.

While still in his teens, Tootie was installed as the house drummer at the Blue Note club in Philadelphia, where he played with such visiting stars as Thelonious Monk and Lester Young. In New York, on his 22nd birthday, he made his recording debut on Coltrane’s first album as a leader. Later that year, accompanying the singer and pianist Nina Simone on her first studio album, the laconic slap of his wire brushes on a snare drum propelled the irresistible shuffle of My Baby Just Cares for Me to its enduring popularity.

Settled in New York, in 1960 he joined the Jazztet, a popular sextet co-led by Golson and the trumpeter Art Farmer, with whom he appeared at the Newport Jazz festival. Among the albums to which he contributed were The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), Kenny Dorham’s Trompeta Toccata (1964), Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner (1970), Yusef Lateef’s The Gentle Giant (1972) and Anthony Braxton’s In the Tradition (1974).

A long and rewarding partnership with the great Catalan pianist Tete Montoliu began when he spent part of the late 1960s in Copenhagen, as the house drummer at the Café Montmartre, where his appearances with Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon were preserved on film by Danish TV.

The Jazztet reunited in the 80s, and after the death in 1994 of Connie Kay, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s drummer, Heath took his place until the group disbanded in 1997. Of the six albums released under his own name, the last two, recorded in 2013 and 2014, were by a trio including the pianist Ethan Iverson and the bassist Ben Street. 

Among modern jazz drummers, Tootie was neither a dominant player such as Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones nor an innovator in the vein of Elvin Jones or Tony Williams. But he was a refined, quietly sparkling stylist who had absorbed the tradition, mastered the techniques, and practised alertness and discretion in his own work.

In his later years he gave many drum workshops and was on the jazz faculty of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he spent his last decade. “Drummers have a big responsibility to be happy,” he said in an interview with Iverson. “We think we need to make everything happen, but it’s not true: everything is already happening, all you need to do is find your place.”

Percy died in 2005, followed by Jimmy in 2020. Tootie is survived by his second wife, the former Beverley Flood (nee Collins); his son, Jens, from his first marriage, to Anita Petersson, which ended in divorce; another son, Jonas, from a relationship with Margaret Liedberg; four stepchildren from his second marriage; and his sister, Elizabeth.

• Albert Heath, drummer, born 31 May 1935, died 3 April 2024: Story by Richard Williams: The Guardian: 

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