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Albert "Tootie" Heath, percussive paragon of modern jazz, dies at 88

Albert "Tootie" Heath performing with the Heath Brothers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 28, 2005.
Clayton Call
Albert "Tootie" Heath performing with the Heath Brothers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 28, 2005.

Albert “Tootie” Heath, an alert, expressive drummer who brought finesse and forward pull to a sweeping expanse of modern jazz over more than seven decades, died Wednesday afternoon at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 88.

The cause was leukemia, Beverly Heath, his wife of 50 years, tells WRTI.

Born into one of jazz’s most famous fraternal orders, the Heath Brothers, Tootie came up in a booming postwar scene in Philadelphia, surrounded by generational talent; his first-ever recording date, in 1957, was on John Coltrane’s debut session as a leader.

He went on to work with many other leading lights of the era, like trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. His perceptive, adaptable beat can be heard on an array of albums now considered classics, including The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue, Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner, and Yusef Lateef’s The Gentle Giant. For the second half of the 1990s, he was a member of the elegant Modern Jazz Quartet, a post that ended with the death of vibraphonist Milt Jackson.

But some of Heath’s most celebrated work came in partnership with his older siblings Percy, the irreproachable bassist in the MJQ, and Jimmy, an ingenious saxophonist, flutist and composer. His 1973 album Kwanza (The First), released on the Xanadu label, features all three in a chamber-like but often swinging sextet with Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Barron on piano and Ted Dunbar on guitar. Two years after its release, the Heath Brothers officially began their first phase as a working band.

Never the flashiest or most ferocious of drummers, Heath had an unwavering sense of time and a fluid, precise technique. He was prized in any rhythm section for those attributes but also because of his attunement to sonic clarity, which shines clearly on live recordings like the 1961 album In Person (Live at the Village Vanguard), featuring his childhood friend Bobby Timmons on piano and an impeccable Ron Carter on bass.

“Tootie always had a great sound on the drums,” Carter told me in 2020, for the liner notes to another trio album, Polaris, by guitarist Greg Skaff. “He understood the range of the instrument he was playing with, and the range of the bass player, at least as far as I was concerned. So, I’d go to work every night knowing that whatever I played, somebody would hear it because the drums were not too loud and were tuned in the right pitch to let the bass have a say-so in the rhythm and the sound and the harmony.”

Heath brought the same sensitivity, coupled with a puckish extroversion, to his own groups — most recently a late-career trio with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. This group released three well-regarded albums in the 2010s: Tootie’s Tempo, Live at Smalls, and Philadelphia Beat. 

“Drummers have a big responsibility to be happy,” he said in an interview with Iverson, the instigator behind the trio. “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.”

Albert Heath
Michael Perez/Courtesy of the artist
Albert Heath

Albert Heath was born on May 31, 1935 in Philadelphia. His father, Percy Heath, Sr., worked as an auto mechanic, but also played clarinet in an African American marching band; his mother, Arlethia, was a hairdresser who sang in the church choir at 19th Street Baptist Church. Largely self-taught as a drummer, he nevertheless was mentored by local fixtures like Charles "Specs" Wright, who played in his brother Jimmy’s band.

Growing up at 1927 Federal Street in South Philadelphia, young Tootie — his grandfather bestowed the nickname when he was a small child, after the tutti-frutti ice cream flavor — benefited from the roughly decade-long head start of his brothers. “It seemed like my house was the capital of jazz,” he recalled in a 2005 interview with NPR.

The Heath Brothers: Jimmy, Percy and Albert "Tootie" Heath.
The Heath Brothers: Jimmy, Percy and Albert "Tootie" Heath.

That familial spirit sustained the Heath Brothers in their various reunions, including the one that ended with Percy’s death in 2005. The remaining brothers continued on with bassist David Wong for more than a decade, until Jimmy died in 2020.

Along with his wife, Albert “Tootie” Heath is survived by four sons, Jonas Liedberg, Jens Heath, Scott Flood and Curt Flood, Jr.; two daughters, Debbie and Shelly Flood; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Heath’s discography as a leader is slim but substantive, beginning with the Aquarian Age cult object Kawaida, featuring his brother Jimmy on saxophones and his nephew Mtume on congas, along with Hancock on piano, Don Cherry on trumpet, Buster Williams on bass, and Ed Blackwell on percussion.

His later work would stand more as a confirmation of core principles. “Inside these exchanges,” wrote Tom Moon, reviewing Tootie’s Tempo for NPR, “is a lesson in the art of jazz conversation: Heath’s poised, steady beat serves as a guide, allowing his collaborators room to explore. At the same time, it encourages them to pay attention to the basics, the melody and the swing feel.”

Heath earned some notable accolades in the last decade, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America in 2018. He was named an NEA Jazz Master — an honor separately bestowed on each of his brothers — in 2021.

Onstage, at major festivals or in far humbler haunts, he earned a reputation as a rascal with a microphone. This remained true as recently as last fall, when he played a set in Santa Fe as a featured guest in Emmet Cohen’s trio; an archive of the livestream captures his personality to a T. (“Ladies and gentlemen, this next song is not a calypso,” he says early on, introducing “Fungii Mama,” a Blue Mitchell tune. “Because I’m 88, it’ll be a collapse-o.” Other commentary from the set is hardly suitable for public radio.)

At the same time, Heath maintained a plainspoken seriousness of purpose about the music and its mandate of change. “You know, there’s an old Duke Ellington saying,” he told LA Weekly in 2009. “To play jazz you got to have one foot in Africa and the other foot in today. And I think it has expanded a bit: You got to have one foot in Africa and one foot in the future. If you bring along your culture and all of the things you’ve experienced to the future, it makes it richer.”

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.