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Bob Perkins Reflects On Oldtime Philly Legends, Including 2021 NEA Jazz Master Albert "Tootie" Heath

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Paul Hoeffler/Getty Images
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Pianist Bobby Timmons in 1958

Many years ago, a group of teenage musicians decided to form a small jazz band in South Philly—they went on to become high-profile players in the jazz world. The band included Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums, Bobby Timmons on piano, Henry Grimes on bass fiddle, Ted Curson on trumpet, Richard “Buzzy” Wilson on alto sax, and Sam Reed on tenor sax.

Their practice sessions frequently took place in Albert's South Philly home. This was the place that Albert’s older brothers, Jimmy and Percy, had used as a training ground to start their careers as professional musicians before moving to New York, where they would become legends.

They played mostly for the fun of it, enjoying the time together as friends and musical associates, until someone told them they could make money playing for dances and other teenage events.

Moving the clock forward on these young musicians: ‘Tootie” or Albert, became a world-class drummer, and joined his brothers; together they became one of the few internationally known trios of brothers playing jazz.

Pianist Bobby Timmons became an outstanding accompanist to major jazz artists, recording his own albums and composing a few jazz standards, like “Moanin' ” and ”Dat Dere.”

Bassist Henry Grimes became internationally renowned on bass and violin. He stopped playing for some years, but when he returned, he was welcomed back by fans and fellow musicians.

Trumpet player Ted Curson attended the famed Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia, and made music with Charlie Mingus, Red Garland, “Philly” Joe Jones, Max Roach, to name a few jazz stars. He also lived in Europe for years, performing and recording there.

Tenor saxophonist Sam Reed went on to lead the band at the Uptown Theater, often accompanying members of the Motown family and other great names in a number of genres of music.

Richard "Buzzy” Wilson, who played alto sax in the band, gave up playing the instrument and began his career of contacting jazz musicians for appearances in clubs and concert venues in and around Philadelphia.     

Of the young septet members mentioned, only Albert Heath and Sam Reed are still with us; the others have passed.

During this Jazz Appreciation Month, I thought this little story about six young Philly musicians almost a lifetime ago, might ring a bell for some old enough to remember them -- and for those who may want to find out more about them.