By Raphael Sugarman
His son Mtume gave him the Swahili name Tayari, which translates as “ready.”
The name was no accident. The young man knew that his famous dad was a dynamo — as a musician, composer, arranger, teacher and no doubt, as a father as well.
For most of his 85 years, Queens resident Jimmy Heath has been considered royalty in the jazz world, not only because of his virtuosity on the alto and tenor saxophones, but also because of the expanse and diversity of his work.
The Heath Brothers produced a dozen recordings, from 1975 to 2008, with Jimmy on sax, and his brothers Percy on bass and Albert (“Tootie”) on the drums.
Since 1948, Jimmy has also played on the recordings of more than 100 other musicians. He played with Miles and Dizzy, Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard and Errol Garner, Milt Jackson and Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Nancy Wilson. And with his own son Mtume, who took up the family business.
Heath has composed about 90 tunes as well as a dozen extended compositions, which premiered in concert halls from Queens to Birmingham, Manhattan to Montreal.
His music has earned dozens of honors and awards, including three Grammy nominations.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, Heath and Jon Hendricks will be the featured performers at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s opening night in the Rose Theater. He will play with the current 16-piece Jimmy Heath Big Band, which includes trumpeters Sean Jones and Terell Stafford, and drummer Lewis Nash, among others.
The encyclopedic Heath will kick-off the evening with a pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m., before the 8 p.m. concert. The show will also highlight guest performers Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, and Sachal Vasandani.
The concert coincides with the publication of Heath’s autobiography, “I Walked With Giants,” co-authored by Joseph McLaren. Bill Cosby wrote the foreword for the memoir and JACL’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, the introduction.
“I don’t call myself a giant,” Heath said despite his prodigious output. In an interview, he said that the book’s title is a product of his own 5-foot-3 height, as well as the demeanor of many of the musical giants with whom he has worked.
“I know a lot of musicians who are very humble,” he said. “Coltrane was a very humble man, so was Dizzy Gillespie. I want to be in that group.”
Heath is part of the host of great jazz musicians who made their home in Corona.
“I lived about four or five blocks from Pops,” he said, referring to the enshrined home of the beloved Louis Armstrong.
Cannonball Adderley was also a neighbor, as was trumpeter Clark Terry. Dizzy Gillespie even lived there for a time.
“It’s a nice place to live and we all had good neighbors,” said Heath. “I liked having these jazz cats out there, it was an inspiration.”
However, none of the jazzmen called Corona home longer than has Heath, who moved to the neighborhood with his wife Mona in 1964, nearly a half-century ago.
In addition to producing his own musical canon during those years, Heath has also served as a mentor to dozens of young artists. He accepted a professorship at Queens College in 1984, a post he held until 1998.
“If you’re a teacher of music, you are going to get questions, and some of them you won’t know the answer to right away,” said the ever-modest Heath. “So when you figure out the answers, you are teaching and learning simultaneously. “That’s why I love being around young people, it keeps me young.”
Though he has played gigs too many to number, Heath said he feels the excitement of a kid about his performance at Jazz as Lincoln Center.
“I am honored to be there,” he said. “I have some new music that I want the public to hear.”
For tickets to the concert, call 212-721-6500, or go to jalc.org.