Jazz pioneer Dr. Jimmy Heath, who had deep ties to Queens, dies at age 93

Queens Jazz Orchestra Leader and NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath
Photo by Norm Harris

Jazz legend and longtime Corona resident Dr. Jimmy Heath died Sunday after a long fight with bladder cancer at his home in Loganville, Georgia, at age 93.

From the big-band era through bebop and fusion, Heath’s career played out over seven decades of jazz history. Heath was a tenor saxophonist who played in bands led by Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis and many others. In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.

Born in Philadelphia in 1926, James Edward Heath said he was “raised up with the big bands such as Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington,” and had a big band of his own before moving to New York. Heath moved to Corona with his wife Mona, where they stayed for more than 50 years.

He was not just a musician and band leader but a composer and educator as a professor of music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College for two decades, where he helped launch the jazz studies program in 1986.

Although he stood just 5 feet 3 inches tall, he was a towering figure at Flushing Town Hall at their annual NEA Jazz Masters concert or the Queens Jazz Orchestra, a project he conceived of and led for 12 years.

5 NEA Jazz Masters come together to celebrate the 90th birthday of Queens resident, and Queens Jazz Orchestra maestro, Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath at Flushing Town Hall on 11.18.16

“We are incredibly saddened by the passing of NEA Jazz Master Dr. Jimmy Heath. An astounding musician, composer and educator, he has touched the lives of so many, leaving behind an incomparable legacy,” Flushing Town Hall Executive and Artistic Director Ellen Kodadek said. “We are so grateful that Dr. Heath had performed so many concerts at Flushing Town Hall over the years, gracing our stage with his genius and joyful presence, whether it be at our annual NEA Jazz Masters concert or our Queens Jazz Orchestra, a project he conceived of and led for 12 years. There are insufficient words to express our condolences to his wife Mona Heath and family, friends and students.”

Heath went by the nickname “Little Bird” in reference to fellow jazz legend Charlie Parker. In 1993, his “Little Man, Big Band” album was nominated for a Grammy.

Heath brought his band to perform at the Louis Armstrong House Museum when it was named as a landmark in 1988.

Heath is survived by Mona Brown, his wife of nearly 60 years; by their daughter, Roslyn, and son, Jeffrey.