Flushing Town Hall is celebrating the life and legacy of NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, the music director of the Queens Jazz Orchestra, in a virtual tribute on Friday, June 19.
The tribute “I’m Back Swinging Again” will be livestreamed at 7 p.m. on Flushing Town Hall’s Facebook page. The event will feature excerpts from a previous concert by the Queens Jazz Orchestra, testimonials from family and friends, snapshots of Heath throughout his career and performances by several former colleagues.
Heath had etched a longstanding relationship with Flushing Town Hall. A dozen years ago, they launched the 17-piece big band Queens Jazz Orchestra, a project of Flushing Town Hall, which had performed for thousands of jazz lovers under his direction.
“We are carrying on the American tradition of jazz by playing contemporary and historic compositions,” Heath said last year about the Queens Jazz Orchestra.
“Jimmy always felt at home at Flushing Town Hall,” said his wife Mona Heath. “The audience always gave him a warm, friendly reception and he treasured that. The best gift of my life was meeting him, and it means a great deal to me to know that his life story and his music will be shared this evening. Thank you for keeping his memory alive.”
Ellen Kodedek, Flushing Town Hall executive and artistic director, said Heath was an iconic presence at Flushing Town Hall.
“Whenever we would announce that our Queens Jazz Orchestra would return, performances would sell out — because people wanted to come together to experience the music and the man,” Kodedek said. “Even though we now must stay apart, this event will bring people together online; it will be an evening to celebrate his life and his legacy, but also to support future generations of jazz artists, something Jimmy Heath cared so deeply about. His spirit will shine this evening.”
The special event will feature appearances by many celebrated musical artists who have crossed paths — and taken the stage — with Heath throughout his storied career.
Among those who are participating are Heath’s wife, Mona, jazz legends Albert “Tootie” Heath, Barry Harris, Jimmy Owens, and Dorthaan Kirk; and members of Queens Jazz Orchestra, including Antonio Hart, David Wang, Jeb Patton and Douglas Purviance.
There also will be testimonials about Heath from special guests, including Councilman Francisco Moya.
Heath was born on Oct. 25, 1926, in Philadelphia. He was the second of the illustrious Heath Brothers to receive an NEA Jazz Master Fellowship and was the first to choose music as a career path.
Starting on alto saxophone, one of his first professional jobs came in 1945-46 in the Midwest territory band led by Nat Towles, out of Omaha, Nebraska. Returning to Philadelphia, he briefly led his own big band with a saxophone section that included John Coltrane and Benny Golson. Gigs followed with Howard McGhee in 1948 and with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band from 1949-50. As Gillespie once quipped, “All I can say is, if you know Jimmy Heath, you know Bop.”
During his storied career, Heath — who lived in Queens for many years — has performed on more than 100 record albums, including seven with The Heath Brothers and twelve as a leader. Heath has also written more than 125 compositions, many of which have become jazz standards. He has also composed extended works — seven suites and two string quartets — and he premiered his first symphonic work, “Three Ears,” in 1988.
In the early 1950s, he switched to tenor sax, playing with Miles Davis among others, and in the 1960s, he began his own recordings as a leader. By combining his versatile style of performing and his outstanding writing and arranging abilities, he has set a high standard of accomplishment in the jazz field. He has made more than 100 recordings and composed more than 100 original works.
In 1993, his Verve album “Little Man, Big Band” was nominated for a Grammy, and that same year he jammed with President Bill Clinton at a White House jazz concert produced by the Thelonious Monk Institute. He received the highest award in jazz a decade later: in 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.
As an educator, Heath taught at Jazzmobile, Housatonic Community College, City College of New York and Queens College, where he had taken over the jazz program in 1986, and helped to create its master’s curriculum up until his retirement a decade later. Still, he continued to conduct workshops and clinics throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
He held honorary degrees from Sojourner-Douglass College and the Juilliard School, and has a chair endowed in his name at Queens College.
The tribute will raise funds to support the Jimmy Heath Fund at Queens College. Donations can be sent to: The Jimmy Heath Fund, c/o Mike Lipsey, Queens College Music Department, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, Queens, 11367.
Donations to the Jimmy Heath Scholarship Fund at Queens College can be made by writing a check to the QC Foundation (and putting “Jimmy Heath Scholarship” in the memo), and mailed to: Queens College Foundation, Keily Hall, Queens College, Queens, NY, 11367, or by calling Joann Acquista, Queens College, Director, Donor Relations, at 718-997-5864.