The author studied jazz composition and arranging under “a funny, smart-aleck, short, kind, genius composer and tenor sax player” – a musical giant.
“Jazz was pure within its paradoxes; unmistakably Black, and incomprehensibly beautiful.”
I think I was eighteen in the Winter of ‘86, taking two trains and a bus to get to school from the Bronx everyday for a college degree my mother was never convinced was going to bring me employment, solvency or happiness, when the jazz history professor at the school I was attending told me and my friends in his ensemble performance class that a legend was coming to teach at our college next year, full time. We sat with our jaws practically hitting the floor and looked at each other incredulously before the adrenaline rush came to each of us, as we just pondered the possibility of someone from the Jedi Council of jazz becoming our teacher and what it could mean for our lives. We couldn't sit still after that, and despite the current teacher being more than competent (and partly responsible for the legend’s arrival), I practically forgot his name in that moment and can't remember it now.
It was the following year, when I was 19, that the master Jimmy Heath actually came to teach tenor sax, jazz composition and jazz arranging at my school, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. (I was studying classical voice under the voice teacher legend of his own that is Dr. Robert C. White [currently at Juilliard] but, given my secret dream of being the singer's answer to Wynton Marsalis, couldn't stop arresting my vocal development to study jazz under a master’s guidance.) When Jimmy (as he asked us to call him) came to his first class and was introduced to us by the aforementioned jazz professor, the lack of pomp and circumstance around it only added to his mystique. At something around five foot two in quality shoes, he used to joke on the bandstand before a break (like when he and his band played at the Blue Note in the Village in the mid 90s), "we'll be back shortly--of course I can only come back shortly...." But that just made him seem that much more like Yoda when he walked into a room, as he did at this moment. I can't imagine any student in the jazz ensemble then feeling we were worthy of the education we were about to receive.
Least of all me. Jimmy had worked with just about every legendary singer in jazz anyone could name at one point or another, but was a musician's musician who came to our college to work intimately with the newest generation of instrumentalists. I think I was the only singer in his class. (I tried not to look like Denzel in that scene from Spike Lee's Malcolm X--when Malcolm meets the Honorable Elijah Muhammad for the first time--anytime he spoke to me for the first couple of weeks.) The mundane, where Jimmy was concerned, started out overwhelming enough to
be disorienting for me.
“Jimmy was a musician's musician who came to our college to work intimately with the newest generation of instrumentalists.”
See, I was a kid, but I knew Jimmy was major because I knew stuff. Jazz stuff. I could talk a great game about jazz with my friends during the rise of Run-DMC and Public Enemy, because jazz was my father’s music. (By then, much like van Gogh, Bird, Monk, Bud Powell, Buddy Bolden and Nina Simone, my father was homeless and haunting the streets of Harlem by night while suffering from a mental illness that ripped him and his musical/artistic spirit from my early teenage life. Jazz became my one true connection to him.) Jazz was also his father’s music. (If my father, Earl Sr., was my biggest hero [and he was], Emanuel, his Post-Bop loving father who moved to Harlem from Barbados in the 30s before my father was born, was my number two.) Jazz was in my heart when I, a kid from the Marble Hill Projects of the Bronx, went to Music & Art High School in Harlem (where else?) and graduated from LaGuardia High School of the Arts at Lincoln Center (when the new school [finally, as had been promised for decades] opened downtown). Jazz was in my heart when I went to high school then—with bass player Charnett Moffett (who was already a phenom at 15 years of age, playing with Wynton about a year or so later). Classical music was aspirational, grand, cerebral; respectable bordering on the redemptive; the cover band of the Superego and the eloquent apologist for the imperialism of my people’s nightmares.
Jazz was different. Jazz was pure within its paradoxes; unmistakably Black, and incomprehensibly beautiful. Jazz was my soul’s music. My parents loved Bach and Rachmaninov, sure, but jazz, as much as R&B, was in my home, in my mother’s smile, played on good days and bad days, birthdays and Holidays, school days and vacation days; becoming the accompaniment to my sculptor/calligrapher father’s dinner table lessons for me about everyone from James Baldwin to Amenhotep III to Max Roach (with whom, thanks to Dr. John L. Motley of the All-City High School Chorus and Grace Congregational Church, I later worked).
As a young boy in high school, however, jazz was in my soul, but it wasn't in my fingers. It wasn't in my lips. My parents wanted me to appreciate jazz, not play it. And as college was often a continuation of high school for me in all of the most embarrassingly post-pubescent ways, that became obvious when I spoke to Jimmy about it, given I couldn't talk my young jazz intellectual game with a man who actually played with, recorded with, or befriended any of the iconic names I would drop! I had secretly dreamed of being a jazz pianist as a child, being forever changed by the engine of African truth that was McCoy Tyner propelling the spirit of John Coltrane, but I
couldn't find middle C on the piano if you paid me by the time my college days began. I also never managed to get a decent sound out of any wind or brass instrument in my life. The baby vocalist that was me (my voice being the only instrument I could play) had no place among the instrumentalists who would say how they learned to play scales before they learned how to read; the ones boasting how much it would depress them whenever they spent less than four hours a day practicing; the ones who knew the difference between "Confirmation" and "Ornithology" almost instantly; the ones who could label the many Miles Davises on an evolutionary "descent of
man" graph based on specific recordings, in mockery of their chronology ("Birth of the Cool"; "Sketches of Spain";“Bitches Brew”; "Tutu"....) I was out of my depth in Jimmy’s class, and everyone knew it.
I was out of my depth, but I was in my voice. My broken heart and inquisitive mind, still mourning my Daddy, lost in the streets of Harlem in a prison without walls, needed all the father figures I could get--and I was in my voice. I wouldn't leave Jimmy alone. I couldn’t leave Jimmy alone. And I could sing. And he liked my voice.
“I was out of my depth in Jimmy’s class, and everyone knew it.”
Master Jimmy used to laugh at me for being so in love with minor eleventh chords. That became obvious when I took his composition & arranging class. The man knew every chromatic alteration of every chord God put on this Earth and used virtually all of them routinely in his compositions and improvisations; the way he expanded my mind's ear from the inside is practically beyond my retelling. He'd see my face whenever he substituted a diatonic minor eleventh under a melodic fragment of an arrangement as an exercise, however--particularly when he played it on flute (he played in his classes often)—and, thinking of my original tunes, would smile like you do when you hear an off-color joke you can’t admit is funny in mixed company. After I said "Aw yeah" out loud one day when he did this, he said to me from the front of the classroom, "You're just caught up in that Billy Strayhorn sound; with your Debussy and Ravel and Bill Evans and all that...." To which I had to laugh, as the class laughed at me with him. Debussy, Ravel; Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans; Pharaoh Sanders and 70s R&B...I used to say that my compositional/arranging style was Michel Legrand meets Earth, Wind & Fire, because he was right. One day, when the full band played back a jazz/funk fusion tune that I wrote and arranged as part of our final project that semester, he loved it. But that wasn't the best part. The best part was during a conversation we had alone afterwards, when he analyzed why he loved it: basically distinguishing and defining every meaningful ingredient in my dish and singing it back to me as if he wrote it, after just hearing it played (at best) twice. What genius does. What genius is.
Jimmy had no choice but to write a new arrangement for me and the band for a Spring concert in our jazz ensemble performance class together, given I was the only singer in it and had to do something. He chose the standard "You Go To My Head,” and wrote an arrangement for me and the full band of student instrumentalists that, well, sounded like vintage Jimmy Heath: perfect. Even with him showing me his progress excitedly every week at a piano ("I'll have the reeds come in here as an intro--buh-DAH-ba DEE--dee, diddly-ah-dah-DAH...—and you'll come in there..."), the final concert was a surreal experience. I tried to summon every Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Bobby McFerrin and Al Jarreau spirit that would enter me, and then realized what I needed was to focus on the technique my voice teacher Dr. White was supplying (when I stopped cancelling voice lessons) and just let go, to sing on my voice. My voice. He was proud of me. The audience liked it. Everyone loved his arrangement. It went well. All I cared about, however, was that I made him proud, and through which made my own little place in jazz history.
“Heath wrote an arrangement for me and the full band of student instrumentalists.”
When I saw him at the Blue Note several years later, well after graduating from Queens College, I was the Administrative Assistant of the Egyptian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum; ironically self-conscious and ashamed of having a (gasp!) full-time job with such an unmusical title. I went backstage in between sets of him and his band of five star professionals and friends (Jimmy Owens, Cecil Bridgewater and the young Antonio Hart being among them). I was wearing a slick skin fade, my best suit & tie, and freshly shined shoes over new socks, hoping against hope that he would remember me at all, let alone fondly. His manager went to introduce me and I saw Jimmy’s face light up like a Christmas tree. He said “Aw, man,” and after standing up and hugging me like a father hugs his son before I could ever say a word, he said, “hey cats, let me introduce you to one of my old students from Queens College: Earl Wellington Hazell...”
Historians will be chronicling the cultural impact of the Heath Brothers, and Jimmy in particular, for generations to come. I will welcome the cavalcade of dissertations and tribute albums in our country’s future and, even if their numbers begin to rival that of Duke, Louis, Dizzy, Sonny, Miles, Thad, Oliver, Horace, Art, Max and Bird, will wonder if they’ve covered all of what James Heath has accomplished. I however have a hundred more personal stories to tell about this man, who saw the naïve ghetto child in me and didn’t turn me away; who saw me broken and frightened when I unexpectedly became a single father at 22, questioning whether my infant son could survive a bewildered mess like me raising him while wondering if I would ever have a career in anything in the process. This man who, months earlier when I was 21, told me that when Jon Hendricks called him the other day looking for a singer to complete his new vocal ensemble, Hendricks told him "I'm looking for a young Paul Robeson,"--and he gave him my name and number. This man who told me two years later--when I was still hanging around the school, refusing (and incapable of) graduation and holding on to voice lessons while retaking and re-retaking his class to keep from losing my new young single father mind (he used to call me "Dad" at that point sometimes so I would lighten up)--to "just get out of here and get a gig." This man who told me he also had a son long before he felt ready, and it frightened him to death too, but his son grew up to become Mtume Heath (who wrote some of my favorite R&B tunes of the 70s & 80s), because things have a way of turning out fine. This man who smiled brightly when I caught up with him soon after finally graduating with my Bachelor of Music degree; who smiled even bigger and brighter upon asking if I was working, after I answered him by sharing that I was cleaning up my act with the classical end of my life via the professional New York Philharmonic Chorus under Joseph Flummerfelt, and telling him how submission to classical music over jazz was strangely working like therapy for me, relieving some of my fears & insecurities while rehabilitating my soul. This man who congratulated me from the heart when I told him that my chosen path away from jazz had led, not long after, to me booking my first international tour of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (the American operatic masterpiece that, in reality, is both classical music and jazz together as one); and how this new career path in Egyptology I seemed to have been making when we spoke at the Blue Note was more a glorified rent gig between opera productions. This man who, though I would never hold much less learn how to play a saxophone, gave so generously of himself, and through which gave me everything.
"I'm looking for a young Paul Robeson."
You would have to know me well to know how hopelessly ashamed of myself I was for decades after we lost touch, because I had never achieved fame in the music business. You can't see or hear the parenthetical "I'm sorry I failed, but at least I did--" before my name-dropping of the icons of 20th and 21st century music I worked with, or any achievement of a gig I could ever discuss; unless, like my wife of ten years Alexis, you've seen some of the scars forming the history of my heart. Fame for me was meant to be the ultimate rite of passage, the true giving back to the elders. It's not about the money, and it's not about the adulation from fans. When a genius gives you wings (as my younger self would say in ways that still echo in my head like the soundtrack of my existence), not seeing the world from the vantage point of eagles and hawks while living on the tops of mountains is simply not an option. I stayed convinced as a young man that you've let people down if Hollywood, Paris and the New York Times aren’t calling you Ben Kenobi or Skywalker, when Yodas like Jimmy (and Robert White, and Wayne Sanders, and Ben Matthews, and John Motley, and Valerie Capers, and Donald Byrd, and Everett McCorvey, and others) have taught you how to be a Jedi. Becoming just a decent person, or even a good musician, is not enough when Jimmy Heath, of all people, has taught you how to write music. My shame was my
burden: you just don't get to have an ordinary life when people this extraordinary have been your teachers.
Of course, Jimmy would have laughed at that, had I told him. Because of course you do. It’s OK, he would have said in his own way, as long as you pay deference to the magic, the music, the craft, and the ancestors with your life. Also, as he himself would have told me while smiling, my life, while (graciously) lacking in fame, has been anything but ordinary. Thanks, in large part, to how he changed it forever.
As a young man in college, I studied jazz composition & arranging and learned how to sing from a funny, smart-aleck, short, kind, genius composer and tenor sax player. One who worked with everyone, "Walked With Giants" and, as everyone in jazz prided themselves for working with him, became a gentle giant himself. He made music, and made history, and changed my life.
Rest well, Jimmy. Thank you. Thank you for my life.
Dance with GOD.
Earl Hazell, native New Yorker, Basso Cantante opera singer and jazz composer/arranger, is the Executive & Artistic Director of Jazzoperetry (“Jazz-OP-ruh-tree”), Inc., the innovative production company combining jazz, opera and spoken word poetry in performance. He has worked with, among others, Max Roach, Zubin Mehta, Jon Hendricks, James Levine, Jessye Norman, Abbey Lincoln, Kurt Masur, Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath, Karen Slack, Donald Byrd, Eric Owens, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as numerous houses globally including San Francisco Opera, the Semperoper of Dresden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Royal Albert Hall of London and the Teatro dell’Opera of Rome.
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