Percy Heath Recalls the Modern Jazz Quartet: Sneaking Up on Them

Percy Heath Recalls the Modern Jazz Quartet
Sneaking Up on Them

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin

Paris: The bassist Percy Heath, who turned 80 this year and is the sole survivor of the celebrated Modern Jazz Quartet, was in Paris in November to appear at the New Morning with his all-star brothers saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, both in their 70s. Making music can be a fountain of youth. Percy lives in Montauk Point on the tip of Long Island, a good place for a cultivated bass player to go Bass fishing -- and a place to which news travels slowly. He was completely unaware of the recent release of a new 4 CD compilation box titled: The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings, on which Nat Hentoff explains: "The MJQ combined centuries of the blues with the knowledge of how careful form can make improvisation more meaningful -- the blending of four individuals into a whole that expresses each one." Heath would like to ask the record company to send him a copy.

Along with "Bags's Groove," the closest thing the MJQ had to a hit was John Lewis's "Django," a soulful ode to Gypsy music. Summing up the MJQ in general, "Django's" combination of structure and Milt "Bags" Jackson's straight-ahead vibraphone improvisations over a quiet, baroque groove redefined jazz music. "If we didn't play 'Django' in a concert," Heath said: "We risked getting stoned. I mean in the thrown-at sense."

Although he had studied violin as a child, Heath did not touch a bass fiddle until after his discharge from the Tuskegee Airmen. A movie about this elite black World War II air force squadron starred Laurence Fishburne. Heath recalled the squadron with pride: "Black people were not supposed to be smart enough to fly airplanes. There were a lot of folks against opening that flight school, and it only happened after Eleanor Roosevelt went down there and flew with one of the pilots, just like in the movie." Heath flew P-47s and P-51s, but by that time, "the war was over and I did not have to kill anybody."

In 1946, 23 years old, still wearing his lieutenant's bars and his wings, his separation pay in his pocket, Heath proudly bought drinks for the guys in the band in the Downbeat club back home in Philadelphia. He had made up his mind to learn the bass fiddle and he told Ray Brown about it and Brown taught him some basic fingering. (Heath later studied with Charles Mingus.) He was a natural, and a year and half later Heath became the Downbeat club's house bassist.

In 1949, after backing up Clifford Brown, Howard McGhee and others, Heath and his girlfriend June moved to New York when they discovered that they could not get a marriage license in Pennsylvania. "There I was, an officer and a gentleman," he said, with irony, "and they were trying to tell me I couldn't marry a white girl." They have three grown sons now, and Heath joked: "June's basically been waiting for me to come home for 53 years." The problem was he had two families. The MJQ remained together off and on for 43 years. Only Duke Ellington's orchestra lasted longer.

In 1951 the Milt Jackson Quartet -- Heath, John Lewis and Kenny Clarke (soon replaced by Connie Kay) -- was driving home to New York after performing in some sad and disagreeable outlying club. All four of them (and they were big men) were squeezed into Milt Jackson's tired old gilded Cadillac, which they had named the "golden dragon." Lewis said he was weary of this kind of life, and of the same old head-solos-head rhythm section format that went with it. He wanted to form a band that would be like a chamber group with four independent contrapuntal lines going simultaneously and be accepted in theaters and concert halls where jazz had never before been heard. The Modern Jazz Quartet was named then and there in the golden dragon.

Lewis's arrangements were often based on classical elements, and what came to be known as "chamber jazz" would lead to so-called Third Stream jazz. The introduction to the MJQ's version of "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" quotes from J.S. Bach's "Musical Offering." Milt Jackson often complained about "all that Bach stuff." So did the writer Ralph Ellison, who objected to the quartet's "funereal posturings." A British critic was "mot intrigued by the borrowing of 15th century skeletal Italian Renaissance forms."

In 1974, after the MJQ had been together for 22 straight years, a frustrated Jackson decided to go out on his own. According to Heath, Bags was the kind of musician who "just wanted to count off and play the blues." Jackson was blamed for breaking up the band -- although there would later be a number of reunions. He even received threatening phone calls. This was serious music. Heath recalled: "In clubs, we used to sneak up on them by starting out with a soft ballad medley to get the people to stop talking and rattling their glasses. If they continued to make noise, we played even softer. By the time they were ready to listen, we could play our good stuff.

"The music was so good for so long. I remember standing there between Milt Jackson and John Lewis and wondering if I should really be getting paid for having this much fun. There will never be another Milt Jackson. I wonder if he ever realized that maybe it was 'that Bach stuff' that made the music so special."

In 2003, Heath is still playing "Django." Only now he gets to play the melody.

Mike Zwerin first published this article in the International Herald Tribune.

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