Bassist Percy Heath was born in Wilmington, NC, on April 23, 1923, and raised in Philadelphia. He and his two younger brothers all became interested in music early in life. The three Heath brothers went on to become professional musicians, and eventually worked together. Heath took on the bass relatively late in life. As a child, his first instrument was the violin.
During World War 11, he served with the Army Air Corps and trained to be a pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Upon returning to Philadelphia in 1946, he purchased a bass and studied at the Granoff School of Music. His early influences on bass included Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown. It didn't take long for him to find his place on bandstands around Philadelphia. One of his gigs was with Red Garland. He went on to become house bassist at the Down Beat club. Later on he and his brother Jimmy toured with Howard McGhees's sextet. He moved to New York in 1947 with Jimmy, and in 1950 both joined Dizzy Gillespie's group. During that time Percy continued freelancing with the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Cilfford Brown and a host of others.
In 1952, Heath toured with his brother Jimmy, JJ Johnson, Miles Davis and Kenny Clarke in an all star unit. That year he also recorded in a Milt Jackson quartet date with John Lewis and Kenny Clarke. Soon after the Modern Jazz Quartet was born. He continued to play with the MJQ for over 40 years. A superb soloist, Percy was one of the most exquisite ensemble players of his generation. His propulsive time and full bodied swinging bass anchored the MJQ from its first recordings in 1952 until 1995; and also with the Heath Brothers, a unit that he formed with his two siblings: saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert - in 1975 during an extended MJQ hiatus and performed with until his death. During his life, Percy received many outstanding awards as a jazz musician; and in 2002, he was the recipient of the prestigious NEA Jazz Master Fellowship.
By his own estimate, Heath also appeared on some 300 albums that included memorable dates with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins and other jazz artist. In 2004, he made his first recording as a leader "A Love Song" on Daddy Jazz records. Throughout his playing career, Percy was blessed with a sharp sense of humor and his greatest joy has always been to swing the band with grace, dignity, true grit, and abundant wit. He died of bone cancer on April 28, 2005.
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