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Drummer for many jazz greats, Albert 'Tootie' Heath has died at age 88

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Albert Heath has died. Like many jazz musicians of his time, he was better known by his nickname, Tootie. And Tootie Heath got around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) My baby just cares for me.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

He played drums with basically all the greats of the '50s, '60s and beyond. He's on early albums from Nina Simone and John Coltrane, and he made classic records with Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Wes Montgomery.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "AIREGIN")

KELLY: His older brothers, Percy Heath - who played bass, and Jimmy Heath, who played saxophone - they were also jazz royalty. Occasionally they performed together as the Heath Brothers, and their music got around, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEATH BROTHERS' "SMILIN' BILLY SUITE (PART 2)")

SHAPIRO: Tootie Heath was born in 1935 and grew up in Philadelphia among a lot of other major musicians in the making, not least of whom were his brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALBERT HEATH: It seemed like my house was the capital of jazz because of Jimmy and my brother Percy, who joined us later. He was...

SHAPIRO: Tootie spoke to NPR in 2015 about his long career playing many styles of jazz. He said, as a drummer, he had to be flexible, do different things that bandleaders might want and be OK with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HEATH: My theory with music is that it only lasts for - what? - a song. But then it's over. So when do you play it again? Maybe tomorrow, maybe not. You know, if people throw tomatoes at us, we don't play that anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT HEATH, BEN STREET AND ETHAN IVERSON'S "THE CHARLESTON")

KELLY: Late in Heath's career, in his 70s and 80s, younger musicians realized that this living link to an earlier era of jazz was still around. They asked Tootie to play and record with him. He spoke highly of younger pianists like Emmet Cohen and Ethan Iverson, the latter of whom he made a few records with.

SHAPIRO: In 2021, he joined his brothers in receiving the country's highest honor for jazz musicians, the NEA Jazz Masters Award. Heath told NPR host Arun Rath that he hadn't intended to make a career out of music, but one day he was playing with his teenage friends in a venue across the street from his house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HEATH: And it must have been awful. And one guy came up and gave us 75 cents as a tip. And he was drunk, of course, you know? And he walked over - oh, you kids are great. And he gave us 75 cents. I realized then that's a quarter a piece. Hey, man. We can get paid for doing this.

ARUN RATH: Well, I'm glad you guys got that 75 cents, though, 'cause you got a lot better.

HEATH: Yeah. I've been making money at this ever since - 75, dollar, dollar and a half, 50 cents.

KELLY: He made enough for quite a while. Albert "Tootie" Heath was 88 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT HEATH, BEN STREET AND ETHAN IVERSON'S "SPEAK LOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.

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