As an effort to sustain the music of golden gods and godesses—Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nina Simone—the Cape Fear Jazz Society sponsors concerts throughout the region to not only provide a voice for local jazz but also to inspire future generations of enthusiasts to continue preserving its historical significance on American music. Their most recent achievement is pairing with UNC Wilmington’s Upperman African American Cultural Center to bring home the city’s own claim to jazz stardom: the Heath Brothers.
The oldest of the iconic trio is Percy, who was born on April 30, 1923, in Wilmington. Though the bassist has passed, his legend lives on through his younger brothers, saxophonist Jimmy and percussionist Albert “Tootie,” who continue to tour, teach and tell their story. It is Jimmy and Albert who, although touring and unavailable for interviews prior to press time, will take to Thalian Hall’s stage on Saturday, March 10th.
During the early 1940s, Percy and Jimmy were members of the school band at what was then known as Williston Industrial High School. In 1942, they formed their own jazz group with Andy McGhee, whom would later go on to become a professor at Berklee College of Music. They called themselves the “Melody Barons” and played stock arrangements created by their music teachers, Mr. Wall and Mr. Page.
Following graduation, the Heath boys went their separate ways. Jimmy immediately began touring with Calvin Todd’s big band, making a stop in Wilmington at a night club called The Barn. At 21 he played the first International Jazz Festival in Paris before going on to perform with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
Albert moved to New York in 1957, debuting on a record with John Coltrane, before undergoing a blossoming career as a drummer in J.J. Johnson’s band, the hard bop combo the Jazztet. He also performed in small trios with Cedar Walton and Bobby Timmons, and lived and worked in Europe from 1965 to 1968. It was then he returned to the U.S. to work with artists like Herbie Hancock and Yusef Lateef through 1974.
In 1975 the three brothers reunited to form their most memorable act: Heath Brothers. Over the years, the group incorporated musicians such as pianist Stanley Cowell, guitarist Tony Purrone and Jimmy’s son, Mtume Heath, a percussionist. Together they recorded nine albums before Percy died, and a DVD in 2004 encompassing their life story, “Brotherly Jazz: The Heath Brothers.” Without Percy, they recorded “Endurance,” a record released in 2009.
Today, Albert is a freelance musician and a regular instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. Jimmy has composed over 125 pieces and earned three doctorate degrees, including the first awarded to a jazz musician at The Juilliard School. He was nominated for three Grammys, and was a professor for 11 years at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He now resides in New York.
UNCW’s own renowned professor, percussionist Joe Chambers, had the privilege of performing with Jimmy in the 1960s, in a group with Donald Byrd, and a few other ensembles.
“I was young then, and I thought I was more than what I was,” Chambers explains. “He used to always tell me things to remind me I wasn’t as hot as I thought I was.”
Chambers laughs as he recalls working with the saxophonist so many years ago. Jimmy, like many older artists, would whisper tidbits of advice in Chambers’ ear—“Play the drums from the bottom up!” he heard from another drummer—to encourage growth in the young musician.
“All the things he used to tell me, like things about intensity, had an effect,” Chambers remembers. “Back then I didn’t get it so much, but I absolutely see the effect he had on me.”
Chambers, who has regularly recorded with the Blue Note label and toured jazz clubs across America before entering academia, considers Jimmy one of the top arrangers in his field. He and three other local musicians—Benny Hill (sax), Brad Merritt (piano), Doug Irving (bass)—will open for Jimmy and Albert at Saturday’s concert.
“I have some of the top players in North Carolina playing with me,” Chambers notes. “We’ve been rehearsing and we’re gonna be hot—I can tell you that.”
During the event, the Heath Brothers will be presented with a key to the city to commemorate their humble beginnings yet timeless contributions to the world of jazz. They will be recognized by Mayor Bill Saffo, the city’s Commission on African American History, the Williston High School Alumnae Association and the Upperman Center. Tickets to attend the show are $30 for prime seating, $25 for choice seating, and $20 for second-floor balcony seating. Jazz Society members and groups of 10 or more will receive $3 discounts for prime and choice tickets. The Upperman Center is offering vouchers in its office, exchangeable for free tickets at Thalian’s box office, to current UNCW students with valid ID.
As well, on Friday, March 9th, Jimmy will teach a master class and sign copies of his autobiography, “I Walked With Giants,” in the Gunther Skiba Room of UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building at 2 p.m. It is free and open to the public. With careers encompassing seven decades of imaginative artistry, the Heath Brothers are part of the rich fabric of Wilmington’s contribution to jazz, something worth celebrating!
OTHER SHOWS THIS WEEK!
The Whiskey • 1 S. Front St.
3/7, $5, 9 p.m.
His voice is a gorgeous mix of The Killers’ Brandon Flowers and musician Greg Laswell, achieving a similar growling bass at times. Paired with his evocative, soulful, rocking piano-playing, the experience of listening to Shayfer James is both entertaining and satisfying—he tickles the senses just as he does the ivories.
River City Extension
Last Year’s Men
Soapbox Laundro-Lounge • 255 N. Front Street
3/9, $7-11, 10:00 p.m.
River City Extension (pictured), an eight-member group from New Jersey is making a name for itself, especially after just recording their second album with producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron and Wine). Orchestral instrumentation such as the cello and violion merges with keys, drums, trumpet, banjo, bongos and guitar to birth pulsing folk-rock.
The name Last Year’s Men pays tribute to their tunes: retro punk rock reminiscent of ‘50s and ‘60s pop—and specifically to the Leonard Cohen song, “Last Year’s Man.” Hailing from Durham, North Carolina, the foursome proves to be refreshingly energetic onstage.
From our own hometown comes effervescent indie act, Villa Verde. Comprised of Dylan Wilkinson, Wesley Hewett, Joshua Sullivan, the band produces complex rhythms and catchy melodies. Villa Verde will surely attract attention as the opener of this Soapbox show, presented by Gravity Records.