Philadelphia has bred an astonishing number of great jazz musicians, like John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones and so many more. According to 81 year-old drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath: “Some guys joke and say it’s in the water. A lot of wonderful people that I grew up with and experienced playing with came out of Philadelphia.”
The “Tootie” thing? “It came from my grandfather, he gave me that name when I was a very tiny little person. But then he died before I could figure out why. So that’s been my name all through life. A lot of people know me as Tootie and not as Albert Heath.”
The Heath household that raised brothers Jimmy (sax), Percy (bass) and Albert (drums) was a magnet for the all-important “hang,” the informal gatherings of musicians and friends for food, conversation and jamming. “I’m sorry that house wasn’t enshrined, because some of the greatest people in jazz came through that house,” says Tootie. John Coltrane’s house in Philadelphia was listed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Tootie’s first recording was with Coltrane in 1957. His most recent recordings have been with Ethan Iverson of the trio Bad Plus, and a 5-part suite written by pianist Richard Sears called “Altadena.” That CD is being released by Ropeadope Records, and the suite will be performed on October 2 at the Royal Room in Seattle.
Tootie says, “Richard was commissioned to write the suite [by the Los Angeles Jazz Society in 2013], and I was privileged to have him ask me to perform it with him at the Jon Anson Ford Theatre in Los Angeles. About two years later we made the recording of it, and now we’re doing the tour.”
He enjoyed working with the young composer. “His music was very new for me, his approach to writing was very new, his performing was new. All those young people in the group were wonderful, they did his music justice. It was a great experience.”
The Altadena suite has a lot of space for improvisation. “It is more free-form. Richard said he wanted me to play as freely as possible, so it gave me an chance to reach back and grab some of my very old experiences, like with Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim. Lately I haven’t had the opportunity play that freely until Richard came along with this suite.”
Tootie enjoys his interaction with young people. He’s been a regular instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and this year was artist-in-residence at the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp in New Orleans. “It was very fun. I met some wonderful young people, the faculty and administrators, too. I’ll never forget it. I learned some things about music history that I didn’t know. It’s a great historical place.”
He likes to stay busy. He’ll be helping brother Jimmy celebrate his 90th birthday at Lincoln Center in NYC on October 25th, and after that, he’ll be at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, performing with his drum group “Whole Drum Truth,” which includes Sylvia Cuenca, Joe Saylor and Louis Hayes.
Tootie is looking forward to this trip to Seattle, and he fondly recalls the Seattle jazz greats he’s worked with over the years: Lucky Thompson, Buddy Catlett, Hadley Caliman and Julian Priester. “A lot of my contemporaries lived in Seattle. I’m happy to be able to come there and perform, especially with Richard and with a whole new approach, for me, to music.”
Hear The Altadena Suite by the Richard Sears Sextet featuring the legendary Albert Tootie Heath at Seattle’s Royal Room on Sunday October 2.