My Dinner with Albert

Very recently, I got spend quite a bit of time with Tootie Heath.  I was contracted to bring him his drums and organize whatever he needed while he was in town.

If the term master ever applied, it is here.  Here is a man who among other things, was on Coltrane’s first record, grew up with McCoy Tyner, played with Cedar Walton opposite Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus at the Five Spot in 1963, played in George Russell’s band in 1965, was a first call during the Scandinavian exodus in the late 60s, played in Herbie Hancock’s band in the later 60s and continues to play with musicians young and old around the world.

And despite all of that, he doesn’t think he’s anything to talk about.  “It’s weird out here, James (speaking to his brother, the legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath), they treat me like I’m famous out here.  Walking around, you would just think he was a very nice, very well dressed man in his 60s (he’s 77).

He’s always very relaxed, on the bandstand or off.  I saw him play four times, one at sound check and for three sets at the Vanguard.  Off stage, he’s a casual guy, always happy to see people he knows, never afraid to throw in an off tilt joke(most of the time, off axis, actually) to someone he barely knows.  He also seems to know everyone.  He must have shaken 40 hands a night, and exchanged hugs and words with friends at least half as much.  He knows everyone working at the Vanguard very well, even though he hasn’t been there in over a year.

On stage, he’s a pinnacle of relaxation.  He and his brother are extremely casual onstage, and they often exchange banter and opinions during other band members’ solo.  Once, during Jeb Patton’s piano outro to a tune, Tootie struck up a conversation with David Wong about how the out-head sounded.  At the final cadenza of the outro, he said “Oh, we gotta stop talking, Wong, here it comes!”  He treated his guests the same way.  On the last night, I sat next to Kenny Washingtonin the drum corner, and as soon as Tootie came and saw that Kenny was there, he said “Shit, if Kwash is here, I’m gonna be dropping my sticks all over the place tonight.” During the set, Tootie turned to me after a drum break and said with an air of half-mocking respect “Could you ask Mr. Washington if he liked that one?” causing Kenny and Jimmy to break out in laughter.

Tootie is always joking with someone.  On the first set I saw him play, during a four trade, he turned to me and said audibly “You see sometimes you just gotta give ‘em some of that silence.  They like silence.”  Jokes were everywhere in the set, along with grunts of approval and appreciation for a lick in a solo or a well executed melody.  However, no matter how much he talked, he kept playing, and it sounded unbelievable.  You could also tell that his ears were always in the game.  More than once he interrupted a conversation with a shout of approval at Jeb or David.

Tootie memorized every chart in the book.  During the sound check he was singing all of the melodies in the right key, and was checking and re-checking his parts to make sure they were right.  The book must have included something like 30 tunes, plus standards.  Now these aren’t the hardest tunes in the world, granted, but the way that Tootie approaches the drumset, he always adds little things to break the monotony of the situation, adding little personal sections to mix it up for the soloists.

More importantly, he has the greatest Afro Cuban 12/8 I’ve ever heard in my life.  So laid back, so secure.  There was one tune where it went into a slow, half time 12/8, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  No one plays that beat anymore.

He also was very informed about Brazilian rhythms.  I’m no expert, but his Bossa feel seemed closer to the traditional records I’ve heard and further from the Charlie Byrd business.  A heavy accent on two, using the bell to his thick “A” cymbal.  Again, very laid-back and relaxed.  I always take note when people do Bossa well, because for me, the Bossa tune is without fail the worst tune in the set.

Also, his brushwork is magnificent.  Anyone who has listened to his work with Nina Simone knows this, but I thought I’d mention it.

The other thing about Tootie is that he encourages curiosity about history.  When we were walking together, I told him that people in my generation didn’t really know who John Gilmore was, and he said that it didn’t surprise him, that people only really knew people who were put right in front of their face.  He said that people didn’t know any history at all, that they hardly knew who Martin Luther King was anymore, and that MLK was much heavier than John Gilmore.

Perhaps that’s why he was always telling me stories about the old days in New York.  I now have enough Monk and Mingus anecdotes to fill a chapter of a book.  When I was walking him to his pad, he brought me past the old Five Spot (which was actually the second, newer Five Spot) and showed me where it was, and told me a story about a girl he used to date who lived across the street in a building that was no longer standing.  He knew everybody, and merely mentioning a name such as Billy Higgins or Mal Waldron conjures up story after story, an honest opinion from a man who is very qualified to give it.

Now most of those stories aren’t quite fit to print, but ask me in person and I’ll lay them on you.

But above all, he is a nice man.  I took his drums from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn.   It took me an hour and a half maximum.  He hung out with me through three sets, bought me a scotch, paid me much more than the cab fair was worth, and then called me on Saturday to come have dinner with him.  Which he paid for.

I couldn’t have had a more pleasant week.  I can’t wait for him to come back in August to play with Ben Street and Ethan.  It’s going to be a hell of a week too.

As I post this, I’m coming back from one of the greatest sets of Jazz I’ve ever seen.  Turns out I could have a more pleasant week.

I’ll write it up tomorrow.  Very good other music on the horizon too.

A Tootie anecdote:

Enter Thelonious Monk and Tootie on a street corner outside the Five Spot circa 1963.

AH: Hey Monk, you sounded great tonight.

TM: Oh you think so do you?  Well let me ask you this!  Do you have a thousand dollar bill on you?

AH: Monk, I haven’t even SEEN a thousand dollar bill before

Monk takes a thousand dollar bill from his coat.

TH: You see, THIS is a thousand dollar bill.  You have to keep one on you at all times, just in case you need to buy a car or a house or some shit.

—Martin

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~ by Martin Porter on July 18, 2012.

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