Philadelphia lost seven great musicians in the first four months of 2020. As a matter of cultural endowment, the loss represents the equivalent of whole libraries reduced to ash. These elders were the children of auto mechanics, beauticians, restaurant workers, scientists, unionizers and ministers — people who added measurable value to their communities. Each of the departed took the lived experience of Black America and articulated it with an instrument. They nurtured generations of musicians in this calling. Their art felt like magic, but it represented trial and error, hard work and commitment to craft. They were transients in the way someone would use the term in acoustics — as a defining characteristic of sound. They were improvisers skilled in the art of evanescence, serving no master but the moment. These artists, like the music, have a special relationship with impermanence. Let us remember them.
Jimmy Heath tells his story best in his autobiography, I Walked With Giants. The only diminutive about Heath was his physical stature. He was large-hearted, fronted a big band and was a giant of jazz. He heard Charlie Parker's bebop with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945, and it changed his life. He emulated Parker's music so much, he earned the moniker Little Bird, and the nicknames he gave other musicians belied his gift for humor. Heath and his older brother, bassist Percy Heath, split time between their family home on Federal Street in South Philadelphia and their grandparents residence in Wilmington, N.C. Heath had a lot of gifted friends in Philly — saxophonists John Coltrane and Benny Golson, bassist Nelson Boyd and drummer Specs Wright. They all eventually landed in Gillespie's big band; Heath joined in 1949. He remained active as a player with his brothers Percy and Albert "Tootie" Heath and his own projects, and he performed into his 90s. He was a great ambassador for the jazz community and with his wife, Mona, supported institutions like WBGO, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jazzmobile, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
McCoy Tyner could have quit music at 26 and we would still remember him. By that point, Tyner had played five years with the John Coltrane Quartet, a landmark ensemble in American music history. He grew up at Fairmount Avenue and May Place in West Philadelphia, and he held jam sessions in his mother's beauty shop on the lower floor. He met Coltrane at a club in Philadelphia, the Red Rooster, and would join his band three years later. Tyner departed the quartet in 1965 and embarked on a solo career that picked up steam around Coltrane's death in 1967. Tyner's piano style is one of the most distinctive sounds in modern jazz, and nearly every pianist that followed has studied his sophisticated chordal technique and intensely percussive left hand. Tyner was above all a deeply modest man, and his Muslim faith guided him throughout his life. He left a remarkable legacy in his 81 years.
Every great bandleader deserves a baritone saxophonist who doubles as a straw boss and driver. Duke Ellington had Harry Carney; Sun Ra had Danny Ray Thompson. Thompson joined the Sun Ra Arkestra in the late 1960s and travelled the spaceways with the band to their eventual mid-'70s move to Morton Street in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. In addition to his duties on baritone saxophone, a responsibility he shared with Pat Patrick, Thompson sang and played flute, percussion and bassoon. He stayed with the Arkestra until Sun Ra's death in 1993, and later returned to performance under the direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen (who still leads the group). Like many of the artists involved in Ra's music, he played in a style that quickly veered from ecstatic to frenetic at a moment's notice. In his more than 70 recordings with the Arkestra, Thompson maintained an unwavering devotion to Ra's Afro-futurist ethos, Saturnian philosophies and cosmic festoonery.
He sounded like Miles. That's the critical hot take on Wallace Roney, who studied with the master who became his mentor; he even played one of Davis's trumpets. That convenient frame, where convention grades on a currency curve, limits a full appreciation of Roney's impact on a heap of trumpeters. Before he was a teenager, Roney attended the Settlement Music School on scholarship and trained with noted trumpet pedagogue Sigmund Herring of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was also getting early lessons in music from jazz trumpeter Clark Terry. Roney landed a professional break in 1976 when drummer Philly Joe Jones hired the trumpeter for a performance at Rashied Ali's loft space, Ali's Alley. He joined ensembles with Art Blakey and Tony Williams and gained even more acclaim. His partnership with pianist Geri Allen yielded some excellent recordings, though their marriage ended in divorce. Roney died at 59 from complications of COVID-19.
When Art Blakey recorded his now classic Moanin' for Blue Note Records in 1958, he was leading a band of Pennsylvanians. Blakey was a Pittsburgher; the remaining four musicians were Philadelphians. The bassist for that session, Jymie Merritt, remained with Blakey until the early 1960s. He was already road-tested following years of touring with Bull Moose Jackson's rhythm and blues outfit. Merritt was an early adopter of the electric bass as a member of that band, and he also played it with bluesman B.B. King. He anchored many jazz sessions, including dates with pianist Sonny Clark and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker. Merritt's recordings with Max Roach and Lee Morgan showed off his composer chops on songs like "Nommo" and "Absolutions." You can hear the latter on Roach's Members Don't Git Weary and both on Morgan's Live at the Lighthouse. He led his own band, The Forerunners, in his Philadelphia hometown until he succumbed to cancer.
Henry Grimes blazed through New York in the 1960s. He was in his 20s, had studied at Juilliard and was playing with some bigfoots like Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. He also made excellent recordings with drummer Roy Haynes and fellow Philadelphian McCoy Tyner. Grimes went on to record landmark free-jazz albums with Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor. Then he disappeared. A social worker from Georgia found him three decades later. Grimes had battled mental illness during this sabbatical, and he was living in a tiny apartment. He had sold his instrument years before and was struggling to make ends meet as a custodian. Thanks to a gift from bassist William Parker, Grimes eventually took up music again. His signature upright bass, "Olive Oil," was named for its unusual green finish. Once Grimes returned triumphantly to New York in 2003 for the city's annual Vision Festival, he became a fixture on avante-garde stages worldwide.
Many excellent musicians from Philadelphia leave the city, but some professionals who can hang with the best choose a noble path. They stay and define the scene at home. Philly continues to feed the pipeline with very promising talent, and Robert "Bootsie" Barnes is a big reason why. Barnes was a tenor saxophonist and consummate professional, and he expected anyone who played on his bandstand to perform at that level. He applied those exacting standards to his own career, as a regular presence on Philadelphia stages for more than five decades. He grew up in a housing project in North Philadelphia, where he befriended Bill Cosby and met classmates like trumpeter Lee Morgan and bassist Spanky DeBrest. He served for a time as Assistant Secretary for Local No. 274, the union of Black musicians in Philadelphia, a predecessor to the Clef Club of the Performing Arts. That organization continues to shape future generations of Philadelphia's finest.
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