Jazz drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath has been awarded the prestigious 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master​ award. Photograph by Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy​.

ALBERT “TOOTIE” HEATH THOUGHT HE MIGHT have gotten passed over. The self-taught percussionist’s brothers, Percy, a bassist, and Jimmy, a saxophonist, had received the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award back in 2002 and 2003, respectively. “I figured maybe I would never get it,” says Tootie, the youngest of the musical siblings and a Santa Fe resident. That changes in April, when the 85-year-old, who has credits on more than 350 albums, joins them as a recipient of the nation’s highest jazz honor. While the trio formed the Heath Brothers in 1975, Tootie made a name for himself playing around Philadelphia with John Coltrane before moving to New York City, where he performed with luminaries like Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, and Sonny Rollins. Currently the leader and producer of the Whole Drum Truth, an intergenerational drums-only ensemble, he remains excited about learning new instruments and discovering aspects of himself as a musician.

I explore the spiritual aspects of the drums. I’m always exploring cultures and new musical forms. Drums are always at the root of the culture.  

Around the world, they’re a very spiritual instrument. 

My humor is found in the phrasing. You could play the same melody everyone else is playing, but the phrasing could make it something special and unique. I’m very fortunate to have had some people in my life who are known as being humorous. 

In 1957, I used to play with Coltrane around Philadelphia in a club called the Red Rooster. At the time, Coltrane had a lot of different types of people in his bands. He had older and younger guys—like me. Mal Waldron, Paul Chambers, and Sahib Shihab are gone. The whole group is gone except me. 

I’m the last man standing. It’s scary. I know I’ve got to go sooner or later. I always tell my wife, “I don’t mind dyin’, I just don’t want it to hurt when it happens.”   

Yusef Lateef was a master and a great influence, as a man and a musician. He was a wonderful man and great human being. I got a chance to be in his company for maybe 10 years. 

Yusef was really important in my development as a musician.   

I don’t really believe I’m that important that people would want to remember me for whatever legacy I might have.  

My main inspiration right now is reggae—the drums and bass, the continuity of the drums in reggae, and how it sustains the reggae music itself. I love Sly & Robbie. 

During the pandemic, I’ve been practicing the piano and expanding my writing.   

I don’t think I’ll ever be a piano player, but I would like to be able to develop some knowledge of harmony. 

My brother Percy was always the one I looked up to as a leader. This guy was a Tuskegee Airman, and for me, that was the greatest honor anyone could ever have. 

The Heath Brothers band was the most difficult and the hardest band to be in. With family, there’s always a conflict of some kind between the oldest and the youngest.   

I had a serious road to follow. Everybody else accepted me for who I am. But your brothers don’t. They had some other challenges for me.  

Getting older, I’ve lost my stamina to be able to play for a long time at breakneck tempos, but what I gained was some knowledge about how to play without all of the speed, tenacity, and strength.  

I had heart-valve replacement twice. To wake up and come out of that procedure and still be in the game? I fooled them all—I came back.  

They said, “Damn, we better give this guy a Jazz Masters award before he leaves the planet.” 

Story Sidebar

The National Endowment for the Arts will hold a free virtual tribute concert for Albert Heath and the other honorees on April 22, 2021.

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