Remembering Jimmy Heath

The Institute is heartbroken to learn of the passing of Institute trustee Jimmy Heath, a giant of jazz who left an indelible mark on the music he loved and helped shape. At the age of 93, Heath was a living legend who bore that mantle with characteristic good humor and humility.

In more than 70 years on the scene, he appeared on over 100 records, penned over 125 compositions—including the jazz standards “CTA” and “Gingerbread Man”—and appeared with countless jazz icons including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Wynton  Marsalis and many others. Heath, alongside brothers Percy and Tootie, presided over nearly every era of note in jazz history, from big band swing to bebop to post-bop and beyond—always staying true to his signature sound.

Heath spent 20 years as Professor of Music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and was a passionate standard bearer for jazz education through his over three decades of work and advocacy on the Institute’s Board of Trustees. Always giving generously of his time, wisdom, and inimitable style on the saxophone, he served on the judging panels for all but one of the Institute’s Saxophone Competitions, helping to launch the careers of talents such as Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Jon Irabagon, and Melissa Aldana–the first woman instrumentalist to take first prize at an Institute Competition. He appeared at the inaugural celebration of International Jazz Day in 2012 at United Nations Headquarters in New York, fittingly keeping stride with other musical icons like Hugh Masekela and Stevie Wonder. But perhaps most significant was his dedication to serving as an artist in residence at the Institute’s Jazz Performance program, teaching and imparting priceless insights and mentorship to the next generation even into his tenth decade. 

In recognition of his tireless work to preserve and perpetuate jazz, Heath was presented with the Maria Fisher Founder’s Award in 1994.

Most recently, Heath performed at our 2018 Piano Competition in Washington, D.C., joining a stage brimming with talents that he helped nurture and inspire. With his wit, wisdom and effortless musical mastery, the jazz world and this Institute will never be quite the same without Jimmy.