Drink a toast to Jimmy Heath 

The history of jazz is strewn with familial relationships: the Jones brothers, the Marsalis clan, the Montgomery brothers, the Adderley brothers, the Brubeck brood, Ellington pere et fils and others whose hearts beat in that swinging tempo that makes jazz precious to all of us.

This week, Jimmy Heath, middle brother to bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, celebrates his 75th birthday on October 25. It is perhaps an anomaly in jazz circles that when the discussion turns to great tenor saxophonists, Jimmy doesn't leap immediately to mind.

It is his strange lot in life to be overshadowed by such innovative luminaries as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. Or perhaps the reason for his afterthought status is due to a family musical characteristic that exhibits itself as supportive and essential, but not necessarily flashy.

For example, for all the fame he garnered during the long career of the Modern Jazz Quartet, brother Percy, to my knowledge, has never led a record date, and I can find no recording that features Tootie as anything other than a sideman.

Jimmy, however, is another story. His name graces a clutch of fine albums, many of them now, sadly, out print. The available ones, though, are good material for anyone interested in the continuum of tenor greats. And I hasten to add that Jimmy's talents extend to the soprano, alto (his first instrument) and flute as well.

His sound, too, is as distinctive as his talent, but that makes all the more puzzling his rather second-tier status. Whenever I hear Jimmy, I know it's Jimmy by the sound of his saxophonic voice. And that voice always arrests the ear and makes me pause to listen, and to listen intently.

Jimmy's resume, like those of his brothers, is impressive and exhibits a string of musical associations that would make any musician envious. After his years on the alto, which he blew for Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy took up the tenor about 50 years ago and woodshedded his way toward a breathtaking set of chops on the instruments mentioned above.

Twenty-five years later, he joined his brothers for a trio that lasted for about seven years, until 1982. Since that time, he has recorded five albums, the last in 1995. Only two of these -- 1994's "You've Changed" [Steeple Chase] and 1995's "You Or Me" [Steeple Chase] -- remain in print. And that's a pity, because Jimmy's age does not show in his more recent recordings.

But he has a rich legacy. His work includes composing and arranging for Art Blakey and Chet Baker, and he penned two of my favorite Miles Davis cuts when he wrote "C.T.A." and "Gingerbread Boy." He also worked with such bright stars as Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Kenny Dorham and Gil Evans.
His discography includes an admirable series of recordings. Here is a list of those that remain in print:

-- "The Thumper" [Riverside/OJC, 1959]
-- "Nice People" [Original Jazz, 1959]
-- "Really Big!" [Riverside/OJC, 1960]
-- "The Quota" [Riverside/OJC, 1961]
-- "Triple Threat" [Riverside/OJC, 1962]
-- "Swamp Seed" [Riverside/OJC, 1963]
-- "On the Trail" [Riverside/OJC, 1964] and
-- "Picture of Heath" [Xanadu, 1975].

"On The Trail" s an especially fine example of Heath's versatile creativity and is highly recommended.

In any case, let's all pause at some time on Thursday to raise a glass to Jimmy Heath, a reed man of whom we hear far too little.