I can hear music: An afternoon with the Heath Brothers

Fish of Gold

Jimmy Heath said he’d love to meet me. Albert “Tootie” Heath said I should check in to say hello. But when you talk to great musicians on the phone — legends of jazz, this time — it’s always a judgment call as to whether somebody’s merely being polite as an interview is winding down.

This time I’d felt such a natural connection talking in separate calls to these two gentlemen in their homes, Jimmy in New York City and Tootie in Albuquerque, for my preview stories here and at waer.org that indeed I showed up early to personally say hello before their first of two shows late Friday afternoon at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse.

Jimmy Heath, center, and Tootie Heath, right, rehearse with Michael Carn, center.

Jimmy Heath, center, and Tootie Heath, right, rehearse with Michael Carn, center.

The Heath Brothers Quartet was on stage in Storer Auditiorium rehearsing. I took the opportunity to step close with my iPad Air to snap shots closer than I’d get with my seat for the set, which I knew would be up in row E in the 280-or-so seat theater.

Band leader Jimmy Heath, right,  feels the groove with Jeb Patton on piano, left, and MIchael Karn.

Band leader Jimmy Heath, right, feels the groove with Jeb Patton on piano, left, and MIchael Karn.

The brothers, Jimmy on his tenor sax and Tootie on drums, obviously had an easy way with younger band mates Michael Karn on upright bass and Jeb Patton on piano. They swiftly made sure everything sounded just the way they wanted it to. They stopped and started their way through several pieces, feeling their way through their instruments and signaling to just a few sound people and stage crew.

A handful of people had gotten the green light from Frank Malfitano, the founder and executive of the M&T Syracuse Jazz Festival and man who programs this Legends of Jazz series for Arts Across Campus at OCC. Malfitano introduced the Heath Brothers to several folks.

And me.

Jimmy Heath, me, and Tootie Heath.

Jimmy Heath, me, and Tootie Heath.

They both remembered our phone conversations, these jazz men of 88 and 79 years old. Tootie told me how the crowd earlier this week, 2,000 strong had sang happy birthday to his older brother Jimmy. Jimmy shook my hand and smiled and said it was an honor. He was right. The honor was mine.

Back in the day when I was the music writer and critic for the big daily, I would never ask musicians to get in a picture with me like this. It was beneath the professional bar I’d set for myself. Now, though, as I write this generalist blog on markbialczak.com, and review films for syracusenewtimes.com, and write a community blog on waer.org, I wanted a photo of myself with Jimmy and Albert “Tootie” Heath for my own blog. Because I like them.

As I returned to my seat and the crowd filed in for the proper set, I was a bit disappointed that the seats were about half filled. Many of the interested fans were Syracuse musicians. I sat in a row with John Spillett and Joe Riposo. Riposo, a composer, sax player and educator of grreat note, slid over next to me to chat. I theorized that Halloween Day might have many prospective concert-goers elsewhere and added that there might be a greater amount of people for the second set, at 7 p.m. Riposo said he saw his students light up when they heard the music of the Heath Brothers, and how they needed to see live men who played with Dizzy Gilliespie and John Coltrane to keep the passing of the torch alive.

Malfitano graciously announced the presence of all of the professional musicians as he took the stage as MC, and the crowd acknowledged them with applause. He told them of the show coming up on Nov. 22 at OCC’s new Recital Hall by Mark Doyle’s great 10-piece ensemble Guitar Noir. Then he introduced me as “the dean of Central New York’s music writers.” It was a nice touch from Malfitano, I still write about music in its many ways, shapes and glorious forms.

Jimmh Heath leads the band.

Jimmy Heath leads the band. I was right about the shoot-ability from my seat.

The Heath Brothers Quartet was on from the start.

The old music critic in me wrote on my reporter’s pad wrote during the long first piece: Subtle. Sly. So damn delicious. It’s Jimmy’s tenor sax world, but Jeb states on the piano, Michael expands on the bass and Tootie echoes on the drums.

The composition was an original, “Winter Sleeves,” a play on “Autumn Leaves,” “So I can collect roy-al-ties,” Jimmy told the crowd.


It was a sweet set like that, through “Green Dolphin Street” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream” as a waltz instead of a ballad with Jimmy humming instead of singing and “If I Ever Should Leave You” with Patton absolutely swinging on piano.

Jeb Patton and Jimmy Heath play it together.

Jeb Patton and Jimmy Heath play it together.

Mid-set, I slid out and slid into an empty seat I’d spied in the front row, better to enjoy the interplay between the four musicians.

I was in front of the drums, a perfect spot, because I could hear Tootie’s sighs, his breathing, his ooh’s and his emphatic Ah’s. All of it came with a beaming smile in between. Oh, to be 79 and loving your life’s work.

The musicians gather to sing Happy Birthday to Jimmy Heath.

The musicians gather to sing Happy Birthday to Jimmy Heath.

Before bidding adieu, Malfitano told everybody he had Halloween candy for all in attendance: Heath Bars, of course. And there was a birthday cake for Jimmy Heath in the lobby for all to share. But first all of the Syracuse professional musicians had to come to the stage to sing Happy Birthday to Jimmy Heath. They sang. He beamed. Great moment.

Here’s a YouTube video I shot after snaking down to the front row.

This is my first installment for NaBloPoMo, a WordPress feature where bloggers write a post every day in the month of November. Bloggers form teams for motivation and inspiration. I am art of Nano Poblano, aka Team Peppers, aka Little Peppers.

Have you ever showed up early at event to say hello to the participants, and did they know who you were when you got there? What’s the best rendition of Happy Birthday you’ve ever been part of, and why? Have you ever been able to sneak down close to shoot a photo or video up close, and where and when?

25 thoughts on “I can hear music: An afternoon with the Heath Brothers

  1. This is so excellent that you are such a friendly, sincerely-interested-in-others interviewer, Mark! They, of course, remembered their conversations over the phone with you, Mark! It is definitely a talent how you are able to draw people to you, their sharing fun things, like the way he can collect royalties, by his play on words, “Winter Sleeves” on “Autumn Leaves!” Loved that character and his brother, too! And, by the way, they felt your love of music and sincerity and meant it was an Honor To Them, how much you listened and cared!! I am so proud of knowing you, Mark!


  2. Enjoyed this review of the concert, Mark…couldn’t make it but am a huge jazz fan, especially sax. Love the Heath bar touch! Play on, brothers! 🙂


  3. what a great post to kick off your special month of writing, mark. the brothers sound amazing and i only hope i have one tenth of their energy and spirit if i am lucky enough to reach their age. i always love the backstory of music and those who make the music and this was wonderful –


  4. Between you and a few other bloggers, maybe I should just move to Syracuse. What a great night of music and interactions!

    My only “up close” experience was at Busch Gardens a few years ago. It was “season passholder appreciation day” so if your pass was visible you could be eligible for special perks, prizes. We were there on Halloween to see one of the shows and one of the ushers asked if we wanted to sit up front. We were seated around the platforms that the performers were on during songs. It was pretty neat, except when the witch singing “Barracuda” started pretending to sing to Matthew. His girlfriend at the time was not happy LOL.


    • You can move here, Jeanette. Plenty to do. Low cost of living. Job market? Uh-oh. That’s just my anecdotal evidence, you know.

      That must have been fun at the Gardens. I hope Matthew played the witch attention for all it was worth. Girlfriend should have bestowed him with great attention after that.


  5. Mark … in 1993, I met the wonderful Irish group, the Clancy Brothers, after a performance in Syracuse. I wandered backstage at the old Mizpah Tower and introduced myself as the guy who had written a preview of their show for “the big daily.” They were incredibly gracious as they indulged in some post-show Irish spirits. Toward the end of the show, after a couple of encores, people were shouting for more … they obliged, of course, but not before one of the brothers, with an impish lilt to his brogue, called out, “Have you no homes to go to?!” A great night.

    Liked by 1 person

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