Jimmy Heath estimates he's written something close to 130 compositions during his storied career, but that's a hard number to pin down. The 90-year-old saxophonist was in the process of finishing off a new sax quartet piece when he picked up the phone last week, so the number has grown by at least one this month.
"I like to keep my compositions in the public's ears if possible," Heath offered as an explanation of why he continues to compose, despite his frustrations at how little his music is heard and appreciated these days. "It's a different world. There's no record stores, and jazz is a stepchild to the TV. As long as I'm on the planet, I'm going to try to write."
Jazz Bridge is doing its part to help keep jazz in the public eye with the publication of the Philadelphia Real Book, a compilation of hundreds of compositions by composers hailing from or based in the Philadelphia area. Edited by local pianist David Dzubinski and supported by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the book – which borrows its name from the collection of jazz transcriptions that arose from Berklee College of Music in the 1970s and has since been replicated in countless forms both legitimate and otherwise – includes works by a who's who of Philly jazz, including Larry McKenna, Odean Pope, Pat Martino, Christian McBride, Uri Caine, and Philly Joe Jones, among countless others.
To celebrate the book's publication, Jazz Bridge will host a series of concerts featuring artists represented within its pages, kicking off Saturday with a program bringing together two Philly jazz dynasties: the Heath Brothers and the Eubanks Brothers. The legendary Heaths -- saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath (elder brother Percy passed away in 2005) -- will colead their long-running quartet, joined by trumpeter Terell Stafford. Opening the show will be a set by trombonist Robin and trumpeter Duane Eubanks and their quintet.
"We've got some genes at work," Jimmy Heath said with a laugh, thinking about the benefits of sharing a bloodline with one's bandmates. He quickly rattled off a list of other notable Philadelphia jazz siblings, including the Barrons (saxophonist Bill and pianist Kenny), the Bryants (pianist Ray, bassist Tommy, and drummer Len, uncles to the Eubankses), and the Breckers (saxophonist Michael and trumpeter Randy).
"It's a love thing when it's family."
Concerts in the coming months will feature saxophonist Odean Pope and pianist Dave Burrell; guitarist Pat Martino and pianist Uri Caine; and guitarist Monnette Sudler and bassist Christian McBride.
According to Jazz Bridge executive director Suzanne Cloud, publishing and promoting the Real Book is a direct aid to the nonprofit's main mission, which is to provide medical, legal, and financial assistance to area jazz and blues musicians during times of crisis.
"Public awareness for the jazz community goes hand in hand with the support system that we provide when things get rough," Cloud said.
"I've always felt that if the public and the fans don't know the musicians in their midst, it's not going to be very easy to get them to help when the musicians really need it."
To supplement the music at each concert, Jazz Bridge will host a discussion between sets bringing together artists and experts on various subjects related to the series. On Saturday, a talk called "Nurturing the Muse" will feature historians Diane D. Turner and Jack McCarthy and Philadelphia Jazz Project director Homer Jackson to discuss the way that jazz families help sustain a local music community. Future panels will discuss topics such as storytelling in jazz and the creative struggle.
"I'm really into context," Cloud said. "If people understand why artists choose this path, they'll be more apt to celebrate their choice of being a jazz musician. In Philadelphia, people really know the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Stokowski and Ormandy, but the jazz community has never gotten that kind of support or recognition."
As Jimmy Heath concluded: "Music is life and life is music. I think music is one of the greatest and most touching art forms ever created by God for us to enjoy. They said jazz was dead when I was a kid, and I'm 90."