How to Get Rid of the US Army to Play with John Coltrane: Tootie Heath in Interview

By: Estefanía Romero
Photo: R. Román Romero Tapia

After Tootie took a few minutes making fun of the impossibility of pronouncing my name in English, we started one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever had the opportunity to guide. Tootie and his brothers, Jimmy y Percy, created a band named The Heath Brothers in 1975, and they are well known for their music excelence and their collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, Diane Reeves, Esperanza Spalding and many more idols.

So… there I was with Tootie Heath and his lovely African American accent telling me the story of his life.

I know we wouldn’t have enough time for you to tell me everything you’ve done or seen this afternoon, but, could you tell me in a few words the history of jazz, from your very own perspective?

I’ll tell you. This is my history and my family history. My father was an automobile mechanic, fixed cars, but his hobby was clarinet, he loved the clarinet and he used to be in a marching band in our neighborhood, where I grew up. On Sundays the parade and in the summer, they’d walk on down the street.

So then, as a little boy, I heard him practicing on Saturday and Sunday, John Philip Souza marches [ragtime evolved from this kind of music], and I think we are all familiar with the marches he used to write. Here is the funny thing: Monday, he would take the clarinet to the local pawn shop and get money for it… then leave it for a whole week and get it out again on the next weekend and practice. And he’d did the same every week until he finally lost it.

To me, I came into life without the clarinet, I used to hear it but then I grew up without it. So… my brothers, who are older than me, they would play a music. My brother Percy, the oldest brother, he was a violinist, and my brother Jimmy was studying saxophone and he had a teacher that used to come to the house once a week and teach him the music that he would play as a saxophone player. Now, my older brother, who was learning violin, I don’t know who his teacher was ’cause it was long before my time but… anyhow, he’d drop that because he said “with a name like Percy and carrying a violin home from school was not very popular”, because in those days they associated “Percy” being a strange name, which was kind of homophobic… Percy with a violin, it was too much pressure for him.

Tootie Heath

An instrument for women, right? (back in those days, during the first decades of the XX Century, it was a popular thought in the US that instruments like piano and violin should be played only by women, whereas the brass should be played by men).

Yeah! So he would stop playing the violin. He stopped! And then some years went by with him not playing, he would in the military, and he became what historically is called now the “Tuskegee Airman”. Tuskegee is a College in Alabama and he was known as a “Tuskegee Airman”, because they’d go to history because they were the first black men to fly airplanes in the military, the first ones ever! (Tootie didn’t mention this, but the “Tuskegee Airmen” took part on the World War II). Because that was a job for white people only.

Black people could fix the airplanes, worked on clean them all up and all that but they could not fly the planes not because they didn’t know but because of Jim Crow [the Jim Crow Laws enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States, from 1876 to 1965], which is something you don’t have here [in Mexico], but Jim Crow’d base on the color of your skin.

Percy Heath & Jimmy Heath smiling | NYC Rockerfeller Center … | Flickr

Anyhow, he was a Tuskegee man, so he went to College in the most racist place in the world, ’cause the South in America was the worst, still is pretty bad. He and a few guys were chosen because they had good high school grades, they figured out they was smart.

He would go home and tell me: “man, that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life”, because they had these racist officers who were lieutenants and captains that were instructors and they would write things on the blackboard and then erase it with the other hand as fast as they could. They would put it on and then would take it off so these guys wouldn’t get it, but they got it anyhow, I don’t know how they did it.

So when he graduated, he was a Lieutenant in the US Air Force and a pilot, so he said they were flying P-40 Airplanes, if you ever look at it, it was a plain that had two wheels under the wing, and one little short wheel at the tail. And my brother said when they learned how to fly this airplane… when you take two hundred miles an hour before you could take off, you’d go on the ground like this [he faked a pose as if he couldn’t see]… all you could see is the sky and you’re going along with this speed, he said “all you could see was the white lines on the runway”.

Airplane Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

That’s scary.

So… he was all excited about going to Germany to war. When he was a pilot the war was over before he could go into any action.


Yes, he was all excited because he went to school all those years to learn how to kill somebody and then there was nobody to kill. So… it’s stupid, you know? Anyhow, he came home with his officer’s uniform, not the regular army, he was a Lieutenant, he had some light color pants and a jacket and a hat. He’s a black Lieutenant, I’m talking ’bout the 40’s, that’s unheard of.

So, my father would go out with him during the day with that uniform on. And, men… my father loved it so much. He was so proud of this guy, until he would just go take a walk with him ’cause when he found regular soldiers, which were white guys, when he saw him with that they had to do the salute and keep walking. My father loved it so much.

I’m loving it so much.

He said: “Percy, there’s a couple of guys over there doing something”, you know? And when they saw him they had to do like this [he acted a military salute], you know? They would stay like that until he released him. My father loves that so much and I really believe that this guy set a high curve for me and my brother to come along. After that we never make up to that. I was never in the Service because I don’t believe in it. I think the Service is stupid and I don’t believe in goin’ killing nobody, I love life, I ain’t gonna bomb on those cities, I’m no gonna do none of that, my other brother either. Neither one of us went into the Service. I don’t know what his reasons were, but I know what mine were.

Percy, Tootie y Jimmy Heath. Source: IRockJazz

As a young man, I was playing with John Coltrane before he was the John Coltrane that we all know now. He was just a local guy playing the saxophone better than most people around. He was one of the best players, but he went famous. He had a group and a bass player who’s still alive today Reggie Workman, he’s in New York now, myself, and McCoy Tyner, he was too young, he was a little kid, he couldn’t be with in there with us, we had to be 18 to be in the bar in America.

Anyhow… I’m opening in this club with John Coltrane and I get this notice of the draft from the United States Army in the mail, which was something I did not agree on. I got this notice and when you get it you have to go to the Draft Board and go to an examination to make sure you are qualified to be in the army. I was all upset about it, so I asked some of my friends who had done it before me: what do you do, man, to stay out of that army? So they would tell me all kinds of things like: “you drink ten cups of coffee, make your heart start raising, you don’t get a shave, you don’t get a haircut, you let your hair grow everywhere, you don’t go to bed, you stay up all night…”. So I took all of these things as a way to avoid army.

Tootie _Heath during his master class at the Teatro del Estado.

So I’d go down to the Draft Board and I’m standing there so the guys who are military guys and are white, by the way, ain’t no Sargent, ain’t nobody that looked like me in there, so I’m intimidated right away. And they talk to you like you’re crazy. They give you this examination, so they found out my heart was beating, really stupid. Because I hadn’t sleep all night like for three, four nights mostly and drinking all this coffee with something you put down in your coffee and make you do like this (he started shaking) and makes you nervous. They told me: “hey man, there’s something wrong with you”. I thought I was finish ’cause he didn’t trust me. He knew I was doing something stupid, so he said: “come back next week”. I thought: “damn! I thought I was finished with that”.

I had to go back so I asked my friend, another man who had done that, he said: “man, take your snare drum and tell them you always carry that, everywhere you go”. So I did. And the guy told me: “put that down!”. They thought I was crazy now. So he said: “if you don’t put that drum back I’m gonna make you come back again”. So that’s the third time and I’m trying to be at the club with Coltrane, my mind is on playing the drums, not in the army.

A matter of fact I have never told anybody this story so I’m very happy to share it with you. The third time was with a bass player named Jimmy, who is now death, he told me: “don’t cut your hair, take your snare drum and take the coffee”. And I’l go back and the guy said: “take down this drum”, and I said “no sir, I never take it down, I take this drum everywhere I go”. So he looked at me and said: “okay, go in the next room”. I thought “now they’re going to lock me in the army and all that”. So I go into the next room and he signed some papers. Next thing I know they said “you’re physically unfit”. So I missed the army.

Tootie Heath

You made it!

I am 84 years old now and I avoided all and I hope you avoid it too… all this crazy army stuff. Is so stupid. Instead of help you destroy them.

I think it’s important to make a statement and I am glad of what you are saying.

I don’t think killin’s the answer to anything. Prison is another stupid thing.

You are making me think about this thing I read in a biography of Charlie Parker, written by Stanley Crouch, who said that being black in America was very hard because you weren’t taken serious. I know this is a hard question, but I want to ask… he said that’s the reason why many African Americans got into such an excellent level of creativity. Do you think that was a reason?

I do. I think we were forced to being creative because you had smarter than the enemy. You had to be smarter than the people that suppressed you. You can’t give in to that. So I think that’s why we had all this wonderful people: Martin Luther King before us to resist this crazy stuff without violence. He was walking by and people was throwing things at him, they shoot at him and finally killed him, but he was against all of that and he was a great man. You know? Malcolm X, all these guys were before me, my generation. It made us have to create things to survive. Jim Crow was a “bad boy”, because of the color of your skin they could deny you something.

 My mother used to send me to the South every summer to my grandmother. My grandmom and grandfather had a house in Wilmington, North Carolina, and they’d put me on a train, I was a little boy, maybe 12-11 years old. They sent me so I wouldn’t be in trouble around in Philadelphia doing stupid stuff. We’d get into Washington DC, they put us off because you’d have to switch the train, catch another one.

So I’m looking around the trains station, Washington DC in the 50’s, the sings they said “Colored Water”, it means a water fountain for people who looked like me. “Colored Toilets”, toilets for people who looked like me”… “White Toilets over here”, “White Water Fountain over here”. And you better not do anything wrong, otherwise you’d be arrested. I said: “what is this?”. And then I’d get back into the train and they told me “the colored car is at the end”. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Make a kid to go to a car in certain train.

Is it true that learning tambourine at church is what gave you confidence?

The fact is that I heard it at church, but I learned at CalArts of a guy named John Bergamo, who studied Eastern European tambourine playing, which is quite different from the one we play.

I’ll tell you what happen to me. I had a stroke. So my right side doesn’t work as good as it used to, so I can’t work it but I used to do much better on this performance.

You should listen to this man (talk and play), see into his sincere and vibrant eyes, laugh at his jokes, admire the strength that he’s carrying with him after a whole life being an excellent jazz player and mentor. What a great honor I had to share these moments with Mr. Heath.