Working and walking with a Jazz Giant on The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath

In this blog entry, Joseph McLaren, co-author of  I Walked with Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath, describes how he met Heath and came to co-author the NEA Jazz Master’s memoir.

Working with Jimmy  Heath on his autobiography has been a rewarding learning experience. Jimmy was my flute and theory teacher at Jazzmobile, the organization based in Harlem that sponsors community concerts and jazz performance classes. Some of the people who attended Jazzmobile workshops were pursuing careers as jazz artists. Others like me were hobbyists. Jazzmobile was open to adults and younger students who wanted to discover how to play jazz.

I Walked with Giants

I was a student at Jazzmobile back in the early 1970s, and that’s when I first learned about Jimmy, who had known all the icons like Bird, Dizzy, Miles, and Trane. The great thing about Jazzmobile is that it was staffed by active jazz musicians, some of them, like Jimmy, legends in the music. After a few years of attending the Saturday workshops, where I had teachers like Sonny Red, Lisle Atkinson, and Jimmy Owens, I was placed in Jimmy Heath’s class. As a teacher, Jimmy was serious and humorous but always focused on the details of learning jazz improvisation. While teaching, he would weave in stories about the musicians he knew.  In the workshops, he played the chords (“comping”) to jazz compositions while we tried to develop our ensemble and solo playing abilities. Everybody in the class had a chance to solo on tunes, and Jimmy would critique what we did.

In 1976, when Jimmy premiered his Afro-American Suite of Evolution at Town Hall in NY, just days after my second daughter was born, he included our Jazzmobile flute ensemble on a separate part of the program. It was the highpoint for me at Jazzmobile.  That night at Town Hall, we all were so nervous, but knowing that we had practiced a lot and with Jimmy’s encouragement, we performed a couple of Jimmy’s compositions, such as “Heritage Hum,” which he arranged for flutes.

I attended Jazzmobile workshops through the mid-1970s.  After graduate school, where my fields were African American literature and history and the ethnomusicology of jazz, I began a teaching career in literature, but I continued my interest in jazz.  In the late 1980s, I ran into Jimmy, possibly at a Jazzmobile outdoor concert, and asked him if he was thinking about writing an autobiography. He told me that someone had started working with him on one but that the project hadn’t developed. At that point, Jimmy and I decided to collaborate. Knowing Jimmy was from Philadelphia, I contacted Temple University Press, where Janet Francendese was then a senior acquisitions editor, and she wrote back expressing an interest in the project.  Then in 1992, I wrote a cover story about Jimmy for Beth Turner’s magazine, Black Masks.

It took years to do the interviewing of many jazz artists such as Milt Jackson, Percy and Tootie Heath, Benny Carter, and Clark Terry. Of course, I had numerous interview sessions with Jimmy as well.  Transcribing and editing the interviews were two of the challenging parts of the project. When the new millennium rolled around, the project had developed substantially, and Jimmy and I planned how the overall autobiography would be constructed. In 2006, after the book proposal was accepted by Temple, where Janet Francendese had become editor-in-chief, Jimmy and I focused on verifying information and revising the manuscript. It was an intensive period, but during all of it, the collaboration was harmonious. At those revising sessions in Jimmy’s apartment in Queens, we would work for hours, and Jimmy’s wife, Mona, would occasionally give the answer to a question from the past that Jimmy needed to confirm. (She also kept us going with healthy snacks.)

Overall, it’s fitting that Temple University Press in Philadelphia would publish the autobiography of one of the city’s favorite, legendary sons. It was truly a book that took years in the making. But as my grandmother used to say, “Nothin’ happens before its time!”

I Walked with Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath is available from Temple University Press.

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