Legendary jazz drummer Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath dead at 88

Albert "Tootie" Heath

Albert “Tootie” Heath, a self-taught jazz drummer who backed John Coltrane and Nina Simone and later teamed with his brothers on several recordings, died on April 3. He was 88.

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Heath died at a hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Washington Post reported. He was suffering from leukemia, according to his wife, Beverly Heath.

Heath got his nickname from his love of tutti-frutti ice cream, according to the newspaper. He performed for seven decades and made contributions to more than 100 albums.

Heath sat behind the drum kit for many of jazz’s greats from the 1950s, ‘60s and beyond. He collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson and Wes Montgomery, according to NPR.

Heath performed with his older brothers -- bass player Percy Heath and saxophonist Jimmy Heath -- as the Heath Brothers, NPR reported.

The last of their six albums -- “Brotherly Jazz: The Heath Brothers” -- was a mixture of music, interviews and commentary about their early days in Philadelphia, where Albert Heath was born on May 31,1935, the Post reported. The album also explored their bonds with Hancock, Sonny Rollins and Taj Mahal.

Albert Heath wanted to play in his high school band, but the only available spot was for a drummer, according to the newspaper. He began jamming with his brothers.

“It seemed like my house was the capital of jazz,” Heath told NPR in a 2005 interview.

By 1957 Heath was drumming for Thelonious Monk an Jimmy Bond in Philadelphia. He made his recording debut that same year with Coltrane on his album, “Coltrane,” according to the Post.

Two years later he appeared on Simone’s debut studio album, “Little Girl Blue,” in 1959. He worked with Simone again on a few tracks of the 1961 album, “Lush Life,” the newspaper reported.

Heath was an instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop for more than 30 years and conducted seminars at colleges nationwide, according to the Post. He continued to drum until recently, showcasing his talents and his sense of humor.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this next song is not a calypso,” he told a Santa Fe audience in October before the playing “Fungii Mama” with the Emmet Cohen trio. “Because I’m 88, it’ll be a collapse-o.”

In 2021, Heath joined his brothers in receiving the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the country’s highest honor for jazz musicians.

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