Listen To The Bass Player: Part 1, Percy Heath

In the days when I was learning to truly listen, Red Kelly gave me a piece of valuable Thumbnail image for Red Kelly.jpgadvice. He told me to close my eyes and in my mind isolate and concentrate on the bass player. He said that when I felt and understood what the bassist was doing, the rest of the music would begin to fall into place. It was a coincidence, of course, that Red was a bass player.

As an impoverished student, I had a limited record collection. It consisted of a dozen orThumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Percy Heath.jpg so 10-inch LPs, and it happened that Percy Heath was the bassist on about half of them, with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet, then a new group.

Red’s advice was invaluable. To this day, I lock in on the bassist for a blueprint to the shape of a piece, and I am still fascinated by Heath’s bass lines. In the following performance by the MJQ of Milt Jackson’s blues “Bag’s Groove,” Percy is in customary form with his spacious but concentrated tone, impeccable note choices and irresistible swing. This is from the Zelt festival in Freiburg, Germany, in 1987. The video producers insert a title misnaming the tune. A German YouTube viewer reacts in the comment section:

“das insert “BACKGROOVE” ist richtig peinlich!”

“Really embarrassing,” he says. Well, yes, but not as embarrassing as the director, asleep at the switch, who keeps the camera on John Lewis during all three choruses of Heath’s bass solo. Nonetheless, this is a splendid performance. You may as well close your eyes and focus your attention on Percy’s notes because you’re going to see little of him.

Red Kelly is the bassist on Kenton At The Tropicana, one of the best live albums in Stan Kenton’s discography. Backed by the Kenton trombones, Red also appears as featured vocalist on the heartbreaking ballad “You and I and George.” In a small group setting on another album, he is with his friend and fellow bassist Red Mitchell and guitarist Jim Hall in the classic Good Friday Blues, now packaged with other Hall recordings in a CD called Blues On The Rocks. Mitchell plays piano and leaves the bass work to Kelly.

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  1. Mark Stryker says

    Christian McBride had some interesting things to say about his fellow Philadelphian in a piece last year in the Detroit Free Press:
    “Percy’s greatest legacy is his sound. From his lowest note up to his highest note, every note resonates the same way. One particular album that emphasizes this is the first MJQ album, ‘Django.’ It almost sounds as if he’s plugged in, but you know he’s not – it’s 1954. A sound that devastatingly clear is amazing. You don’t hear a lot of finger noise. You don’t hear the string slapping against the fingerboard, which can be a good sound every now and then – it lets you know you’re playing a wooden instrument. But with Percy you always heard the pure note.”

  2. Marc Edelman says

    “Well, yes, but not as embarrassing as the director, asleep at the switch, who keeps the camera on John Lewis during all three choruses of Heath’s bass solo.” Not to mention the first chorus and a half of Bags’ solo.

  3. Larry Kart says

    I recall taking Red Kelly’s advice a step further on at least one occasion, attempting to sing a bass line to myself while listening to a quartet of Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Cedar Walton, and Mickey Roker at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. This was very educational and a good deal of fun.

  4. says

    Percy grew like a hothouse plant as a bass player when he joined the MJQ. He took all of John Lewis’s ideas to heart, and became a unique foundation player.
    He was also the one who invented the bow holster that nearly all bass players now use. Bass players were always looking for a place to keep their bow handy… on the piano, usually. With Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet, I used the bottom half of a folding music stand with a hook at the top, on which I would hang my bow, but Gerry often backed up into it and knocked it over.
    Percy noticed a toy arrow quiver with a bow-and-arrow set that belonged to one of the kids in his family, and borrowed it. He attached it to the tailpiece of his bass and holstered his bow in it. Enterprising craftsmen soon were making them out of leather and selling them to grateful bassists.