Queens has a very storied history when it come to jazz, from the venues that celebrated the iconic genre to many of its greatest artists — like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few — calling it home.
For decades, Flushing Town Hall has carried Queens’ torch for jazz, and on Friday, the Queens Jazz Orchestra will celebrate its 10th anniversary at the venue — and honor its longtime leader, Jimmy Heath, 91, who played with many of jazz’s greatest musicians over the course of his impressive eight-decade career as a composer, saxophonist, arranger and big band leader.
Metro: What’s been most exciting to see over the past 10 years with the Queens Jazz Orchestra?
Jimmy Heath: I always had a great time, and we played a lot of the music of the jazz musicians that were on the Queens jazz trail and all the important members that passed away. This time I’m playing mostly my music, but there are some things dedicated to the musicians I played with in the past.
How important is it to keep this music alive, especially for younger generations?
Oh, it’s very important because what was good is good. If music was good at one time in the past, it’s still good — it may not be featured as much in the media, which sets the standard economically, not necessarily artistically.
Is there any contemporary music or musicians you think could have the longevity you’ve been able to have?
I don’t see the longevity of today’s music, but there’s some I like, and some I don’t. I know how to curse privately, so I don’t need a recording telling me how to curse (laughs).
You’ve played with just about every notable jazz musician. Is there one you enjoyed playing with most?
Oh, yes. One person who was my mentor and I played with him on many occasions as far back as 1948 or ’49 is Dizzy Gillespie.
What was so special about Dizzy?
Dizzy Gillespie was one of the creators of the genre called be-bop, and it’s still ongoing. It’s an advanced style of improvisation, and Dizzy was always at the keyboard and showing all those who performed with him things they didn’t know. He was so advanced and so special in his knowledge. He was a person of a great sense of humor, that’s why they called him Dizzy.
What is the first jazz song you remember hearing?
One of them was a Duke Ellington recording called “C Jam Blues.” My parents had jazz records in the house, and I had three brothers. My older brother Percy played the bass with the Modern Jazz Quartet for 30 years, and my younger brother, Albert “Tootie,” we played together all the time in the Heath Brothers. It was always in our home — jazz music was the music of the day when we were raised up.
What is one thing you want New Yorkers to know about Queens’ jazz history?
I’m really appreciative of the fact that they’re still doing it at Flushing Town Hall, even though the culture of the area has changed, we still have the music from it. The music we play is African-American classical music, and it’s accepted and enjoyed around the world, sometimes more than in our own country.