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(February 2007)

New Documentary Celebrates Heath Brothers
By Aaron Cohen

When the three Heath brothers – saxophonist Jimmy, bassist Percy and drummer Albert (better known as “Tootie”) – played a 2004 concert at a San Francisco Bay Area outdoor amphitheater, they had no idea of the gig’s eventual outcome. The venue was in the backyard of Danny Scher, who would use the performance as the first step in producing a documentary about this accomplished family, Brotherly Jazz, now available on DVD.

“I had this feeling that this concert would be historic,” Scher said. “I knew that nothing had been done right about them on a historical level. But once I started learning the nitty gritty, I thought there was a bigger story.”

Scher is also Tootie Heath’s student at JazzCamp WEST in La Honda, California, and the drummer says that the producer, ‘has some pretty elaborate parties at his home.” After Scher convinced Tootie and Jimmy Heath to perform there, he called Percy Heath to join them. Having worked for pop music impresario Bill Graham, Scher said he knew what to say when negotiating with the oldest Heath brother.

“I said, ‘Listen Percy, I come out of rock ‘n’ roll and I’ve overpaid musicians who couldn’t play their instrument and many hadn’t paid their dues,’” Scher said. “’The least I could do is pay someone who’s done both.’”

Since Scher had never made a film, he hired director Jesse Block, who serves as the video director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. After shooting the concert and interviews with the Heaths, Scher and Block expanded the project to include musicians who worked with them.

“This film came together organically. There was no plan,” Block said. “These great stories built counterpoint to one another and it was our quest to give these brothers their due.”

Musicians who relay warm stories about the Heaths include Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette. But the film is not just about music. Brotherly Jazz delves into Percy Heath’s service as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. Jimmy Heath is candid about his drug abuse and imprisonment.

“Danny wanted to add that section about my sordid history,” Jimmy Heath said. “I said OK because I woke up, changed my life, and became a success.”

While everyone agrees that Percy Heath’s 2005 death is a loss for his family, and for jazz, the surviving brothers have seen the project empower their work.

“It’s wonderful and puts a new slant on the music,” Tootie Heath said. “We’ve been inspired to do more writing now.