Percy Heath, bassist for the Modern Jazz Quartet for more than 40 years, died April 28 of bone cancer in Southampton, New York. He was 81.
Heath was the last surviving member of the quartet he helped found that became known simply as the MJQ. The group, composed of pianist John Lewis, drummer Connie Kay, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and Heath were known for their sophisticated arrangements and elegant look onstage.
He and his brothers, saxophonist Jimmy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, made up one of the great families in jazz.
Born in Wilmington, N.C., he sang in his family’s choir and on radio in local talent contests.
Heath and his brother Jimmy moved to New York in the late 1940s. By 1950, they had found steady work with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Jimmy played in Gillespie’s big band and sextet, and Percy in the sextet.
The MJQ had its genesis in the Gillespie big band. As Lewis told critic Leonard Feather some years ago, he and three other band members — drummer Kenny Clarke, bassist Ray Brown and Jackson — decided to form a group to try to create a sound that was not based on the standard themes of the day.
That group, which originally was called the Milt Jackson Quartet to please bookers who wanted a top name to promote, encountered some early criticism that it wasn’t playing true jazz. Heath joined the group when Brown left to play in his wife Ella Fitzgerald’s band.
The Modern Jazz Quartet was officially born in 1952. After a well-received European tour, it returned home and slowly caught on with American fans. Kay joined the group in 1955 when Clarke moved to Europe.
The group was a popular fixture on the American jazz scene until it broke up in 1974, with Jackson citing financial considerations. The split lasted until 1983, when the group reunited for a highly lucrative series of concerts in Japan. They played infrequently after the 1994 death of Kay, who was replaced briefly by “Tootie” Heath. Jackson died in 1999 and Lewis died in 2001.
After the MJQ disbanded in 1974, Heath joined with his brothers and launched the Heath Brothers band with pianist Stanley Cowell. Heath also started playing cello in performances, often switching from bass.
In addition to his brothers, Heath is survived by his wife, June, and three sons.