Messages from Masters: Jimmy Heath

by Ella Campbell

During the past year, Jimmy Heath visited Michigan State University. He performed with one of the big bands and hovered around the jazz program, offering conversation and good company, and gave a master class. A “NastyClass” he proclaimed as he walked into the classroom. He spent some of the time talking about his autobiography I Walked with Giants, which he co-wrote with Joseph McLaren. His wife, Mona came with him to Lansing and kept Mr. Heath in check.

Jimmy is the brother of Percy and Tootie Heath, and contemporary of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. An NEA Jazz Master, he is a saxophone player, teacher, and composer/arranger.

I was curious about Mona as will as Jimmy. Race has played a huge role in American history and as I did the math in my head, I realized that Jimmy (African American) and Mona (Caucasian) must have gotten married  around the ’60s. I was right: they met in 1959, and were married by 1960. I have lost inhibitions with what questions I bombard Professor Whitaker with, so I asked him with sincere curiosity if Mona was very light-skinned or if she was white. He said she was white, and then encouraged me to talk to her. I asked her what it was like for her to be in an interracial relationship during the early ’60s and she said “Oh. It was a terrible idea,” immediately, wrapping the words in warmth as she looked up to the ceiling, “But he needed me. It was right when he got home [Jimmy suffered from drug abuse in the previous years and served a 4-year sentence at Lewisburg Penitentiary. They met during Jimmy’s welcome home gathering in 1959, where she was a friend of Percy’s]. I lived with his mother for a while. She taught me everything I needed to know.”

Jimmy describes their relationship in I Walked with Giants:

Eventually Mona and I decided to get married. When I told Marro that I had met someone and we wanted to get married, he said “That’s a wonderful idea. I’m so glad to hear that. She’ll be a stabilizing influence.” He said that he’d like to see her. When Marro heard the name Mona Brown, he assumed that she was black. When Mona went in to meet him, Marro tried to discourage her from marrying me because of my criminal background and for racial reasons, but it was to no avail. We got married on February 4, 1960, in my parents’ living room in Philadelphia. … My brother Percy had already married interracially when I was with Dizzy in 1950. My interracial marriage was and wasn’t a problem. My parents were nervous because they figured that since I had been in prison, Mona couldn’t be serious about marrying me. They though it would only lead to another problem for me to overcome. My father wondered why Mona wanted to marry me. He wasn’t sure if she was serious.

When Mona and I sat on the front steps of my parents’ house on Federal Street, sometimes the police would slow up and stare. One time they approached her and said “you all right, Miss?” Things like that would happen.

There weren’t a lot of interracial marriages, but people were doing it. In the sixties, interracial relationships involving jazz musicians were becoming more prevalent. … Miles, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee, Benny Harris, Tadd Dameron, Coleman Hawkins, and Charles Mingus were all involved in interracial relationships. Although I was in Philly, I was still into the same kind of musical environment that lent itself to social mixing. There were interracial relationships in the other direction too. Gil Evans, George Wein, and other white musicians were involved with black women. It was socially acceptable in the bebop community, and it was also part of the internationalism of the music.

The situation was completely different for Mona’s side of the family:

By the end of the year, we had decided to get married. We told our families.Mine said, “Goodbye, don’t come back.” Jimmy’s mother said, “Fine,” and called her preacher. We were married February 4, 1960, in the living room with Jimmy’s family and Mama’s friends helping us celebrate. We moved into Tootie’s room with the black ceiling and stars painted above. Federal Street was a community that cared for everybody on the block. I learned everything I needed to know in the kitchen with Mama while washing dishes and listening to the family stories.

Mona also did her part for the struggle of women in creative fields. Not with the intention of breaking barriers, but with the intention of following her passions. Through this, she accidentally became involved in jazz as well.

A year after graduating from high school in 1951 and working in an art-layout design shop, I convinced my father that I should go to art school. The Rhode Island School of Design was my choice, and being the only girl in the architecture department was very interesting. Many of the art teachers were musicians, and they would play traditional jazz on weekends at a club downtown. All their students would show up. My friend Nancy was from Boston and we would go to the museums and clubs there. We saw Sarah Vaughn and Oscar Peterson with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen more than once! On my train rides home for the holidays, I would get off in New York City or Philly and go to the museums, the ballet, and Birdland because there was so much going on in the art world and the music world in the fifties.

[Later she transferred to the University of Providence]

My sculpture teacher, Jim House, recommended me to a team of archeologists working on the ruins of Tikal. My job was to draw the stelae and glyphs that they photographed in the jungles of Guatemala so that they could study them further and publish them. I loved working in the museum in Philadelphia and living with the fantastic collections of art in every room.

I’m sure many of our jazz girls can attest to Mona’s declaration about being the only girl in her college department!

When the race issue was brought up to Mr. Heath during the master class he said, “We suffered the same indignities in this country. But we love this country. They [his contemporaries] made this country important. We scuffled to make this music important. And,” he said, gesturing toward all of the students, “you all are following that. And I love you for it.”

I thought back to my conversation with Mona. She went through losing her entire family because she decided to marry Jimmy, was harassed by policemen, and was the only female in her department at her university. Here girls are, still questioning whether it’d be acceptable for us to be in interracial relationships. Still wondering if we have a place in this music. Just like Jimmy and his peers, Mona suffered her own indignities in this country – most of which still weigh heavily on our women’s hearts and shoulders. I thought, how grossly tired of me to – five decades later – still be afraid. She did her part – she was the “only” girl too. I decided it was time to stop being afraid of that! The more of us that push through, the more of us that will.

Jimmy’s contemporaries went through other struggles too, “Lee had the struggle still in his playing.” Artists were suffering from drug abuse and social indignities, and as Heath talked about some of them he mentioned artists committing suicide. He said they were writing music they’d never hear, and he pointed to all of us again and said “No more stories like that.” He counted off the artists that have passed before him, and as he stepped back and motioned toward the ceiling, he said “There’s plenty of music in the sky to grab from. And you all are qualified to do that. And I’ve heard some of you grab a whole lot.”

Students asked what being a contemporary of Trane was like. “He was humble and soft-spoken. He was beautiful and he was kind. He liked everybody. He practiced. He was 90% saxophone. He had a color in his sound that was a cry, not a beg. He wanted to be someone everyone loved. And everybody is trying to BE Coltrane. YOU CAN’T!”

Others asked about Monk: “He was the most unique composer. What a character!”
Clifford Brown: “Clifford was playing all kinds of shit. Pardon my french. We’re all adults here, right?”
And Lester Young: “He stayed high. Gin and weed. He’d get drunk, and then just sit there and not play. But have you ever heard a tape of Lester talking? He was very creative. Incredible creative abilities.”

Jimmy kept referring to connections. “That’s what you’re doing here. That’s what you’re going to do forever.” He talked a lot about how important networking and connections are. And treating the people you network with like people. His warmth was a sure example of this.

Jimmy was very willing to be serious, but for the most part he kept the conversation very light-hearted. He spoke about dead artists winning Grammies “Then Miles won. And he was dead. Then Bill Evans won. And he was dead. They like icons. I guess I’m just an acorn.” We all cocked our heads to the side and looked at each other while holding back the laughter in our noses. Jimmy was 84 when he taught this class. He was 84, imitating other 84 year olds as if they were younger than him, in a squawky teenage voice. He referred to republicans as “rich-ublicans.” He remembers Paul Gonzalvez turning to him and saying “Jimmy, we must be boogers.” Jimmy is a man full of boundless joy and energy. What a blessing!

“To be able to create and to be understood is a gift.”

Until next time,
Swing sisters, swing!


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