A Message With a Beat : Drumming Up Interest in Instrument’s ‘Roots’

Times Staff Writer

Tootie Heath has been around.

His beat has filled smoky jazz lounges and recording studios in New York, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Copenhagen. He has studied with master drummers of Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil.

At 54, Albert (Tootie) Heath is one of the most respected drummers in jazz.

Last week this wandering wise man came to Inglewood High School to share the considerable culture and history of the drum.


“I don’t see how you can play the drums and not be interested in the history of the music,” he said in an interview. Heath has a classic jazz voice--he talks in a gentle rush of words.

“You have to go back to what went on before New Orleans, what went on before slavery, back to the cradle of civilization. If you have an interest in the history and culture of the drum, sooner or later you go to Africa. I’ve been traveling around the world doing research on the drum. . . . I like to share it with young people.”

Visits Schools

For the past five years, Heath has spread his message at Los Angeles-area schools. He says teaching is a logical step for a lifelong student of jazz who grew up in a musical household where it was not unusual for Charlie Parker to drop by.


The name Tootie, by the way, results from a casual christening by a grandfather in the late 1930s. Heath suspects it has something to do with tutti-frutti ice cream.

“I’m glad I wasn’t born in the ‘80s. My name would be Haagen-Dazs or Frusen Gladje,” he said.

Heath has played in groups with his brothers--saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Percy Heath--and with legendary artists including John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Nat (Cannonball) Adderly. After a career that has included long stints in Europe--typical of so many jazz musicians--he lives in Altadena and divides his time between performing and teaching.

The Senegalese drum he brought to the gym at Inglewood High School last week is called a djimbe, part of a drum collection Heath has gathered during trips around the world. In a brief presentation culminating Black History Month activities at the school, Heath used the djimbe to analyze different rhythms and playing styles, tracing them from their African roots through slavery, jazz and contemporary music.

The 2,000 students in the audience appeared to enjoy themselves. Nonetheless, these are teen-agers whose musical pantheon does not often include be-bop drummers, no matter how renowned or deserving. Heath said that doesn’t bother him.

“Kids that are 18, 17, 16 years old, they’re interested in the music that’s going on today. I just want to show the connections. We have economic reasons to categorize music, but I don’t separate jazz from Michael Jackson, Little Richard--they all have elements of the same thing. It’s all connected.”

After many lean years, Heath said, the ‘80s have been a generally good decade for jazz. Young purists like New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis have become millionaires. Movies like “ ‘Round Midnight” and last year’s “Bird” indicate the spreading commercial presence of a musical form that some have complained is more popular overseas than in its native land.

That is a myth, says Heath, who lived and performed in Europe in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.


“Europeans may have a broader range of music they like,” he said, but “I’ve always been a person that says the greatest jazz audiences are here in this country.”

In this country, “Bird,” the dark cinematic portrait of sax genius Charlie Parker directed by Clint Eastwood, is the most prominent recent attempt to pay homage to jazz.

Effect of Movies

Heath, who knows musicians who worked on the movie, appreciates the effort. But he’s less than enthusiastic about the result. He feels Hollywood commercial priorities twisted the movie’s focus, overemphasizing Parker’s drug problems, for example.

“I knew Charlie Parker,” Heath said. “He was a gentleman, a wonderful man. I’m not interested in Clint Eastwood’s version of Charlie Parker. I’m not interested in Chan Parker’s (Parker’s widow’s) version.”

Heath’s continuing passion for his music fits an artist who in 1968 took on the Nigerian name Kuumba, which means “creativity.” He said he is now studying the Yoruba culture and music of Nigeria with a master drummer from that country.

So the teacher is still a student. The man who performed at Inglewood High School retains the spirit of 40-odd years ago, when 12-year-old Tootie Heath sat spellbound, watching drummer Sonny Greer in Duke Ellington’s big band and decided what he was going to be.