John Goldsby's Jazz Concepts - A Sound for Sore Ears

February 18, 2014

AT MY REGULAR GIG WITH THE WDR BIG BAND, I WORK WITH A ROTATing roster of great jazz composers, arrangers, and soloists. I was thrilled recently when saxophonist, composer, and arranger Jimmy Heath came to lead our band for a production. A jazz legend at age 87, Heath has written over 125 songs in his career, many with great bass lines that define his compositions.

“Gingerbread Boy” was first recorded by Jimmy Heath with Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy’s brother, Albert “Tootie” Heath, on drums [Jimmy Heath, On the Trail, Riverside, 1964]. The smooth, top-of-the-middle groove that Chambers and Tootie Heath strike on this track is described as tippin’ by bop jazz cats in the know. The solo choruses of the tune follow a 12-bar blues form, but the melody choruses use a 16-bar form with a couple of rhythmic twists and turns.

Example 1 shows a typical bass line over the melody section, similar to the original Heath recording. Note that the bass line follows the accents in the melody. Bars 9–12 could have been written as four bars of 4/4, but Heath writes the accents into the line, pairing a bar of 3/4 with a bar of 5/4. This is a common reading predicament that might throw a bass player off: How does one deal with a sudden onslaught of changing meters when sight-reading? Sometimes, I’ll count in my head: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. More often, I’ll feel the 3/4 meter and the 5/4 meter, concentrating on the value of each note and combination of notes rather than thinking about bar lines. If I play the rhythmic value of each note correctly, then the changing time signatures are automatically precise. The bars of 5/4 can also be subdivided and felt in a group of 3 + 2 quarter-notes.

Jimmy Heath
A few years after Heath’s original recording, “Gingerbread Boy” became a huge jazz hit when Miles Davis laid down a burning version with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams doing some nasty slippin’ and slidin’ [Miles Smiles, Columbia, 1967]. In contrast to Heath’s version, Davis played four bars of 3/4 in bars 9–12, followed by five bars of 4/4 (Ex. 2). During this era of Davis’ famous quintet, Carter and Williams defined a new style of rhythm-section playing: adventurous, flexible, and always burning.

“Gemini” is another Heath composition with a bass line that gets under the skin. The composition is a 24-bar, long-meter, 3/4 modal blues; Ex. 3 shows an excerpt. First recorded by Jimmy Heath with his brothers Percy Heath on bass and Tootie Heath on drums [Jimmy Heath, Triple Threat, Riverside, January 4, 1962], the song was also recorded by the Cannonball Adderley Sextet with Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums a few days later [The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York, Riverside, January 12 & 14, 1962]. Although the Heath track is swinging, the Cannonball performance of “Gemini” has become the definitive version.

Listen to the two recordings of “Gemini,” and you’ll hear that the main difference between the performances lies with the bassists and drummers. On the Triple Threat album, Percy Heath does not walk on the solo sections; on The Cannonball Adderley Sextet Live In New York, Sam Jones goes into a fierce, driving quarter-note swing during the solo sections, aided and abetted by Hayes. Both versions are cool, and the composition—and bass line—have stood the test of time.

Example 4 shows the bass line to another Heath classic, “A Sound for Sore Ears” [the Heath Brothers, Brotherly Love, Antilles, 1982]. When I bought this record back in 1982, I was struck by the “modern” vibe. At the time, I had been listening to Percy Heath and his seminal bebop bass work with Miles Davis in the ’50s, plus his elegant, Bach-like chamber-jazz playing during his tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet. “A Sound for Sore Ears” was a new type of feel-good jazz, rooted in the bop tradition, but with a solid, straight-eighth, head-bobbing beat. I realize now that the vibe was created by Jimmy’s melodically accessible composing, and Percy’s impeccable bass playing.

I felt honored to play the WDR Big Band project with Jimmy Heath, a great saxophonist, arranger, composer, and a true gentleman. Having Percy as a younger brother certainly inspired Jimmy to compose memorable bass lines to support his beautiful melodies. I dedicate this column to Jimmy Heath, a prolific jazz composer with an ear for good bass lines, and Percy Heath (April 30, 1923–April 29, 2005), one of the fathers of modern jazz bass playing.



Discuss all aspects of bass playing with John at the LowDown Forum. Also visit John’s website at for sound files, videos, and bass-related material.


• Paul Chambers plays “Gingerbread Boy” with Jimmy Heath.
• Miles Davis with Ron Carter in 1967 playing “Gingerbread Boy.”
• Percy Heath talks about his sixdecade bass playing career.

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