Heath was selected by curator and jazz master in his own right, Wynton Marsalis, who, in a statement, calls him a “brilliant instrumentalist, magnificent composer and arranger.”
“When he walks into a room, jazz history is made.”
Heath, who performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Rialto Center for the Arts, is honored.
“He (Marsalis) has respect for people who went before him,” Heath said during a telephone interview from his home in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., just a few blocks from the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where he serves on the advisory board.
“He took lessons from me when he first started and we’ve played together over the years,” said Heath, whose latest release is “Togetherness.”
“He’s a respectful young man with talent.”
Atlanta is a familiar stop. He’s played at local universities and festivals. His daughter and her family also live here.
“They call me ‘Bebop’ because they know I was around bebop music with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.”
Performing with Heath will be his brother, Albert “Tootie” Heath, on drums and featuring David Wong on bass, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and pianist Jeb Patton, all of whom he calls amazing talents.
Heath will deftly treat the audience to everything from bebop to Broadway to contemporary sounds.
“I’ve lived through a lot of different music,” he said. “I will honor what has happened in the contemporary world to some degree. I’m not a rapper but I played behind a lot of R&B musicians like James Brown and Gladys Knight and the Pips. It’ll run the gamut of music. … Entertainment is what we’re going to do.”
At 87, Heath is still going strong. He keeps a rigorous tour schedule and still finds time to compose and teach the younger musicians who are coming behind him.
How does he keep the pace? He credits Mona, his wife of 55 years.
“I have a wife who allows me to do my thing,” he said simply. “That’s one thing … I’ve (also) kept up the pace because music is my life.”
But having said farewell to giants like Dizzy and Bird and Trane, Heath doesn’t take anything for granted.
“I’m lucky enough to still be on the planet,” he said. “I keep moving every day. People are coming and going out. That’s the way it is. I’m fortunate to still be performing.”
Heath was born into music. His mother was a singer in a Baptist church and his dad played clarinet in marching bands in Philadelphia when he wasn’t working as an auto mechanic. A sister played piano. He played with his brothers as the Heath Brothers.
There’s also a son, James Mtume, who is a gifted composer and musician in his own right.
The two are collaborating on a project that Heath hopes will be released within the next few months.
It’s an album of songs he’s written that were never recorded. It will feature Italian jazz singer Roberta Gambarini.
She’s an example of the depth of young jazz talent in the world, he said.
“There are younger people playing jazz, and they’re attracting other young people — their peers.”
One person he has his eye on is Tivon Pennicott, 28, a tenor saxophonist from Marietta, who has played with the likes of Gregory Porter and Esperanza Spalding. He was also the second-place winner in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition. He played on the Porter and Spalding albums that won Grammys.
“He’s a super saxophone player,” Heath said of Pennicott, who is now a New Yorker. “I’ve been praising him wherever I go. This brother can play!”
He said they may one day work on a project together.
“Yeah, I would love to,” said a clearly geeked Pennicott, who plans to release a solo CD this fall. He said the two have kept in touch since the Monk competition. “It seems like something might be brewing. He’s been kind of guiding me and helping me with my career. I’m happy he’s in my corner.”
And that would probably make Heath smile.
“They keep coming and it’s not going to stop,” he said. “Don’t believe jazz is dead.”