James Charles Heard was born August 10, 1917, in Dayton, Ohio, but grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Considered one of the best drummers of the swing era—comparable to Jo Jones, Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole—he started in show business when he was just a child as a tap dancer in amateur contests and vaudeville shows at first, but it didn’t take him long to switch his focus. By age 11 he was already becoming a self-taught musician. His parents supported his new interest and brought him to see major performers who played in Detroit’s most famous music venues. He would later describe seeing Chick Webb play in 1937 as a “formative experience.” At the age of 14, Heard began studying music at Cass Technical High School, and after classes he would gig, playing and singing professionally with local bands and obscure groups, and making frequent appearances at Mac Ivey’s Cozy Corner bar on Hastings...Read more
James Charles Heard was born August 10, 1917, in Dayton, Ohio, but grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Considered one of the best drummers of the swing era—comparable to Jo Jones, Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole—he started in show business when he was just a child as a tap dancer in amateur contests and vaudeville shows at first, but it didn’t take him long to switch his focus. By age 11 he was already becoming a self-taught musician. His parents supported his new interest and brought him to see major performers who played in Detroit’s most famous music venues. He would later describe seeing Chick Webb play in 1937 as a “formative experience.” At the age of 14, Heard began studying music at Cass Technical High School, and after classes he would gig, playing and singing professionally with local bands and obscure groups, and making frequent appearances at Mac Ivey’s Cozy Corner bar on Hastings Street, the best street in town.
Thanks to his mentor master jazz drummer Jo Jones, Heard cracked the bigtime in 1939, when he got his first professional job with the Teddy Wilson orchestra. Wilson’s band broke up soon thereafter but the young drummer went on to perform in bands led by Benny Carter (1940), and Coleman Hawkins (1941), but it was during his time with Cab Calloway (1942-1945) that he earned his fame. He also did a lot of work in small groups, and thanks to his versatility, he recorded with many of the leading jazz artists of the time: Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Hazel Scott, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and JATP, among others. Thanks to his rare ability to grow as a musician, he also became one of the leading exponents of the new bebop style. Of the many records he made during those years, perhaps the most famous is Congo Blues from the Dial session recorded by the Red Norvo Sextet in 1945, with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
He also played live radio broadcasts from the Savoy Ballroom with Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway, and Woody Herman and, from early 1946 up until 1947, he led his own sextet at downtown New York’s Café Society with George Treadwell (tp), Dicky Wells (tb), Budd Johnson (ts), Jimmy Jones (p), Al McKibbon (b), and a young Etta Jones. Later, Joe Newman (tp), Big Nick Nicholas (ts) and Dickie Harris (tb) would replace Treadwell, Johnson, and Wells. Etta was about 17 then and her mother had to get a permit for her to travel with the group on a six-month tour.
It was a great year for J.C.—he won Esquire magazine’s Drummer of the Year award, and got third place in an Olympian drum battle with Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa at Carnegie Hall. And if that wasn’t enough recognition, he began getting offers from Norman Granz. “I had met him when I was with Cab in California and he had just come out of UCLA. He’d started Jazz at the Philharmonic and got it going good. In fact, I played on his first jam session with Nat Cole, who wasn’t even singing then. Later, he got another good piano player, Kenny Kersey.”
In 1947, J.C. recorded with Sarah Vaughan in one of her famous Musicraft sessions, and for a few years after he was in constant demand, recording with Flip Phillips, Pete Johnson, Howard McGhee, Eddie Condon, and again with Sarah in 1950 for Columbia. From 1951 on, Norman Granz would call him on a regular basis to record for his Clef label, so he appeared on albums by Flip Phillips, Al Hibbler, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Teddy Wilson.
He also made several tours with Jazz at the Philharmonic, including one of Europe in 1953. “I worked for Granz off and on from 1944 up to 1953,” Heard remembered. It was in October of that last year that JATP visited Japan. “They gave us a wonderful reception. They paraded us through Tokyo for three hours—a real ticker tape parade.” Granz’s all-star troop included Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Benny Carter, Willie Smith, Flip Phillips, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Bill Harris, Herb Ellis, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Gene Krupa, and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.
“We did a week in Tokyo and a split week in Osaka and Kobe. The drum battles between Gene Krupa and me were very popular. They had known much more about Gene than about me till we got through playing.” The JATP tour lasted two weeks but the drummer did not return to the US with the rest of the musicians. A Japanese promoter came to him and asked “Do you think you can get four or five of the guys to stay over? I can’t pay the whole band. Norman Granz costs me too much. I don’t know what he pays you, but I’ll pay you double,” and so J.C. took the offer. “I tried to get some of the other guys to stay, but not one of them did.” Two, trumpeter Charlie Shavers and alto saxophonist Willie Smith, remained behind long enough to try to persuade the drummer to return with them, to no avail. Heard could see no reason for a hasty return.
The almost three years that followed were the most exciting in Heard’s long career, packed with movies, television, tours through the East, stage shows, lectures, and adulation. He even fronted a big band that went by the incongruous name Tokyo Cuban Boys. “That was a terrific band,” Heard said. “They could play like Count Basie, then turn around and sound like Perez Prado.”
J.C. Heard was of the school of jazzmen who were concerned with showmanship almost as much as musical excellence, and so he became a favorite in the luxurious Ginza district. He looked on jazz as a part of show business, a music that should entertain listeners as well as vicariously satisfy their artistic frustrations. He had opportunity to apply this philosophy during his stay in Japan. In the large theaters in Tokyo, he was not only a featured act and bandleader but he took an active part in producing the show. He would select the acts, usually a vocal group, and a male and a female singer. And then there were the movies… Movie-making was nothing new to Heard; he had already appeared in six pictures in the USA (the most famous Stormy Weather), although his roles in Japan were more prominent and stronger compared to the ones he did back home. “I made four movies altogether while I was there.” Besides movie making, stage production, and tours, Heard lectured on jazz at one of Tokyo’s leading universities, the same school the crown prince attended. He also took time out to marry his wife Hiroko. Heard, as other jazzmen before him, was fascinated with the East. He wanted to see as much of it as he could, and he did. He played in Manila, Hong Kong, Calcutta, Taipei, Bangkok, and Australia.
His Eastern adventure resulted in the album “Calypso for Dancing,” released in 1957 by Philips in Australia, and Epic in the USA. We find the swinging drummer in a new role, playing congas and bongos. Calypso was gradually edging rock ‘n’ roll out of the popular music scene, and Heard acquitted himself well in a relaxed, fluent style. But tired of so much traveling, he decided to return to the States with his wife in the summer of 1956. He freelanced in New York, but his first experiences were not on the jazz field. He began his activities recording two albums produced by Creed Taylor, accompanying the legendary blues singer/guitarist and civil rights activist Josh White.
Having been gone so long, his name had faded a little, but the excellence of his dynamic jazz playing had not diminished one whit. Soon again, he was called by Norman Granz to play for his new Verve label for a recording date co-led by Dizzy Gillespie and violinist Stuff Smith, and also with Dizzy on the album Sittin’ In featuring the freest kind of blowing a la JATP, and which had Coleman Hawkins, Paul Gonsalves and Stan Getz recording together for the first time.
After playing with the Coleman Hawkins-Roy Eldridge Quintet for a few months, he traveled to Europe again in the summer of 1958 with pianist Sammy Price, bassist Arvell Shaw, trumpeter Teddy Buckner, and trombonist Vic Dickenson. They appeared at the Jazz festivals in Antibes (France) and Knokke (Belgium), where they were also joined alternatively by Sidney Bechet on soprano, and by clarinetists Albert Nicholas and Michel Attenoux.
That same year, Heard recorded his first album as a leader, “This Is Me,” for the Chicago label Argo. He tried almost everything out, playing drums, conga, timbales and vocals. He led a seven-piece group with some of the top men from the Count Basie orchestra such as trumpeter Joe Newman and saxophonist Frank Wess—on alto and tenor—both contributing with some fine solos. Heard did some respectable jump blues singing on For You My Love and Blues for Sale, and “he managed to retain all the warmness, evenness, and swing of the drum style of the late ‘30s, incorporating just enough modifications from subsequent styles not to produce a hash or lose his identity,” wrote reviewer Martin Williams in Down Beat.
He also recorded once again with Cab Calloway and remained very active in New York where he recorded several albums by no less than Sir Charles Thompson, Bud Freeman, Ike Quebec, Arnett Cobb, John Wright, Shorty Baker, Gene Ammons, and Claude Hopkins up until the end of 1961.
Even though his playing remained as modern and alive as that of youngsters half his age, after playing with the Teddy Wilson trio for a while, work suddenly became scarce. He tried to put together a group for a brief time, but the new jazz trend of drumming pushed him little by little out of the scene. Heard said: “Everyone wants to play solos, but who is going to keep the time? That’s what the drum is. Basically, it is the driver of the car.”
Early in 1964, at the urging of his brother-in-law, bassist Al McKibbon, Heard moved to Los Angeles looking for a more relaxed jazz scene, and with the assuredness that comes only from a lifetime of varied experience. Al was already established and had found some success on the coast for the past decade. Upon his arrival, Al introduced J.C. to bassist Howard Rumsey, who had been guiding the Lighthouse club’s booking policies since 1949. Rumsey offered Heard a job to play, alternating with the house band. Heard put together a quintet consisting of Bill Perkins on tenor and baritone sax, Phil Moore Jr. on piano, and Al McKibbon on bass, with Joe Pass as a guest guitarist.
Pass had recently been chosen by Down Beat’s International Jazz Critics Poll for the “talent deserving of wider recognition” award. After having spent three years (1961-1963) almost entirely at Synanon, only working occasional gigs with the in-house group of the famous narcotics-rehabilitation organization, he was ready for a new career and, with his rising reputation—largely by virtue of appearances on Pacific Jazz records—he was a perfect fit for Heard’s group. Shortly after starting their gig at the Lighthouse, Frank Strazzeri came in to replace Moore Jr., and Jim Hughart took the bass chores from McKibbon, who had gone on tour with Cal Tjader’s group.
After that Lighthouse engagement, Heard left the group and, without its drummer, and with John Duke instead of Hughart, the ensemble moved on to play Tuesday nights at Shelly Manne’s Hole through March and April between name bookings. Heard meanwhile would act as a studio musician and playing gigs with his old friend Red Norvo, and recording in sessions with Mavis Rivers, and the Count Basie Orchestra in January 1965. He then moved to Las Vegas for a while where he played in some musical shows, then later on to Dallas, New Orleans and finally Detroit, where he settled permanently in 1966, working as a bandleader and mentor to younger musicians well into the mid ‘80s. He visited France between 1975 and 1978 on three occasions, on tour with Sammy Price, Doc Cheatham, Lloyd Glenn, Ellis Larkins, Hank Jones, and Illinois Jacquet, and with them he recorded several albums for the French label Black & Blue.
In 1981, in Detroit, Heard started a 13-piece big band which played around the state and at festivals, often featuring Dizzy Gillespie. This group recorded in 1986 and continued performing regularly until Heard’s death at the age of 71 in Royal Oak, Michigan. Heard’s legacy is honored with a yearly jazz drumming competition held as part of the Detroit Jazz Festival.
Dizzy Gillespie said once that three men had written the rules for modern jazz drumming, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and J.C. Heard, and there’s probably no better praise for such an excellent drummer.
-Jordi Pujol (Taken from the inside liner notes of FSRCD 976)