J.C. Heard is relaxing in the living room of his modest apartment in Troy, Michigan. Though the apartment is not large, it is lavishly furnished in rich brown teak and soft leather. The walls are adorned with Japanese artifacts, Samurai swords, delicate silkscreen landscapes, and wispy rice paper prints. Hand-carved ivory statuettes and eggshell-thin pottery stand out against the darkness of the wood.
J.C. is dressed casually, but in style, with black and white checked pants, white sport shirt, and two-tone patent-leather shoes. He has a pencil-thin mustache, and his hair is short, and nattily parted off to one side, Cab Calloway style. He is rummaging through an enormous stack of some 1000 LPs which he has recorded in the past 50 years. Somewhere in that collection is the first album he recorded with Teddy Wilson’s big band in 1946. Since that time he has made records with many of jazz’s greatest vocalists and instrumentalists. Among them are Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Charlie Parker, and Frank Sinatra. He has recorded extensively with Billie Holiday, and also performed and recorded with Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, and Dinah Washington. At age 65, J.C. Heard is, without a doubt, one of the world’s greatest jazz drummers. In terms of pure technique, only a Buddy Rich could even come close to rivaling him. In fact, Buddy Rich is one of J.C.’s greatest fans, and the two have been good friends for over 40 years. J.C.’s rhythmic roots lay in his experience as a tap dancer—in fact, he started out in vaudeville.
“Actually, I started out as a tap dancer. I was a big fan of Bill Robinson and used to do some of his stuff. When I was ten, I won first prize dancing in one of those little talent contests, and as the winner I got to dance with Butterbeans and Suzy and their show. That was in 1927. In this show I wore short pants and a bow tie. They had six chorus girls, a girl singer, and a comedy team—Ashcan and Lewis. I’d been dancing with Butterbeans for five weeks when one night the drummer was sick and couldn’t make it, so I filled in. I never played the show on drums before—in fact, I never touched a set of drums before that, but I knew the show by heart and I just sat down and played it.”
J.C. was able to hear some of the great big bands of the ’30s and ’40s at the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward and Canfield. He spent many nights riveted to the front of the bandstand there, listening to great drummers like Chick Webb, Kaiser Marshall, Jo Jones, Big Sid Catlett, and Davey Tough. Like many aspiring young drummers, J.C. began beating on everything in sight, trying to imitate the rhythms of his idols.
“I didn’t have my own set of drums ’till I was 11 or 12. I used to beat on my mother’s pots and pans. I’d bust holes in the furniture trying to sound like Chick Webb. My mother finally got me a little set of drums with trading stamps from True Romance magazines. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.”
At the age of 13, J.C. began playing and singing professionally with local bands, making frequent appearances at the Cozy Corner bar on Hastings Street. By 1936 he had met and sat in with Lester Young, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Everybody stopped by the Cozy Corner. It was there that Teddy Wilson first heard J.C. play. Two weeks later, J.C. got a telegram from New York: Wilson had just left Benny Goodman’s band and was in the process of forming his own group. He wanted J.C. to be his drummer.
“Man, when I got that wire from Teddy, I was so excited I didn’t even think about the money,” he says. “I knew Teddy was already on top. I moved right to New York. The band only lasted a year, but it was enough time for me to get known around New York. We played all the major spots, like the Apollo and the Famous Door.”
J.C.’s work with Teddy Wilson marked the beginning of a career which has spanned 55 years and four continents. In those years he made world tours, movie appearances, and recordings with the most brilliant innovators of jazz. After Wilson’s band broke up, J.C. was the driving force in the orchestras of Benny Carter, Louis Jordan, and Benny Goodman. He played in live radio broadcasts from the Savoy Ballroom with Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway, and Woody Herman, and in 1946 won Esquire magazine’s Drummer of the Year award. That same year he won third place in an Olympian drum battle with Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa at Carnegie Hall.
“We had three drumsets on the stage at Carnegie Hall. Gene was in the middle because he was the oldest. Gene won the gold award, Buddy won the silver, and I won the bronze award, which was for third place.”
In the ’40s, the movie industry began hiring big bands to feature in musicals, and J.C. made appearances in five American films. “I was in Richard Widmark’s first movie, The Kiss of Death. Then I did Something to Shout About with W.C. Fields in 1945, Two Tickets to Broadway with Tony Martin, Stormy Weather with Cab Calloway and Boogie Woogie’s Dream with Lena Home.”
In 1950, record producer Norman Granz assembled Jazz at the Philharmonic, which consisted solely of jazz luminaries, and in 1953 took the 22-piece orchestra (along with J.C.) to Japan, where they played to sold-out crowds of ecstatic Japanese fans. The performances were recorded and released as The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever on Columbia records. When Jazz at the Philharmonic finished its tour, J.C. organized his own big band—the Sharps and Flats.
“I had all Japanese players in it. Toshiko Akiyoshi was playing piano. When you closed your eyes it sounded just like Count Basie. I mean, it was perfect!” Heard met with such great success in Japan that he lived there for the following four years. During his residence he met his future wife, Hiroko, acted in three Japanese movies (he was a Samurai warrior in one), and hosted a late-night talk show, complete with interpreter.
Through connections of his Japanese agent, J.C. played a series of concerts in Southeast Asia, and ended the tour with a one-month engagement at the Calcutta Hotel in India. By the time he returned to the United States, the Big Band Era had ended. He began playing with small groups—first with Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins, and later with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
“I did all the first stuff with Bird and Diz,” he says. “A lot of people think it was Max Roach on those recordings, because the sidemen aren’t listed on the album jackets. I was in that band before Max. People wonder how I can play a commercial thing like Cab Calloway and then go play with Bird and Diz. I’m just flexible.”
Heard’s versatility is reflected not only in the wide diversity of artists with whom he has recorded, but also in the sheer number of recordings he has made.
“I’ve made records with so many people that I forget who I recorded with. I didn’t know exactly how much I’d recorded until last year. This guy from France sent me a four-page list of everybody I ‘d ever played with. He listed 1,100 albums that I’d played on!” he says incredulously. “And that was mostly as a sideman. I’ve made quite a few records singing, too.”
After a ten-year respite from travelling, J.C. has resumed his touring schedule. He prefers to tour at a leisurely pace, travelling for three or four weeks, then taking a few weeks off. His annual tours take him through France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Sweden, and he is a regular guest artist at most major European jazz festivals. Twice a year he performs at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island. He usually travels alone, hiring local musicians to fill the 21 chairs in his band.
“I’ve probably been more successful in Europe and Asia than I have in the U.S. People overseas seem to understand jazz a little bit better than we do here. You should see the jazz halls they have in Switzerland— beautiful! They wouldn’t build nothin’ like that here. In the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland they have 600 musicians performing in 100 concerts over the course of three days. Now why do you have to go all the way over there to see that?”
In spite of the fact that Heard is an inter national traveler, and could easily afford to live anywhere in the world, he prefers the Detroit area. He has a global viewpoint and a philosophy which reflects a fusion of optimism and growth.
“A lot of my friends ask me what I’m doing in Detroit. They want to know why I don’t move to New York or L.A. I like Detroit! Some of the best jazz players come out of Detroit. I belong to the world, and I want the world to hear me! I’ve been around the world three times already. You can’t live in the past. Everything is moving forward, and that’s the way I want to go.”
At 65, J.C. Heard is swinging relentlessly into his 70s. His power and creativity seem only to increase with his age, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He is a master at time-keeping, and his solos are brilliantly developed—they are pure color and fire. His musical genius is complemented by his expertise as an entertainer, and he has a natural ability to put his audience at ease and make them feel right at home. In that respect he is reminiscent of the late Duke Ellington. He is a firm believer in developing a rapport with the crowd.
“I was taught to talk to the audience and make them feel good. Some of these jazz musicians nowadays don’t say a word to the people. Now the rock ‘n’ roll guys know how to put on a show, they just don’t say too much musically.”
J.C. is able to strike a perfect balance as an entertainer and an artist—which may account for much of his success over the last 50 years. His talent and showmanship were nurtured by luminaries in jazz’s golden era and persisted after onstage styles shifted from warmth and impersonality. So J.C. remains an eternal talent from another age, an artist lionized longest in other lands. But his music—and J.C. himself—are home to stay.