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John Heard Carves Out New Career

May 31, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

Next year, if all goes according to John Heard's plan, the world will lose a bass player while gaining a sculptor and painter.

Heard has had a rewarding career in music; he has played with the best, from Count Basie to Ahmad Jamal to Oscar Peterson to Toshiko Akiyoshi. But, as he rounds 50, he plans to give up the bass permanently and turn to art.

"Even though I love music and enjoy playing," he said, "I always had my mind set on becoming a painter. Maybe that's why I never really learned to read music well; if I had, it might have been harder for me to make up my mind to quit. I kind of felt like an impostor."

Tall, bearded and articulate, Heard now spends much of his time in the North Hollywood garage that he has converted into a studio.

"You see that bass over there?" Heard said. "The one on the left? That used to belong to Red Mitchell, before he left for Sweden. He said to me, 'Well, John, if you're really set on giving it up, I would like first refusal on that bass.' So the bass is going back to Red."

Growing up in Manchester, one of the least desirable districts of Pittsburgh, Heard was subjected to conflicting forces. On the one hand, he was exposed to the arts. ("They had symphonies, opera, great plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse; we'd go on field trips from school to some of the concerts.") On the other hand, there was the long, ugly arm of Jim Crow.

"At junior high school, I wanted to get into a photography class but the teacher didn't want any black students. The swimming pools were segregated. The Boy Scouts. The YMCA. The theaters with their 'nigger heaven' balconies.

"But I was raised to believe that you find out what ability you have to work with, then you go ahead and take care of business."

Nevertheless, the pressures were tough. After starting on bass in a high school orchestra, Heard played with local musicians such as Tommy Turrentine and Booker Ervin, but didn't stick with it and joined the Air Force in 1958.

Out of the Air Force in 1962, he studied briefly at the Pittsburgh Art Institute, then took a job vulcanizing tires, quit, and moved to Buffalo, where he played bass with a local pianist.

"Then Jon Hendricks came to town, short of a bass player, and asked me to go on the road with him. We traveled for eight months and wound up in San Francisco, which seemed like a good place to stay. I got a job at the Half Note, with George Duke, who was just out of high school, playing piano, and Al Jarreau, who was a social worker doubling as a vocalist.

"I knew the techniques of playing, but I never studied reading and never practiced--yet I managed to keep working. And I got to play with some great people there, like Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.

"It was a great city to be in, but then the hippie thing happened, and a hard-core hoodlum element invaded the area with drugs, and it got too heavy. I was married by then, and I said to Carolyn, 'Come on, let's get out.' So we moved to Los Angeles in 1969, and I worked with Shelly Manne."

Los Angeles at first seemed no better than San Francisco.

"At first we lived in Pacoima. I'd get home at 2 a.m., unload my bass, and have to walk toward the house carrying my bass and my gun. If someone had jumped out of the bushes, I'd have shot him. We've been here in North Hollywood for nine years, and it's a good neighborhood with nice people."

Not long after arriving in Los Angeles, Heard was called to join Count Basie. That was the ordeal by fire; the men, seemingly aware of his reading problems, kidded him by calling out conflicting numbers.

"One guy would say, 'Play No. 246,' and Basie would say 'No. 120,' and they'd both be putting me on. But because of all that time with Jon Hendricks, I knew most of the Basie material anyway. By the time I left the band, after two years, I could read, but still not well.

"I had a whole run of great jobs: with Ahmad Jamal, then back with Basie, with Oscar Peterson off and on for several years, and with Kenny Burrell."

Meanwhile, he was building up his portfolio: an acrylic of Ella Fitzgerald, pencil sketches of Zoot Sims and Frank Rosolino, a composite of Bessie Smith impressions. (Much of Heard's work involves subjects he never met and knew only through photographs: Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Jimmy Blanton.)

Eighteen months ago, Heard took up sculpture. His first effort was a bust of Duke Ellington; next came a bust of Billy Eckstine. He is at work now on a Louis Armstrong bust, paintings of Count Basie and Lester Young, and a pencil drawing of Freddie Green.

"I hang out with a fantastic sculptor, Jim Casey, in Santa Monica. He is a blessing; he teaches me the way I want to learn. Jim said the hardest thing to do is to show somebody who's laughing, because there's such a thin line between the appearance of pleasure and pain; it's like love and hate. When he said that, I immediately thought of Louis Armstrong, and went to work on capturing his happiness."

Though he is preparing to leave the music business, Heard has no regrets.

"I've really been blessed. I had some magical moments with Oscar, where everything is prearranged in his mind; on the other hand, I had some special inspiration enjoying the spontaneity, the unique communicative power of Ahmad Jamal, and I enjoyed learning all the Latin stuff during 2 1/2 years with Cal Tjader.

"So I've pretty much covered the ends of the spectrum. I got to know and work with some of the legends, and now it's time to move on to where I really feel I belong."

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