Sonny Simmons, master saxophonist

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C'Est La Vie... The Sonny Simmons Story


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Sonny Simmons made a number of striking albums in the 60's. Born in 1933, he was already a well-travelled Parkerian and a signaled innovator on the West Coast when he first came to national attention in 1963 with his debut recording The Cry ! (with the Prince Lasha Quintet, on Contemporary), live appearances in NYC with Sonny Rollins, and sessions with Eric Dolphy (for whom he wrote the standard, Music Matador) and Coltrane's rhythm section (Illumination!, on Impulse).

Sonny Simmons made a number of striking albums in the 60's.

Though not a die-hard avant-gardist (like Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Lyons, other alto sax luminaries from the same generation, he sticks in his own provocative way to the tradition), he was then a leading figure of the Free Jazz scene in NYC with his wife Barbara Donald, cutting legendary records for ESP in 1966, Staying On The Watch and Music From The Spheres. Back in California, he made an acclaimed appearance at the Jazz Symposyum in Berkeley (1969). He became an underground hero with the likes of Bert Wilson, James Zitro, Smiley Winters and producer James Bronson Jr. The period also provided landmark records for Arhoolie (Manhattan Egos) and Contemporary (Firebirds, Rumasuma, Burning Spirits), which met international response.

Then - nothing. Sonny Simmons suffered a spectacular eclipse during the 70's and the 80's. With the West Coast no longer providing work, family and personal problems, his career collapsed.

Sonny Simmons ended up in the streets. Playing kept him alive.

and he managed to maintain working groups throughout most of this "lost periode", producing hours of incredible music (which are still to be released : check out the rare documented traces of this activity, Backwoods Suite, Global Jungle and the solo tour-de-force, Jewels, to make sure his musical powers remained untouched).

Accordingly, his come-back had to be spectacular, too.


He began to build a local reputation again. Word-of-mouth, helping souls and hard work made the rest : by the time he went to Europe (1994), he had an album on Warner, Ancient Ritual. Actually, the title he had first choosen says it all : Reincarnation. He made a strong impression in festivals (Montreal, Moers, Willisau, Helsinki...), on record (American Jungle, Warner, Judgement Day, CIMP), appeared at the Irridium, at the Knitting Factory.

Sonny Simmons' come-back was spectacular.

But somehow, he felt he had to bring forth something different. After a period of lesser activity (while living in France, he kept on touring, notably with Oliver Lake and Sunny Murray, but didn't record), he re-emerged in 2000 with richer, brilliant concepts.

With his alter-ego Michael Marcus, he founded the Cosmosamatics, a group with which he enjoys the greatest of achievements. Hugely popular in Europe, where they tour frequently, they have recorded eight albums (most notably for Boxholder, Soul Note and Not Two), building one of the most distinctive sound nowadays.

Besides, he led varied projects of his own, ranging from a classy quintet date for Marge, Mixolydis, to a mammoth sextet with Anthony Braxton and another group, the Renegade Society, both resurrecting the "ol' free jazz" feel. Many gems pave his new way : two other solo tapestres (Out Into The Andromeda, Fourth Dimension), a magical evocation of the powers of eastern musical idioms (Tales Of The Ancient East), an up-to-date association with noise wizzard Jeff Shurdut (The Future Is Ancient), and an atmospheric masterpiece full of strings, scorching alto lines and sunsets (The Traveller).

The latter association with Jazzaway records proved very fruitful, since four lush records surfaced since 2006, I'll See You When You Get There, Live At Haugesund, Last Man Standing and Atomic Symphony (a massive symphonic works featuring 75 musicians!). - His current projects as of 2009 include of course the Cosmosamatics, a duet with Bobby Few (True Wind) that was featured at the Vision Fest in June 2008, The Triangular Force (in association with Gildas Scouarnec and Jean-Luc Roumier) which regularly tours France, regular appearances in the UK with Tight Meat and Charlie C., and Freenology (with Guy Bettini, Paul Lovens and Clayton Thomas), featured in 2008 and 2009 at the Uncool Festival.

Sonny Simmons looks back and forward with confidence.

Printer-friendly version (printer-friendly version of Sonny Simmons' resume (pdf format))



Now for the fullest account... don't forget to read : The Sonny Simmons story

By Julien Palomo and Marc Chaloin


Warning: Please note that most of the facts and anecdotes stated in the following pages will be fully developped in the forthcoming autobiography of Sonny Simmons, to be published by Marc Chaloin in 2006.

Marc Chaloin is the writer of the noted essay Albert Ayler in Europe: 1959-1962, included in the booklet of the Revenant boxset Holy Ghost (2004).



  Sonny Simmons story chapter 1

Chapter 1 : Ghost From The Golden Era (1933-1962).

Sicily Island and the backwoods: family, childhood, early influences – Oakland in the 40’s, urban roots, jazz roots, classical roots, the English horn – Charlie Parker – Bandstand education – Prince Lasha, Ornette, “That free thing” – Moving to L.A. : Lester Koenig, The Cry!.

  Sonny Simmons story chapter 2

Chapter 2 : Music Matador (1963).

The New York stay: taking the history of jazz by storm – It Is Revealed – Sonny Rollins – Clifford Jordan – Eric Dolphy immortalizes Music Matador – Bossa interlude – Recording with Trane’s rhythm section.

  Sonny Simmons story chapter 3

Chapter 3 : Lady "B" (1963-1965).

Haight Street, SF: Byron Allen, Dewxey Johnson and Noah Howard are getting ready for the move east – The Ol' Mongoose (Archie Moore) – In walks Barbara Donald – Sitting in with Coltrane.


Keep posted for the next chapters of this true and exciting story ! March: Sonny Simmons' return to New York (1966-1969).



Read more : Cast of characters

Biographies and discographies



Barbara Donald, short biography and discography

Barbara Donald


Prince Lasha, short biography and discography

Prince Lasha


Bert Wilson, short biography and discography

Bert Wilson









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