As for the
Voodoo element : no evil rituals at stake. Sonny emphasizes that the Voodoo
was “for the good of people – healing the sick”.
Later he will assign this healing function to his music,
thus meeting another great healer, Albert Ayler.
His father was also a musician, as were most of his relatives : he played
the drums. His mother Bessie was a vocalist in the choir at church.
His musical vision was born of the richness of nature, the sacred
things at church, the memories of African rites, the first intimations
of jazz on the radio (Basie, Ellington). All four influences
left their mark on a wide, complex and refined rhythmic and melodic concept
: animals and birds, trees, hymns, tribal drums.
In this context, music was natural. His first instrument was a squeeze-box
accordion, a present of his father. Of course, the first venue Sonny Simmons
ever attended was the church on Sunday.
After moving first to Monroe, Louisiana, the Simmons family finally settles
in Oakland, California. Gone are the days of traditional
life in the backwoods; the Simmons have left their wealthy farm behind.
The reputation of Rev. Simmons as a travelling preacher and singer is
growing and he hopes that this move will allow him to make a better living
for his family. Sonny Simmons fully embraces the black culture
of the streets, a tough urban setting
closely associated with his music (American Jungle).
Tough it was : he recalls working as a shoe-shine boy, an odd job that
brought him in contact with the police for the first time, as he ventured
too far in a white area.
He gets used to listening to the radio many hours a day. Basie again,
Bennie Goodman, Artie Shaw, classical music. He never got out of this
First jazz concerts : Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke
Ellington, Illinois Jacquet, Louis Jordan, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins,
Lena Horne. Early interest in country blues, western swing (Bob
Wills) and rhytm’n’blues (a notable influence on most
west-coast fathers of “free music”, hence the writing and
sound of Ornette Coleman).
From the start, Sonny made no real distinction between the commercial
side of Black music and its more "savant" forms such as "jazz".
Neither did the performing artists, nor the public of the 40's; actually,
the perception of a difference between "entertainement" and
"art" appeared at a later stage in the development of the music,
in the 50's. Entertainment, unlike the cold intellectualism
that sticks to the general notion of “avant-garde”, is one
of the major aspects of Sonny Simmons’ music : by using heavy and
syncopated rhythms and colourful tones (after all, his
family originates in Trinidad), he’ll make sure you can clap your
feet and hands, dance, hum. - Thus, a common and natural affinity for
calypso and “exotic” meters will soon contribute to create
strong musical bonds between him and Sonny Rollins.
His passion for classical music develops (strings will
make a lasting impression on his musical mind : Burning Spirits,
Global Jungle and all the music he recorded with Kirk Heydt in
the 80’s, Michael Marcus’ string quartets against which he
improvises, and The Traveller, Sonny never gets enough of strings
!), and he starts playing the English horn at school
– or cor anglais, as he prefers –, an instrument
he never ceased to consider his main instrument and on which
he produced unparalleled achievements, like Eric Dolphy did with the bass
clarinet. In the future he will also explore its “eastern”,
“ancient” quality, in a masterpiece, Tales Of
The Ancient East.
Sees Charlie Parker and Jazz at the Philharmonic at the
Oakland auditorium. He loves not only the music, but the stance, the attitude,
the elegance. Soon he starts on tenor saxophone before switching
to the alto saxophone. He feels that for some reasons he never
got the recognition he deserved on tenor, and went back to it under special
circumstances, creating the event with his spectacular playing on Burning
Spirits, and an album that he specially crafted to “silence
these egotistical bastards for all time” : Judgment Day.
parents didn’t have enough security to educate me musically, or
get the proper facilities where I could express my talent. At sixteen
I was old enough to acquire money, so I worked along with any little odd
job I could get in order that I could purchase me a horn.”
(Taken from Lester Koenig's liner-notes for The Cry!) From there
on, he was self-taught.
He’s a bop native, that’s where he comes
from. Free-jazz was only an extension of the idiom, and, to his taste,
still is. After years of “indoctrination” (in his
own words), he will slowly assimilate Parker – still his reference
more than fifty years later.
Practicing. He gets his inspiration obviously from Parker – but
also Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Big Jay McNeely.
For some time he's into Coleman Hawkins too and hones his chops on “Body
& Soul”. First stints with dance orchestras, and legendary
blues bands leaders : Lowell Fulson, Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker.
By the end of the period, he becomes a distinct voice on the buoyant Bay
Area jam scene. Bandstand education, the bebop life… During those
years, he also crosses drummer William “Smiley” Winters’
path, a significant connection in the future.
learnt music together and, within the bebop frame, began to develop an
interest in playing intervalically rather than following the chords,
interest shared by the young Simmons. As stated in the liner-notes for
The Cry!, Ornette told him on one occasion : “You don’t
use any chord changes. The only thing you have for direction is the way
the melody is formed and from that particular form and pitch, you create
other vistas of music.” The later on alto and Lasha on baritone
quickly form a lasting association. Neither Coleman nor the newly formed
pair are aware that the concept they are developing, which sounds “pretty
advanced”, will soon revolutionize the music under
the FREE-JAZZ banner.
Sonny Simmons forms several groups with and without Prince Lasha. He becomes
a local celebrity through regular appearances at Jimbo's Bop City,
the famous after hours club in San Francisco.
and 1959, Ornette Coleman’s first recordings for Contemporary
in California, Something Else !!! and Tomorrow Is The Question,
cause a deflagration. Producer is a veteran of west-coast jazz (he’s
forty-one and has been in the business for twenty years), and above all
a visionary : Lester Koenig. From now on, Simmons and
Lasha will make every effort to reach him.
The jazz life puts a great strain on our men : it’s time for
TV show in Sacramento establishes their names. The event gives them a
sense of direction : “That’s when we really got
serious that we were going to try to make it this way or no way at all”
(liner-notes for The Cry!). Fellow musicians like Pharoah Sanders
and Vince Wallace will later testify that as early as 1960 Sonny's style
has fully developped into a highly focused and revolutionary idiom.
Sonny begins travelling the West coast. He spends some time in Los
Angeles, where he meets drummer Gene Stone. One night
at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, he sits in with the Charles Mingus
group. As usual, Mingus fires Roland Kirk at the end of the set.
He prompts Sonny to take his place. Sonny turns down the offer : he refuses
to steal the job of a reedman he admires, what is more, a blind man !
A terrible row ensues.
At the end of the year, Sonny is rehearsing the compositions that will
appear on The Cry! with Willie Bobo (occasionnaly) and a group
of white players including Trevor Koehler (of Insect Trust fame).
: Prince Lasha takes Sonny Simmons to Fort Worth. The
Texan scene is shifting rapidly towards “that free thing”.
They’re caught in company of such luminaries as Charles
Moffett and Bobby Bradford. In the spring they’re
in Oklahoma City. Gene Stone, now living in Topanga Canyon (north-west
of LA), urges Sonny to go to Los Angeles. On his way to Southern California,
he picks up Lasha, and the summer finds them in Santa Barbara, where they
establish the connection with Lester Koenig – a simple phone call
that will launch their careers.
November : A contract is
signed. Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons owe Contemporary two records. It
will take five years to fulfil this obligation, five years of struggle
on and off the road, five years of growth of course, five years espousing
the tremendous changes of a culture and society forced out of the Eisenhower
era, the segregation, the Cold war, into the psychedelic turmoil, the
Civil Rights Movement and Malcolm X, the Vietnam… The long awaited
follow-up will indeed be conceived in the crucial summer of 1967.
November 21, The Prince Lasha Quartet
featuring Sonny Simmons enters Contemporary’s studio.
It is significant that the two leaders have been working together in and
out since the late 50's. The Cry ! doesn't sound like a "debut"
recording : the music is mature and confident. It remains one of the finest
accomplishment in the career of both men (and a fine departure for Gary
Peacock, already a seasoned sideman : this experience made possible
his later associations with Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy or Roswell Rudd,
to name a few. He must be given credit for the artistic success of The
Cry ! : Simmons and Lasha needed a player that could bridge the gap
between avant garde and more conventional settings.).
On the other hand, this record and the close association of Lasha and
Simmons' names certainly had an embarrassing effect for posterity : they
still tend to overshadow the personal contributions of the two leaders.
One should stress the fact that each was already a distinct voice, in
command of his own style and repertoire. Along the titles found in The
Cry !, the nascent Simmons songbook includes his signature tune “Ancient
Relics” (a.k.a. “Ancient Ritual”),
“Country Parson”, “Reincarnation”…
Some of them won’t be recorded until 1992 and Ancient Ritual.
Maturation indeed has always been a very important aspect of Sonny
Simmons’ creation. Sonny can turn an idea, over and over
and over again, be it for decades, before he unleashes it. A composition
needs to travel in the depths of his consciousness before it finds its
right expression. Many attempts can also be required to fix the best recorded
version. – Hence the occasional difference between the performer,
and the recorded output : because of the record industry (shyness, unwillingness),
or more simply, adverse circumstances, albums do not necessarily reflect
his art. However, as protean as his career may appear at first look, a
rare consistency (obstinacy ?) is at work at every stage
of his musical development.