Sonny Simmons, master saxophonist

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

 

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August 4, 1933 : Our man Huey “Sonny” Simmons was born in Sicily Island, Louisiana. Vivid impressions of his childhood can be found throughout his work. The eldest of eight boys, he grew up in the backwoods that later inspired a composition.

The small rural community was deeply immersed in religion. His father, Reverend Jake S. Simmons, was a Baptist preacher, and a Voodoo priest.

   

 

1954 : Sonny turns professional. He has yet to rely on non-musical employments from time to time.

On his return from New York, where he spent some years, Texan reedman William “Prince” Lasha lands in Oakland. Born in Fort Worth in 1929, Lasha is a boyhood companion of Ornette Coleman.

Prince Lasha

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Prince Lasha.

 
  Ghost From The Golden Era    
Chapter 1 : 1933-1962

   

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.

1939 : 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.

1944 : 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 good habit.

1946 : 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.

1949 : 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.

My 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.

1950-1954 : 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.


 

 

They 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.

1955-1959 : 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.

In 1958 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 a move.

1960 : A 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.

1961 : 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).

1962 : 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.

On 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.

 

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