Sonny Simmons, master saxophonist

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C'Est La Vie : the Sonny Simmons Story


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1963: January: The november session is released as The Cry! (M-3610) by Contemporary. Encouraged by a favourable word-of-mouth, the pair is getting ready for the decisive move - East. In March, Sonny and the Prince are in Detroit. On April 12 and 13 they're in Toronto at the 1st Floor with Sonny Greenwich; a few days later in Montreal.



Summer: Prince Lasha's attempts to build up on Coltrane's friendship and protection bring the tremendous opportunity of a date for Impulse produced by Bob Thiele, with a group referred to as the Elvin Jones-Jimmy Garrison sextet - that is, Trane's rhythm section, Jones, Garrison and McCoy Tyner, plus Lasha and Simmons. - Yet it may not have been the intended result.

  Music Matador

The course of actual events is unclear. As a matter of fact, Lasha (as he later stated in interviews) most certainly toyed with the idea of using Coltrane's rhythm section for a date of his own.
Chapter 2: 1963


April 22: As soon as they arrive in New York, they join Sonny Rollins and his current rhythm section (Henry Grimes and Charles Moffett) for a benefit at the Village Gate. According to Down Beat, the music ("free, new thing collective jazz") is a sensation. They couldn't have found a better exposure. In a mere five months, they are going to leave a lasting mark on the Big Apple scene, and this brief chapter of jazz' history - before suddenly vanishing.

As often stated by Sonny, their reputation, through The Cry!, but also through other expatriate west-coasters, had preceded them: for the first time recognition is within arm's reach. He becomes friends with his heroes, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy... He still retains fond memories of practicing with Rollins in the woods near Englewood, NJ; of learning from Dolphy and John Coltrane, and studying with Garvin Bushell; and, more than once, of giving these giants lessons in turn!

The following steps can't be dated with any certainty.

May-June: Shortly after the noted Village Gate event, Sonny is recruited by Rollins for a session at RCA studios. Also attending the session are Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and maybe - or maybe not - Prince Lasha. (Now that they've reached NYC, and even though they have formed a new quintet with Richard Davis, the former allies tend to seize opportunities separately, a situation that will soon lead to the clash.) After a couple of takes, a dispute between producer George Avakian and Rollins puts the session to an abrupt end. The whole project is cancelled. It is very likely that the tapes were scratched. But now the word is that Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha are the hottest acts in town. The quintet, augmented by Gary Peacock, appears on a Monday night at Birdland.

May-June: The scene is Fred Lyman's loft on 2nd Avenue. Fred Lyman is a jazz afficionado, instrument maker and amateur musician sympathetic to the "New Breed". By allowing the likes of Ornette Coleman (then in self-imposed retirement), Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler (who were still working together at the times, the latter being unrecorded in the U.S.) to tape infamous, to these days unheard demos, all in 1963, he will enter the legend.

Sonny explores his new milieu. Each day brings a chance meeting, a chance gathering like the one that is immortalized on It Is Revealed. This short extract of a Fred Lyman interview clarifies some of the rumours surrounding this legendary LP (courtesy of Ben Young and Marc Chaloin): "[It Is Revealed was] mostly a jam-session [...] they were all in my studio, I don't know how they got these particular guys up there, it was probably Clifford Jordan got it together. And they just started to play and I started recording, and I played on it too, I played fluegelhorn on this track. And it turned out pretty good, [...] it was an example of what I liked to think music could be at that time." According to Lyman, the cats picked up Don Cherry in the street… No more than a hundred pieces will be pressed, making it one of the rarest items in the free jazz canon.

Half-hearted attempts at producing "commercially safe" demos with Fred Lyman's help in order to secure a record deal with Blue Note eventually fail. These tapes too have vanished over the years...

Nevertheless, this agregation of Simmons, Lasha, Clifford Jordan and Lyman provides the basis of a rehearsal group. Grachan Moncur III, J.C. Moses and Don Moore are alternate participants in that loose ensemble.

Eric Dolphy showed up during such a rehearsal. He falls in love with a melody Sonny has just written. The tune retains some kind of a mexican feel, which must have reminded Dolphy of his own childhood in South California. The composition is "Music Matador". Right on the spot, Dolphy decides to take these fresh and brilliant men into the studio. The rest is history.

Writing a standard ("Music Matador" has been played by just everybody, including Paul Bley!) is that easy!

On July 3, they cut two tracks at Music Makers with a stellar line-up of Eric Dolphy, Woody Shaw (on Sonny's urge), Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, Charles Moffett, J.C. Moses, Eddie Khan, Garvin Bushell and Clifford Jordan, "Burning Spears" and "Music Matador". The producer is Alan Douglas. Unfortunately for Dolphy, though issued during his lifetime on the Douglas and FM labels, they won't be widely available until the 70's. 
Unfortunately for us, they will constantly be mistreated by the various licensees over the years, poorly packaged, and consequently overlooked.

Meanwhile, Jordan, Simmons and Lasha have secured an odd deal with an audiophile label. They team up with the Bossa Tres, a bossa nova outfit coming straight from Rio de Janeiro, and deliver four renditions of jazz standards and an original. The record contains by no means the wallpaper music that one could have suspiciously expected; actually, the whole project has to be linked up with a task succesfully undertaken by Dolphy a few years back with the Latin Jazz Quintet (Caribé, Prestige 8251), a head-on mix of exotic rhythms and jazz, the latter preserving its credibility in such a context by emphasizing the blues roots inherent to it.

"The fire-and-ice union of cool north American jazz characterized by sophisticated syncopation and subtle improvisation with the hot-blooded Latin American samba, in turn noted for its intricate if predictable rhythms" is how the material is described in the liner notes of Jazz Tempo, Latin Accents. Actually, there's a bit more in the music than the honourable intention to produce a perfectly danceable record. Sonny's alto solo on "Well You Needn't" is bristling enough to make your average dance floor a dangerous place. The true gem on this record is Sonny's original, "Epistle To Train". In that song, and throughout the record, never has the three-men front-line sounded so efficient and so highly original: Lasha's woody clarinet and rough flute, Simmons' brutal unleashings of twisted ornythologisms, Jordan firm as concrete against a deluge of multiphonics; this single song epitomizes the unique vitality displayed by these musicians together. They really have "something else": stamina, brilliance. They have reached an artistic peak that will serve as a point of reference for many a later association of that kind (so did the Shepp-Tchicai-Cherry triumvirate around the same period). And the end is near. In fact this record is an adieu to Clifford Jordan.

Clifford Jordan's has been no supporting part in that story. A classmate of the aforementioned Richard Davis, the chicagoan was already a famous musician when he hooked up with the prodigal pair, having lead three records on Blue Note and played with Sonny Stitt, Max Roach, J.J. Johnson, John Gilmore, Horace Silver... A man of balanced musical ideas, he contributed a certain firmness in sound that made this front-line a truely magical one. The meeting with Eric Dolphy would prove very fruitful for Jordan over the next few months: he ended up in a Mingus sextet that would soon reach a mythical status in Europe. Meanwhile, Sonny's career would have taken a much different turn...

Credits: Sonny Simmons ©1963, Bob Ghiraldini and Chuck Stewart
Barbara Donald @1966, Sandra Stollman

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One can easily guess that the idea might not have appealed Coltrane that much. Instead, he would have Lasha AND Simmons AND another gifted multi-reedist, Charles Davis, added to a date clearly identified as Jones' and Garrison's.

The session was held on August 8, 1963 at Van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs. Charles Davis (otherwise an eclectic accompanist for Kenny Dorham as well as Sun Ra and, later, the Jazz Composers Orchestra, Louis Hayes, Clark Terry and Thad Jones - in short, another hard-bopper with "pretty advanced" leanings) contributes two crisp blues, and Simmons and Lasha each idiosyncratic originals. All in all, the resulting album is a timeless classic. distinguished for its unforgettable melodies, and perfect rendering.

Sonny's contributions (if we may single them out of this miraculously cohesive whole), the slightly provocative "Aborigine Dance In Scotland" (an avenue for Jones' explosive drumming heralding Sonny's live associations with Sunny Murray in the 90's), an extended solo on "Gettin' On Way" and what he considers to be his best performance ever on English horn, on Tyner's "Oriental Flower", give an indication of what direction his career would have taken, had he continued to play with such elite players, and been supported by an elite production.

Sonny Simmons 1963 (Illumination ! session)

But shortly thereafter, Sonny heads back to California. He is fed-up with the constant pressure of trying to make it on the New York jazz scene.

Those are the days of increased competition to get the payed gigs in the clubs, of critic (and public) despise for the "New Thing". The first weeks spent in amazement and wonder, he then realizes he's not at home (a feeling that will grow even worse as the years roll by). Moreover, due to incrasing differences in musical and ethical orientations, Sonny doesn't want his name to be associated with Lasha's any longer.

He's leaving, and will miss somehow the moment when artists stand up to struggle for their idiom to be accepted: the October Revolution in Jazz in 1964, the Jazz Composer's Guild, the birth of ESP-Disk', Coltrane embracing the "avant garde"...


Lady "B"  
  Chapter 3: 1963-1965  

1963, Fall : Back in Oakland, Sonny spends no time looking for the next occasion. Local musicians point him towards San Francisco and the ever-bubbling, if small, free jazz community. New figures are emerging, a decade or so younger than him, who are more directly influenced by Coleman, Coltrane, and the "out" experimentations from the East Coast, less by bop. Their music has a harsher feel about it but they are definitely in need of tutelary figures.

Typical of that "second generation" is the group that gathers around altist Byron (Paul) Allen in a house on Haight Street, SF - a.o. trumpeter Dewey Johnson and saxophonist Noah Howard.
Their later achievements need no introduction. It is interesting to point out that West Coast never ceased to function as a "research laboratory" throughout the 60's, though it received less and less attention and the only chances the local avant-gardists had to gain exposure were by exporting themselves east. - Once again, Sonny is an integral part of a maturation process that will push the music further. Some promising music was allegedly preserved on tape by Byron Allen (possibly including one session with Sonny) before the Haight Street commune split: Byron Allen moves to New York first, then Dewey Johnson. Noah Howard will follow some time later to join forces with Johnson (as part of a lengendary aggregation: Rashied Ali, Giuseppi Logan and Reggie Johnson). The trumpeter finally ends up on the line-up of Coltrane's "Ascension".

1964 : This year won't provide much playing opportunities, let alone recorded ones. This is nevertheless a good year filled with significant encounters.

A man of trouble (he has known reformatory as a kid), a man of fighting, a man that would be called a militant in many respects, a social figure, former heavyweight champion Archie Moore (1913-1998) has just retired from boxing when Sonny arrives in San Diego. In a career spanning more than 27 years, he has fought both Muhamad Ali and Rocky Marciano, and knocked out more victims that any other boxer of the era. A long-time jazz passionate, Moore uses his notoriety to help struggling black musicians exercise their art. Following a gig at a local hi-fi store, he offers Sonny a place to stay and rehearse in San Diego.

Sonny starts a new group, trying different local musicians (including drummer Gene Stone, again). His idea is to get a white female trumpet player to share the front-line with him. "Little" Benny Harris (the co-writer of "Ornithology" with Charlie Parker!) recommends one of his students, Barbara Donald.

A musical friendship ensues and soon, an affair.

Read more about Barbara Donald.

October : "Sonny Simmons' new quintet is working Monday nights at the San Francisco club in nearby Garden Grove. In addition to Simmons on alto sax and English horn, the group is made up of trumpeter Barbara Donald, pianist Jim Young, bassist Abdul Ali, and drummer Gene Stone." (Down Beat)

(Jim Young, later known as Waheem Young in the Bay Area, is also remembered as Jym Young for his great record Puzzle Box on german Polydor in 1968)

1965 : Another transitionnal year. Sonny Simmons and Barbara Donald settle in West Hollywood, with a view of getting work opportunities in the Los Angeles area. However, the atmposphere is not too conductive to playing music: the Watts riots bear witness to the social and cultural turmoil California is in.

Other meetings occur nevertheless. Barbara introduces Sonny to her old friend, Bert Wilson. Sonny and Barbara frequent Johnny Sim's workshop, where Horace Tapscott is a regular (and where a visiting Lester Bowie will be lastingly impressed with Barbara Donald's trumpet prowess). - And separately, they sit in with John Coltrane at the It Club in LA (Trane's group includes Juno Lewis, Donald Garrett, Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali).

December 25 : Birth of their son Zarak. Shortly afterwards, the couple and the baby move to San Francisco. It won't take them long before deciding to give it a new try in New York.