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
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
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
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
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".
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.
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...
Sonny Simmons ©1963, Bob Ghiraldini and Chuck Stewart
Barbara Donald @1966, Sandra Stollman
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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
shortly thereafter, Sonny heads back to California. He is fed-up
with the constant pressure of trying to make it on the New York
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"...
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
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
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.
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.
more about Barbara Donald.
"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."
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.
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).
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.