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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource


Sonny Simmons

By Published: July 24, 2004
SS: When I was about thirteen, all the great jazz musicians that started this music were living, and I used to go see these cats like Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Duke Ellington - I grew up with that, going to the theatres in Oakland and seeing these guys play. In '49 I heard Charlie Parker and Jazz at the Philharmonic in the Oakland auditorium, and it changed my whole life - I wanted to start playing the saxophone. I liked Big Jay McNeely and I used to play the heads of his hits at the time, like "Deacon Hop;" I think I was around sixteen in high school and I played it at an assembly and rocked the whole house! I didn't even know straight up about music technically because they weren't teaching that. I was using my spirit and my inner air, and I loved all these great musicians but after I turned sixteen and heard Charlie Parker' but my main instrument before that time was Cor Anglais [English horn], and my parents couldn't afford one for me to play in the orchestra, but that was my first love because I used to hear it when I was a kid listening to classical music, I just loved that sound. It never left me; the saxophone was cool but my heart was with the Cor Anglais.

I grew up surrounded by the saxophone during the war years; I heard all the great musicians in Oakland and I'd seen everybody - Dexter Gordon, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys' I even like country and western because Bob Wills was my man; I loved it when he used to say "aaah-haah!"

AAJ: Of course, there's a certain style of country blues that comes out of that music too, which Ornette was getting into as well.

SS: Well I had a rich background of influence because I witnessed these guys, not just on records but I've seen them live. I was the only kid in the neighborhood who went and listened to the music; paid my little admission which at that time was fifty cents. When anybody hit town I was there because I had some fast relatives and at ten years old I used to play the jukebox. My favorite thing then was "One-O-Clock Jump," by Erskine Hawkins.

AAJ: It sounds like the Oakland scene was really fertile for music.

SS: It was a fat-ass town; it was the jump-off spot for anybody coming to the west coast, so they started in Oakland. It was rich with a lot of great entertainment.

AAJ: So who were some of the people you started playing with when you got into jazz?

SS: At that time, there was nothing like that. I just grew up practicing fourteen hours a day learning how to play. I used to play "Body and Soul" like Coleman Hawkins by ear at that time because I loved Coleman Hawkins. My parents were kind of hip to the music too, because they loved him and Lester Young, and I'd seen all these guys alive.

AAJ: I was wondering, as far as the bebop scene in that area, like I always think of [drummer] Smiley Winters. Did you have much of an association with him at that point?

SS: Yes, Smiley Winters was very big in Oakland at that time; he was a great drummer and a great power in the music. After I learned how to play at a higher professional level, I think I was about 21, because I didn't have any training as my parents couldn't afford lessons. So I had to learn on my own by listening to the guys play live, go home and play along with records. Later on I learned technically about music, you dig?

AAJ: Right, on the bandstand.

SS: Absolutely. By the time I turned professional at 21, I'd spent many hours and many years practicing in my parents' toilet [AAJ laughs].

AAJ: When you turned professional, other than Smiley, who were you involved with?

SS: Well there was a blues cat who was very well-known and popular at that time that hired me to go on the road; I think I was around 22. I played with a lot of R&B bands that weren't well-known, but Jimmy McCracklin was the main cat at the time. I played a lot of rhythm-and-blues, but my heart was in bebop. I was playing tenor saxophone then, and it put meat and potatoes on the table, so I stayed with rhythm-and-blues and I'm glad I did because it gave me a rich background and a total [concept of] music. Rhythm-and-blues was the heart of the music during that period of the '50s. You had all these blues singers and musicians who were great at their craft, and their stop-off was in Oakland and I went and saw them all.

AAJ: When did you first get intimations of playing what would later be called 'free jazz'?

SS: At the age of 27, after I had learned the craft of playing bebop very well, and after having heard Bird and having seen him at 17 - I was really into bebop then. Ornette Coleman came on the scene in '58, and I was thinking the same way he was but I didn't have the clout at that time to do anything about it. So when I heard him, I dug him right away, thought he was something else.

AAJ: Right, as far as playing on the melody rather than the chords.

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