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Interviews

Sonny Simmons

By Published: July 24, 2004
SS: I dug that because I was thinking the same way, not so much the cords but thinking intervalically within the chord, which made it sound advanced.

AAJ: Which is what you grew up with, hearing the birds on Sicily Island.

SS: Right, that's where I was coming from. I was mostly influenced by nature rather than musicians, except for Charlie Parker, because he sounded just like a bird. After 1958, I kept dealing with my craft, and in 1962 I went to Los Angeles on the recommendation of a friend of mine, Gene Stone, a drummer who lived in Southern California, in Topanga Canyon.

AAJ: A wonderful drummer, too'

SS: Yeah, he is, and I lived with him in Topanga Canyon. I went to see Lester Koenig, and I think I was about 28, to get recorded after Ornette had made his two recordings. Lester Koenig dug me because I was different from Ornette Coleman in many ways.

AAJ: Well, at least on that first record, there was the calypso element that separated you from Ornette and some of the players moving in that direction.

SS: Right, that was "Juanita" on The Cry, which was the record I made with Prince Lasha, Gary Peacock, Mark Proctor and Gene Stone. That launched my career right there. After that, 1963 rolled around and I moved to New York. When I got to New York in '63, I couldn't believe the recognition I got from all the musicians. They were my heroes. The first guy that picked me up was Sonny Rollins; he used to pick me up every morning in Manhattan, on 4th St. and 2nd Ave. at four AM. For some reason he liked me a hell of a lot, and we'd drive across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and practice in the forest from sunup to sundown. We did that for about three months, and sometimes I'd ask 'Hey Newk, when are we gonna have lunch?' That cat never did take the horn out of his mouth over there in Englewood. I learned so much from him, and he had the nerve to tell me that he was learning from me!

He was a great asset to me coming up in New York during that period in 1963, because I was still a young cat. I was doing a session with Don Cherry, Charles Moffett, Grachan Moncur III, Richard Davis and a couple of other great musicians, and [Eric] Dolphy came over. Dolphy was my hero! I had just composed a new piece called "Music Matador," when I was with Prince Lasha (he didn't compose it, I composed that [the song is credited to Lasha on recordings]), and Dolphy fell in love with it. He liked my playing because he had heard The Cry, and he had a lot of respect for me. I was blown away because these cats were my heroes, and I couldn't even tie up their shoelaces! For some reason they really dug me, so he said 'man, I love that composition you wrote; I want to record you and I'm taking you on a record date.' When we got there he said 'we're going to play that composition you wrote, first piece, first track.' So that's how I got started with Dolphy, and we developed a beautiful relationship - he would come get me in his Volkswagen Bug and take me over to his loft in Lower Manhattan by the bridge and we'd practice. I'm learning from this cat and he's learning from me, and I had no idea. He said 'I'm learning from you too' and I was blown away.

AAJ: Well, right after you get to New York to be playing with Dolphy and Newk, that's something else'

SS: I was with all the cats, it was so much that I couldn't believe my dream came true. I'm with all these musicians, they're saying they're learning from me and I'm just a baby in the woods. I had my shit together because I practiced for years and years, and when I arrived in New York I was ready.

AAJ: You just didn't have many people to test it on when you were out on the West Coast, it sounds like.

SS: That's right, except Lester Koenig dug me, and he launched my career when we made The Cry, and so when I got to New York they knew me before I even came. When I arrived they were elated and took care of me in many ways, it was just beautiful.

In 1963, I made that record with Elvin Jones called Illumination [Impulse! A-49, with Lasha and baritonist Charles Davis] and Elvin liked me so he hired me for that date with Coltrane's elite band. That launched my career in a higher fashion because I played Cor Anglais on that beautiful McCoy Tyner composition ["Oriental Flower"].

AAJ: And there was an exodus a few years later of West Coast guys coming to New York, like [drummer] Jim Zitro and [reedman] Bert Wilson came out there'

SS: I was already there with my [now] ex-wife; she was a trumpet player [Barbara Donald], and she became a great trumpeter. She was new to the trumpet, and didn't know about jazz and bebop, and I taught her and she became great.

AAJ: She smoked on those albums -


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