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Sonny Simmons

By Published: July 24, 2004
SS: She was a woman, and I had a lot of problems with the cats in New York because of that. Here's this beautiful white lady standing on the bandstand in a mini-skirt with a black musician, which had never happened in the history of the music, and she was playing all this trumpet and it kinda deflated cats' egos. They didn't like us too much; it was like a new revolution - we were rebels. So in 1966, Bert Wilson came there and I helped him, got him on a recording date, and James Zitro, a great drummer, he'd done some fantastic things that other drummers I was dealing with in New York couldn't do. They couldn't play different rhythms like he could, and he'd lived in India before he came to New York, learning all those different time signatures. I was blown away - I said to myself, 'this cat can play anything!' We developed a beautiful relationship, and I took him on a record date, him and Bert Wilson, in 1966. That was Music from the Spheres [ESP 1043], and then there was Staying on the Watch [ESP 1030].

AAJ: Staying on the Watch was John Hicks' first record, right?

SS: Yeah, that really tickled me to death because his daddy had to come with him to the recording date. He was so young and he was scared of New York at that time, because the revolution was going on and a whole lot of shit was happening. I loved it - it was right up my alley [chuckles]!

AAJ: You were in the right place at the right time'

SS: I sure was, and the music was changing and I was helping the flow. I was with all these great musicians, and then Coltrane came and visited me. I was with all the top cats. I didn't come up in a local scene; I was with all my heroes.

AAJ: But you went back to the West Coast not too much longer afterwards, right?

SS: I was in New York from 1963 until 1969, and my ex-wife and I moved to Woodstock. We started Woodstock, but we don't get any credit for that. I was the first jazz cat to go up there, to this place called 212.

AAJ: 212 Artist's Colony, right?

SS: That's right, and this cat who ran it said 'free food, free living for all artists.' There were painters, people that could do everything. Music was number one, so he made me the music director at this art commune. Only artists lived there, and they had to produce, so I was the music producer. During that period, a friend of mine, Sunny Murray and [bassist/percussionist] Juma Sutan and I took sickles and rakes and all kinds of field equipment, we went out there and cut grass down and built the bandstand. We got Woodstock going, and after we got it going, I went back to Manhattan because my ex-wife and I had a beautiful apartment there, and we then bought a house near Woodstock. I had just had a son and I was a papa.

AAJ: Zarek was his name, right?

SS: Yeah, Zarek, and in 1969 I got a call from the University of California at Berkeley because they dug those two recordings I'd made for ESP, and we did a concert at the elite hall there called Newman Hall. My ex-wife, she came from a wealthy family, and her parents wanted us to stay there in California because we had a son. We got married to make it legal, and we stayed there even though I didn't want to. Her parents were bitchin' about racial shit, all that crap, and they wouldn't help her anymore, so I had to get a job. I'm the kind of cat that if I have kids, I'm not going to up and leave them, so I stayed there and that was the downfall of my career. I had to stay there and take care of her and my son - I didn't want to leave him at such an early age. If he was about ten or eleven I might have been able to leave for a little while, but he was a baby and I wanted him to know he had a papa. I came from a good family and I wasn't raised that way, you know? So that was the downfall of my career in a sense because I spent many years there and it wasn't any good for me. I hated California; everything was in New York.

AAJ: What kind of things did you have to do when you were there?

SS: It's so ridiculous' I used to work in the schools as a custodian, and teaching kids who were disabled; the kids loved me. I was working at the Cupertina School for the Disabled. I stayed there for years because I had to support my family, and I was going crazy because this wasn't the way I had planned my life, to be in Cupertina, California raising a family under all this pressure. It was very racist during that period, and the revolution was still going on for black people, so I caught plenty of hell but I stayed with my family because I didn't want to leave them. That's my loss for being a dedicated father.

AAJ: Were you still playing at all during that period?

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