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


Sonny Simmons

By Published: July 24, 2004
SS: In 1971 I moved to San Jose from the San Francisco area, and it just destroyed me; I never was a drinker, I was a clean bird. I was about 42 years old at that time, and so after I got involved with having to pay for a house and raising a family, I put my horn in the garage on the workbench, and it stayed there for four years - I didn't touch it. It had dust and cobwebs on it, a brand-new Selmer saxophone. It just laid there because I lost all interest. It just destroyed my talent. I was working two jobs and it just destroyed me; that lasted until 1975. In '75 my ex-wife and I tried to start working together again, but we couldn't because San Jose was so racist. They didn't like the idea of a white lady and a black man sharing the bandstand, so we didn't get much work musically. I had to keep hustling and getting regular jobs.

Things didn't change until 1980; in 1974 I started drinking a lot of alcohol because I was working two jobs and had to stay up damn near all night, and it was ruining my life. I was 42, and eventually I started using drugs. It destroyed me to try and stay with my ex-wife and raise a family. In 1979, things got real bad, and to get back into music we went to this hotel in San Jose and rented the ballroom. The owner liked us and said 'you guys can have this [ballroom], but you have to do your own thing and we can't give you anything.' We cleaned up this ballroom that hadn't been used in fifty years, it had cobwebs and old curtains from 1930, and we cleaned it up - just me and her, because we couldn't get help from anyone in San Jose. There weren't any jazz musicians there either, just rhythm-and-blues players, and they didn't like us because we were playing out, playing bebop. So we cleaned it up and started a jazz club; I would hire all the musicians from San Francisco that weren't working there, and they'd take the door and keep the money. I didn't take a cent because I know the game too well. So I hired Norman Bishop, Eddie Henderson and a lot of other musicians.

The club was going on, and in 1980 my ex-wife got the idea that she wanted to move us to Olympia, Washington. I took them up there because she bitched night and day about it, so I finally broke down and at that time I had a red Volkswagen bus. So I put them in it and we took a few things, just enough to go up for a week or two and satisfy her. We got up there and she left me, point blank. I came home one day, put the key in the lock, and you know how the door just opens? All my stuff was gone.

AAJ: Whoa'

SS: So I'm holed up there, and I hate Washington. It was a town with no music; ain't nobody there but Bert Wilson and his crew and there were no clubs there to work. She disappeared with my two kids - I had a daughter by then, too - they were very young, and it really tore me up for the kids to grow up without their dad, you know? So I went back to San Francisco, and luckily I still had my horn because I was going to try and create a group in Olympia with Bert Wilson. I knew all the musicians who were there at the time; I used to call Bert 'wheels'.

AAJ: Had he been in a wheelchair from birth, do you know?

SS: He was born like that; as a child he couldn't walk, didn't have the use of his legs because of some spinal thing, so he had to sit in a wheelchair all his life. He's very talented, and I taught him a lot about music. But I hated Olympia; I hate Washington, I hate Seattle, I hate all the Pacific Northwest. It was no place for me. So I went back to San Francisco and another tragedy took place: I was homeless for fifteen years, and became a real stone junkie.

I had nothing when my wife left; it just put me in shambles, tore me up. I didn't know where my kids were, I knew they needed their dad, and for a whole year and a half I was destroying myself with alcohol and drugs. I'd never done drugs in my life; even the cats in New York during the early period, like Jackie McLean, they said 'how do you play like that if you don't use drugs and don't drink? Anyone that plays has to use something.' I said, 'I don't have nothin' against you cats but I don't need it.' I didn't hate drug addicts because I loved Bird, and all the musicians that set the foundation were drug addicts. I loved them all, but I just never used drugs and they were amazed at how I could do that. I grew up on the streets in Oakland, and I met all kinds of crazy people in the ghetto, but I never messed with that shit.

So I'm in San Francisco living like a dog, and all I had was my horn. No place to stay; I didn't know anybody. I lived that way for a long time. I played on the streets for a living and I never did beg for handouts. I just played on the streets for fifteen years, from nine in the morning until eleven at night.

AAJ: I can't even comprehend that.

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