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Sonny Simmons

By Published: July 24, 2004
SS: Nobody can; a lot of people don't even believe I did it, but I did and I hated it. It was debilitating; a lot of people asked me my name, 'who are you? You're playing like that on the street?' and I never did tell them. My alias was Blackjack Pleasanton. One day, somebody came out from Europe, and the cat recognized me. He said, 'aren't you Sonny Simmons?' and I denied it. I said no, my name is Blackjack Pleasanton! Then word got out that Sonny Simmons was playing on the streets. During that time, an Indian guy who had a club on Haight Street hired me to open up his club. I stayed there for a few months and got together a beautiful group and my life kinda elevated a bit because I was making a little money, but I was still playing on the streets the whole period. It didn't change that much; of course I was still strung out, and that mystique - people would always call me a junkie after that, the painful experience of all those years when I didn't want to be. Even today people call me a junkie.

AAJ: Guilt by association, and rumor.

SS: Lack of intelligence, square; they don't know me. They didn't know the pain and shit I had to deal with, so I don't even trip on it. I kept on living and playing my horn. That's the thing that kept me going; I never relinquished my talent and have kept it to this day.

When the Nineties rolled around, some people came from France to open a club and they heard me playing downtown on the streets of San Francisco. They hired me to play their club, and that was the reemergence of my career. A guy pulled up one day in a car who had an affiliation with Warner Bros. Records, married to the owner of Qwest Records and who knew Quincy Jones. That was in 1994, and it changed my career. I went to Paris in January of 1995, and an elite club hired me, Le Ville they called it. That elevated my life; I was making good money and I'd never made that kind of money before. Plus I had recorded Ancient Ritual [Warner Bros.] and that re-launched my career.

AAJ: How do you feel about the climate in New York and elsewhere now as compared to when you left it in the early '70s?

SS: That was the Golden Era in the '60s, and it was gone after that. New York dissipated, and the music went down and became lawless after this avant-garde shit, people not knowing how to play their instruments. I knew if Bird and all the cats who'd passed on and left their legacy heard this shit, they'd put 'em in front of a firing squad. I never did support that, because I knew it was lawlessness. You have to have some kind of law governing the abilities that you're dealing with. I hate the avant-garde, but I'm affiliated because I'm one of the founding fathers, along with Ornette Coleman. I wasn't playing no noise; it had validity, it had composition. I'm back in New York now; I came back in 2000-2001, at the millennium, and it's completely lawless - everybody's bullshitting.

AAJ: When I was living there, and when I've gone there and seen some of the festivals, I feel the same way. It seems like commerce and not a whole lot more sometimes, and I feel that 'lawlessness' that you're talking about.

SS: It doesn't have anything to do with music; it's a lot of grotesque, emotional bullshit noise. There's nothing musical about the way they're doing it today, and I don't participate. I'm just living in New York along with my sweetheart, and I lived in Europe from 1994 to 1996 and then I came back, and then I went away and came back again in 2001, and I hate it because there ain't no music anymore. I can't get gigs, people don't hire me, it's like they put an old mule out to pasture when they get a certain age, and I've been through all this shit and I don't get a lot of recognition like I should because of a lot of different things. I'm not with a major record label like I was at the start of the '90s.

AAJ: And that was just a one-shot deal, pretty much.

SS: Quincy was cool, but when they wanted me to re-sign in 1995, they offered me less money and I didn't take it. I just wrote it off, I just couldn't do it anymore - I made two records with those people and they're like 'we'll re-sign you Sonny, but you're going to have to take less.' Several thousand dollars less; they were going to give me $1,500 to make a record. I had enough dignity and strength to deny it, and I don't regret it. So that was the end of my recording career in a sense, because I never have been with a major label since.

AAJ: How's the group with Michael Marcus going [Cosmosamatics], as far as gigs are concerned?

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