When Ira Sullivan makes his eagerly anticipated appearance as a featured soloist with Eric Alexander's quintet at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola this month, it will be the first time the amazing multi-instrumentalist will be playing a weeklong engagement in New York in twenty years. Sullivan was a regular visitor to the city from 1980 to 1986, when the hard bopping band he fronted with trumpeter Red Rodney would come into the Village Vanguard annually to kick off their yearly world tours, but since then he has been seen and heard here rarelymost recently at last year's star studded Jaco Pastorious tribute at the Beacon Theatre. Sullivan, who was a mentor of sorts to Pastorious when the bassist was growing up in Florida, remembers, "There were 15 great fender bass players thereGil Goldstein had written (arrangements on) a couple of Jaco tunes. I had a four piece string section plus me playing soprano and then Randy Brecker also was with me." A few years earlier Sullivan appeared on a JVC tribute to Johnny Smith. "I was the only horn player," he says, "there with 22 of the world's best guitar players."
One of the music's most enigmatic figures, the seventy-five year old Sullivan is one of the very few musicians of his era to make a world class name for himself while rarely appearing in the jazz capitol of the world. He first came to New York from his native Chicago under the most auspicious of circumstances in 1956to join Art Blakey's Jazz Messengersand astounded musicians and critics alike with his uncanny facility on both saxophone and trumpet. He recorded with Blakey for Columbia, on Blue Note with J. R. Montrose (a date featuring the stellar rhythm section of Horace Silver, Wilbur Ware and Philly Joe Jones) and as a leader under the auspices of pianist Billy Taylor. Following this propitious introduction to the national jazz scene he returned home and was seldomly seen here for the next 25 years. "I left home when my first child was four months old and I didn't get back until she was ten months" he explains. "I said I'll never do that again."
Sullivan's years in Chicago were far from uneventful. His prodigious abilities as a brass and reed man made him a first call sidemanhe played trumpet with Charlie Parker and tenor with Roy Eldridgeas well as an important leader on the windy city's lively jazz scene. Sullivan's love for his hometown is obvious. "In Chicago I grew up with all the great tenor players growing up," he fondly remembers. "Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Sonny Stitt, you know, whatever name you want to cover." Tenor players weren't the only musicians Sullivan encountered at home. "They all came through Chicago," he says with palpable pride. "Herbie Hancock was eighteen when he was going to the University of Chicago and handed me a card that I showed to him backstage when he was forty-five; he almost fell on the floorBack then we were all wearing Ivy League suits. He said, 'Mr. Sullivan, if you ever need me here's my card.' He was studying physics at the University of Chicago. So that's what I mean. And Chick Corea. They were all young guys."
During the decade following his return to Chicago from New York, Sullivan achieved a somewhat legendary status as one of the city's favorite sons. He recorded a pair of records as a leader, Nicky's Tune and Blue Stroll, for the locally based Delmark label, playing an impressive battery of instruments, while sharing the front line with fellow Chicago saxophonists Nicky Hill and Johnny Griffin. A couple of other distinctive dates as a sideman featured him in tandem with two more multi-instrumentalist iconoclastsRahsaan Roland Kirk and Eddie Harris. Well on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated jazz musicians living away from the country's coastal media centers, Sullivan made a move even more arcane and audacious than his earlier withdrawal from the spotlight of New York, when he migrated to Miami in the sixties.
"The first thing I knew about Florida was from Popular Mechanics when I was a kid, right up until my twenties and thirties, until I came here," Sullivan says from his home in the sunshine state. "I'd pick up Popular Mechanics and there'd be an ad and there'd be gray headed couple sitting in a canoe and he's rowing and she's sitting there, maybe sewing or something, on a nice sunny day and it says 'Retire in Florida on fifteen dollars a month.' Now at no stretch of the imagination did I think that Florida was a place to play jazz, so when I came here, I didn't even bring a horn with meI came here for two weeks to visit my parents and now after forty years of culture shock I'm still here." He continues cryptically, "It's too involved a story, but I found myself stayingI had sort of already established a career my first year here, playing in places."