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Sonny Criss

Alto saxophonist Sonny Criss is a rather tragically overlooked figure in Jazz. Born in Memphis in 1927, he moved to Los Angeles at the age of 15 where he remained much of his playing career. When he became a professional player after finishing school, he joined various bands visiting the West Coast and performed with such artists as Billy Eckstine and Johnny Otis. He also featured in Gene Norman's "Just Jazz" concerts alongside stars such as Howard McGhee, Stan Getz and Wardell Gray. In 1948 Criss was a part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour package. In the mid-1950s Criss played with Buddy Rich's quintet and recorded a fine session with Rich and Wynton Kelly live in Chicago "Sonny Criss at the Crossroads", but his base in LA generally left him isolated.

Resigned to relative obscurity in LA he opted for a move to Paris where he was given due recognition and made some dazzling records for local companies. He continued to play and record sporadically after returning from the continent, in particular, a series of fine mid-60s albums for Prestige gave him critical acclaim. He won the Downbeat award for "Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition" in 1968, an accolade perhaps typical of the man and artist. He then returned to tour in Europe in 1974 and appeared at Monterey with Dizzy Gillespie in 1977. Over the years, Criss played and recorded with numerous jazz greats including Dexter Gordon, Buddy Rich, Hampton Hawes, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker.

On November 19, 1977, Criss took his own life. For more than a decade after his death, the reasons for Criss's suicide remained unclear. His playing toward the end was in peak form, and audiences were gradually reacquainting themselves with the pleasures of serious jazz such as Criss had to offer. The mystery of his motive was finally cleared up in 1988 when his mother, Lucy Criss revealed that her son was suffering from stomach cancer: "He kept still about it and worked for as long as he could." One can easily imagine Criss remaining silent; he was an introspective man, one who carried both his disappointments and his joys quietly within himself. Criss rarely complained about whatever troubles he faced, medical or otherwise.

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Roads Less Travelled

Sonny Criss: Catching The Sun

Read "Sonny Criss: Catching The Sun" reviewed by Nic Jones

There have sometimes been itinerant qualities to the jazz musician's life, not only in terms of where they've lived, but also where and when they recorded. Sonny Criss spent the best part of his life in Los Angeles, and the sad fact is that the devotion he showed not only to the city and its people but also to his music brought him little reward, a fact only compounded by what posthumous acclaim he has been afforded.

The albums he ...

Album Review

Sonny Criss: The Complete Imperial Sessions

Read "The Complete Imperial Sessions" reviewed by C. Andrew Hovan

Had alto saxophonist Sonny Criss spent most of the time on the East Coast instead of settling in Los Angeles, he might have become more of a household name. In fact, it wasn’t until he made a series of sides for Prestige in the late ‘60s that he obtained even a modicum of the recognition due him, particularly through the magnificent Sonny’s Dream album. Unfortunately, by the end of the ‘70s he had met his untimely death at the age ...

Album Review

Sonny Criss: Intermission Riff

Read "Intermission Riff" reviewed by AAJ Staff

The tapes were on a high shelf in an old storeroom, so lost that their labels were barely legible. Producer Eric Miller stumbled upon them while putting other tapes back; the faint scrawling ("JATP/SHRINE/1951") piquing his interest. With the personnel unlisted, there was nothing to do but listen.

“As soon as I heard the alto, I stopped. It took my breath away...It was his show. You could hear the crowd swell, and then you could hear him react to the ...

Album Review

Sonny Criss: Crisscraft

Read "Crisscraft" reviewed by Jim Santella

Alto saxophonist Sonny Criss was at his prime when he made this recording for Muse Records in 1975. Recently reissued by 32 Jazz, the session is just over a half hour long, but offers a rare opportunity to appreciate Criss's pure expressive sound, along with that of pianist Dolo Coker, guitarist Ray Crawford, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Jimmie Smith. In the liner notes, Bob Porter refers to Criss's sound as a “strange ghetto mixture of machismo and vulnerability."

Horace ...

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Jazz Musician of the Day: Sonny Criss

Jazz Musician of the Day: Sonny Criss

Source: All About Jazz

All About Jazz is celebrating Sonny Criss' birthday today!


Alto saxophonist Sonny Criss is a rather tragically overlooked figure in Jazz. Born in Memphis in 1927, he moved to Los Angeles at the age 15 where he remained much of his playing career... more

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David Byrd
saxophone, alto
Ulli Juenemann
saxophone, alto



Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

The Lost Recordings

Milestone Records


Mr. Blues Pour Flirter

Milestone Records


The Complete Imperial...

Blue Note Records


Intermission Riff

Fantasy Jazz



32 Records



Milestone Records



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