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.Read more
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