Alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons was born on Sicily Island, Louisiana. At a young age, he moved to Oakland, California with his family, bringing the budding musician into contact with touring musicians like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker as well as local modernists. By the early '60s, Sonny had moved to LA to record and work with altoist Prince Lasha; in 1963 Simmons moved to New York to play and record with Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones and other major figures in the new jazz. With his then wife, trumpeter Barbara Donald, Sonny recorded as a leader and in 1970 returned to the West Coast. Family and personal problems kept him out of the music in the '70s and '80s, but he was given the chance of a new career in the '90s. He is currently working with Michael Marcus in the Cosmosamatics and the Millennium Group.
All About Jazz: So you were born in Louisiana, right?
Sonny Simmons: Yeah, that's right. Let me tell you the story from the beginning. My parents and all my other relatives lived on this little backwoods island called Sicily Island, Louisiana. Most of them were musicians; I grew up in the church with my papa, and he was a drummer and a vocalist. My mother was a vocalist in the women's choir. I was born August 4, 1933 and when I was a little boy in church with my papa, he bought me an old squeeze-box accordion, and I used to play that in church - it was as old as the hills. It was a squeeze-box so you just had to pull it back and forth like a loony-tune thing. No keys, nothin'. I had to feel the pressure on a certain distance of pulling and pushing. I learned how to play it in church with different religious hymns at that time; I think I was about six. I was born with music, and I had a natural born talent, so to speak. We lived on this island; my parents built a big farm and we were wealthy, but it was really the white man's farm. We had everything on that farm, and at that time everything was organic - no pesticides, so I grew up in a natural, organic environment with everything on the island and we didn't have to go to any stores to buy anything.
AAJ: How big was this island? Was it big enough to encompass several other families?
SS: It was a small island, and most of the other people on that island during that time were my relatives. My grandmother had this big radio, an International console radio, and I used to have her turn it on and I would listen to music, mostly classical and I would hear a little Duke Ellington and a little Count Basie - that was back in 1939 when the war was raging in Europe. I used to hear a lot of beautiful music, but the most beautiful music I heard on the island was from the birds and the singing cranes and all those beautiful creatures on the island. The whole island sounded like a symphony in the spring and the summer - it was so beautiful, and I think about that to this day how beautiful my childhood was. Music was in my soul, and so that was my background.
AAJ: What precipitated the move to California?
SS: Well my papa was a traveling preacher and the director of the choir; he was a great vocalist and could really sing. He knew that living in the South at that time he wanted the family to move to higher ground and a better life, and he was such a great preacher that he went to California in 1944 and the people liked him so much that this rich black woman, a fortune-teller, had a lot of property and fell in love with his talent. She told him that she would sell him a house to get his family to Oakland, California so he wouldn't have to go back to the South. She sold him a big three-story house, and my parents had four boys (I was the first born) at the time and so we all moved to California. He was a noted preacher; he was famous in certain areas of California at that time, he'd be traveling and preaching, come home and take care of his family.
AAJ: How did you go from the squeeze-box to playing reed instruments? What did you start on and how did you get to playing the alto?
SS: When I was about thirteen, all the great jazz musicians that started this music were living, and I used to go see these cats like Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Duke Ellington - I grew up with that, going to the theatres in Oakland and seeing these guys play. In '49 I heard Charlie Parker and Jazz at the Philharmonic in the Oakland auditorium, and it changed my whole life - I wanted to start playing the saxophone. I liked Big Jay McNeely and I used to play the heads of his hits at the time, like "Deacon Hop;" I think I was around sixteen in high school and I played it at an assembly and rocked the whole house! I didn't even know straight up about music technically because they weren't teaching that. I was using my spirit and my inner air, and I loved all these great musicians but after I turned sixteen and heard Charlie Parker' but my main instrument before that time was Cor Anglais [English horn], and my parents couldn't afford one for me to play in the orchestra, but that was my first love because I used to hear it when I was a kid listening to classical music, I just loved that sound. It never left me; the saxophone was cool but my heart was with the Cor Anglais.
I grew up surrounded by the saxophone during the war years; I heard all the great musicians in Oakland and I'd seen everybody - Dexter Gordon, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys' I even like country and western because Bob Wills was my man; I loved it when he used to say "aaah-haah!"
AAJ: Of course, there's a certain style of country blues that comes out of that music too, which Ornette was getting into as well.
SS: Well I had a rich background of influence because I witnessed these guys, not just on records but I've seen them live. I was the only kid in the neighborhood who went and listened to the music; paid my little admission which at that time was fifty cents. When anybody hit town I was there because I had some fast relatives and at ten years old I used to play the jukebox. My favorite thing then was "One-O-Clock Jump," by Erskine Hawkins.
AAJ: It sounds like the Oakland scene was really fertile for music.
SS: It was a fat-ass town; it was the jump-off spot for anybody coming to the west coast, so they started in Oakland. It was rich with a lot of great entertainment.
AAJ: So who were some of the people you started playing with when you got into jazz?
SS: At that time, there was nothing like that. I just grew up practicing fourteen hours a day learning how to play. I used to play "Body and Soul" like Coleman Hawkins by ear at that time because I loved Coleman Hawkins. My parents were kind of hip to the music too, because they loved him and Lester Young, and I'd seen all these guys alive.
AAJ: I was wondering, as far as the bebop scene in that area, like I always think of [drummer] Smiley Winters. Did you have much of an association with him at that point?