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?
SS: Yes, Smiley Winters was very big in Oakland at that time; he was a great drummer and a great power in the music. After I learned how to play at a higher professional level, I think I was about 21, because I didn't have any training as my parents couldn't afford lessons. So I had to learn on my own by listening to the guys play live, go home and play along with records. Later on I learned technically about music, you dig?
AAJ: Right, on the bandstand.
SS: Absolutely. By the time I turned professional at 21, I'd spent many hours and many years practicing in my parents' toilet [AAJ laughs].
AAJ: When you turned professional, other than Smiley, who were you involved with?
SS: Well there was a blues cat who was very well-known and popular at that time that hired me to go on the road; I think I was around 22. I played with a lot of R&B bands that weren't well-known, but Jimmy McCracklin was the main cat at the time. I played a lot of rhythm-and-blues, but my heart was in bebop. I was playing tenor saxophone then, and it put meat and potatoes on the table, so I stayed with rhythm-and-blues and I'm glad I did because it gave me a rich background and a total [concept of] music. Rhythm-and-blues was the heart of the music during that period of the '50s. You had all these blues singers and musicians who were great at their craft, and their stop-off was in Oakland and I went and saw them all.
AAJ: When did you first get intimations of playing what would later be called 'free jazz'?
SS: At the age of 27, after I had learned the craft of playing bebop very well, and after having heard Bird and having seen him at 17 - I was really into bebop then. Ornette Coleman came on the scene in '58, and I was thinking the same way he was but I didn't have the clout at that time to do anything about it. So when I heard him, I dug him right away, thought he was something else.
AAJ: Right, as far as playing on the melody rather than the chords.
SS: I dug that because I was thinking the same way, not so much the cords but thinking intervalically within the chord, which made it sound advanced.
AAJ: Which is what you grew up with, hearing the birds on Sicily Island.
SS: Right, that's where I was coming from. I was mostly influenced by nature rather than musicians, except for Charlie Parker, because he sounded just like a bird. After 1958, I kept dealing with my craft, and in 1962 I went to Los Angeles on the recommendation of a friend of mine, Gene Stone, a drummer who lived in Southern California, in Topanga Canyon.
AAJ: A wonderful drummer, too'
SS: Yeah, he is, and I lived with him in Topanga Canyon. I went to see Lester Koenig, and I think I was about 28, to get recorded after Ornette had made his two recordings. Lester Koenig dug me because I was different from Ornette Coleman in many ways.
AAJ: Well, at least on that first record, there was the calypso element that separated you from Ornette and some of the players moving in that direction.