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.
SS: Right, that was "Juanita" on The Cry, which was the record I made with Prince Lasha, Gary Peacock, Mark Proctor and Gene Stone. That launched my career right there. After that, 1963 rolled around and I moved to New York. When I got to New York in '63, I couldn't believe the recognition I got from all the musicians. They were my heroes. The first guy that picked me up was Sonny Rollins; he used to pick me up every morning in Manhattan, on 4th St. and 2nd Ave. at four AM. For some reason he liked me a hell of a lot, and we'd drive across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and practice in the forest from sunup to sundown. We did that for about three months, and sometimes I'd ask 'Hey Newk, when are we gonna have lunch?' That cat never did take the horn out of his mouth over there in Englewood. I learned so much from him, and he had the nerve to tell me that he was learning from me!
He was a great asset to me coming up in New York during that period in 1963, because I was still a young cat. I was doing a session with Don Cherry, Charles Moffett, Grachan Moncur III, Richard Davis and a couple of other great musicians, and [Eric] Dolphy came over. Dolphy was my hero! I had just composed a new piece called "Music Matador," when I was with Prince Lasha (he didn't compose it, I composed that [the song is credited to Lasha on recordings]), and Dolphy fell in love with it. He liked my playing because he had heard The Cry, and he had a lot of respect for me. I was blown away because these cats were my heroes, and I couldn't even tie up their shoelaces! For some reason they really dug me, so he said 'man, I love that composition you wrote; I want to record you and I'm taking you on a record date.' When we got there he said 'we're going to play that composition you wrote, first piece, first track.' So that's how I got started with Dolphy, and we developed a beautiful relationship - he would come get me in his Volkswagen Bug and take me over to his loft in Lower Manhattan by the bridge and we'd practice. I'm learning from this cat and he's learning from me, and I had no idea. He said 'I'm learning from you too' and I was blown away.
AAJ: Well, right after you get to New York to be playing with Dolphy and Newk, that's something else'
SS: I was with all the cats, it was so much that I couldn't believe my dream came true. I'm with all these musicians, they're saying they're learning from me and I'm just a baby in the woods. I had my shit together because I practiced for years and years, and when I arrived in New York I was ready.
AAJ: You just didn't have many people to test it on when you were out on the West Coast, it sounds like.
SS: That's right, except Lester Koenig dug me, and he launched my career when we made The Cry, and so when I got to New York they knew me before I even came. When I arrived they were elated and took care of me in many ways, it was just beautiful.
In 1963, I made that record with Elvin Jones called Illumination [Impulse! A-49, with Lasha and baritonist Charles Davis] and Elvin liked me so he hired me for that date with Coltrane's elite band. That launched my career in a higher fashion because I played Cor Anglais on that beautiful McCoy Tyner composition ["Oriental Flower"].
AAJ: And there was an exodus a few years later of West Coast guys coming to New York, like [drummer] Jim Zitro and [reedman] Bert Wilson came out there'
SS: I was already there with my [now] ex-wife; she was a trumpet player [Barbara Donald], and she became a great trumpeter. She was new to the trumpet, and didn't know about jazz and bebop, and I taught her and she became great.
AAJ: She smoked on those albums -
SS: She was a woman, and I had a lot of problems with the cats in New York because of that. Here's this beautiful white lady standing on the bandstand in a mini-skirt with a black musician, which had never happened in the history of the music, and she was playing all this trumpet and it kinda deflated cats' egos. They didn't like us too much; it was like a new revolution - we were rebels. So in 1966, Bert Wilson came there and I helped him, got him on a recording date, and James Zitro, a great drummer, he'd done some fantastic things that other drummers I was dealing with in New York couldn't do. They couldn't play different rhythms like he could, and he'd lived in India before he came to New York, learning all those different time signatures. I was blown away - I said to myself, 'this cat can play anything!' We developed a beautiful relationship, and I took him on a record date, him and Bert Wilson, in 1966. That was Music from the Spheres [ESP 1043], and then there was Staying on the Watch [ESP 1030].
AAJ: Staying on the Watch was John Hicks' first record, right?
SS: Yeah, that really tickled me to death because his daddy had to come with him to the recording date. He was so young and he was scared of New York at that time, because the revolution was going on and a whole lot of shit was happening. I loved it - it was right up my alley [chuckles]!
AAJ: You were in the right place at the right time'
SS: I sure was, and the music was changing and I was helping the flow. I was with all these great musicians, and then Coltrane came and visited me. I was with all the top cats. I didn't come up in a local scene; I was with all my heroes.
AAJ: But you went back to the West Coast not too much longer afterwards, right?
SS: I was in New York from 1963 until 1969, and my ex-wife and I moved to Woodstock. We started Woodstock, but we don't get any credit for that. I was the first jazz cat to go up there, to this place called 212.
AAJ: 212 Artist's Colony, right?
SS: That's right, and this cat who ran it said 'free food, free living for all artists.' There were painters, people that could do everything. Music was number one, so he made me the music director at this art commune. Only artists lived there, and they had to produce, so I was the music producer. During that period, a friend of mine, Sunny Murray and [bassist/percussionist] Juma Sutan and I took sickles and rakes and all kinds of field equipment, we went out there and cut grass down and built the bandstand. We got Woodstock going, and after we got it going, I went back to Manhattan because my ex-wife and I had a beautiful apartment there, and we then bought a house near Woodstock. I had just had a son and I was a papa.
AAJ: Zarek was his name, right?
SS: Yeah, Zarek, and in 1969 I got a call from the University of California at Berkeley because they dug those two recordings I'd made for ESP, and we did a concert at the elite hall there called Newman Hall. My ex-wife, she came from a wealthy family, and her parents wanted us to stay there in California because we had a son. We got married to make it legal, and we stayed there even though I didn't want to. Her parents were bitchin' about racial shit, all that crap, and they wouldn't help her anymore, so I had to get a job. I'm the kind of cat that if I have kids, I'm not going to up and leave them, so I stayed there and that was the downfall of my career. I had to stay there and take care of her and my son - I didn't want to leave him at such an early age. If he was about ten or eleven I might have been able to leave for a little while, but he was a baby and I wanted him to know he had a papa. I came from a good family and I wasn't raised that way, you know? So that was the downfall of my career in a sense because I spent many years there and it wasn't any good for me. I hated California; everything was in New York.
AAJ: What kind of things did you have to do when you were there?
SS: It's so ridiculous' I used to work in the schools as a custodian, and teaching kids who were disabled; the kids loved me. I was working at the Cupertina School for the Disabled. I stayed there for years because I had to support my family, and I was going crazy because this wasn't the way I had planned my life, to be in Cupertina, California raising a family under all this pressure. It was very racist during that period, and the revolution was still going on for black people, so I caught plenty of hell but I stayed with my family because I didn't want to leave them. That's my loss for being a dedicated father.
AAJ: Were you still playing at all during that period?
SS: In 1971 I moved to San Jose from the San Francisco area, and it just destroyed me; I never was a drinker, I was a clean bird. I was about 42 years old at that time, and so after I got involved with having to pay for a house and raising a family, I put my horn in the garage on the workbench, and it stayed there for four years - I didn't touch it. It had dust and cobwebs on it, a brand-new Selmer saxophone. It just laid there because I lost all interest. It just destroyed my talent. I was working two jobs and it just destroyed me; that lasted until 1975. In '75 my ex-wife and I tried to start working together again, but we couldn't because San Jose was so racist. They didn't like the idea of a white lady and a black man sharing the bandstand, so we didn't get much work musically. I had to keep hustling and getting regular jobs.
Things didn't change until 1980; in 1974 I started drinking a lot of alcohol because I was working two jobs and had to stay up damn near all night, and it was ruining my life. I was 42, and eventually I started using drugs. It destroyed me to try and stay with my ex-wife and raise a family. In 1979, things got real bad, and to get back into music we went to this hotel in San Jose and rented the ballroom. The owner liked us and said 'you guys can have this [ballroom], but you have to do your own thing and we can't give you anything.' We cleaned up this ballroom that hadn't been used in fifty years, it had cobwebs and old curtains from 1930, and we cleaned it up - just me and her, because we couldn't get help from anyone in San Jose. There weren't any jazz musicians there either, just rhythm-and-blues players, and they didn't like us because we were playing out, playing bebop. So we cleaned it up and started a jazz club; I would hire all the musicians from San Francisco that weren't working there, and they'd take the door and keep the money. I didn't take a cent because I know the game too well. So I hired Norman Bishop, Eddie Henderson and a lot of other musicians.
The club was going on, and in 1980 my ex-wife got the idea that she wanted to move us to Olympia, Washington. I took them up there because she bitched night and day about it, so I finally broke down and at that time I had a red Volkswagen bus. So I put them in it and we took a few things, just enough to go up for a week or two and satisfy her. We got up there and she left me, point blank. I came home one day, put the key in the lock, and you know how the door just opens? All my stuff was gone.
SS: So I'm holed up there, and I hate Washington. It was a town with no music; ain't nobody there but Bert Wilson and his crew and there were no clubs there to work. She disappeared with my two kids - I had a daughter by then, too - they were very young, and it really tore me up for the kids to grow up without their dad, you know? So I went back to San Francisco, and luckily I still had my horn because I was going to try and create a group in Olympia with Bert Wilson. I knew all the musicians who were there at the time; I used to call Bert 'wheels'.
AAJ: Had he been in a wheelchair from birth, do you know?
SS: He was born like that; as a child he couldn't walk, didn't have the use of his legs because of some spinal thing, so he had to sit in a wheelchair all his life. He's very talented, and I taught him a lot about music. But I hated Olympia; I hate Washington, I hate Seattle, I hate all the Pacific Northwest. It was no place for me. So I went back to San Francisco and another tragedy took place: I was homeless for fifteen years, and became a real stone junkie.
I had nothing when my wife left; it just put me in shambles, tore me up. I didn't know where my kids were, I knew they needed their dad, and for a whole year and a half I was destroying myself with alcohol and drugs. I'd never done drugs in my life; even the cats in New York during the early period, like Jackie McLean, they said 'how do you play like that if you don't use drugs and don't drink? Anyone that plays has to use something.' I said, 'I don't have nothin' against you cats but I don't need it.' I didn't hate drug addicts because I loved Bird, and all the musicians that set the foundation were drug addicts. I loved them all, but I just never used drugs and they were amazed at how I could do that. I grew up on the streets in Oakland, and I met all kinds of crazy people in the ghetto, but I never messed with that shit.
So I'm in San Francisco living like a dog, and all I had was my horn. No place to stay; I didn't know anybody. I lived that way for a long time. I played on the streets for a living and I never did beg for handouts. I just played on the streets for fifteen years, from nine in the morning until eleven at night.
AAJ: I can't even comprehend that.
SS: Nobody can; a lot of people don't even believe I did it, but I did and I hated it. It was debilitating; a lot of people asked me my name, 'who are you? You're playing like that on the street?' and I never did tell them. My alias was Blackjack Pleasanton. One day, somebody came out from Europe, and the cat recognized me. He said, 'aren't you Sonny Simmons?' and I denied it. I said no, my name is Blackjack Pleasanton! Then word got out that Sonny Simmons was playing on the streets. During that time, an Indian guy who had a club on Haight Street hired me to open up his club. I stayed there for a few months and got together a beautiful group and my life kinda elevated a bit because I was making a little money, but I was still playing on the streets the whole period. It didn't change that much; of course I was still strung out, and that mystique - people would always call me a junkie after that, the painful experience of all those years when I didn't want to be. Even today people call me a junkie.
AAJ: Guilt by association, and rumor.
SS: Lack of intelligence, square; they don't know me. They didn't know the pain and shit I had to deal with, so I don't even trip on it. I kept on living and playing my horn. That's the thing that kept me going; I never relinquished my talent and have kept it to this day.
When the Nineties rolled around, some people came from France to open a club and they heard me playing downtown on the streets of San Francisco. They hired me to play their club, and that was the reemergence of my career. A guy pulled up one day in a car who had an affiliation with Warner Bros. Records, married to the owner of Qwest Records and who knew Quincy Jones. That was in 1994, and it changed my career. I went to Paris in January of 1995, and an elite club hired me, Le Ville they called it. That elevated my life; I was making good money and I'd never made that kind of money before. Plus I had recorded Ancient Ritual [Warner Bros.] and that re-launched my career.
AAJ: How do you feel about the climate in New York and elsewhere now as compared to when you left it in the early '70s?
SS: That was the Golden Era in the '60s, and it was gone after that. New York dissipated, and the music went down and became lawless after this avant-garde shit, people not knowing how to play their instruments. I knew if Bird and all the cats who'd passed on and left their legacy heard this shit, they'd put 'em in front of a firing squad. I never did support that, because I knew it was lawlessness. You have to have some kind of law governing the abilities that you're dealing with. I hate the avant-garde, but I'm affiliated because I'm one of the founding fathers, along with Ornette Coleman. I wasn't playing no noise; it had validity, it had composition. I'm back in New York now; I came back in 2000-2001, at the millennium, and it's completely lawless - everybody's bullshitting.
AAJ: When I was living there, and when I've gone there and seen some of the festivals, I feel the same way. It seems like commerce and not a whole lot more sometimes, and I feel that 'lawlessness' that you're talking about.
SS: It doesn't have anything to do with music; it's a lot of grotesque, emotional bullshit noise. There's nothing musical about the way they're doing it today, and I don't participate. I'm just living in New York along with my sweetheart, and I lived in Europe from 1994 to 1996 and then I came back, and then I went away and came back again in 2001, and I hate it because there ain't no music anymore. I can't get gigs, people don't hire me, it's like they put an old mule out to pasture when they get a certain age, and I've been through all this shit and I don't get a lot of recognition like I should because of a lot of different things. I'm not with a major record label like I was at the start of the '90s.
AAJ: And that was just a one-shot deal, pretty much.
SS: Quincy was cool, but when they wanted me to re-sign in 1995, they offered me less money and I didn't take it. I just wrote it off, I just couldn't do it anymore - I made two records with those people and they're like 'we'll re-sign you Sonny, but you're going to have to take less.' Several thousand dollars less; they were going to give me $1,500 to make a record. I had enough dignity and strength to deny it, and I don't regret it. So that was the end of my recording career in a sense, because I never have been with a major label since.
AAJ: How's the group with Michael Marcus going [Cosmosamatics], as far as gigs are concerned?
SS: It's not going too well; the Cosmosamatics and the Millennium Group (which is a new group) are not with a major label, they're on little outhouse labels with no distribution in Europe, and people don't know anything about it. They know me, but they don't know Michael Marcus and haven't heard of the Cosmosamatics. The group never got off the ground, and we're still trying and still struggling, but it's not enough to take care of the rent. Hopefully it will change this year, maybe, but I'll still be dealing with the music on my terms. I ain't going to play noise, no bullshit, and I'm not a kiss-up kind of guy. Fifty years is a long time [to be doing it], that's half a century!
AAJ: I know you're in New York for the time being, but is there anywhere you think would be more fruitful, or would it be the same anywhere you go?
SS: It's not the same in Europe for me. I'm recognized and respected much more in Europe as an artist, but I'll be working [in New York] for the first time in a couple of years with the Millennium. I met a beautiful lady, she's in show-business and is a great pianist and a composer, and we're living together and I'm satisfied with that, so we're just trying to make it happen. Her name is Janet Jenke, and she's also having a hard time with her own art, but she's very gifted too.
AAJ: Well, New York is cutthroat, especially these days.
SS: It's a goddamn battlefield now, nothing like it was back in the Golden Era, the 60s and 70s. It's nothing like that, when all the cats were alive. I'm one of the few buffalo that's left from that era. Ornette's still alive, and he's doing great.
AAJ: He's really able to control how his music is presented and how he's presented.
SS: He's got clout after forty years; I never did get a grip because of the way my family life was. I didn't want to do it, but I couldn't leave my kids. That was my weakness.
AAJ: It's something that garners a lot of respect, though, because it was exactly the right thing as much as it was the wrong thing.
SS: Right, and I may still be paying for it, but I ain't crying about it. I'm glad to be alive and situated with this great lady who knows the score. I'm not going to rock the boat' There was a strong rumor in the 80s that I was dead, and that affected my career worldwide because a lot of people thought I was gone, and they were just false rumors - maybe somebody wished I was dead!
Sonny Simmons will be at the Jazz Standard July 9-11, see calendar for details. Thanks to the staff at AAJ-NY and Sonny Simmons for making this interview possible.
Sonny Simmons/Prince Lasha "The Cry" (Contemporary, 1962)
Eric Dolphy "Conversations" (FM, 1963)
Sonny Simmons "Music from the Spheres" (ESP, 1966/1968)
Prince Lasha/Sonny Simmons "Firebirds" (Contemporary, 1967)
Sonny (Huey) Simmons "Burning Spirits" (Contemporary, 1970)
Sonny Simmons "Ancient Ritual" (Qwest/Warner Bros., 1995)
Cosmosamatics "Cosmosamatics" (Boxhholder, 2001)
Cosmosamatics "Three" (Boxholder, 2004)