SM: Well, that's true. You know, now through William Parker, he brought on some of the values that beboppers had ' that unity. Because beboppers ' one of the reasons CT and me always loved them ' they had a unity, they had a brotherhood, they had a friendship, they had rules, they had morals that made traditional musicians. And you had to follow these rules as a young musician. Nobody cared about you until you could play. Tony [Williams] was the first drummer they started to write about [that was] young. But when you check out all the drummers, they all were young! [laughing] Sixteen year old boys, thirteen. But you know what? Tony was the one worth writing about, because he was the mouth. And you know, we came up listening to our elder musicians, and learning correct or they didn't have no time for us. And so today I see that these values Parker has brought into the music. Each epoch needs a sort of leader. Cecil was a leader for me and others, and I've always been a sort of a leader for tenor players. It's not an intentional thing, just sort of a destiny thing, you know.
There are some of us that are still alive; Don Cherry is gone, Eric, you know, John is gone, and so those of us that are here are like diamonds. My music is very qualified, Cecil's music is very qualified. Each generation must have, I guess you could say 'old-heads,' the older guys like I had, like CT had. And they had sort of stripped avant-garde music of any past, and so a lot of times when I talk, I say I'm glad to have been a forefather for a new generation of music. That means a lot to me; I don't have any bread, because of the way the system goes, you know they don't choose everybody, so I'm very proud of my role in the history of creative music' in a way that I did something positive with my music and my mama was proud of me. I gave her before she died my record Homage to Africa, and boy she danced around the room, she looked at my picture and said 'oh [I was] so handsome!' And so this music brought a lot of faith and hope to a generation of musicians that weren't here for bebop, and bebop has been so categorized and selective that they probably would not have had a chance to play, to play at great festivals like they do and make records.
I say most of all I'm very proud, [though] I'm very poor, like John Coltrane was joking with me the few times I played with him, 'you know Sunny, innovators are usually the last to make any money.' I got so depressed I went to hear him at the Village Gate and always hang around him, and I started crying, and I said 'I came here for you to kick my ass!' and he was sitting smoking a cigar and fell out laughing. I dried up and shit, but man one night I was depressed and I got drunk and sat down in the Five Spot totally drunk and cryin,' and Eric [Dolphy] came and took my sticks and he broke one of the sticks, 'how you like that! Don't play that.' He got a real mean look on his face! I've had a lot of trying times, but people stuck with me man, you know. The old guys all treated me nice, Blakey, Max and them, because I always was devoted and gave my respect, and this is something a lot of new musicians don't have a chance to now. Sometimes with me they're nice and friendly, but I just say to them I'm lucky to have made it, CT made it, and one day you'll be older. Because at fifty in New York, you're like put out to pasture. There's no records, you don't get gigs, the record companies and the clubs, they peel off the young guys. You kind of walk around New York feeling a stranger in your own environment. One of the reasons I left; here I am, born in America in the homeland of America, Oklahoma, grew up on a farm, I'm really a cold-blooded American, and I thought that, you know, the respect and support artists should get, America has never reached that real respect for artists like Europe [has]. America's always like 'you're wasting your time' or 'why do you play that crazy shit.' But in Europe, they are always for lack of a better word, appreciative of the artist and the artist's creativity that there's no age problem. As long as you are playing creatively and with quality in your music you will always work, it's just a whole different support system.
AAJ: And that's still the case, then? It hasn't really gone downhill or anything?
SM: No, for example they give an artist social security I get every month. They give reasonable apartments for my age, I get a nice apartment I pay $46 a month, they give free medicine, like Jeanne Lee should've had, I don't pay for my doctor or my medicine. These are all attachments in the French society that they do for the artists. And that doesn't exist as you know in America. So there's so many differences. The fear that they have of migrating at a certain age, I understand why many don't want to leave America, but that's another story.
AAJ: Was the promise of better treatment the main reason why you came to Europe to live?
I was first exposed to jazz when I discovered that one of Jimi Hendrix's influences was Wes Montgomery. I played guitar growing up and idolized Hendrix, so I knew that anyone he looked up to must be good
I was first exposed to jazz when I discovered that one of Jimi Hendrix's influences was Wes Montgomery. I played guitar growing up and idolized Hendrix, so I knew that anyone he looked up to must be good. I was 16 at the time. I went to Tower Records and purchased a CD by Wes, and I was hooked from the very first ten seconds. The sound of the song Lolita illuminated my bedroom, as I just sat back amazed at how colorful and soulful this music was--I understood it, even though at the time I didn't understand how to go about playing it. I get chills listening to Wes' solo on Lolita, and I can still listen to that song ten times in a row and never get tired of it. There is a truly timeless quality to genuinely spontaneous jazz music, and it is that quality that has inspired me to devote my life to studying and playing this music.