The Early Years of Sonny Stitt in Saginaw, Michigan

Dustin Mallory By

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Earl VanRiper and Wardell Gray were both members of a little-known territory band called the Jimmy Raschel Band. The band's membership included trumpeter Howard McGhee, pianist Milt Buckner, and saxophonist George Big Nick Nicholas. Although the Raschel band recorded some sides in their day, they never achieved any sort of fame as a band. Instead, it would be the first in series of incubator bands where Stitt and others honed their crafts. Stitt and Gray would also play together later in the Billy Eckstine band that included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, and Dexter Gordon among others.

Sonny Stitt also developed a long association with pianist Hank Jones of Pontiac, Michigan. Jones, who was six years Stitt's senior, had met the school-aged Stitt while performing in Saginaw. Stitt and Jones would go on to perform and record together, on-and-off, for more than two decades that spanned the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s. In 1962, Stitt and Jones met in New York to record a tribute to Stitt's hometown of Saginaw. They were joined by two former members of Charlie Parker's quartet, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Roy Haynes. Potter was also an Eckstine alumni and Haynes had spent time early in his career with Wardell Gray. The aptly titled "Saginaw" is a slow, 12-bar blues that has an earthy and "rootsy" feel. According to liner notes written by Arthur Kramer, "Both Stitt and Jones deliver intensely emotional solos, switching between rapid-fire passages and slower melodic phrases." It's a great testament to the city that bore their beginnings.

The track was originally released on the Sonny Stitt Quartet's Stitt in Orbit LP. The title was misspelled on the original Roost LP2252 as Saganaw. The LP was never re-released on CD. For many years the recording was not available in the United States and could only be imported from Europe in a collection called The Complete Original Quartet Recordings on the Lone Hill Jazz label. It also had a re-release in recent years on The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions. With the addition of digital streaming websites, Saginaw is more readily available and can now be found on streaming services such as Spotify.

Stitt left Saginaw after high school for a life on the road. He returned to Saginaw to visit family every few years and worked to be positive force for the economically declining community. Stitt opened for Ray Charles at the Saginaw Civic Center in 1972 and returned again in 1975 to give a talk to Saginaw High School Band students. Although Stitt lived in many different cities throughout his life, Saginaw was the only city where he spent more than a decade of his life. A remembrance of Sonny Stitt from Saginaw locals can be found here on the White's Bar Blog.



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Album Reviews
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Extended Analysis
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  • Stitt by George Kanzler
Extended Analysis
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