If one had to name great saxophonists in free jazz, one would probably list (except for Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, of course) Pharoah Sanders, certainly Anthony Braxton, David Murray and Archie Shepp, and of course Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker from the European players. However, there are - not only in free jazz - these musicians who have been somewhat overlooked in the course of their career. Sonny Simons was one of them. Now he has passed away.
Simmons was born in Louisiana, but grew up in Oakland, California. He was the son of a preacher and a choir singer, there was always music around him. His first instrument was the English horn (he preferred to call it cor anglais), but at 17 he saw Charlie Parker at the Oakland Auditorium and immediately told his parents that he wanted to have an alto saxophone. Although he never wanted to sound like a mere Parker copy, the great saxophonist would remain his conceptual idol throughout his musical life. At the beginning Simmons played with Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon and in the early 1960s he joined Charles Mingus’s band. Soon however, he turned to freer forms, initially in an ensemble with Coltrane musicians Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner, and with Eric Dolphy (you can hear him on Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions). In 1962 he co-founded Firebirds, a quintet with Prince Lasha, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Peacock and Charles Moffett. His career took off when he was able to release albums for both the hip labels ESP and Contemporary Records. But then, after the sudden death of Lester Koenig, the boss of Contemporary Records, Simmons disappeared from the musical scene for 20 years. Officially it was said that he had to take care of his children's education and therefore took better paid jobs, but in an interview with Fred Jung, Simmons himself told a different story: “After Koenig died my whole thing went down the drain. After they released Burning Spirits, they blacklisted me because I spoke out about politics (…) and they thought I was starting some kind of political thing. (…). I couldn't get no dates no more. (…) I couldn't even work in clubs anymore.“
It was not until 1992 that Simmons made a comeback; in the following years he played at festivals and recorded more records (with Horace Tapscott, among others). In the early 2000s he formed the formation The Cosmonautics with James Carter, William Parker, Jay Rosen, Karen Borca and Michael Marcus, with whom he released two albums. In 2003 he finally released his first solo album Out into the Andromeda.
If you want to dig Sonny Simmons’s music, essential releases are the two ESP albums Staying on the Watch (1965) and Music from the Spheres (1968), both with his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, as well as Firebirds (Contemporary Records, 1968), together with Prince Lasha. From his later years, Reincarnation (Arhoolie, 2015; the music was recorded in 1991), is worth mentioning, and finally Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom and Brilliance / Chasing the Bird (Improvising Beings, 2014), an ambitious 8 CD project.
Sonny Simmons’s death is a sad loss. But his music is immortal and a comfort for us.
Watch Mr. Simmons live with Dave Burrell at the Vision Festival 2013: