Re-Illuminated

After spending the '60s in the jazz vanguard, Sonny Simmons disappeared. He's back -- but still struggling

It's a Thursday afternoon in Potrero Hill, and Sonny Simmons is perturbed. He's having a hard time getting his bassist, Herbie Lewis, to play the proper changes in his "Aborigine Dance in Scotland."

"You start with F in the first movement. In the second you start with C," he explains patiently, sitting, eyes closed, with his alto horn on the couch in the apartment where his band is rehearsing for a gig later that night. He perfunctorily blows the quirky melody on his alto, then listens, eyes still closed, to the bass part. Hearing something he doesn't like, he abruptly caps his horn and sets it in the case. He gets up and motions for his manager, Craig Morton, to follow him outside, leaving Lewis and didgeridoo player Matt "Helicopter" Goff to keep playing, over and over, trying to get it right.

Simmons wrote "Aborigine" for regular John Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones; he also played alto horn on the track with Jones and the rest of the members of Coltrane's "Classic Quartet" -- bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner -- on the 1963 Impulse release Illumination!, credited to the Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison Sextet. Another song on the album, Tyner's beautiful ballad "Oriental Flower," was written as a showcase for Simmons' trademark instrument, the English horn. Illumination! is a forgotten classic and one of the oddest documents of its time, featuring the usually bombastic Jones scatting with brushes, Tyner laying out as much or more than he ever seemed to with Coltrane, and the stunning solo work of a virtually unknown horn player named Sonny Simmons.

While he once seemed on the verge of recognition as an avant-garde saxophone player on a par with Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, Huey "Sonny" Simmons isn't mentioned at all in most jazz guides today. Though he worked steadily through the '60s, appearing as a featured soloist with Eric Dolphy and Prince Lasha, Simmons disappeared during the '70s just as abruptly as he sometimes ends a solo and stalks off stage. In fact, during the '80s and early '90s, he was playing for handouts on the streets of San Francisco.

Simmons has the unique ability to register the deepest and most subtle nuances of emotion on his alto horn, on which he is explosive -- a style reminiscent of Charlie Parker's, though as free as Ornette Coleman's. Still, Simmons has never managed to break big. In 1994 Warner Bros. imprint Qwest released Simmons' "comeback album," Ancient Ritual, to almost universal critical acclaim -- and poor sales. Six years later, Simmons is still struggling for recognition and financial stability.

When we first meet in January, Simmons doesn't look well. He appears on the corner of Page and Gough dressed elegantly in an overcoat and black leather gloves, but his face is gaunt, and as he shakes my hand he tells me his daughter, Raisha, has just passed away in Oakland. She was 28. Still, Simmons insists on going ahead with the interview. His eyes look bleary, and he becomes animated only when talking about music.

Music was part of Simmons' life from the beginning. "Growing up in Sicily Island [Louisiana] left an impression on me," he says, "'cause where we lived, was all kinds of music going on. I had relatives playing music, and they played it formidably all the time. I grew up in that environment. My dad was a preacher, first vocalist in church choir. My mother was first female vocalist. So there I am in the middle of them with a squeeze box recorder. This is 1939."

After World War II, the Simmons family moved to Oakland, where, when Sonny was 16, his parents bought him a tenor sax, even though he says his "heart was with the alto oboe," or English horn, a double-reed instrument with which he'd become acquainted in his high school band.

Simmons developed very rapidly on the sax, and by his late teens was working steadily with R&B acts such as Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, and Charles Brown. In 1950, Jazz at Philharmonic came to the Oakland Auditorium, and it was there Simmons first saw Charlie Parker and became indoctrinated into bebop. "It changed my life that night when I witnessed this beautiful man stand up and play all that beautiful music, you know?" he says. "I never heard anything so great."

Rededicated to his instrument, Simmons practiced 12 to 14 hours a day, and by the mid-'50s he had found another important influence -- Ornette Coleman, by way of flutist Prince Lasha, who'd grown up with Coleman in Fort Worth, Texas. "[Lasha] was a beautiful influence on me to a degree, as far as knowing Ornette," says Simmons. "And he had some of his written compositions at that time. I was happy to engage in that, dealing with some of his compositions, because we were sort of writing the same way at that time, thinking the same way. But Les Koenig of Contemporary Records in L.A., he recorded [Coleman] first. And that gave him the start of a new revolution in music, by not playing, as you well know, chord changes."

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