Re-Illuminated

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

Koenig did eventually record Lasha and Simmons, and the result was 1962's The Cry, featuring ferocious and deeply moving alto playing by Simmons. That album established the pair as up-and-coming avant-garde players, and invitations to record with other artists quickly followed, including the session that produced Illumination! and Dolphy's important 1964 recording, Iron Man. "Sonny was a very interesting player, in particular," recalls McCoy Tyner of the Illumination! session. "I thought he was impressive. During that time there was a lot of people doing experiments, and he was a very open person when it came to music, in terms of the way he played. It wasn't like Ornette Coleman, but it had that openness about it. Sonny, he had his own sound, and he was a very unique individual. I think, for that particular recording, it worked very well.

"His personality and everything, his zeal, his attitude towards music -- it seemed like he loved to play, he loved, loved playing, and he was a very animated individual when it came to expressing himself, very, very animated, a very happy-go-lucky kind of guy. "

Simmons seemed to be living every jazz musician's dream. He was frequently in New York, where, in a 1995 interview for the San Jose Mercury News, he remembered how Charles Mingus once chased him down the street, half-begging, half-ordering him to take Rahsaan Roland Kirk's place in his Jazz Workshop band.

He recalls another incident involving tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins. "He kidnapped me one day and kept me in his apartment for three days," Simmons says. "At that time I had a family and a wife who was worried about me. Only thing I could do was call her and tell her I was hung up with Sonny Rollins. She couldn't say nothing. And I couldn't go home. He had all these saxophones and everything I needed, so I had to remain. If I had left during that period I'd have insulted him. And he was a great beacon in my life during that time in New York City, 'cause he was the king, him and Coltrane."

Simmons' then-wife was Barbara Donald, a well-regarded avant-garde trumpet player in her own right. In 1969, Simmons returned to the Bay Area to record an album with her on the Arhoolie label, the scintillating but out-of-print Manhattan Egos. (Arhoolie plans to reissue the album as a CD early this summer, with previously unreleased tracks.) "I found him a fascinating, powerful player, who had this element I really liked, being from Louisiana," says Arhoolie owner Chris Strachwitz. "And he was right up my alley, except he was this cat who was lost in the ozone. I think he's always been sort of out there, although his playing is really solid. I liked it a lot, especially with him and Barbara. I almost couldn't imagine that sort of interplay between people, and then the whole rhythm, it was just really gorgeous stuff.

"Anyway," says Strachwitz, "it was dynamite music, but it didn't sell anything. Of course, that may have been our problem -- we were not Contemporary or Impulse or somebody who had a jazz repertoire."

The deaths of avant-garde stars like Eric Dolphy, Coltrane, and Albert Ayler in the mid- to late '60s, along with the rising popularity of pop and folk music, meant Simmons' type of music wasn't selling very well with anyone at the time. Drugs and alcohol, high-profile deaths, and dwindling record sales were problems many musicians faced in the '60s, but they seemed to hit Simmons particularly hard. "There were no clubs that would hire him," Strachwitz remembers. "They were always hungry," he says of Simmons and Donald. "They basically didn't have any money coming in. It's a mean world, it's really unfair. We thought we'd give him a record under his own name. But then when you can't give it away, it gets really depressing."

Simmons shuffled back and forth between the Bay Area and New York for a while. "Before I realized, I had a newborn son, and I just came back home to help raise my son," he recalls. "So, I had to resort to a day job here. It just tore me up, you know, 'cause I'm not a day job person. I'm an artist, I'm a musician." In fact, Simmons claims he was blacklisted by the music industry for some incendiary liner notes he wrote for his '70 record Burning Spirits, a double LP for Contemporary that was his last major release for almost 25 years. Whatever the case, Simmons moved with his family to San Jose, where he held an assortment of jobs, including hospital aide and school janitor. He eventually moved with Donald and their two children to Washington state, only to split up with her and return to San Francisco around 1980, where he began playing on the streets.

"I couldn't get any gigs," he explains. "I played on the streets for 12 years, every day, to maintain my balance. I couldn't get no work anywhere, and I didn't want a day job, 'cause I had years of that. I started off on Market Street. Then I went down into the depths of the Financial District -- Montgomery all the way down, almost to North Beach. That was my territory for earning a living."

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