Re-Illuminated

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

Simmons says he sometimes made as little as $5 or $6 a day, sometimes as much as $150. On rare occasions, he says, impressed passers-by dropped hundred dollar bills in his case; more often, he had water dumped on him from office building windows or was rousted by cops just like any street musician.

Bruce Ackley, of the Bay Area's ROVA Saxophone Quartet, dedicated the song "Juggernaut" on his 1997 solo release The Hearing to Simmons, and writes in the liner notes of seeing Simmons play on the streets many times over the years. "The first time I saw him was probably in the '80s sometime. I'd been listening to him for 20 years," says Ackley. "It was pretty startling to see someone who's that legendary playing out there. You can go into a store and buy his records, and then see people just walking by without recognizing him."

But Simmons didn't necessarily like being recognized then, as Randall Kline, executive producer of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, found out. Kline first heard Simmons while riding his bike home from his office. "I heard on Grant Avenue someone playing beautiful alto sax -- just a transcendent sound," recalls Kline, "and I got off my bike and stopped and listened for a while. I asked the guy who he was -- I didn't recognize him as Sonny Simmons -- and he told me his name was Jack Pleasanton." Kline took down the name and tried to find out who Jack Pleasanton was. "I ran into him everywhere, it seemed, and then finally it dawned on me this was Sonny Simmons. Then, eventually, he recorded that comeback album for Qwest. And it was great. It was a no-brainer -- we hired him to open a show for Branford Marsalis."

Simmons' comeback album, Ancient Ritual, was produced by Craig Morton, who'd met Simmons in the early '80s soon after he'd returned from Washington. Morton worked with him on the album Backwoods Suite in 1982, then left for New York, keeping in touch with Simmons and visiting him from time to time. When he came back to San Francisco in 1992, he remembers "that's when [Simmons] was really focused. He sounded great. So we made the arrangements to do the recording Ancient Ritual."

For the album, Simmons tapped his son, Zarak, by then 27 and an up-and-coming percussionist, to play drums, and Charnett Moffett, son of family friend and former Coleman drummer Charles Moffett, to play bass. The result is a remarkably tight, powerful album on which every squelch and squeal of Simmons' alto is packed with the pain of what he's been through and his joy at surviving it.

Through a contact at Qwest, Morton managed to interest the label in the album, which was released in 1994 to almost universal acclaim from critics, making several album-of-the-year lists, including Down Beat's and the Boston Globe's. Simmons began to appear at big concert halls and festivals like S.F. Jazz. "He's an individual," says Kline. "He's got a voice, and that's about the highest compliment you can pay any jazz musician. Not many musicians have a voice on their instruments, and he does."

But once again, the album didn't sell. Morton went on to produce both of local sax prodigy Robert Stewart's albums on Qwest, and one more, American Jungle, by Simmons in 1997, but Simmons was dropped by the label after that.


It's Thursday night at Cell Space in the Mission District, and Sonny Simmons is late. While Herbie Lewis, the bassist with whom he rehearsed earlier that afternoon, pianist Leon Rosen, and drummer Paul Smith (who played on Manhattan Egos) play for a small and increasingly restless audience, Craig Morton stands behind the crowd and eyes the door anxiously.

"When I first met [Simmons]," says Morton, "you know, he's a powerful, charismatic kind of person, but -- I wouldn't say it was difficult to work with him, but it was pretty overwhelming. But I really thought he was a good guy ... I know he's had his problems, a lot of alcohol problems, and he's dealt with drugs, and that's -- OK. But I really believed that he was worth it. With Sonny, it's like, you just deal with it, so I dealt with it."

At the rehearsal earlier that afternoon, Simmons had been in much better spirits. Lively, his eyes clear, he paced around the Potrero flat gulping beer and smoking cigarettes, frequently going to a back room to play his new English horn. Even Simmons' speech was mellifluous, filled with unusual stresses, as if he were only using it to map out rhythms he'd later replace with notes. "We connected at a bad time, for me, man," he said of our previous meeting. "That's why I'm leaving soon, 'cause I can't go back and slip back to that. You know, 'cause it's no good. It'll kill me. I didn't think I was going to stay here this long, but I got bogged down with my family. You know how families can put the stickers on you -- you have a soft spot for them -- but I'm gonna escape."

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