Re-Illuminated

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

Simmons has been living mostly in Paris since Ancient Ritual; Morton set up a short European tour for Simmons and he never came back. Last fall, Robert Stewart coaxed Simmons to Los Angeles for a Coltrane tribute concert at World Stage, and Morton booked some gigs for him in San Francisco, including an ill-fated show at Bruno's (which was in the process of closing), and an initially promising run at Club Deluxe. But the same old problems plagued Simmons; at many of the dates, he was surrounded by uneven musicians, and although he played brilliantly, he also showed his frustration with the limits of those around him, and the small crowds.

Simmons finally shows up at Cell Space carrying his horn cases and walks back to the dressing room. He emerges a moment later, dismisses the band, and plays a heartbreakingly beautiful version of "Autumn in New York." Then he calls the band back and they rip through one or two numbers until Simmons abruptly caps his horn and walks off stage, leaving the band to finish the song and everyone else to wonder if he'll return. He eventually does, and begins blowing the opening bars to "Aborigine Dance in Scotland." The drummer is ready, other musicians are tuning up or plugging in, but the bassist is nowhere to be found. Simmons shakes his head, removes his horn, and walks away. The other musicians shrug and begin packing their instruments. Someone walks on stage and announces that the show's over. There will be no more Sonny Simmons tonight.

Simmons has some upcoming gigs planned in Denmark. After that, he hopes to settle down in Europe with some musicians who can play what he calls his "25th-century compositions."

"I hope I can live long enough to put it down on vinyl," he says. "I just need some musicians who can deal with my ideas. There may be other brothers and prophets out there thinking the same way, but since I'm on the forefront, I'm going to have to do it. It takes a lot of shit to do it, if you don't have the thing for it, most formidably the love for it.

"I have the love for it," he continues. "I love music, I could eat it, drink it, I could wallow in it like pig in sow. That's my whole thing, man, music. So this is where I'm at."

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