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."

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."

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."

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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