Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sims, Zoot (John Haley)

The name of Zoot Sims may be unfamiliar to some, but he earned his spot on the list of top tenor saxophonists the hard way. He was, simply put, a hell-for-leather improviser who could out-swing any rival, whatever their instrument.

Zoot never became a superstar like his onetime “brother” in the Woody Herman reed section, Stan Getz, nor was he a distinguished composer-orchestrator like his longtime partner Al Cohn. But this terror of a competitor could kick anyone’s rear end in a jam session, and you had to pity the fool who dared take him on.

Sims led his own groups off and on for 30 years, co-led the Zoot Sims – Al Cohn Quintet, and was a valuable sideman the big bands of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan and others. Over the years, he found ample opportunity to demonstrate his formidable chops on soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones as well.

                              Zoot Sims at Birdland, (photo by Marcel Fleiss)

He started, however, on the clarinet. And even before that, he started with rhythm. Born John Haley Sims in Inglewood, California on October 29, 1925, his parents were dancers in vaudeville, and he learned to dance and play drums at a very early age. His older brother was Ray Sims, a trombonist and soloist for many years with Les Brown’s Band of Renown, and also, famously, on Frank Sinatra’s classic record of “It’s A Lonesome Old Town.”

After early training on clarinet, John switched to tenor sax at age 13, and was playing professionally within three years. Some, like Stan Kenton, called him Jack, but most preferred to call him "Zoot," the name given to him by California bandleader Ken Baker, who gave him his first big gig. This was a Swing Era hipster’s expression, inspired by the extravagant suits worn by jitterbugging African-American and Latino youngsters, especially in Harlem and on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Early on, Sims worked with the big bands led by Bobby Sherwood, a prominent California trumpeter who doubled on guitar and was Judy Garland’s brother-in-law, and Sonny Dunham, the former trumpet star with The Casa Loma Orchestra. Sims recorded for the first time as a member of Benny Goodman’s saxophone section in 1943 and 1944, and is prominently heard on the band’s V-Disc session for troops overseas during World War Two, soloing on the song “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans.”

Sims also worked with smaller bands associated with Goodman, led by drummer Sid Catlett and pianist Joe Bushkin. He recorded with Bushkin for Commodore in 1944, which was probably his first small group recording session.

Sims served in the Army for two years at the close of the war, and was stationed in San Antonio. On weekends, he sat in at the Keyhole, a nightclub run by New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader Don Albert.

After his discharge in 1946, Sims returned to gigging with various big bands, including that of Alvino Rey, the Swing Era's most prominent guitarist-bandleader. Sims also resumed his intermittent relationship with Benny Goodman in 1946, then joined Woody Herman's Second Herd in the Fall of 1947.

This was a watershed moment in Sims’s career: Herman’s innovative orchestra, which featured “The Four Brothers,” a reed section of three tenors and a baritone, replacing the customary line-up of two altos, two tenors doubling clarinet, and a baritone, made stars out of nearly all the saxophonists who played in it.

To a degree, Zoot was associated with Woody for the rest of his career: there were many reunions of the original “Brothers," and this was also where he first worked with his longtime partner Al Cohn. The name “Four Brothers” came from one of the band’s signature tunes, composed by Jimmy Giuffre, inspired by the chord sequence from Harry Warren’s “Jeepers Creepers."

Sims stayed with Herman's Second Herd for most of its existence, into 1949, and recorded in Hermanite small bands led by Stan Getz and the band’s one-time bassist, Chubby Jackson. Sims also worked with Artie Shaw’s short lived 1949 bop-oriented big band, but more famously toured as a member of Stan Kenton’s “Concepts” Orchestra in 1953. On this band's first European tour, his most famous feature was a special composition composed and arranged by Bill Holman in his honor and titled, simply, “Zoot.” The song, in which Sims would trade fours with drummer Stan Levey, is easily one of the hardest-swinging pieces ever played by the Kenton band. Sims can also be heard on, among other Kenton tracks, “You and the Night and the Music.”

Apart from these big band gigs, Sims operated on a have-gun-will-travel basis: he freelanced with various well-known bands, occasionally led his own groups, and toured on his own from town to town, picking up rhythm sections wherever he went.

The inspiration for Sims’s sound was almost always Lester "Pres" Young. It seems as if Benny Goodman recognized and encouraged this in his playing, and Sims happily filled the Lester Young role in Goodman’s bands: his solo on the 1944 “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” is full of Pres-byterian highs and lows. Sims's treatment of another Pres classic, “Oh, Lady Be Good,” under the leadership of pianist Joe Bushkin, was evidently in thrall to Young's classic 1936 recording of the song with William "Count" Basie.

Sims was in the perfect band at the perfect time with Herman in 1947 to 1949, when all of the Four Brothers were Lester acolytes. Still, over the years he worked through this influence to develop his own sound, and by the time he was recording regularly with his quartets and other small groups, he was completely his own man.

Singer Chris Connor, who shared Young’s Kansas City background, named Sims as her single favorite musician, and went so far as to tell Marc Myers of JazzWax, “He played the most gorgeous tenor saxophone and had that Lester Young sound. Nobody says this and lives to see the next day, but I think Zoot was better than Pres. I was partial to Zoot’s much softer sound.”

Sims toured Europe for the first time with Goodman in 1950, and also recorded for the first time as a leader on that trip, both in Stockholm and Paris. Sims He also joined the clarinetist on his famous trip to Moscow in the seventies.

Sims formed close relationships with two saxophonists who were also highly celebrated arranger-composers, Gerry Mulligan and Al Cohn.

Zoot is heavily featured in Mulligan’s Sextet recordings of the mid-1950s, such a the 1956 “La Plus Que Lente.” Sims was also a star player on the classic Gerry Mulligan Songbook album of 1957, which utilized a saxophone ensemble that, even though it included Lee Konitz on alto and Mulligan on baritone, was very much in the tradition of the Four Brothers.

When Sims toured with Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band in 1960, he was given name above the title billing on the front cover of one of the orchestra’s albums. His moment in the sun with this band was “Come Rain or Come Shine."

Sadly, Mulligan never recorded a special saxophone encounter album with Sims, as he did with Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, and others, but throughout the 1950s, whenever Mulligan, who played baritone sax, had a band that utilized a second saxophone player, it was almost always Sims.

Sims and Al Cohn became “brothers” when they played together in Herman's 1947 band, and are even listed together in the Alvino Rey reed section a year earlier. They also played in the bands of Artie Shaw, Chubby Jackson, and Gene Roland. They recorded steadily as a team from 1952 onwards, initially billed as “The Brothers,” and even backing up Miles Davis on a Prestige date in 1953.

Their first full album was From A To Z, a clever play on their first names, for RCA in 1956. That same year they participated in a remarkable four-tenor jam session on Prestige with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley. Inspired, to a degree, by Count Basie’s tradition of spotlighting two tenor players, such as Lester Young and Herschel Evans in the late 1930s and Frank Wess and Frank Foster in the mid-1950s, Zoot ‘n’ Al recorded for virtually label, sometimes with other horns, or sometimes with just the two saxes and rhythm, and once, on their 1960 album You And Me, an “Improvisation For Unaccompanied Saxophones.”

As a team, Sims and Cohn also backed everyone from Jimmy Rushing to Jack Kerouac. As can be heard on “Blue Hodge,” from their 1973 album Body And Soul, the pair enjoy Sims’s brilliance as an unceasingly inspired improviser and Cohn’s largesse as a composer and arranger.

Sims was, in fact, one of jazz’s great collaborators: on many of the albums he made as a leader, he shares the spotlight. These include his two albums with orchestral accompaniment, The Waiting Game from 1966 with Gary McFarland and Only A Rose with The Metropole Orchestra of Holland in 1974.

The long list of his collaborators includes Bob Brookmeyer, Bucky Pizzarelli, Hans Koller, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Rowles, violinist Joe Venuti and saxophonists Art Pepper and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. He also participated on the famous Interplay album of 1962 with Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, and Philly Joe Jones.

Sims traded in his favored tenor sax from time to time, most famously around this time on the album Zoot Sims Plays Alto, Tenor, and Baritone, and also in an early overdubbing experiment supervised by maverick arranger George Handy entitled Zoot Sims Plays Four Altos. He soloed on clarinet in tandem with Cohn on “Two Funky People” from the 1957 album Al And Zoot. He even sang once in a great while, with great enthusiasm if not a lot of chops, as on “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” at the end of Only A Rose. From the 1970s on, Sims frequently switched to soprano, and recorded one album entirely on the higher-pitched horn.

By the last decade of his life, even his tenor was sounding different. In the 1980s, Sims widened his vibrato and added something more like the sound of Ben Webster to the mix. He had always had a warm, tender sound on his tenor, especially on ballads, but now it was even sweeter and more emotional.

Sims, whose name was borrowed by The Muppets for their hipster saxophonist character, was also the inspiration for “Zoot Walked In,” a tune by songwriter Dave Frishberg, which was based on Sims’s melody “Red Door.” Frishberg, who worked frequently with Sims and Cohn in New York in the 1960s, described Sims’s saxophone tone as “a happy kind of sadness, with a touch of tenor madness.”

Sims’s late tenor sound was a direct inspiration for a later generation of mainstream tenor players like Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen. His last album was a two-tenor tryst with Hamilton, recorded in Sweden.

Zoot Sims died of cancer at age 59 on March 23, 1985. After many years of playing frequently at the New York’s Half Note, when that club closed, he was a regular at The Blue Note during the first few years of its existence. The last time I saw him was at a special event honoring him as part of New York’s long-running Highlights In Jazz concert series. After producer Jack Kleinsinger presented him with an award in the form of a plaque, made a speech about how great he was, Sims turned to the crowd and said, “This is a good gig.”

Contributor: Will Friedwald