Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Stitt, Sonny (Edward)

Saxophonist Sonny Stitt combined bebop, blues, and swing into a sound that took chances. A versatile player of alto, baritone and tenor saxophones, he expanded the bebop lexicon pioneered by Charlie "Bird" Parker, and his single-minded devotion to progress in jazz earned him the nickname “Lone Wolf.”

While Stitt’s articulation, phrasing, and technique share evident similarities to the ones used Parker on the alto saxophone, it is unfair to consider Sonny a mere imitator of Bird. Building on Parker's innovations, Stitt adapted them to the baritone and tenor saxophones. In doing this, he expanded his own harmonic knowledge, and this expanded palette of timbres and harmonic resources ultimately enabled him to establish an instrumental voice which was entirely his own.

Edward “Sonny” Stitt was born on February 2, 1924 in Boston, Massachusetts. Sonny’s father Edward was a music professor who held positions at Wiley College and Sam Houston State University and his mother was a music teacher who played the piano and organ. Sonny’s brother Clifford was a classical pianist and his sister Adelaide was a singer who performed in the Broadway shows Jamaica, Too Late the Phalarope and Show Boat.

Stitt spent his childhood in Saginaw, Michigan where his family considered music an essential part of life. At the age of seven, Sonny began to play the piano before switching to the clarinet. By the time he was fifteen years old, he was playing the alto saxophone after hearing Charlie Parker on a record by bandleader Jay McShann.

Initially, Sonny took lessons from “Big Nick” Nicholas, a local saxophonist and tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, who often stayed in his room when in town due to a lack of African-American hotels in the area. Prior to graduating from high school, he spent his summers touring in bands with Nicholas and trumpeter Thad Jones.

By 1942, Stitt was performing with pianist William “Sabby” Lewis in Boston before joining the Bama State Collegians. With the Bama State Collegians, Sonny journeyed to New York where he began to perform in jam sessions throughout the city. In July 1943, he began to perform in guitarist and bandleader Tiny Bradshaw’s big band.

While with Bradshaw, Sonny met Charlie Parker in Kansas City and the two men became friends, though their paths only occasionally crossed. Upon their first meeting, Parker said of Stitt’s playing “You play too much like me.” The two remained friends until Parker’s death in 1955, with Stitt being one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

In April 1944, Stitt performed with singer Billy Eckstine’s band, which included tenor saxophonists Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, drummer Art Blakey, (http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/blakey-art-arthur) and trumpeter Fats Navarro. Sonny continued his connection with bebop when he joined the sexted and big band led by rumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in March of 1946.

During this time, Stitt had become addicted to heroin and eventually had his cabaret card revoked, making him unable to perform in New York City nightclubs. Incapable of performing in New York City, Sonny went to Chicago where he performed in jam sessions with Ammons and trumpeter Miles Davis.

While in Chicago, Sonny performed with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin at the Pershing Ballroom. By the summer of 1947, he moved to Detroit where he performed with Parker, Davis and Gillespie. Sonny’s rampant addiction eventually caught up with him when he was convicted of selling narcotics and spent time in prison from 1948 to 1949.

Soon after, Sonny was permitted to return to New York City where he began to play tenor and baritone saxophone, initially to distance himself from the alto due to the constant comparison of his playing to Parker’s. In 1949, Sonny was performing with Ammons on a regular basis where he implemented his new tenor sound.

The same year, Stitt made his debut recording as a leader on the album All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm with pianist Bud Powell and trombonist J.J. Johnson. In December 1949, Stitt performed with Davis, Powell, bassist Curley Russell, drummer Max Roach, saxophonist Benny Green and baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff at Carnegie Hall.

From 1950 until 1951, Stitt and Ammons performed throughout New York, often at Birdland. In 1954, Sonny spent a short time in Los Angeles where he was a member of Roach’s and trumpeter Clifford Brown’s (http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/brown-clifford) quintet, but left before they had a chance to record.

In December 1957, Stitt performed on Gillespie’s album Sonny Side Up with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Tommy Bryant and drummer Charlie Persip.

Stitt’s compositions on this record included the song “The Eternal Triangle,” which proves to be one of the most exciting cuts on the record due to the dueling tenors of Stitt and Rollins. Rollins’ solo displays short and swift melodic bursts while Stitt’s solo showcases longer and more fluid phrasing. The duo’s added lines behind Gillespie’s solo enhances the solo while wishing you could hear them battle it out more. The effect of having the three horns play the melody is striking, creating a sheet of sound that is incredibly robust.

In 1958, Stitt toured through England with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. Two years later, he appeared in director Bert Stern’s film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a film documenting the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Stitt appears on screen with guitarist Sal Salvador where they perform “Loose Walk.”

In the late 1950s, Stitt began to incorporate Afro-Cuban jazz into his repertoire, recording with Thad Jones and pianist Chick Corea on Latin renditions of popular standards including “Autumn Leaves.”

In September 1960, he replaced tenor John Coltrane in Miles Davis’ quintet for a tour of Europe, and he remained with Davis until early 1961. Davis fired him due to his addictions and replaced him with saxophonist Hank Mobley. One highlight of his time with Davis was the 1960 recording of Live At Stockholm, which featured bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and pianist Wynton Kelly.

Stitt and Ammons continued their association with the recording of We’ll Be Together Again on August 26, 1961. The album wasn’t released until 1968 and featured pianist John Houston, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer George Brown. On the album’s title track, the two horns work off the ballad atmosphere by playing with a tender feel. Stitt easily translates bebop expressions into the ballad with Ammons supporting the harmonic foundation. Stitt perfectly satisfies the end with a coda that contains a dynamic and forceful line that perfectly executes the ending.

Stitt later joined a sextet with Johnson and trumpeter Clark Terry for a tour of Japan. In 1964, he recorded the album Soul People with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin. The album combines rhythm 'n' blues and gospel influences in a hard bop setting.

By 1966, Sonny began to tour throughout Europe on a more frequent basis, performing at festivals and at popular clubs such as the Gyllene Cirkeln (Golden Circle) in Stockholm. From 1971 until 1972, he was a member of the Giants of Jazz, an all-star group featuring Gillespie, Blakey, trombonist Kai Winding, pianist Thelonious Monk, and bassist Al McKibbon.

In 1972, Stitt recorded the album Tune-Up! on Muse Records. Featuring drummer Alan Dawson, pianist Barry Harris, and bassist Sam Jones, one highlight of the album is his rendition of the Gershwin standard “I Got Rhythm.” The track features Stitt performing two solos: one on alto and one on tenor.

Sonny’s alto solo on this track displays several Parkeresque devices such as extended lines and smooth phrasing, but the inclusion of Harris and Jones bring out a more aggressive resonance to the solo. His tenor solo relies on the same basic musical vocabulary, but in part because of the timbral difference between the two horns, it sounds like a departure from the Parker lexicon. Whichever horn he solos on, what is apparent is that one man has spent years developing a sophisticated harmonic language which he applies to both horns.

Stitt was able to pay tribute to his friend Charlie Parker in 1974 when he joined the New York Jazz Repertory Company in a show called The Musical Life of Charlie Parker. The show toured throughout Europe and featured saxophonist Cecil Payne.

Sonny continued to record prolifically throughout the 1970s, releasing In Walked Sonny in 1975, Moonlight In Vermont in 1977 and Sonny Stitt Meets Sadik Hakim in 1978. During the 1970s, Sonny found a great deal of work in Europe, performing at major jazz festivals such as the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.

Later in his life, Stitt performed with saxophonist James “Red” Holloway, recording the album Partners in January 1977. The duo often toured internationally where they were well received. Unfortunately, Stitt passed away from cancer on Thursday, July 22, 1982 at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C., at the age of fity-eight.

Select Discography

As a leader

All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm (1949)

Kaleidoscope (1950)

At The Hi-Hat (1954)

New York Jazz (1956)

Personal Appearance (1957)

Salt And Pepper (1963)

Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1965)

Tune-Up! (1972)

In Walked Sonny (1975)

Moonlight In Vermont (1977)

Sonny Stitt Meets Sadik Hakim (1978)

Sonny’s Back (1980)

With Gene Ammons

Boss Tenors in Orbit (1962)

We’ll Be Together Again (1968)

With Art Blakey

A Jazz Message (1963)

With Booker Ervin

Soul People (1964)

With Dizzy Gillespie

Sonny Side Up (1957)

With Red Holloway

Partners (1977)

Contributor: Eric Wendell