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Sonny Stitt: the early years, 1941-1952

During which the saxophonist's efforts to avoid the long shadow of Charlie Parker helped broaden his instrumental palette

Known as the “Lone Wolf”, Sonny Stitt was constantly moving from town to town and city to city, attempting to find common cause with whatever local rhythm section was available. In his Jazz Masters Of The Forties Ira Gitler said: “The complaint against the trios that backed him on his stops all over the map was that they were afraid of playing with him. By the time relaxation and confidence set in he would be off to another town”.

Pianist Dolo Coker, who worked with him in the 50s, said Stitt liked to invite musicians to sit in. “He really tested your mettle. He’d call a blues and then run it through all 12 keys. It really was a challenge to play with him on any instrument, period”. Even though Stan Getz was a close friend he felt the same way: “Sonny doesn’t let you rest. You’ve got to work hard or you’ll be left at the starting gate”.

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Mose Allison might have been thinking of Sonny Stitt when he recorded his hymn to touring jazz musicians – Ask Me Nice – in 1961:

I just got here day ’fore yesterday
It won’t be long and I’ll be on my way
For these few days that I’ll be ’round
Please don’t try to bring me down
I made my entrance on the Greyhound bus
I don’t intend to cause a fuss
If you like my style, that’s fine with me and if you don’t just let me be 

Edward Boatner Jr. (his name-change occurred a little later) was born in Boston, 2 February 1924. It was a musical and religious household but a few years later his parents divorced and after his mother married Robert Stitt, Edward became known as Sonny Stitt. He studied the piano and clarinet and had saxophone lessons from Big Nick Nicholas who later sat in Tiny Bradshaw’s sax section with him.

Wardell Gray was another of his tutors. His early instrumental influences at that time were Rudy Williams and Benny Goodman. The Stitts were living in Saginaw, Michigan and both Nicholas and Gray often stayed in the Stitt home when they worked locally because Saginaw’s only hotel did not accommodate African-Americans.

One of his colleagues with the Collegians was trumpeter Willie Cook, who went on to play with Duke Ellington for years. He once said: ‘At that time Sonny Stitt played like Johnny Hodges when he was drinking and like Benny Carter when he wasn’t’.

Around 1941/42 he started working with Thad Jones in Saginaw and Detroit as well as Newark, New Jersey. He toured with the Bama State Collegians and reached New York with them where he started sitting in at 52nd St clubs as well as Minton’s Playhouse. While in the city he lived for a while with Bud Powell and his mother.

One of his colleagues with the Collegians was trumpeter Willie Cook who went on to play with Duke Ellington for years. He once said: “At that time Sonny Stitt played like Johnny Hodges when he was drinking and like Benny Carter when he wasn’t”.

Thanks both to a vacancy caused by the US military draft and a recommendation from his friend Big Nick Nicholas, he joined the Tiny Bradshaw band in 1943, touring the mid-west. In Kansas City he famously met Charlie Parker for the first time. He had been very impressed by Parker’s recordings with Jay McShann and he told Robert Reisner: “He invited me right then and there to go and jam with him at the Gypsy Tea Room”. After about an hour Parker said “You sound just like me”.

In January 1945 he was invited to join the trail-blazing Billy Eckstine band in the alto chair that Charlie Parker had occupied the previous year. He was in a section that included John Jackson, Dexter Gordon and Leo Parker a group that became known as “The Unholy Four”, possibly because of their extramusical activities. Jackson is a somewhat forgotten figure now but he was a well-respected lead alto man at the time.

Gordon told Ira Gitler: “The band was a little rough. I thought the reed section was the best – the most cohesive and most together … Sonny sounded like a whirlwind then. We’d all hang out together. We were so full of tempestuous youth that things didn’t always go too smoothly”.

Early in 1946 Dizzy Gillespie had returned from the West Coast and took up a residency at New York’s Spotlite club with Leo Parker, Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown and Stan Levey. In May that year Dizzy’s sextet with Stitt replacing Parker and Kenny Clarke taking over from Roach recorded One Bass Hit, Oop Bop Sh’bam (which became something of a bebop hit), A Handfulla Gimme and That’s Earl Brother for the Musicraft label.

These represented Stitt’s first recorded solos and it has to be said that anyone taking a blindfold test would be forgiven if they thought they were listening to Charlie Parker. Around that time Stitt also worked for about three months with Gillespie’s big band at the Spotlite.

In 1947 Stitt won the Esquire Award as the New Star on alto (Charlie Parker had won the previous year). He also appeared at New York’s Lincoln Centre in a concert with Parker, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Max Roach and many other stars of the new music.

It was around this time that his heroin addiction led to the loss of his cabaret card, making it illegal for him to work in New York nightclubs. (He was unable to work regularly in clubs there until the early 60s). He moved to Chicago for a while and worked with Gene Ammons, who was enjoying success with his popular Red Top single which was often played on jukeboxes in the town. They also appeared on Dave Garroway’s radio show.

Stitt occasionally played at dances with the 19-year-old Johnny Griffin before leaving for Detroit where he appeared at the El Sino club with Parker and Miles Davis.

Early in 1948 Stitt was arrested on narcotic-related charges and sentenced to two years at the Public Health Facility at Lexington, Kentucky. Many other jazz musicians had been incarcerated there over the years, including Red Rodney, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Tadd Dameron and Elvin Jones.

Steve Race, who should have known better, was quoted in a 1965 Crescendo interview saying ‘Stitt had given up all pretence of individuality. He should stop playing Parker and [go] back to playing Stitt’. It is difficult to understand why he attracted such opprobrium

Lexington had a very liberal approach to drug rehabilitation because inmates were given instruments and encouraged to practice for several hours each day. While there he missed the possibility of playing with the Miles Davis nonet on the historically important sessions that became known as the Birth Of The Cool. Miles apparently wanted him but Lee Konitz was selected because he had already shown in his work with Claude Thornhill that he would be the ideal choice on alto.

He left prison in October 1949 and for the next three years he recorded almost exclusively on tenor. This might have been because of the way he had been dismissed by some critics as essentially a Parker copyist on alto. Even many years later the jazz press could be quite brutal. Steve Race, who should have known better, was quoted in a 1965 Crescendo interview saying “Stitt had given up all pretence of individuality. He should stop playing Parker and [go] back to playing Stitt”.

It is difficult to understand why he attracted such opprobrium unless it was because he got closer to the master than just about anyone else. Very few managed to escape the almost overwhelming influence of Parker’s genius. (Lee Konitz, Art Pepper and Paul Desmond were three performers who managed to create their own highly individual voice at the time.)

Just as an aside, when Gene Quill was leaving the stand one night at Birdland many years later a customer accused him of “Just imitating Charlie Parker”. Gene handed him his alto and said, “Here, you imitate Charlie Parker!”

On 7 October Stitt played a week at New York’s Orchid Club (formerly the Onyx) with Wardell Gray, Tadd Dameron, Gene Ramey and Charlie Perry. They worked opposite Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Nelson Boyd and Roy Haynes and during the engagement both groups often combined their personnels.

His first recording session on tenor took place a few days after he closed at the Orchid on a J.J. Johnson date with John Lewis, Nelson Boyd and Max Roach. His sound is close to Lester Young’s by way of Wardell Gray and this was the session that introduced the pianist’s delightful Afternoon In Paris. On 24 December 1949 he appeared at Carnegie Hall in an all-star group with Miles Davis, Bennie Green, Serge Chaloff, Bud Powell, Curly Russell and Max Roach which was hosted by Symphony Sid.

Early in 1950 he formed a group with Gene Ammons. Two tenors standing toe-to-toe is one of the most exciting sounds in small-group jazz and their heady mix of bebop and R&B proved to be hugely popular. According to Prestige owner Bob Weinstock they played “A circuit of small black joints not real jazz clubs but not R’n’B rooms either”. In March that year they recorded their celebrated Blues Up And Down with its series of uninhibited exchanges which was a minor hit and became their calling-card for the next two years.

In 1954 Gravy was renamed Walkin’ on a famous Miles Davis album with J.J. Johnson and Lucky Thompson and credited to the infamous Richard Carpenter

The following month they recorded Jimmy Mundy’s Gravy with Stitt switching to baritone and Bill Massey and Bennie Green added on trumpet and trombone respectively. In 1954 Gravy was renamed Walkin’ on a famous Miles Davis album with J.J. Johnson and Lucky Thompson and credited to the infamous Richard Carpenter. Writer James Gavin has pointed out that Carpenter’s speciality was persuading musicians to surrender their rights to originals and record royalties to him.

Sonny Stitt, who was managed by Carpenter for a time (as were Gene Ammons, Jimmy Mundy, Chet Baker, Lester Young and Tadd Dameron), once told Phil Urso when he was working with Chet Baker, “Richard Carpenter’s a motherfucker – don’t go near that guy, he’ll burn you”. In 1953 Stitt’s relationship with Carpenter eventually ended up in the courts over unpaid commissions.

Although Stitt was concentrating on tenor he also played baritone here and there with a powerful sound and concept reminiscent of the great Leo Parker. It’s a pity he did not pursue an interest in the instrument because he clearly would have become a major voice on the baritone just as he was on the alto and tenor.

Good examples of his work on the big horn can be found on his 1950 recording of Cha-Bootie with Gene Ammons and a year later on This Can’t Be Love, and PS I Love You with Charlie Bateman. It is a little outside the time-frame of this article but I can’t ignore One O’Clock Jump, Tri-Tone Bloos and Baritone Blues, recorded at Boston’s Hi Hat club in 1954 with what seems to be a local rhythm section. It was one of the few occasions when he had all three of his instruments onstage with him and it seems to be the last time he recorded on the baritone saxophone.

When not on the road with Gene Ammons, Stitt recorded prolifically between 1950 and 1952 in a quartet setting with stellar New York-based pianists such as Kenny Drew, Junior Mance and Duke Jordan and did a particularly notable date with Bud Powell which resulted in a stunning All God’s Chillum Got Rhythm.

These sessions were mostly on tenor but there was one occasion when he had to borrow an alto from none other than Ira Gitler. On the JazzWax blog Gitler told Marc Myers: “I remember Sonny’s Imagination session in 1950. Bob Weinstock told me that Stitt was having trouble with his alto and asked me to bring mine to the date.

“I was apprehensive about lending it to Stitt. Sonny had a reputation for disappearing with other people’s instruments and hocking them for cash. I didn’t mind since I was going to be there and could keep an eye on it. Sonny took my horn and recorded Imagination and Cherokee flawlessly on it”.

Stitt’s last 1952 recording on tenor was an album titled Symphony Hall Swing with Fletcher Peck, John Simmons and Jo Jones. Symphony Hall Swing bears a strong resemblance to Thelonious Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ning.

A slight change in musical emphasis for Sonny Stitt began in 1953. Prior to his incarceration at Lexington in 1949 he performed on alto saxophone exclusively. On his release and in an effort to avoid constant comparison with Charlie Parker the tenor became his primary instrument of choice. From 1953 however and until the end of his career he successfully doubled on both, not only in the studios but also on his constant touring from club to club and town to town.

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