Sonny Criss retrospective (AAN first-place award feature), 1997

LA Weekly, 3/97
The Fast Man Stopped
by Greg Burk

A saxophone player was found dead in his Central Los Angeles apartment one Saturday morning in 1977. The police, used to dealing with deceased musicians, didn’t blink. They might have noted one deviation from the usual: this one hadn’t overdosed or taken a bullet from a jealous husband; he had shot himself.

The world sailed on. The >L.A. Times> carried no obituary. The initial word from family was that the death was an accident -- “cleaning his gun,” you know -- and that’s what his friends wanted to believe.

The whole thing was quiet, very quiet. Sonny Criss, born William Mansfield Turner in 1927, had been quiet too, almost silent, in a way that some found a little forbidding. But he had been fairly famous for a time.

Just a couple of nights before, he had seemed to be on an up. Hanging with friends at that same apartment, he had spun records and talked about his recent signing with a respected record label and his imminent tour of Japan, where the mayor of Tokyo was to meet him at the airport. There had been some bad years, but maybe now they were past.

Such things happen. Artistic types spend a lot of time around the edge, and sometimes they jump off: Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Jack London, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, the list goes on. Musicians often choose to do it randomly, with the needle and the bottle. Not always. Phil Ochs and Roy Buchanan chose the rope. Ian Curtis, too: when his Joy Division bandmates came to collect their singer for the Manchester gloom group’s first U.S. visit in 1980, they found him hanged. Sometimes a person can’t take the pressure of a life turnaround, the thought of the new expectations people will have. Criss was 50, though, and he’d been up and down before. Midlife crisis? News of a terminal illness? Sudden despair? Criss had already outlived many of his peers; no one thought he’d go this way.

What killed Sonny Criss? The question has an answer, though not a simple one. You can hear it in the music he made over a period of more than 30 years of Alpine highs and pavement lows, because Criss was an artist, maybe a great one. When an artist makes music, you hear more than a tune; you hear who he is, the heaven and hell of his life. And if he’s good enough, you hear yourself, too.

1978 might have been the year Criss got his chance, the kind Jimmy Scott or Art Pepper got when they had been ignored for years and were no longer young: the chance to reach a new audience, write a book, get their mugs in the glossies. As it happens, though, odds are he will remain an obscure name in an art full of more famous saxophone Sonnys like Rollins and Stitt. Some will recall that fellow altoist Ornette Coleman called him “the fastest man alive.” But few know that the kid who was merely fast in the ‘40s grew into a subtle jazz interpreter, an original instrumental voice and a lonely flame keeper of the real blues.

By the ‘60s, after cool jazz and samba and Elvis and the Beatles, who wanted to know? And where was the Colonel Tom Parker or Albert Grossman or Clive Davis to promote Criss’ message? He always seemed to strike out with that. In large print across the top of one of his ‘60s albums runs the banner, “Here is an alto saxophonist whose consumate artistry approaches perfection.” The word >consummate> is misspelled.


If not for Criss’ mature work, it would be easy to write him off as another bebop saxist who never fought his way out of Charlie Parker’s shadow. It was dark in that shadow: he actually used to serve as Bird’s informal chauffeur when Parker was in L.A. in the late ’40s. “I had a little ‘29 Ford at the time,” says Criss’ 86-year-old mother, Lucy Bell Criss, “and [jazz producer] Norman Granz I guess assigned Sonny to keep up with him. But he couldn’t keep up with that man.”

He tried. Both were regulars on L.A.’s burning after-hours scene. Roy Porter, who drummed on some of Parker’s landmark 1946 L.A. sides, describes what a typical night might have been like. “Say . . . Howard McGhee’s band. We played the Down Beat. For a while there, they had the [WWII] blackout -- we’d work from 8:30, 9:30, till 12:30. After hours we’d go to Jack’s Basket Room, which was at 33rd and Central. Chuck Thompson was the other drummer at that time that was doin’ it. It’d be Dexter Gordon; Sonny; Hampton Hawes on piano; Clarence Jones on bass; Willie Wells, a trumpet player people don’t even know anything about; Billy Smith, a saxophone player -- a lot of people would congregate there, jam from 12:30, 1 o’clock. You’d bring your own. The police didn’t want it, but they knew it was happening. Tom Bradley was a foot patrolman, coming out to all the clubs. It had a high bandstand, tables, it was bigger. And the main feature was chicken, they called it bird-in-a-basket. People would just come in, bring their horns and play, be drinking. Smoke-filled room, dark.”

Jack’s was just one of dozens of rooms in Los Angeles where music was a fever dream in the ‘40s. Swing, bebop, R&B, dance, comedy, all were rattling off each other like uranium atoms, often all on the same bill. The scene was hottest in the black reactor chamber of Central Avenue, but swept all the way up to Hollywood and over to the Westside, exploding in the war years 1943 to 1946, fueled by the loose pay of drunk and hungry soldiers and sailors on leave.

Criss was there. Only 18 when he met Parker, he got tight with the tiny clique of musicians who were creating the hippest, newest, craziest sound on the planet, and he quickly picked up booze and drug habits that would dog him all his life. He teamed with Parker sidemen like the bomb-dropping Porter, trumpeter McGhee (whom Porter credits as the first to spring bebop on the West Coast), and Dodo Marmarosa, a pianist who inserted dissonances like daggers. Criss waxed his own breakdowns of Parker-associated bop standards like the Gershwin ballad “The Man I Love,” as well as bop grand vizier Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” and Parker’s own “Ornithology.” A typical 1947 Criss solo, as on the Gillespie tune “Bebop,” could find him stringing out endless lines full of the new bop harmonies, but sometimes exhausting his inspiration and recycling trick trills copped from the late era of swing. He could outrun the devil for sheer speed, but tended to lose his bookmark, stray from the rhythm.

He soon outgrew his teenage feet. A 1952 recording of Parker, Criss and Chet Baker at L.A.’s Trade Winds finds Criss formidable. Blowing open Tadd Dameron’s “The Squirrel” with a devastating cascade of clean, quick descending arpeggios, Criss sounds as if he spent a month in a closet perfecting a solo that could cut his idol. He spirals into a few repeats and fluffs, but the length, imagination, smoothness and confidence of his phrases, along with a full vocabulary of street blues, make him a match for Parker on this particular day, though Bird, blurry, fragmented and weird, isn’t having one of his best.

Criss and Parker had a number of things in common besides the alto sax. Parker’s father hailed from Memphis, where Criss was born. Both Parker’s father and Criss’ father-in-law, who married Criss’ mother when Sonny was 9 months old, were postcard parents who worked as cooks on the railroad. Both mothers doted heavily on their only sons. Parker married (soon separating) at 16, Criss at 17. Both had bad stomachs, which they self-medicated with alcohol and heroin.

And for a while, it looked as though Criss, like Parker, would be a star. A teenage phenom, he abandoned an integrated West L.A. high school so he could study with the great jazz teacher Sam Browne at Jefferson High. Shortly after he met Parker, Bird esteemed him enough to include him in an expanded version of his L.A. band. By age 21, Criss was touring with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, the most visible gig a jazzman could get. Hear him on a 1949 New York track from Granz’s >The Jazz Scene>: Criss bursts from the mellow environs of tenor saxist Flip Phillips’ “Swingin’ With Julie and Brownie” like the Terminator, firing off a controlled, considered but charged solo that sounds like a bop obituary for the swing form he was supposed to be cozying. On an L.A. session as a leader for Granz later that year with his homeboy pianist Hampton Hawes, he has sufficient hubris to tackle Denzil Best’s bop raver “Wee,” retitle it “Tornado” and credit its authorship to himself; indeed, his twistering, zinging, elongated lines leave no room to think about anyone else. (In 1967 he would cut an inferior, squeaky version and return attribution to its creator.) And in a live 1950 recording of Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” at L.A.’s Hula Hut Club alongside tenor man Wardell Gray, he compresses and expands the Bird blues at will, alternately dozing and cranking up to blurs of excruciating speed.

And that’s about when Granz terminated him. “He was carried too fast and dropped too quick,” says Lucy Bell Criss. “He was with Jazz at the Philharmonic two, three years, and then Norman Granz just dropped him. That’s hard for a young man.” Criss toured with singer Billy Eckstine in 1951, then retreated to L.A.


New York may be a lonely town when you’re the only surfer boy around, but Los Angeles is just as lonely when you’re the only bebopper, and the L.A. stock was running thin. Hawes was drafted in 1953, and was soon tossed in the stockade. Tenor great Dexter Gordon spent a chunk of the ‘50s in the slam for drug beefs, as did rising altoist Frank Morgan and early bop drummer Porter. Somebody broke Wardell Gray’s neck in 1955. Pianist Carl Perkins’ liver gave out in 1958.

The miraculous Central Avenue explosion of the ‘40s was an echo; by 1955, when Parker burned out in a baroness’ Manhattan flat, bebop was ash. Jazz in general had faded. The big bands of Count Basie, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw shrank as dancers stowed their shoes to lounge homeside with their hi-fis and idiot boxes. The postwar jazz mainspring that drove the tight black sound of bop unwound into the white modes of Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck.

Sonny Criss was home with Mom. Lucy Bell Criss ruled her family, managing her husband’s middle-class income and later owning a dress shop on Crenshaw Boulevard. A lifetime lover of the blues, she never cottoned to bebop. “I didn’t understand it. It weren’t nothin’,” she says. “One Sunday we went somewhere out on the Westside to hear Charlie Parker, and Sonny was playing with him. I was so disgusted, I was glad when we left.”

According to his mother, “Sonny was a spoiled boy. He didn’t even know how to buy a pair of shoes. I taken care of everything.” Her providence was fortunate, since Sonny’s rare bop dates and occasional strip-club gigs couldn’t have paid the bills.

This is not a new story. Noticed or not, women almost always play decisive roles in male musicians’ careers. Louis Armstrong’s second wife, pianist Lil Hardin, prodded the trumpeter away from King Oliver’s band toward headliner status. When John Coltrane resolved to kick heroin, he did it with the help of his wife, Naima, by locking himself in a bedroom at his mother’s house. Miles Davis got money from prostitutes to buy the junk that kept him together enough to play. While mothers, wives and working girls rarely showed up on jazz bandstands, the rent often spilled from their pocketbooks. “You ain’t got no money, you can’t be mine,” sang guitarist Tiny Grimes in 1944, and Charlie Parker, fresh on his first New York studio date, concurred in obbligato. There’s a gag that’s common even today, funny only because it’s true: Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless.

The roof, clothes and car Sonny Criss got from his mother -- not to mention her guardianship of his son from birth -- may have meant he didn’t have to deal, steal or pimp, but he also didn’t need to push his career. Though the only remaining embers of bebop were in New York, he decided not to migrate; from 1952 to 1955, he was lost in Los Angeles. He toured with Stan Kenton’s Jazz Showcase in 1955, appeared on the >Stars of Jazz> TV show in 1957, and was spotlighted with Buddy Rich’s touring band through the late ‘50s. But the few LPs he managed to record under his own name between 1956 and 1959 for the tiny Imperial and Peacock labels were rare then, and they’re rare now. He remained invisible.

Which was a matter of fashion, not just lack of ambition. The times leaned toward R&B, a form Criss considered undignified and simplistic, though many former boppers, including his old friend saxist “Big Jay” McNeeley, were rolling on their backs and honking their heads off. Criss was not interested in musical fashion, he was interested in form -- in creating a style of his own, one that could endure. He succeeded.

To get out from under Parker, Criss had to jettison bebop’s mannerisms: in place of jagged, unpredictable phrasing, he substituted silky, rippling lines; instead of harsh harmonic adventures, he would stick more closely to the mother tongue -- the blues. Criss could turn anything into a blues, and did.

Bebop had complicated and schematized the blues; Criss went back to the source with his bends, slurs and easy swing. And it was real. But no one had ever played the blues like this. When Parker did, it sounded like a genius triumphing over his pain -- and the pain was there, if you listened. With Criss, you heard the guts and the struggle of the blues, smoothed over with an obsessive, masterful refinement. “Sonny Criss was like the Shadow,” Ornette Coleman, who shared many a jam session with him, has said. “He was a master saxophonist. He played very, very beautifully.” And no pain. Scars, yes, but Criss made you think, with that incredible speed and technique, that he couldn’t be hurt.

This victory of art over emotion was a prize that could appear, to a black American accustomed to stifling himself in the face of diurnal contempt, worth battling for, and it was a goal close to the ideal of bop. Criss once said Gene Ammons was his favorite saxophonist. But Ammons, however controlled he was, could pour out a bucketful of love and hurt, and audiences connected with that. In 1956, 1957 and 1958, when Criss played “Summertime,” “Willow Weep for Me” or “Softly in a Morning Sunrise,” you could wonder where the songs’ original content went; he made them into vehicles for his virtuosity. You heard pride and strength; emotion, it seemed, was equivalent to weakness. At the same time, when Criss paid tribute to fellow altoist Johnny Hodges on the Duke Ellington standard “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” you could be surprised by his simple human warmth. But he was still changing.

One change Criss made had been a long time coming: he got the hell out of Los Angeles. Following a path blazed by drummer Kenny Clarke and subsequently trodden by numerous discontented American jazzmen including Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon, he moved to a cultural hub where people still took their music seriously: Paris. Players went there, and they liked it, and they stayed for years, but they nearly all moved back, and Criss was no exception.

He had work and appreciation in Europe, living in Paris for most of a five-year period and even receiving his mother for a two-week visit. But there’s nothing like home cooking. And you never feel you’ve made it until they know you in your homeland. Criss returned in 1965.


He was just in time for the Watts riots. His old friend Hawes relates a telling bit in his autobiography, >Raise Up off Me>:

I called Sonny Criss who lived at 103rd and Central, in the heart of it, and asked him what happened. He said, “I took a fifth of whiskey out to my lawn, sat down and started drinking and laughing. Felt like Nero. Wanted to get out my horn and blow. When I finished the bottle it was dawn, everything was down to the ground and smoking like when you were a kid watching the mist come off a lake.”

Criss recorded a superb five-song demo with Hawes that year, which, strangely, he seems never to have circulated much. But he didn’t need to. In 1966, producer Don Schlitten of Prestige Records, long a Criss admirer, signed him to the label, for which the saxist made several excellent albums through 1969. Around ‘68, when he should have been feeling optimistic, Criss gave Schlitten an acetate of the ‘65 demo. “You can probably use it in a memorial album someday,” he said. In 1984, Schlitten did.

Criss’ music from the late ‘60s is remarkably fine and sometimes frighteningly schizoid. The warmth he’d hinted at in the late ‘50s now spreads throughout his recordings, the work of a mature adult, a professional secure in his ability. But he still won’t let his listeners inside. The titles from side one of his first Prestige album promise to tell a lot about the lifelong alcoholic. But the blues “Black Coffee” is the most laid-back caffeine you’ll ever hear, though it winds through a number of surprising changes. “When Sunny Gets Blue” is actually buoyant. And his reading of the bittersweet alkie anthem “Days of Wine and Roses” is so fast and hard-driving, it might as well be “Strike Up the Band.” Nothing is revealed.

One song from 1967 says as much about Criss as anything he ever did; it’s “Smile”: “Smile, though your heart is breaking.” He begins it alone, slow and drenched with despair, his tone fog-gray. Then he >crashes> into the mood with one quadruple-time intrusion, then another and another. The rest of the quartet steps in, and before long he’s positively swaggering. If you hadn’t heard the intro, you might buy the bravado. But you did, so this smile wouldn’t fool a baby. Does he intend to deceive? Or is he just saying, directly for once, “That was me, hurting. And now I’m going to put on my mask. Which do you prefer?”


Horace Tapscott, the composer, bandleader, roiling pianist and fellow L.A. stay-at-home, became a healthy influence in Criss’ life. “Sonny always had that frown on his face -- you know, bugged,” says Tapscott. “Still, something would happen, and he’d break off into a beautiful smile.”

The two had met while teenagers, and now they developed a close friendship and professional association, Criss playing in Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra; Tapscott writing, arranging and conducting the music for Criss’ 1968 >Sonny’s Dream (Birth of the New Cool)>, a remarkable effort by a 10-man orchestra featuring an all-star roster of players such as saxists Teddy Edwards and Pete Christlieb, trumpeter Conte Candoli, bassist Al McKibbon and pianist Tommy Flanagan. The parenthetical subtitle, probably a record-company stab at stealing the fire from the already obsolete West Coast cool school, was not only out of date but inappropriate for this stormy, adventurous work. Tapscott’s music ranges from a couple of tuneful waltzes to a Cochise tribute, all layered with shivering dissonances and a dense low end, most impressively on the bagpipey strongman strut of “The Black Apostles.” Some of >Sonny’s Dream> seems underrealized, maybe due to the challenge of getting so many notables together for rehearsal, and Criss himself, though he solos brilliantly, a few times sounds out of tune with the rest of the band, as if he had to overdub his parts separately. Still, this is fresh stuff in a format one can only wish Criss and Tapscott could have documented further.

Despite maintaining consistent levels of a crystalline blues perception that could make you squint with its intensity, Criss remained a mediocre seller for Prestige and was dropped in 1969. His alcoholism had reached a point where, former barmate Roy Porter says, “I sat there and cried with him.”

“Drugs, he done ‘em all,” his mother says. “Drugs, drink. I put him in a sanitarium four times. And he’d get out and he’d stay straight for about a year or two, and something would trigger it.”

But with Tapscott’s help, Criss tried to pull out of it. On the wall of his mother’s parlor, adjacent to a bar stocked with decanters of vodka, gin, bourbon, scotch, vermouth and cognac, are displayed a pair of framed certificates inscribed to Sonny Criss from the Presidential Program in Alcoholism Counseling Training at UC Santa Cruz.

Criss fought his own afflictions, so his voice as an alcoholism counselor was the voice of experience. People listened, and he expanded his second calling. Criss and Tapscott were taken on as helpers by community activist Mary Henry, who founded programs for L.A. inner-city children “before it became something fashionable,” says Tapscott. “Sonny enjoyed that quite a bit, with the youngsters asking him all those questions. His contribution was, he gave them a chance to feel better about themselves. He was teaching music, but it was more or less about the experience of the African-American musician in this country, and why he wasn’t recognized. People should be recognized by the community first, Mary Henry said. She gave Sonny a shot to get himself together in the community by just going around to different areas and playing and introducing himself, and bringing people closer. There were really some great moments doing that.”

“It had to do with us saying that, during the days of segregation, when the black Musicians Union was over there on Central Avenue, music was a real high part of the community -- people really respected us. And we went on to explain how the music that the African-American was playing was unlawful at certain times of the night. They still had those racist laws, where they were off into their thing about drums turning people’s mind, and all that kind of BS. They used to call it ‘that voodoo music.’ That’s what we used to be known as -- voodoo musicians.”

From the evidence of his 1975 dates for the small Muse and Xanadu labels, Criss never played better than in the last years of his life. Before, he often seemed to have a secret agenda he didn’t want to reveal, his aloofness verging on defiance. It’s not that middle age brought resignation; there’s a difference between resignation and acceptance. Acceptance means you know the score but you haven’t given up. That’s the quality he displays in 1975: he’s an artist who’s willing to be an entertainer, and can do that without surrendering the transcendent ideal he worked so hard to achieve. He’s warm. He’s not above you. He shares -- not his essence, which he always kept private, but his ideal. He lilts a couple of lovely Tapscott pieces. He performs the Aretha Franklin/Nancy Wilson vehicle “All Night Long” with a slow-burning soul of his own. He offers a couple of clean, distant bows to his Parker roots. And the last song of the last album he made for Muse is a mature, perfect 120 mph reprise of the first number he recorded under his own name, 26 years earlier. The retrospective self-tribute was released about a year before he died. It’s called “The First One.”

That would have been a good capstone to Criss’ career. But in 1976 he got a chance to record for Impulse, the label that had nurtured John Coltrane’s most searing explorations in the previous decade, and he took it. This was not, however, the Impulse of 1965. Coltrane had been dead for a decade, and just as bebop had withered with the passing of Parker, the jazz avant-garde barely survived the passing of its avatar. Jazz in the mid-’70s meant Weather Report and Tom Scott.

Criss made two albums for Impulse, and they’re the only compromised work he ever put his name to. Homogenized funky fusion arrangements (with strings!), pop covers, Lee Ritenour on guitar -- while Criss was desperate enough for recognition to give this journeyman contemporary music a whack, it must have felt like artistic crucifixion. In one of the all-time cases of the tail wagging the dog, Impulse was trying to transform Sonny Criss into Dave Sanborn. In 1977, Criss hit the racks with the Impulse album smarmily titled >The Joy of Sax>, whose cover featured a photo of a wizened Criss lewdly fondling his alto. Possibly indicating where his thoughts were wandering, side two featured the Stevie Wonder tune “Have a Talk With God.”


Tenor saxist Teddy Edwards, a bebop originator and one of the few perennials who stuck it out in L.A. through the lean times, was a close friend to Sonny Criss for many years. Criss had once saved Edwards’ life -- a timely call to paramedics kept Edwards from bleeding to death when a stomach ulcer hemorrhaged. Edwards visited Criss the Wednesday before the fatal Friday in 1977. There was no hint of despondency, but Edwards remembers, “He had that pistol out on the mantel.” On Thursday, Tapscott and a number of friends were at the apartment for a get-together in Sonny’s honor.

On Friday afternoon, Criss got drunk and smashed up his Mercedes. At dusk, Edwards knocked at Criss’ place and got no answer. In the late evening, Criss answered the door to his mother. “I came by his house every day,” says Lucy Bell Criss. “I had just come by there, and he told me he had a wreck with a man.” On the spot as always, she followed his suggestion and went to pay the other driver $1,000 to keep the police out of it. She returned to her son with news of the accomplished mission, and afterward walked out to the street.

What she remembers happening next must be filtered through the haze of years and the trauma of a fearful day relived 10,000 times. “He shot himself,” she says. “I heard it. I was just leaving, but I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know where it was coming from, it could have been in the building next door.”

On Saturday morning, November 19, 1977, Lucy Bell Criss called her cousin, a woman who lived next door, to check on her son. She found him dead. The coroner’s report lists a blood ethanol level of .24 percent, three times the level now allowable for driving, but no barbiturates. The body had needle marks, but they were old, none fresh. The self-inflicted fatal shot came from a small-caliber weapon, a 6.35mm Beretta. No note was found.

The memory still brings tears to his mother’s eyes. “It’s just as fresh today as it was 20 years ago,” she says. “I go to the graveyard four or five times a year with flowers. I only had but that one child. And we were very, very close. We were like brother and sister. He could talk to me about anything, he didn’t care what it was.”

Lucy Bell Criss believes her son was depressed over a stomach condition. Edwards confirms, “He told me he was going to have the same kind of operation I had had, and he was kind of scared of it.”

Tapscott minimizes it. “He had been sick, of course, but all the cats at the time had some kind of cancer. Stomach or prostate mostly. But he never mentioned that much about it.”

“He had cancer of the stomach,” Lucy Bell Criss says. “He didn’t tell me. I didn’t know it until about six months after he was gone. He told some friends. They knew and they didn’t tell me, and they were my customers.”

As with the sound of the gunshot, it’s hard to know what’s real. “The doctor’s name was on the nightstand, and ‘stomach cancer,’” says Lucille Criss. “And it still never registered with me.” But is this the kind of thing you have to write down? And why did Criss pick that moment, on the eve of success?

Criss was at risk of suicide from a number of angles. He was alcoholic, he was often depressed, he lived alone, he may have been sick. Each factor increases the statistical likelihood. His stepfather, to whom he had finally become close, had died two years previous. His close friend Hampton Hawes had died of a cerebral hemorrhage in May.

At exactly what moment do melancholy and helplessness bury hope and art? Who’s to blame? Sonny Criss didn’t point the gun at any record producer, booking agent, family member or acquaintance. He turned it in the other direction. And he didn’t point it at his head, the creative engine and seat of reason that had always been his protection. Protection from a hostile world, yes. But especially, he’d had to guard against the closest enemy: that beating, breaking traitor inside his chest, that human flaw, that symbolic source of a pain he couldn’t show.

And that’s where he pointed the gun.