Sonny Simmons interview, 1997

LA Weekly, 7/97
by Greg Burk

“I was the most wanted and the most unwanted guy in the world,” relates saxist Sonny Simmons, tall, with hawk eyes always scanning. Wanted: for the transgressions of uncompromising art and militancy. (The way he talks about Jesse James, John Dillinger and Baby Face Morgan makes them sound like old sidemen.) Unwanted: He spent close to two decades on the street, mostly in San Francisco (“the home of homeless people, the worst place I’ve seen”), living in cardboard boxes, “playing for nickels and dimes, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year, constantly running, trying to survive. I loved the music so much that I wouldn’t do anything else, and I couldn’t sell out, because they didn’t want me anyway.”

Avant overblower Charles Gayle did the same in New York. Bebop tenor genius Lucky Thompson still has his own Mayflower crate in Seattle: “Society just destroyed his mind, like they do great artists in America.” It begins to look as if putting radical expression next to a saxophone results in some kind of perilous radiation. “Nuclear fission,” Simmons cracks, explaining the spring in his step after a 15-hour jaunt from Paris. “That’s what’s happenin’.”

Born in Louisiana in 1933, Simmons first got irradiated right here in L.A., where he became known in the early ’60s as the next guy with a plastic alto in the wake of Ornette Coleman. Simmons is quick to connect his early ax choice with bop forefather Charlie Parker, who indeed was known to blow the white horn on occasion. But the ‘60s, this city and Simmons’ sound all bring Coleman to mind. Both jazzmen were part of the “renaissance” -- Simmons likes the word -- that was leaving behind the strictures of bebop in favor of a free, conversational, chordless mode of improvisation.

Though he was first recognized here, Simmons can do without Los Angeles. “L.A. appealed to me in a few ways -- the sunshine -- other than that, I don’t really dig it. The music here is so-so, and they don’t have any regard for the avant-garde jazz scene.”

When I mention that Coleman told me the same thing a few months back, Simmons lights up: “All right, Ornette! We in tune!”

Simmons waxed his first album for Contemporary Records and a couple (now available again) for ESP-Disc; he says it was the former that sparked a 1963 call from another L.A. windman, the shattering Eric Dolphy, who was constructing a series of New York sessions with producer Alan Douglas. Simmons ended up playing on the nonet masterpiece “Burning Spear.” And he had written a Mexican jumping bean of a tune called “Music Matator” (erroneously co-credited to Prince Lasha). According to Simmons, Dolphy said, “I want to record that, Sonny, because it reminds me of home.”

The Dolphy tapes, often reissued over the years, are in some ways the pinnacle of Simmons’ brief visibility. He feels he was branded a menace and blackballed because of inflammatory statements he made in the liner notes to his 1970 Burning Spirit about the mysterious death of tenor reinventor Albert Ayler, the demise of Dolphy in Berlin due to medical negligence, and the assassination of Malcolm X. After a long period of sparse gigs, he split from his wife, trumpeter Barbara Donald, and their two children, and went “down in the mud, lower than a dog.”

That pariah’s life was his until 1994, when an angel came to him while he was playing on the street. She was a gaminelike young Frenchwoman named Geraldine Postel, an artist, journalist and club owner.

“He told me, ‘My name is Blackjack Pleasant. Why don’t you drop a dollar in there?’” Postel recalls. “I called up a friend of mine from Long Beach that knew him, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s Sonny Simmons.’ Sonny thought he was through, thought he was on his way to die. I had him for eight weekends in my club, and then I had to fight all those club owners in San Francisco to get him back onstage, and they wouldn’t take him. And I had to front money, and I had to do all kinds of things. I ran an art gallery with my husband, which I separated myself from when I met Sonny. I’ve been taking care of him since we’ve been living together.”

Postel talked Craig Morton -- “a jazz fiend,” she calls him -- into taking a whack at session production, and the result was Simmons’ Ancient Ritual, released on Qwest in late ‘94. It was one of the best jazz albums of the year, receiving four and a half stars from Down Beat. A concept project that links the deepest of Jungian memories with African civilizations and American struggles, Ancient Ritual possesses the extremely unusual power to clean the ears of modern grit and tap into the essence of humanity. Simmons’ warm, gusting wind blows over the driving, flurrying rhythms of his virtuoso drummer son, Zarak Simmons (named after a hero from The Arabian Nights), whose mother groomed him from an early age to appreciate the work of Max Roach and Elvin Jones; he received his first drum set from Tony Williams.

The album was a family affair in another way: The trio was completed by the well-regarded young bassist Charnett Moffett. “Charnett” is a combination of Ornette Coleman’s given name and that of his father, Simmons’ longtime friend Charles Moffett, who drummed for Coleman in the ‘60s, wrote the liner notes to Ancient Ritual and performed on Simmons’ next two albums (which were his own last), for the CIMP label, 1996’s Transcendence and Judgment Day. Charles Moffett died of cancer on Valentine’s Day this year.

The senior Moffett’s support as a bandmate on albums and tours was especially welcome in the light of some difficulties Zarak was having with the law. “He did run across some conditions that wasn’t in his atmosphere, that he was disturbed with in an inconvenient way, and it did cause some problems,” Simmons improvises. “And he resolved that, and he’s in a different trip now. I’m trying to get him back in the band.”

This year’s event is American Jungle, again on Qwest with Morton producing. 1997 being the 30th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death, the great quester is clearly much on Simmons’ mind. You will hear numerous Coltranish phrases, a selection titled “Coltrane Story” and a cover of the Trane signature “My Favorite Things.” Onetime Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman is featured, as are the McCoy Tyner-flavored piano of Travis Shook and the Elvin Jones turbulence of drummer Cindy Blackman.

The album is nearly as strong as Ancient Ritual: the wholeness and African tone of Simmons’ alto are duplicated by no other saxist. If that tone seems strained on “Land of the Freaks,” it’s because Simmons is pushing against adversity -- it’s about his ‘80s sojourn in Olympia, Washington. “It reminded me of Sodom and Gomorrah,” he says. “They were full of debauchery. It’s Halloween there. All the freaks and goblins come out. Freaks and goblins!” He doesn’t elaborate, except to say that the freaks were not the hippie types, who were cool. The whole album has the ability, like all Simmons’ music, to take you straight back to a time of pure revolutionary ardor, exemplified by the epic “American Jungle Theme,” with its tumbling Trane intro, conga-beat piano riff and turkey-gobble sax solo. The man ain’t slackin’.

No artist knows more about the American jungle than Sonny Simmons. But, unlike many from his generation, he appreciates today’s attempts to tell the truth about it, even giving special thanks in the new CD’s credits to Coolio, whose work he finds inspirational: “It’s the true story of the conditions of society in the ‘90s. He’s a prophet in a sense. Someday I’d like to meet that cat.”

On Simmons’ second night at the Jazz Bakery, it looks at first as if the jet lag might finally be catching up with him. Roy McCurdy and Tony Dumas are laying down an accommodating groove on drums and bass. Pianist Nate Morgan shimmers out a brilliant solo on “My Favorite Things.” But Simmons’ statement of the theme is awkward, and his rhythm is off. His solos are working only in brief, burbling bursts.

Then I remember he prefers a No. 5 reed, the stiffest available: “I need a two-by-four plank.” I recall how long it takes to break in even a dry No. 3, and I realize he’s just warming up. He’s also told me that the timetable for recording American Jungle was rushed -- the kind of imperfections I’m hearing tonight also surface occasionally on that recording. Sure enough, by halfway through Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk” he has a good boil going. I’m sorry I have to go, because I know he’s going to blow it open in the second set. He knows it, too. He smiles.

The smile is real, all the more because he’s gone through so much to keep it. “Somehow,” he told me before, “deep in my lowest hours of nothin’ I was able to smile, because it’s just my nature. A lot of times you’ll catch me, and I’ll be just like Jesse James, I’ll be ready to shoot you. I’m trying to kick that habit of being so hardcore, but that’s what the street done to me. I’m coming out of that with Geraldine.”

Take your time, Blackjack.