Friday, March 20, 2009

John Haley "Zoot" Sims - Part 1

“Zoot Sims produced elegant melodies with apparent nonchalance.”
[Len Lyons & Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits, p.469]

“Zoot was the most swinging jazz musician I ever heard….”
Bill Crow, bassist

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Early in my ‘career’ as an aspiring drummer on the Hollywood Jazz scene of the late 1950’s, and thanks to a loan from my parents, I acquired a used, yellow and white 1955 Chevrolet.

The trunk of this freedom-enabling-car was big enough to contain my entire drummer set which I always kept lovingly stored in it so I could be at the next jam session or gig at a moment’s notice [something that was also facilitated by the then paucity of traffic on the Southern California freeways].

With a tip of the hat to Richard Boone, I guess my motto was – “Have drums; will travel.”

In my senior year in high school, I somehow finagled a curriculum that was, with one exception, entirely made up of various performance music classes so I could sharpen my skills in a variety of settings. In other words, I essentially practiced and/or performed music all day.

Quite obviously then, as a young man, music was the single most important thing in my life.

Occasionally, I would point the Chevy south where it would cross over the Hollywood Hills and wind up a Larry Bunker’s place for a drum lesson.

In those days on the Left Coast, Stan Levey, Mel Lewis and Shelly Manne were the drummers who received the greatest recognition, and deservedly so. They all played extremely well and their performances rarely failed to enhance the music.

Technically, and I say this without reservation, Larry Bunker could put them all “in his back pocket” and he swung as hard. At that time, the only other drummer resident on the West Coast who could rival [and exceed] his technical ability was Victor Feldman.

Ironically, by the end of the 1950s, Victor stopped playing what he referred to as “sit-down drums” completely and, following his two-year stint with pianist Bill Evans’ trio which came to a close in 1965, Larry Bunker would only occasionally play a drum kit thereafter [although Clare Fischer did talk him into taking the drum chair for a lengthy stretch with his big band in the late 1960s].

This was mainly because both Victor and Larry were making an extremely comfortable living in the Hollywood studios as percussionists and because the Jazz scene virtually vanished in Hollywood by the mid-1960s with the exception of a few clubs that continue to feature the music in the 1970s.

During one of my visits to Larry’s house, I had my first exposure to Zoot Sims when he played some of the Pacific Jazz recordings that he had made with him as part of a concert with the Gerry Mulligan Sextet on December 14, 1954 at Hoover High School in San Diego.
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Zoot on Western Union. He just swung so hard and so effortlessly. When I asked Larry to tell me more about Zoot [who was living in New York around this time], he said: “Come on, let’s put your drums in the car and we’ll have an iced tea and talk about him.”

When we were settled in, Larry shared that he and Zoot had grown-up in Southern California not very far from one another [Zoot in Inglewood, near the Los Angeles International Airport and Larry in Long Beach about 10 miles or so south of Inglewood]. As a teenager, Larry also had a “drum-mobile” in the form of a 1938 Ford and he would often collect Zoot [who was 3 years older], when he was in town in the years following WWII, and the two would scout out jam sessions.

He went on to say: “Zoot was not the kind of guy who talked about music or analyzed it. He just loved to jam and he could play the h*** out of the tenor saxophone. He was a basic, uncomplicated guy, a big kid, really. He loved to play Jazz, drink and smoke; pretty much in that order.”

Since Zoot wasn’t a talker and there’s not much in the way of extended interviews or even detailed articles about the man, it’s not easy to do an in-depth piece on Zoot Sims.
And yet, Zoot is such a wonderful musician and so deserving of a feature, that I thought it would be fun to accept the challenge of finding what references there are about him in the Jazz literature and gathering as many of them in one place as possible.

After a while, the task of compiling writings about Zoot became surprisingly easy as he had made many friends among the community of Jazz writers whom he had touched with his unswerving dedication to the music and his swinging style of playing it. It really is a privilege to have the thoughts and views of so many of the outstanding authors on the subject of Jazz as the basis for this feature on Zoot.

In particular, we are fortunate to have a lengthy interview that Zoot gave, along with Al Cohn, to Les Tomkins during a 1965 visit to London to work at Ronnie Scott’s club, as well as, masterful treatments of Zoot and his music by the esteemed Whitney Balliett and Doug Ramsey, all of which will be reproduced as part of Zoot’s Jazz Profile.

Also included in this treatment on Zoot will be numerous reviews of his recordings which appear in Richard Cook & Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.,, Down Beat, Jazz Journal International, Jazz Review, and among other sources.

I am also indebted to close-by friends in Southern California as well as some as far away as Massachusetts, New Zealand and England who have been kind enough to send me recorded examples of Zoot’s work spanning over four decades.

As a place to begin, the following retrospective of Zoot’s career as taken from Doug Ramsey’s Jazz Matters:Reflections on the Music & Some of Its Makers [Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989 pp. 215-216 ]will help provide an overview of its highlights:

Zoot Sims

“Zoot Sims was one of a group of tenor saxophonists born in the mid-1920s whose early professional experience came in big bands and who idolized Lester Young. The basic jazz skills of most of these reedmen were developed by the time they had reached their early twenties. But their styles flowered in the bebop atmosphere in which jazz matured so dramatically following World War II.

Charlie Parker, who had been shaped by Young's example in his own formative period in the late 1930s, became the second great influence on this talented collection of tenor men. They melded Parker's complex harmonic discoveries with Young's sound (light, dry, sunny) and rhythm (powerful currents of swing beneath a laconic surface). In addition to Sims, some of the most accomplished members of this school of tenor saxophone were A/ Cohn, Stan Getz, Paul Quinichette, Allen Eager, Brew Moore, Herbie Steward, Bill Perkins, Bob Cooper, Richie
Kamuca, Dave Van Kreidt, Bill Holman, Phil Urso, and Don Lanphere. Some, particularly Quinichette and Moore, were made up of much larger components of Young than of Parker. It is safe to say that none of them could have become the artist he became if there had been no Lester Young.

Except for Quinichette, all of the players mentioned were white. A number of critics and musicologists have had sociological and psychological field days trying to explain why. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that most black tenor men who came up at the same time as our corps of white Lester Young disciples leaned more toward the overtly muscular work of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Chu Berry than toward Young. In the analysis of jazz styles, however, the matter of influences is seldom clear-cut; Young was unquestionably a formative element in the playing of such black artists of the tough tenor school as Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt. And the gruff, often raucous Ben Webster was an early and lasting hero of Sims, long tabbed as one of Young's stylistic progeny.
Among those generally considered major Young disciples, Cohn, Getz, and Sims achieved the most fame, initially because of their membership in Woody Herman's Second Herd (1947-49), the famous Four Brothers band, so called because of its saxophone section of three tenors and a baritone. The recording of "Four Brothers" featured Getz, Sims, Herbie Steward, and baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. Al Cohn, who had written arrangements for the band, replaced Steward in r948.

Cohn's formidable abilities as a tenor soloist were equaled and to a large degree obscured by his talents for composing and arranging. Only in recent years has be concentrated on playing and made a wide jazz public fully aware of his gifts as an improviser.

Getz, one of the most lyrical and technically endowed hard swinging tenor men of any stylistic school, was a darling of audiences years before his bit records of "Desafinado" and "The Girl from Ipanema" made his a household name in the early 1960s.
Sims had neither a top-forty record nor mass box office appeal. But almost from the beginning of his career, be had the unreserved admiration of virtually all jazz artists, whatever their generation or musical persuasion. Over the years, his following among listeners steadily grew. Musicians and aficionados alike recognized the basic human qualities of honesty and warmth that Sims projected in his playing without in any way diluting musical values or contriving to find an acceptable style. Complex in his creativity, as any great improviser incorporating the skills of jazz must be, Sims was a kind and simple man whose deep feeling was manifest in his artistry.”

Since his time on Woody Herman’s Band was to continue to be a defining element in Zoot’s Jazz World well after his actual tenure on the band, here are some excerpts from the chapter entitled Bad Boys from Gene Lees, The Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995] about, shall we say, the “culture” of Woody’s band during Zoot’s time on it:

“While marijuana had been in common use in the music world for a long time-and for that matter in more of American society than may be suspected-nothing stronger was much used in the jazz world until the deification of Charlie Parker. So great was the admiration for him that many of his young idolaters followed him into heroin, even though he warned them, Red Rodney and Gerry Mulligan among them, of its ravages. The master bassist Ray Brown once recalled to me the coming of smack to the jazz world.

Ray said, "A little pot, I was used to that. Then they told me, 'We've got something new. It's even better.'

"How do you take it?" Ray asked.

"With a needle in the arm."

"Forget it!" Ray said.
Exactly half the Woody Herman band at one point was on heroin, eight of its sixteen players: the entire saxophone section, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Serge Chaloff; Bernie Glow in the trumpet section, Earl Swope and Bob Swift in the trombones, and Lou Levy on piano.

The straights were Ernie Royal, Stan Fishelson, Shorty Rogers, Chubby Jackson, Don Lamond, Sam Marowitz, Bill Harris, and Ollie Wilson.

Terry Gibbs said he realized when he joined the band how seriously many of the men were strung out. "Bernie Glow was really bad," he said. "He almost died."

Ralph Burns said, "I used to visit them, because I was writing for them. t was pretty scary. I got a little bit into it at that time. You thought you had to take a little junk, otherwise they wouldn't play your music. It was sad. You'd go to see the band and the front line would be completely cacked out. On the stand! I don't know how Woody put up with it. And what he got out of them, in spite of it all.

"The funny part of it is they all got straight eventually."'

"I was so naive," Woody said once with his chuckle, "that I couldn't figure out why the guys were falling asleep on the bandstand."

"The whole front line would be nodding out," Ralph said.

Amphetamines were also in use. "That's the band," Woody once said, "where everybody was on practically everything but roller skates." [pp. 171-172]

"Heroin was the drug of the period," Lou Levy said. "Pot was already old hat. Cab Calloway was singing songs about it and making jokes about pot. Heroin was a serious habit, but that was the drug that everybody was into at the time. I got into it.

"I remember Woody's expression. He'd just look at us. He didn't even shake his head. He'd just look. He never said anything to anybody that I recall.
"But the quality of the music was very important to them. They were very conscious of their image. What they were doing in their hotel rooms or on the bus or at intermissions was one thing, but on the bandstand they were real music-conscious. We'd all look for the opportunities to play. Sometimes Woody would get off the bandstand for the last set and go home. We'd drag out all the arrangements we really loved to play, like Johnny Mandel's Not Really the Blues, and play them. There was so much that we loved to play in the band anyway. Neal Hefti and A] Cohn stuff. The soloists were always at their best. We'd find a piano in some room down in the bowels of a theater and jam between shows. Al, Zoot, Stan, everybody. Always looking to play. Whatever else suffered, the music never did. The band sounded healthy. We may have had some unhealthy habits, but the music sounded healthy. Great vitality, great oneness, like Ellington had when that band was at its best. Or Basie. They had those magic moments. The band would come alive, and you'd feel a shortness of breath, it was so exciting. Sort of like Dizzy's band used to be to me, his young, wild, wonderful band that recorded for RCA Victor. I felt that same kind of excitement ....

"Oh God, what a wonderful experience! I'd love to go through it again now that I know a few things. When you're in the midst of such greatness at such a young age, I don't know if you realize what you're involved in. I was nineteen. The magnitude! I don't know if I appreciated it. I met Stan Getz in that band. I didn't know how good these guys were yet.

"One thing was made evident to me right away. Everybody in the band was crazy for Al Cohn. When he played, there was sheer reverence as everybody turned their eyes and ears toward him. When somebody else played, they just looked straight ahead. When A] Cohn played, it was always something special. You can ask anyone who's left from that band .... I remember in 1948 and '49, Stan would look up at Al with those blue eyes of his and just stare at him when he was playing. This is Stan Getz, and he's pretty snappy himself." [pp. 175-76]
"When I was on the band," Terry Gibbs said, "Woody never fired anybody but Zoot, and the only reason he fired him is that Zoot spit at him. And he didn't really want Zoot to leave. We tried to stop it. If Zoot had apologized, Woody would have said, 'Great.' But Zoot wouldn't back down."

"I don't understand that," I said. "Because I know in later years, Zoot adored Woody."

"He adored him then," Terry said.

"Let me tell you," Terry continued emphatically, "Woody was the greatest bandleader I ever worked for in my life. He let you do your thing.” [p. 173]

Terry Gibbs said, "Woody wasn't the instrumentalist that Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey were, but he was the greater bandleader. He knew what a band was all about. I learned from Woody! Woody would get an arrangement, sometimes he would take a first chorus and make it a last chorus, or put it in the middle. He'd make it work, I learned how to do that from Woody. just watching him do it.
"He advanced all our careers. Early Autumn made Stan Getz overnight. Everybody knew about Al Cohn and Zoot Sims from Woody's band, Bill Harris. Don Lamond. Lou Levy - Myself. All of us, Woody made us."

And they would all come running, whenever Woody called. They played in reunion bands at Monterey and Carnegie Hall. Or they would simply come to listen to his latest band and talk to him. The same young Turks who had treated him so contemptuously in the Second Herd, almost to a man, came to idolize him as they grew older.” [p. 178]
In his seminal American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986], Whitney Balliett, the Dean of American Jazz essayists, offered this recapitulation of Zoot’s career and lovely tribute to the man that formed an obituary upon his passing in March, 1985. The first part is excerpted as follows [paragraphing modified].

Zoot and Louise

"Zoot Sims had a rustic air. His stoop suggested a man who has milked a lot of cows. His face was rough and handsome and wind-carved. Through the years, his thick, wavy, strawberry-blond hair took on a porcupine look. He had a broad, gap-toothed country smile, and he liked to wedge a cigarette between his front teeth and make a hideous bumpkin face.
His prehistoric Selmer tenor saxophone, bought secondhand in St. Louis in the late forties, completed the bucolic image. (Sims finally bought a new Selmer, in Paris in the sixties and he also bought another secondhand Selmer, in Boston. But neither saxophone ever replaced the original.) But Sims' exterior was deceptive. It hid a big-city wit who never seemed off balance, and it hid a player of high lyricism. This lyricism resulted in an indelible jazz event. It took place at the jazz party Dick Gibson held in Aspen in September of 1969. It was Gibson's pleasure to invite thirty or so musicians and during the almost non-stop weekend concerts to mix the musicians in endlessly different combinations.

Five groups had already gone by on Saturday evening when the violinist Joe Venuti came on with Lou Stein on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Morey Feld on drums. Venuti did a fast "I Want to Be Happy" and a blues, and was joined by Zoot Sims. The two men stepped immediately into an up-tempo "I Found a New Baby," with Venuti handling the melody and Sims playing close, tight variations. It was clear after one chorus that something special was happening. Each man soloed with great heat, then went into a long series of four-bar exchanges, in which Sims parodied Venuti's figures, and Venuti, delighted at the challenge, attempted more and more complex parody-proof figures. Caught in their own momentum, the two closed with a jammed ensemble that swung so hard it was almost unbearable. Their tones and timbres and rhythmic attacks were so similar and so dense, yet so distinct, that they sounded, as this writer put it at the time, "like one instrument split in half and at war with itself."

When the number ended, people shouted and leaped into the air. Sims left. Venuti did a cooling violin duet with Lou McGarity, and McGarity left. Venuti looked around and said, "Where's Zootie? Where's my Zootie?" Sims reappeared, and the two nearly duplicated their feat with a ferocious "I Got Rhythm." The audience, though stunned, wasn't surprised. Sims had been swinging hard for twenty-five years.

Sims has long been associated with the legion of white tenor saxophonists who proliferated in Lester Young's shadow in the forties. These included Bill Perkins, Stan Getz, Herbie Steward, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Allen Eager, Bob Cooper, and Brew Moore. But Sims began as an admirer of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and came later to Lester Young. His style involved elements of all three.

His tone in the middle register suggested Webster's, and he sometimes used Webster's descending tremolos. Young's pale, old-moon sound came into view in Sims' high register. Hawkins underlay his drive, his heat, his need to take the audience with him. Sims was a consummate melodic improviser. The melody never completely disappeared. You sensed it, no matter how remote or faint; it moved behind the scrim of his sound. His playing was rhythmically ingenious. Billie Holiday's rhythmic derring-do must have sunk in somewhere along the line. He would deliver an on-the-beat or legato phrase, fall silent (letting the beat click by), slip into a double-time variation of what he had just played, fall silent again, let loose an upper register cry, and slide down a glissando to a low-register honk. He stepped forward and stepped back, raced forward and fell back. He developed irresistible momentum.

All the while, he constructed winsome melodies, melodies that seemed to have been broken off the original song, heated up, and quickly reshaped in his image. His tone had warmth, but it was not enveloping. Nor did it let light through. Sims was revered for his up-tempo excursions, but he was a sensuous ballad player, and his blues were full of melancholy, He had taken to listening to Johnny Hodges' passionate and elegant blues in his last years. He had also taken up the soprano saxophone. He called his horn 'Sidney,' and he played in tune and with great lyricism. Although Sims recorded Often, his quicksilver lyricism does not always come through on records. Maybe he had to be seen to be heard. He was what he played; he played what he was.
Sims was not loquacious, but in 1976 he gave this resume of his beginnings: "I was born in 1925, in Inglewood, California, which is south of Los Angeles, right by the airport. It was all lemon groves and Japanese gardens then. I was the youngest of six boys and one girl. My mother and father were in vaudeville, and they were known as Pete and Kate. He was from Missouri, and she was from Arkansas. My mother never forgot a joke or a lyric, and she performed at the drop of a hat right up until she had a stroke a couple of years ago. My father died in 1950. He spent his last years on the road, scuffling, and he never sent any money home. It was out of sight, out of mind for him. But there was never any falling out among us. When he came for a visit, everybody forgave him, including my mother. I don't know how we made it. The gas and water were always being turned off, and we moved a lot.

One move got me off the ground, though, because we had to go to a new school where they were recruiting kids for their band. They gave me a clarinet and my brother Ray a tuba and my brother Bobby drums. I was about ten. I liked the clarinet fine, even though it made my teeth vibrate, which is why I don't play with a biting grip today. Most sax players bite through their mouthpiece; mine hardly has a mark on it. I played clarinet three years, until my mother bought me a Conn tenor on time. I kept it through my Woody Herman days in the late forties, and I finally sold it for twenty-five dollars. I never had any lessons. I learned by listening to Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster, and later to Lester Young and Don Byas. My mind was elsewhere at school, which I quit after one year of high. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I worked in an L.A. band led by Ken Baker. He put these supposedly funny nicknames on the front of his music stands Scoot, Voot, Zoot - and I ended up behind the Zoot stand, and it stuck and the John Haley I was born with disappeared.

Then, instead of joining Paul Whiteman, who invited me, I went with Bobby Sherwood. It was like a family, and Sherwood was a father image to a lot of us. Sonny Dunham was next, and after him it was Teddy Powell. I spent nine weeks on the Island Queen, a riverboat out of Cincinnati that had a calliope player who knew Don't Get Around Much Anymore. In 1943, I joined Benny Goodman, and he had Jess Stacy and Bill Harris. In 1944, Sid Catlett asked me to take Ben Webster's place in his quartet after Ben got sick, and we played the Streets of Paris, in Hollywood. I got drafted and ended up in the Army Air Forces later that year and fought the Battle of the South. I was stationed in Huntsville, Valdosta, Biloxi, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Antonio, where I played every night in a little black club. I got out in 1946 and rejoined Benny, and then I went with Woody Herman and became one of the Four Brothers, with Herbie Steward and Stan Getz and Serge Chaloff. I loved that band. We were all young and had the same ideas. I'd always worried about what the other guys were thinking in all the bands I'd been in, and in Woody's I found out: they were thinking the same thing was I was."

Sims stayed with Herman until 1949, then gigged around New York and rejoined Benny Goodman. He passed through Stan Kenton's band and Gerry Mulligan's sextet, then, in 1956 or 1957, formed a group with Al Cohn. They played together off and on until Sims' death, in the early spring of 1985. When he wasn't with Cohn, he worked as a single or with his own quartet. He was on the road much of his life, and he appeared all over the world. It was a patched-together career, and he scuffled continuously until 1970, when he married a remarkable woman named Louise Ault [nee Choo]. (His first marriage ended in divorce.) She was an assistant to Clifton Daniel at the [New York] Times, where she had worked since the early fifties, and she gave Sims the first security he had ever known. It was soon apparent. His come-as-you-are clothes were replaced by tweed jackets and gray flannel pants and loafers, and he cut his hair. His playing took on a new fullness and warmth; by the mid-seventies he had become a saxophonist of the first rank.
Musicians idolized Sims, particularly those who worked with him. The guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli: "Zoot and I played as a duet at Soerabaja off and on for two and a half years in the mid-seventies. The owner, Taki, was Greek, and he called Zoot - "Zeus." Zoot lived at Sixty-ninth and Second, and Soerabaja was at Seventy-fourth and Lexington, and whenever he wasn't on the road he'd fall in and we'd play. He loved the job. When we were finished, I'd drive him home and he'd say, 'I'll give you a dollar a block or a pothole-whichever comes first.' We also worked one-nighters with Benny Goodman's sextet, and we went on the road with piano and bass. We'd do school clinics. He'd shy away from them, but the kids loved him. He was a dream to play with. He was always good, he was always charged up, he never pussyfooted. He used to tell me it was concentration - that music was all a matter of concentration. [emphasis mine]
Doing the duet with him was tough at first. He was very demanding. He didn't like different harmonies. He wanted to hear the straight harmony that went with the tune. He'd growl at you on his horn if things weren't going right. just being around Zoot was special. He seemed to gather everybody together. After a job, he liked to sit and talk and laugh. One night, when we were playing Toronto, musicians started dropping into our hotel room - Charlie Byrd, Rob McConnell, and the like - and we must have played five or six hours. Charlie played un-amplified, and Zoot played standing on the bed in his bathrobe. He loved to sit in. He sat in one night at the Hotel Pierre with my trio and broke the place up. He wasn't at all like people thought he was-super-hip, that kind of down beat thing. He was the opposite. He was a real country boy."

The composer, pianist, and singer Dave Frishberg: "I worked with Zoot at the old Half Note from the fall of 1963 to 1968 or 1969. I thought of him as the greatest natural jazz musician I'd ever heard. He'd play two notes, and the rhythm section fell immediately into place. I was sitting in a hotel room in Denver just after I had heard he was sick, and I was listening to some of his records, and I felt overwhelmed. I wrote him a letter telling him how much I loved him and admired his playing. I told him that if Al Cohn was the Joe DiMaggio of tenor saxophonists, he was the Ted Williams. I never got to know him terribly well playing with him. He kept himself at a remove. In fact, I saw him as moody. He'd be irascible early in the evening, then later on he'd be soft as a grape." Jimmy Rowles: "I first met Zoot in 1941 in a night club in southeast Los Angeles called Bourston's. They had Sunday jam sessions. He was only fifteen or sixteen, dressed real tatteredly, and he didn't look like a musician. He already sounded like Ben Webster. I guess he hadn't heard Lester Young yet. He played great, and we thought, Who's this guy? He'd come in weekends, and suddenly he was gone, working with local bands, and later with Woody Herman. I didn't see much of him again until I went to New York in the early seventies. He had been at the Half Note with Al Cohn a long time, and I think he was a little jaded. We put together quartet, with Michael Moore or Bob Cranshaw or George Mraz on bass and with Mickey Roker or Mousie Alexander on drums, and at first seemed to play the same thing over and over.
He didn't know many songs so I began to go to his apartment in the afternoon and write out songs in key that would be good for him-tunes like 'Gypsy Sweetheart' and 'Dream Dancing' and 'In the Middle of a Kiss.' Once he got the hang of songs like that, he loved them. He had a wild sense of humor. If we had a new drummer who couldn't keep time or got the tempo wrong, Zoot would stop everything, and say, 'O.K., this is where we started. I’ll give you one more chance.' There was a pianist he had worked with who swayed all the time, and he said he couldn't play with him anymore because he made him seasick."

Al Cohn: "Zoot and I were first together in Woody Herman's band in 1948 and 1949. We formed our own group in the late fifties, and worked together until the end of his life. Playing was both an escape and a serious vocation for him. He used to talk about the ecstasy factor-the times when your playing becomes a kind of ecstasy. Once he sat in somewhere and played 'Sweet Lorraine' for half an hour. He told the piano player, who was really a bassist, the name of another tune, and the pianist said 'Sweet Lorraine' was the only tune he knew, so Zoot said, 'Play it again,' and they played it for another half hour. He didn't look like a sophisticate, but he was a sharp, fun-loving guy. And this quality never left him. Not long before he died, his doctor came in to take a look at him, and Zoot said, 'You're looking better today, Doc."'

…. To be continued in Part 2


  1. Zoot was also one of those musicians who grew and grew -- some of his later Pablo sessions are even deeper and more profound than his early, skating brilliance. He needed fine musicians around him: Basie, Rowles, Cohn -- then he would dig in beneath his fluency and get at the heart of the song.

    Nice profile! Praise Whitney Balliett, for sure - - -

    Michael Steinman

  2. Thank you for this article on Zoot. I feel so fortunate to have met him several times and have heard him play. I live in Albany, NY - about 150 miles north of NYC. I first met him at the home of pianist Lee Shaw and her husband Stan. They had Al and Zoot up to play with their trio. They invited me to come over for dinner with Zoot and Al. My god, what a wonderful experience. I was all of about 21 years old and idolized Zoot, and here I had the chance to show him an article I had written about him and to talk with him like he was a next door neighbor!

    A few years later, someone took a picture of him and I standing together on a street outside a club up here that I booked him into. It still hangs in my den - one of the pictures I'm most proud of.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to put this wonderful article together. Zoot was such a great player and brought (and continues to bring) wonderful feelings into my heart with his music.

    Bob Rosenblum

  3. Thanks for a wonderful tributeI I had the good fortune of catching Zoot on a number of occasions (both with Al and on his own) at the old Town Tavern in Toronto. Unfortunately, the local rhythm sections didn't always live up to Zoot's expectations in those days, especially the drummers and piano players. On the night which will always stand out in my memory, Ed Thigpen walked into the club in the middle of one of Zoot's solos. Once the number was over, Zoot grabbed the mike and announced that "One of the world's greatest drummers has just entered the club! I want to invite Ed Thigpen to the bandstand." With that, Zoot called for 'Somebody Loves Me'. The immediate difference in Zoot's playing was simply electrifying and he soared as only he could. It was as if a building had been lifted from his shoulders! Simply a great artist and a wonderful human being.

    Jim MacDonald


Please leave your comments here. Thank you.