Monday, May 21, 2012

Sonny Criss: An Overlooked Giant


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“ a piercing, passionate sound.”
- Mark Gardner

“I was playing with Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes – a great Jazz pianist. … Sonny had such a great ear that he could hear something once and play it. …

Sonny Criss and I played together quite a while until I went to study with Joseph Cadaly [a first chair saxophonist at RKO Studies who taught reeds, harmony and solfège]. That’s when Sonny and I split up. He continued into progressive Jazz, and I went and studied.

When we split, he started going all up and down the Coast playing and going to Europe. But I don't know, it just didn't happen. He'd get records. People said he was great. They played his stuff. But it just didn't happen for him, and I think that kind of disturbed him. Especially when you put your whole soul and your whole life and just wrap up everything into something and it doesn't happen.

He was pioneering and when you're pioneering, it's kind of more difficult to get recognition …. You have to suffer when you're a pioneer. So that's what hap­pened, really, I think, with Sonny. He was just early.
- Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely, tenor saxophonist

Criss was a bop saxophonist, strongly influenced at first by Charlie Parker. But his mature style was more distinctive: he produced a warm, rich tone and a prominent vibrato that Par­ker lacked. He was capable of playing dazzling runs with such effortless grace that they never sounded ostentatious. An excel­lent jazz musician, through lack of opportunities Criss never gained the recognition he deserved.
- Barry Kernfeld [ed.], The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“Criss’ style is marked by super-fast runs, soaring, high register figures and a pure urgent tone and delivery. His ballad renderings are often characterized by sorrowful solos, spoken with manly regret and without a wasted gesture. At times Criss’ soling bears comparison with Parker’s on the “With Strings” session.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed. [paraphrased]

“Sonny’s was a talent too big to be denied. For me, he comes immediately after Bird as an alto saxophonist. … I don’t know anyone who was exposed to his playing who didn’t enjoy him.”
- Bob Porter, Jazz Historian

How do you overlook a giant?

This is not a trick question, as somehow, the mainstream Jazz world managed to overlook alto saxophonist Sonny Criss for thirty years: from 1947, when he first came on the scene, until his death in 1977.

Although Sonny was a player of extraordinary power and brilliance, outside of a small coterie on admirers, primarily in Los Angeles, he was largely unnoticed in Jazz circles in terms of his significance and importance.

Why? The guy was a monster player.

As is usually the case, if one is looking for information and explanations about modern Jazz in California between 1945-1960, a good starting point is Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz [Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: The University of California Press, 1992].

And as usual, Ted doesn’t disappoint offering over nine pages on Sonny’s career in his marvelous retrospective of Jazz on the West Coast [pp. 121-129].

Picking up where Jazz historian Bob Porter left off, Ted comments:

“Perhaps, the problem was, as Porter hints, that so few people were exposed to Criss’s music. Sonny’s career took place in Los Angeles (except for a short time in Europe). He never made the East Coast move, which benefited other talents such as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Dexter Gordon.”

Ted goes on to explain: “ Although Criss's sound and conception stayed true to the model set by Bird, several differences are striking. Criss tends more toward even streams of notes, only occasionally matching Parker's masterful start-and-stop rhythmic phrasing. And even more than Parker, Criss maintained a strong gospel-ish blues bent in his playing. … Electricity is in the air every time Criss solos.”

Most, if not all, suicides are shocking, and the reason for Sonny’s remained obscure for many years until Ted discovered while interviewing Criss’s mother, Lucy, for his book on West Coast Jazz, that Sonny had been suffering from stomach cancer.


If you are new to Sonny’s music, you can explore his style and approach with a 2 CD set re-issued on Blue Note [7243 5 24564 2 0] entitled The Complete Imperial Sessions which is a compilation of three albums that Criss made in the 1950s: Jazz USA, Go Man! and Sonny Criss Plays Cole Porter.

Here are Bob Porter’s insert notes to the set.

© -  Bob Porter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“IT didn't make any sense. Sonny Criss took his own life shortly after his 50th birthday just as things were finally breaking for him. After a hiatus of several years, he had resumed recording in 1975. An album for Xanadu, two for Muse and a pair for Impulse had brought his name back before the public once again. He was preparing to make his first Japanese tour. He had toured Europe in 1973 and '74 and found that his popularity, especially in France, was still strong. Everything was finally falling into place. Again, it didn't make any sense.

His entry in the Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz details a career of fits and starts. He had the ability to play with major leaguers right from the beginning. Concerts for Gene Norman, tours (and records) with Norman Granz, associations with Billy Eckstine, Jazz at the Philharmonic and Buddy Rich were a part of his first ten years as a professional. Apart from a period in the early 1960s when he lived and worked in France, he was associated with the Los Angeles jazz scene. But in order to understand Sonny Criss, you must start in his hometown of Memphis.

W. C. Handy put Bluff City on the map musically early in the 20th century. Handy songs such as "Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues" detailed some of the virtues of the community. Then and now, the blues is an ongoing part of life in Memphis but the flip side of the coin is the strength of gospel music in the same area. Memphis has produced some fine jazz musicians through the years, yet each of these players has had to leave town in order to build a career. The local music lovers appreciated the jazz played there, but there were few opportunities to make a full-time living. The best band of the pre-bop era was that of Al Jackson Sr. His son, Al Jr., would be a charter member of Booker T and the MGs. Jackson Sr/s drummer for much of his band's existence was Phineas Newborn, whose sons Calvin and Phineas Jr., went on to international fame. The first alto player in Al Jackson Sr/s band was Hank O'Day. Hank O'Day was the original inspiration for Sonny Criss.

O'Day had a big sound in the manner of Willie Smith or Hilton Jefferson. There are no recordings of him so there is no way to hear exactly what it was that attracted Sonny Criss. Yet O'Day's reputation lingered long in Memphis: many years later, his bandmaster gave Bennie Crawford the nickname "little Hank.” The "little" tag soon disappeared but Bennie has been Hank Crawford his entire professional career.

Sonny Criss also heard Charlie Parker before he left Memphis. Parker's solo on Jay McShann's "Hootie Blues" was of keen interest to the young saxophonist before he knew the name of its player. "It was clear to me, right away," he once remarked, "that someone had found a new way to solo on a twelve-bar blues." The final influence on Criss was Eddie Vinson, primarily for his feeling. On blues at certain tempos, Criss and Vinson can sound very much alike. Benny Carter has also been cited as an influence on Sonny Criss; while there is no question that Sonny Criss had great respect and admiration for Carter, the evidence of influence is scant.

The Criss family moved to Los Angeles in 1942. By the time he had graduated from High School, Sonny was working the Central Avenue territory with a variety of small groups. In 1947 things really picked up for Criss: He played some gigs with Howard McGhee and appeared with McGhee at Gene Norman's Just Jazz concert in April. He worked at Billy Berg's, backing Billy Eckstine, in a group led by Al Killian. That group (which also included Wardell Gray) worked up the coast with Eckstine and at the conclusion of the tour continued to appear under Killian's leadership. They were back in Los Angeles for the show Ralph Bass promoted at the Central Avenue Elks' Hall in early July. The band then played Seattle, San Francisco and spent several months in Portland. Acetates were cut in Portland and the Killian group appeared on the Armed Forces Radio series, Jubilee.


In 1948, Criss began working with Jazz at the Philharmonic [JATP]. At the conclusion of the spring 1949 JATP tour, he worked up and down the eastern seaboard with a group led by Flip Phillips. He made his first recordings for Granz in September and gigged with The Lighthouse All-Stars. Things continued along similar lines until 1952 when the bottom of the scene began to drop out. By this time Criss was known as a soloist and a small group specialist which would be his role for his entire career. He rarely got any studio gigs (although he popped up on a Jimmy Witherspoon Modern session) and while he gradually built up a reputation as a leader around Los Angeles, he never worked enough out of town to establish himself as a draw on the road. In late 1955, he began a three-year association with Buddy Rich.

West Coast jazz was not something that held any interest for Sonny Criss and the record labels operating around town such as Pacific Jazz, Contemporary, GNP or Jazz West weren't interested in what Sonny was playing. Then, all of a sudden, things changed. During 1956, despite the fact that he had recorded only four single sides as a leader and had never made an album, Sonny Criss recorded three LPs for Imperial Records.

On the surface this looks crazy. Lew Chudd had founded Imperial Records in 1945, and initially its recordings were of Mexican artists. But it had shown a penchant for developing country acts (Slim Whitman) and rhythm & blues performers (a host of fine artists, mostly from New Orleans, headed by Fats Domino). They had dabbled in modern jazz during the 10"- LP era with a pair of fine recordings by Charlie Mariano, but since that time had done almost nothing. Imperial was a singles label and until 1956 had no 12" IPs. Apart from Sonny Criss, Imperial issued two albums by Wild Bill Davis and one by Warne Marsh (reissued on Intuition by Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh — Capitol Jazz 52771) and that constituted their attempts at jazz recording for quite a while. Those albums had a very short shelf life and by the end of the decade had been deleted. A compilation taken from all three Criss albums was issued in 1962 and quickly disappeared. The albums have been reissued on several occasions in Japan.

The music on these albums is uniformly excellent. There has never been any individual credited with producing these albums but whoever it was they did a fine job. Criss had chosen his accompanists well, the material is a thoughtful blend of standards and originals and the performances are absolutely masterful. Highlights would include the four titles with Barney Kessel, the ballad "More Than You Know" (especially the verse) and the Criss masterpiece, "West Coast Blues” from the Jazz USA album; all of Sonny Clark's playing and the blazing "The Man I Love" from Go Man and "What Is This Thing Called Love" from Sonny Criss Plays Cole Porter. These recordings are every bit as good as the more celebrated Criss records from the 60s and 70s.

Sonny is remembered fondly by almost everyone who ever heard him play. He had an innate ability to communicate. His passion for a beautiful ballad or a funky blues was equal to his lightning quick articulation at fast tempos. The music here is the last major Sonny Criss material to come to CD and if you have not encountered this artist before, one listen will make you want more. There is other Sonny Criss material on CD but for many of us there could never be enough.

— BOB PORTER March, 2000”

The following video tribute to Sonny was developed in conjunction with the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and features his version of Summertime with Sonny Clark on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Lawrence Marable on drums.