Saturday, November 9, 2013

Zoot Sims - All in One Place

Ever since the initial posting of this feature in three-parts in March and April, 2009, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has wanted to rework it, add more material to it, enhance the graphics and develop a video that exemplifies some of Zoot's finest playing.

So we did.

Here's the result.

As was the case with our Gerry Mulligan compilation, we did so mainly because, in our view, there exists no definite, book-length treatment about this Jazz giant.

The same holds true for John Haley "Zoot" Sims.

We hope this feature will suffice in the meantime.



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

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

© -Steven Cerra, 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 apologies 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 year plus 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 and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., 
http://www.allmusic.com/Down Beat, Jazz Journal International, Jazz Review, and http://www.allaboutjazz.com/ 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 and 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 Al 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 1948.

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.”

Copies of Doug's book can be purchased by going here.

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 guitar 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



“Jazz musicians are their music … the music can’t be subtracted; it’s the defining essence which sets musicians apart and makes them special and ultimately mysterious.” – Richard Sudhalter


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

Zoot Sims was a player, and he lived to play Jazz - pure and simple. He was the living embodiment of the axiom: “Do what you love and the rest will follow.”

To reiterate Doug Ramsey’s view of him, one that certainly became universal in the Jazz community over the years: “Complex in his creativity, as any great improviser incorporating the skills of jazz must be, Sims nonetheless was a kind and simple man whose deep feeling was manifest in his artistry.”


The following vignette from Gene Lees’ Jazzletter [September, 1991, V. 10, N. 9] is illustrative of the self-effacing professionalism and humanity contained in Doug’s description of Zoot:“Andre Previn told me the following story.
Years ago, when he was still working as a studio pianist in Los Angeles, Andre was on a record date with a rhythm section that included Ray Brown, Shelly Manne and Barney Kessel. The rest of the orchestra was of like caliber. The music was more or less experimental avant-garde jazz by a composer whose work, Andre said, he didn’t care for.

One of the tunes was to be played at a ferociously fast tempo, with a [chord] change on every beat. When it came to the solo section, one musician after another tried it only to crash in flames.

Finally the solo was assigned to Zoot Sims, who sailed through it effortlessly.

At the end of it, Conte Candoli said: ‘How did you do that, man?’

Zoot said, ‘You guys are crazy. I just played I Got Rhythm [chord changes].’”


Is it any wonder, then, that in an effort to establish his fledgling club, tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott turned to Zoot Sims as the first American musician to open at the club’s original Gerrard Street location in London?

As told in John Fordham’s Jazz Man: The Amazing Story of Ronnie Scott and his Club [London: Kyle Cathie, 1986]:

"Throughout 1960, the difficulty of sustaining an audience for the local musicians continued to nag at [Ronnie] Scott and [Pete] King. The Musicians' Union ban had stopped being unconditional two years previously and international artists regularly came and went. But residencies, the maintaining of an imported star in a British venue night after night for a week, or a month, had not been considered. King, who still worked with the now highly successful impresario Harold Davison, knew that the latter would not be keen that his protégés step on his territory.

But King also knew that things could not go on as they were. He began .at the British Musicians' Union, with the assistant secretary, Harry Francis, who was amenable to the idea of a new arrangement that would suit the requirements. of a specialist nightclub. If the exchange of artists would be one for one, Francis was convinced that the request would go through on me British side. King turned his attention to the real nub of the problem. Since the 1930s, James C. Petrillo of the American Federation of Musicians had effectively battened down any form of trade in musical resources likely to cause loss of earnings to his own members.

Petrillo (nicknamed 'Little Caesar' because of his stocky, pugnacious, Edward G. Robinson-like demeanor), was a man with a straight-shooting style of negotiation that made him a formidable opponent. The American Federation's policy had grown out of far leaner years than the 1950s and King, as a musician himself, was generally sympathetic to the union's original position. Its inflexibility from the mid-fifties onwards was principally fuelled by the attitude of the British Musicians' Union, which was convinced that American members would receive far more attractive invitations to Britain than the other way around. King reasoned that if jazz musicians were the "Cinderella’s" of the profession already, it was shortsighted now that times were not so hard to turn down a policy that might further the public's interest in the music generally.


Scott and King needed to pick their first guest, then worry about the bureaucracy afterwards. They chose Zoot Sims, a one-time partner of Stan Getz in the Woody Herman band and a player with much the same lyricism and raffish elegance as Getz but with a more robust and muscular delivery. Sims was popular at the Half Note Club in New York, an Italian family business by the Cantorino brothers, with a reputation similar to that of the Scott club in London for presenting good music to audiences that cared about it in an atmosphere conducive to relaxation and inventiveness. Sims accepted readily.

King then went to New York to try to sew it up. He told the music press that Tubby Hayes was taking a holiday in America at the same time, and it was only reasonable that he, as Hayes's manager, should make an attempt to arrange some work for his client. King met Sims for a beer to chew it over. They played Tubby Hayes's records to the Cantorino's, and from distrusting a project they felt they didn't really need - an English jazz soloist on a month's residency in the heart of New York's jazzland - the Italians came around to the idea, and wanted to help Zoot, an old friend. The matter went backwards and forwards inside the American Federation officials' headquarters for what to King seemed like an age. But the news finally came through that Petrillo had accepted the deal. King rang Scott in London and told him they were in business. Scott rang Harry Francis at the Musicians' Union and the swap was on. Finally they called Sims, who asked simply: 'When do I come?'

The exchange was arranged for November 1961. Ronnie Scott's Club was about to become an international jazz venue.



Sims was a delight.

After his first show, the proprietors of London's new international jazz club sat bemused in their locked up premises, counting the hours until they heard him play again. For Scott, who had probably already subconsciously decided that a policy of booking practitioners on his own chosen instrument was going to be one of the principle ways he would enjoy being a promoter, Sims was a definition of the modern jazz musician who was functioning wholeheartedly and pragmatically in the world everybody had to live in.

He had a lot in common with Ronnie. He had been a teenage saxophone star in a showy jazz orchestra, the Woody Herman band. He was an unpretentious, unaffected, music-loving enthusiast. He knew jazz history. And he always played the music as if he enjoyed it. Sims was the kind of player who could have thrived in just about any sort of jazz band of the previous forty-odd years. Sims delivered his easy-going swing and gentle rhapsodizing throughout the month of November 1961 to thrilled audiences at the club. 

A casual, fresh faced man, Sims would play without demonstrativeness, holding the instrument still. His opening bars would establish the tune with the directness and confidence of a player completely at ease with his raw materials, and much of his appeal was founded on the manner in which his sound exhibited both confidence and a heady lightness, as if he were performing graceful juggling act in slow motion. King arranged a short tour of out-of town venues for Sims, and the proprietors presented him with a silver brandy flask after his last performance. Other local musicians donated such peculiarly British gifts as copies of Goon Show records.

Sims was also one of the first Americans to experience the off-beam goings-on that entered the folklore of the Ronnie Scott Club in its various incarnations. Somebody threw a smoke-bomb into the room on 5 November which cleared the premises, but the Californian, a man after the East-enders' hearts, barely raised an eyebrow. Fred Twigg, the club's vision-prone cleaner, was deeply suspicious of the quiet, unassuming visitor. 'Russian spy,' he warned Scott ominously. 'He's a Russian spy.'


In an interview, the usually unforthcoming Sims declared he was delighted with playing in London, since the intimacy of a club gave him the opportunity to relax. 'It reminds me of the Half Note,' Sims said. 'The atmosphere is warm and it's an easygoing place. Musicians like it. It has the same kind of management.' Sims added that he'd like to see Ronnie Scott play in the States. 'It depends on his confidence,' the American accurately observed.

For Scott's part, he was sad to see Sims go. 'My God,' he mused. 'What an anti-climax next week's going to be.'” [pp. 83-86]


Ted Gioia, who seems to be the spark for so many of the editorial’s staff’s selected JazzProfiles, remarked: “Sims would have been one of the most important musicians on the [West] coast had he not left Los Angeles while still in his teens to initiate a career that kept him increasingly on the road or on the eastern seaboard." [West Coast Jazz, p. 311].And while this is a point well-taken, one could posit in return that had it not been for Zoot’s decision to settle in New York City, Jazz might not have experienced the Al Cohn- Zoot Sims Quintet, one of the greatest tenor saxophone partnerships in its history.

In his Jazz Matters, Doug Ramsey offers this comment and anecdote from Paul Desmond about the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quintet:

“Cohn and Sims were one of the most celebrated tenor sax teams in the history of Jazz. Their collaborations were extraordinarily satisfying, leading the late [alto saxophonist] Paul Desmond to observe that hearing Al and Zoot at the old Half Note in Lower Manhattan ‘was like going to get your back scratched.’” [p. 221]

Desmond's marvelously understated humor will serve as our segue into the following delightful interview that Zoot & Al gave to Les Tomkins during their 1965 visit to London for another appearance at Ronnie Scott’s club.



Zoot Sims and Al Cohn: A 1965 Interview with Les Tomkins


Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved

“That great two–tenor team, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, are making it a jumping June in Ronnie Scott’s club. Ronnie calls them “my favourite group”. Mine too. To illustrate their parallel philosophies, I have juxtaposed extracts from separate interviews with the two musicians." Les Tomkins

"Zoot: There were six boys and one girl in our family, in Inglewood, California. All of us had a very happy childhood. We had an open house all the time—a lot of friends, a lot of jam sessions. None of the others ever took it up for a livelihood, except my brother, Ray, who plays trombone. But they were all musical and sang, danced and played.

I played drums in school for a very short time. Then the school gave me an old metal clarinet. I started listening to bands—Basie, Ellington, Goodman. And from clarinet the natural thing is saxophone. One of my big influences was Sam Donahue, who was with Gene Krupa’s band at the time. And Ben Webster. So I used to dream about getting a tenor saxophone. Sure, I was very influenced by Lester Young. When you begin, unless you’re a complete genius, you have to be influenced.

With the Bobby Sherwood band, which I joined at 16, I made my first and greatest trip across the country. I learned quite a bit from it, including how to read.

Al: My musical background started with piano lessons when I was 6 years old. which I didn’t like. but my parents wanted me to have ‘culture’. I studied piano for six years. Then, when I was about 12 years old, I became interested in jazz, and I got a clarinet. I became a Benny Goodman fan. Two years later, I heard Lester Young, and immediately wanted to become a saxophone player. So my indulgent father bought me a saxophone, and I just took two lessons on the tenor from my clarinet teacher, who didn’t know much about it. But if you can play the clarinet, the tenor follows.

I started writing very young. When I was about 15, we had a band in high school, and I learned by the trial and error method. I just tried to copy off records. About eight months after joining the union, when I was 17, I joined Georgie Auld’s band. I had written for a few other bands before that, such as Lee Castle and Joe Marsala. But I guess Georgie Auld was really the start of me going about it more than just occasionally.

I consider my two influences on saxophone to be Lester and Charlie Parker. After that, my taste broadened a little bit. I like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. And there’s a fellow that was around New York years ago. Nobody’s ever heard of him—his name was Ray Turner. He was a pretty big influence.
Zoot: I met Al originally in 1948, when he joined Woody’s band in Salt Lake City. And we became very good friends right away. I don’t know what year it was, but the two of us were called for a Victor album. Later, we took the arrangements from the record date, got a little band, two cars, and went on the road for a while—in ‘57, I think. Ever since then we’ve been working together off and on. We work mainly the Half Note, New York, around four times a year. Al writes for our group—not as much as I’d like him to. He’s busy writing for other people. That’s

Al’s main livelihood—writing. But he loves to play, and the Half Note is perfect for him because he can stay in town.

Al: We hit it off immediately as soon as we met each other. It’s just grown from there. After Woody Herman, we were briefly with Artie Shaw’s band together in “1949. And we played a lot together before we ever had our group. We used to blow around New York, in the days when we weren’t working so much.

When Zoot and I went out on the road for about four months in 1957, we did the night club circuit—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago. We never went to California—we’ve been talking about it for years. Nowadays we work about 12 to 15 weeks a year at the Half Note. Occasionally, we’ve done a couple of private parties. Once in a while we play a concert. It’s nice this way—we don’t get tired of it. We’ve always been friends, aside from business associates. We think alike, although we play differently.

Zoot: I feel equally at home in large or small bands. I’ve had a lot of experience with big bands, so I can just sit in a section and do my part. Although I like small bands better. There’s more freedom—especially if you’re the leader. You can play the tune you want and the tempo you want.Al: I like writing for a big band better, but I like playing in a small group better. When you play with a small group, you don’t have to play boring things over and over again. You’re not within the confines of an arrangement and you can play as long as you want. But writing for a big band, of course, is easier. You can get more varieties of colours, more combinations of instruments. Writing for small groups, having less to work with, you need to use more ingenuity.

Zoot: Woody Herman’s band was about the first I recorded with. I enjoyed it mainly because of my youth and enthusiasm at that time. And I had a lot of respect for everybody in the band. That saxophone sound was first used by Gene Roland in New York in ‘46. Then—I guess you know the story—in California we had this little group, and Woody just took the group into his band, and used the sound. It wasn’t hard to get that blend, because we all liked it and felt it. It was a little sluggish, being a deep sound.

I remember, when we recorded “Four Brothers”, Woody kept thinking we were slowing down. I know why he was thinking that, but actually we weren’t. It was just that sort of heavy sound. And the record doesn’t slow down.

Al: Woody has a really excellent band now. I don’t think it’s only the Four Brothers sound that identifies Woody. Woody himself has a lot to do with identifying the Herman band. His playing—always you know it’s Woody, whether you like it or not. What he does, he does very well. As a matter of fact, I heard him on a record he did on clarinet with just a rhythm section. And it’s pretty nice—it’s the best I’ve ever heard Woody play that thing. He always plays pretty alto. I like Woody.

Zoot: It’s a funny thing. I was born and raised on the West Coast. Yet when I went there in the mid ‘50s, that was actually a very rough period of my career, financially. Very bad. I worked for about eight months, and then everything dropped. People used to tell you: “Zoot! Jeez, if I’d known you were here, I would have called you.” Just nothing happened out there. Except for the record dates, but I didn’t do enough of them for it to mean much. Records take three hours. It had nothing to do with groceries. I’m not drug about it, or bitter or anything. But I like it much better in New York.

Al: The mid ‘50s was the time I got busy. I don’t know if I was leading any East Coast. school. I don’t think so. But I started getting a lot of calls in those days. Fortunately I’ve been getting them ever since.

Zoot: The main reason I went back is, Gerry Mulligan called me up for the Sextet. I’ve been in New York ever since. I enjoyed working with that group very much. It is an experience—especially without a piano. It was very strange at first, not hearing the chords, which I rely on. So I made my own chords up.

Al: In the Mulligan Quartet, Bob Brookmeyer and Gerry have that sort of empathy and instinct together. They play together. Each can sense what the other one’s going to do. They do more of that than Zoot and I—just the two of them playing at the same time, and weaving in and out. They’re both very quick at it.

Zoot: Playing with Al inspires me. I’m a big fan of his. Yes, a kind of a telepathy does happen. Pretty soon you know what the other is thinking, more or less, and it just comes out. Now, Brookmeyer Mulligan—they’ve really got that going. It’s just from working together for so long, and knowing each other’s playing that well.

Of course, a lot of tunes we play, we’ve been playing for a long time, too. Which has got to be. You can’t just play something new every night. But you never play it the same way twice, and you can still get inspired on it. Some nights you may just get bored with it, but the next time you play it you feel completely different.Al: We have patterns, but we don’t play the exact same notes and phrases every time. There are certain sequences that are the same all the time. Other things vary. Our music is arranged, but it’s loose. You know, it’s not strictly on the paper. Then we have a few things that we play that we never did arrange, but it sounds like it’s an arrangement. It just happened. If, as has been said, our joint creativity seems to reach a peak during an engagement, that’s due possibly to the fact that I don’t play most of the time in between. and I may get a little stale. And it takes me a few days to get back with it. It feels a little strange at first. We work, say, every three months or so. So there might be a few weeks where I wouldn’t touch my horn at all. I should practise, but I’m very lazy. Then we go right back in, and I just take it out of the case, find a reed, and blow it for a couple of weeks.

Zoot: Even now, at my age, I still get hungry after a while, if I don’t play for a week or so. It’s nice to play again, you know. Sometimes I go two weeks without playing. But I think that can be good for you, too, if you play professionally all the time. A little time off won’t hurt you. It kind of refreshes you. But I still get that feeling that I’d like to blow again.

Playing jazz has been my whole life, from the age of ten. It’s the only thing I know. There’s a lot of joy in it for me. But it can be drudgery, too. I guess, no matter what you do, you have moments of that. There’s times when, instead of going to work, I’d rather stay home. Because it is work, sometimes. But, once you get up there, you just have to forget it, and try and enjoy it as much as you can.

My big problem is playing the first set. You feel sort of nervous and cold. I may not show it, but I feel it. You know, as long as I’ve been playing, I’ve never got over having people sitting staring at me. But after the first set, I calm down and get relaxed. Sometimes, the first set, I’m thinking about so many other things that I can’t really get with it.

Al: I enjoy playing more than writing, because all I play is jazz. Whereas, with writing I do other things which are not as much fun, but sometimes more lucrative. One of the big differences is that, when you’re playing jazz, once you’ve played it, it’s there. You can always erase a note when you’re writing, or tear up the paper and start again. That makes playing more fun, Another thing I like about playing is that it’s more of a sociable type of thing. You get together with your friends and fellow musicians. In writing, you sit behind the scenes, at a desk or at a piano somewhere. It’s just you and your enemy, the score paper.

I like to do both, actually, and I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to. I get enough playing opportunities to keep facile on my horn. And I don’t have to travel too much. I was born and raised in New York, and I’ll always be a New Yorker. My arranging (which I do mostly) and composing is done by the perspiration method. I don’t find it easy. If I knew more about it, maybe I’d have more of a scientific approach to it. But I’m really quite ignorant.

Zoot: Reading has never been a problem to me. In grade school I had a teacher. My brother, Ray, taught me a lot about reading, too. And, in dance band reading. there can’t be too much difference. It’s always very easy. But when I read out of an exercise book, I have to stop once in a while and figure it out. It’s a little different.

Sometimes, if a score is very difficult, even if I don’t figure it out, if I hear it once I can play it. I remember when I was in Woody’s band I always used to nudge Sam Marowitz, the lead alto player. and say “How’s that go?” if it was ‘difficult. He’d sing it over a couple of times, and then I’d get it. Then, the next time I saw it, I could read it.

Now in the States you never have a rehearsal for a record date. But with the calibre of the musicianship right now, for most dates you really don’t need it too much. But when you play jazz on some of these record dates—that’s where the trouble begins with me. Because when they just throw a bunch of changes at you and a tune you don’t know, it’s a lot different to just reading music. Most of us can do that. But to play something inspired—I can’t just have something thrown in front of me and feel at home with it. I’m not that type of musician. I don’t read changes that fast and well. There are some musicians who can do it. But I have to really know it before I can settle down.

Al: Writing so much, it’s easy to be caught in the similarity trap. Like, for instance, if you’re doing an album of twelve tunes, it’s easy to fall into certain habits. Especially if you have to write twelve arrangements in a week or ten days or something. Often these dates are put together rather quickly. 
Sometimes you say: “Oh—I wrote that yesterday”, you know. That can happen if the material is very similar to begin with. Like on that Buddy Greco album. He wanted everything to be—well, dynamic and powerful—nothing too subtle, nothing soft and subdued. So I felt if you listened to the whole album at one sitting, it would start to get a little boring and repetitious.

Most of my income is from commercial arranging—with jazz overtones, you know. But, when you’re working for other people, you don’t try to put your personality into it. You just try to give them what they want. I mostly get good assignments, for people that are pretty hip. Usually, the reason they call me is that they want what I can do.

Most of these people are singers, not musicians, and they don’t know how to explain what they want. When they say they want something that really swings, you have to know what they mean by that. Now, if Guy Lombardo were to come to me and say that, I couldn’t do what I think really swings. I’d have to figure out what he thinks swings. Guy Lombardo probably thinks that Kay Kyser had a swing band.

Zoot: Yes, I’ve never been bothered with time. It’s the other elements that I’m worried about. As natural as breathing? I never thought of it that way, but it’s true. Time has always been very easy for me—just to keep a tempo, you know. Harmonically, I could improve immensely, I believe. I don’t see how you can learn to swing. I really don’t. My whole family’s very musical, like we said before, and when I was very young, my eldest brother took up saxophone and clarinet. And he became very adept as far as reading and technique were concerned. But he has no sense of metre, no time. Very strange. So, as far as that part, I think it’s either there or it isn’t. The other part you can always develop.

Al: The only way to develop as a writer is to keep writing. It’s the easiest thing to talk yourself out of it, to make excuses and say “Oh, I don’t feel well today” or something. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil, For myself, I should get a belt with a lock on it, and give somebody else the key, so I’d be forced to sit there. As for tenor, I don’t practise. I’ve always hated practising, even as a child. Practising and rehearsing. My experience was all of the practical kind, playing with bands and then at sessions around New York. We used to chip in and rent studios, and play all the time—every night we weren’t working. That was the way I developed.

There’s no accepted pattern for saxophone, After you’ve learned to breathe properly and blow correctly, there’s not much else they can tell you. Like, on a clarinet, they can tell you whether your sound is not this, or not that. We don’t have that on saxophone. Being a comparatively recently invented instrument, it doesn’t have that tradition of what is considered an ideal sound. Every saxophone player has a different sound. You might admire two fellows, and then what you have to play might sound like both of them.

Zoot: What we did when we were kids was play all we could together. And play for the fun of it — not trying to see if we could cut anybody, or be better, or something. I mean, naturally, you can’t get away from that completely.

Everybody wants to be the best, and all that. But I find there’s not much of that going on any more—at least, back home. That was the main thing in life in the ‘forties—around ‘49, ‘50. Mulligan, Miles, George Wallington—nobody was working. or had any money. But we still took a collection up, rented a studio and just played all night—for ourselves. Because we—wanted to play. You can learn more with that than anything.

I think one of the best things you can do, no matter what you play, is to take up piano. Music is based on chord changes and harmonies, and you can get ‘em more out of an instrument like piano, where you can hear all the notes at once. I feel that I lack a lot of that in my own music. I mean, it broadens your ear so much when you know harmony—especially these days, the way jazz is going.

Oh yes, it’s the sound I want. Much too late to change it, anyway. I’ve had two mouthpieces in the last—let me see —well, since ‘43. And I just changed recently, but it’s almost the same mouthpiece. It’s a very old rubber Brilhart. But I don’t know much about mouthpieces—very little. And I find that they really don’t mean that much. Because you can take Stan Getz, Lester Young, or anybody you name, and they can play your horn—and they’ll still sound like themselves.

It’s the individual. You get the sound you hear. It comes from within, the way you grip the mouthpiece with your mouth and your lips. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the set–up.

Al: I like the percussive type of pianist, like John Williams, Dave McKenna, John Bunch. They goose you a little bit. If you feel a little lazy one time, they make you get in there and blow, and forget about your laziness. Stan Tracey is very good in the section. As for drummers, I don’t like those that play very busy and very loud all the time, and don’t listen to what you’re doing. You know, egotist—type drummers that want to be leaders. Well, I have no use for that. I want a drummer that, if I feel like playing soft, he’ll play soft with me. So I want a guy that listens. To me that’s the difference between just being a drummer and being a musician.

Zoot: I like a drummer that plays fairly hard, and all that, but one that listens to what you’re playing. Because when a drummer drops a bomb or fills in, it should be only in one place. And that’s when you, the soloist, leave room for it. Some drummers get carried away with learning all those tricks of filling in, and they just do it automatically —any time they feel like it, because they know how to do it. But if he tries to supplement the soloist, the outcome will be much more tasty. I’ve heard it done so many times, where a drummer is just noodling around, and it’s completely in the way of what’s going on musically with the horn.”

… To be continued in Part 3




Don DeMichael wrote of Zoot Sims in Down Beat“he provides the best of all possible arguments for blowing sessions."

Leonard Feather recalled that Bill Holman once said to him: “People have wondered why Zoot doesn't progress. I figured it out - it's simply that guys like him don't need to progress: they just mature. With his talent, what else do you need?”

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

As I was trying to put Zoot’s recording career in some kind of perspective, I received this message from my friend Wellington Choy in New Zealand and he did it for me. Welly graciously allowed me permission to reproduce this message as follows:

March 20, 2009


“Hi Steve,

I think the most remarkable thing about Zoot's recording career is that until Norman Granz signed him up in 1975 for Pablo (ten years before Zoot passed away) - he was one of the few major jazz figures that didn't appear to have a long standing contract with any record company.

I have mentioned that I regard 1956 as being a highlight year in Zoot's career - this is because he was very active in both the USA and Europe, recording in his own name for a variety of record labels - and he was at the peak of his powers at age 31. Even his excellent co-led sessions with Al Cohn didn't garner a long term contract with any one record company.

I suspect that the reason for his not being snaffled up by Columbia, RCA Victor, Capitol et al. was because he was too laid back and although he swung like hell at the drop of a hat, he may have lacked "personality", or the "it" factor? Or was Zoot not "aggressive" enough in seeking out a contract with a record company, rather than his "one shot" recording history, until Norman Granz signed him up for Pablo. What do you think?

Zoot didn't fit in to the Blue Note mold (I think his only BN session was the one with Jutta Hipp) and while on the West Coast in 1954, neither Contemporary or Pacific Jazz did much - apart from Zoot being on the lovely Clifford Brown PJ album - possibly because he wasn't "West Coast" enough.

I'm also rather surprised that Norman Granz didn't record him for Verve when he had that label.

Even the irascible and prickly Ruby Braff seemed to have more than one-shot deals with Vanguard, RCA Victor, Chiaroscuro, Concord and towards the end, Arbors Jazz.

Looking through the Tom Lord discography, the figures speak for themselves :

Stan Getz - died at 64. Leadership sessions 221 : Number of times on record 413 - so almost 50% of his recording were in his own name.

Sonny Rollins - born 1930, still going - thank heavens! . Leadership sessions 130 to date. Number of times on record 177 - so 74%% his own recordings.

Cannonball Adderley - died at 47. Leadership sessions 130. Number of times on record 206 - so 63% his own recordings - but he died relatively young.

But as for Zoot - died at 60. Leadership sessions 96. Number of times on record 536 - so only 18% of his recording session were in his own name. And he is on more sessions that Stan Getz!

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, as to why he didn't get roped in by one of the major record companies as a contract artist when he was younger. …

Whatever, to me I buy every record by Zoot I can lay my hands upon - and there isn't a single dud amongst them.”


With that ringing endorsement of Zoot’s recordings, let’s continue on by returning to Doug Ramsey’s Jazz Matters: Reflections of the Music and Some of Its Makers [Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989 pp. 217-220 ] as it affords a recapitulation of the highlights of Zoot’s career as well as some moving anecdotes, and his brief reviews of a number of Zoot’s albums will serve as a segue into a larger discussion of Zoot’s records.

1985


“Zoot Sims died March 23rd at the age of fifty-nine. He was the most dependable and consistent of tenor saxophonists. Never dull, never predictable, he symbolized the spirit of jazz. A performance by Zoot carried two guarantees: it would swing, and it would have surprises. He was always on the brink of the next surprise and looking forward to it.

He required no start-up time. Zoot Sims was that rarity, a musician who was capable of swinging from the first note, and his swing was irresistible. He could generate it with superior rhythm sections, with inferior rhythm sections, and without rhythm sections.

He loved to play. I remember a 1955 Seattle concert by a touring group of jazz stars and the jam session afterward, a gathering of big-name players and the cream of local musicians in a little hall near the University of Washington. Zoot staked out a low stool near the piano and played until three in the morning, long after George Shearing, Chet Baker, Toots Thielemans, and the other visiting jazzmen had bailed out. It was just Sims and a rhythm section headed by pianist Paul Neves. Finally, as the rhythm players were packing up to leave, Zoot closed his eyes, rested his head against the wall, and kept on swinging as hard by himself as he had with piano, bass, and drums. It's an indelible image.
Years ago I was on a committee that put together the first New Orleans Jazz Festival. When deliberations began on the all-star group we wanted as a house band, Willis Conover of the Voice of America said, "Well, we'll have to have Zoot, of course," and looked around the table as we all nodded. Then we went on to pick the rest of the players.


Back in the sixties, during a two-week engagement at a New Orleans club called Economy Hall, Zoot found himself with two-thirds of a rhythm section when his bass player took ill. The only reasonably competent bassist available locally was far below Zoot's level and knew it. "Don't worry about it," Zoot told him. "Do what you can do. We'll get along fine." The bassist did what he could, but the first couple of nights were rough for him. Zoot was swinging magnificently while carrying his timorous bass player and adjusting his own improvisation to help the pianist provide simple harmonic guidelines. By the end of the first week the bassist was adequate. Zoot could have called New York for a replacement. Instead, he continued to bring along the New Orleans substitute. Night by night, the improvement was audible. When the engagement ended, the man was a considerably better bass player. And he idolized Zoot Sims.

John Haley Sims was born in California to parents who were vaudevillians. Young Jack was at first the drummer, then the clarinetist in the family band. When he joined Kenny Baker's band as a fifteen-year-old tenor saxophonist, each of the music stands was embellished with a nonsense word. The one he sat behind said "Zoot." That became his name.

Much has been made of Lester Young's influence on Zoot, and rightfully; he revered Young. But Ben Webster was his original inspiration. In 1944, at the age of nineteen, after having worked in four big bands, including Benny Goodman's, Sims replaced Webster in Sid Catlett's quartet. Webster remained a lifelong passion. One evening in the early seventies when Zoot, his wife Louise, and guitarist Jim Hall and his wife were visiting, I asked if anyone would like to hear a record. "All Too Soon," Zoot said without hesitation. We listened to Duke Ellington's 1940 masterpiece, with its regal Webster solo, three times. Zoot asked for a fourth hearing. 'I'll never get enough of it. Every time I hear it, it's like the first time," he said.


Zoot married Louise Choo in 1970. To the casual observer it might have seemed an unusual pairing, the itinerant tenor player and the charming, sophisticated assistant to Clifton Daniel, managing editor of The New York Times. But it was one of the most graceful and affectionate of marriages, full of regard, appreciation, and laughter. A couple of years ago in San Francisco, where they had taken an apartment during Zoot's engagement at Keystone Korner, I picked them up for dinner. When I pulled up in front of the building, Zoot, his trench coat collar turned up against the foggy chill and the bill of his plaid car cap low over his eyes, was laughing at something Louise was saying. Then he spoke and she laughed, and as they entered the car they continued chatting and laughing, like the best friends they were. That was at a time when the medical news was not good for either of them and Zoot seemed frail, his Joseph Cotten good looks edged in gauntness. It was typical of their relationship that in the most uncertain of times they brought out the best in one another.

One bone-chilling December day years ago my wife and I went to Yankee Stadium with the Simses and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams to watch the New York Giants get buried alternately by snow flurries and the Baltimore Colts defense. We could hear but not see the band hired by the Giants' management to entertain the fans and inspire the team. The clarinetist, Adams said, was either Benny Goodman or Sol Yaged, Goodman's greatest imitator. Benny may have been legendary for his thrift, Zoot observed, but he was too rich to need an outdoor gig in this kind of weather. It had to be Sol. Knowing how closely Zoot had worked with Goodman over the years, I had a hunch his ear alone could have led him to that conclusion. Sims apparently never had any of the extraordinary problems of abuse suffered by so many musicians who worked with the notoriously difficult Goodman, beyond simply having to put up with him. Goodman first hired him when Zoot was a teenager and often called him for reunion appearances long after Zoot was a star. Sims allowed as how he and Benny never talked much and that might have been the secret.

Back at Zoot and Louise's midtown apartment, unfrozen and fed, we played Ping-Pong, a game at which Zoot excelled with the same timing and deceptive relaxation that he brought to music. He also liked wood carving and skillfully created birds and other forms from driftwood. He was a major league gardener, and when he and Louise finally gave up the apartment to live full-time at their place in West Nyack, New York, he got into heavy-duty landscaping. Frequently during our get-togethers, Louise and I discussed music or the news business while Zoot and my wife exchanged accumulated wisdom about soil pH factors and peat moss.


In the mid-seventies Norman Granz began recording Zoot extensively, and there is now a series of fifteen Sims albums on Granz's Pablo label. They are all at least very good, and most of them are excellent. A sampler called The Best of Zoot Sims [PACD 2405-2406] contains representative tracks. One of the most recent releases, Quietly There: Zoot Sims Plays Johnny Mandel (Pablo 2310-903), is among the best recordings in his forty-four-year career as a professional musician.


Primarily a tenor saxophonist, Sims was also respected for his work on alto sax and, in recent years, on soprano. Arnie Astrup, a Danish saxophonist and critic, may have summed up the feelings of many musicians and listeners when he said, "I hate the soprano saxophone. It is a clown instrument. They should be burned, all. But when Zoot plays it, I like it."


One of the Pablo albums, Zoot Sims: Soprano Sax (Pablo 2310-770), is devoted entirely to the instrument. He played it with such passion, involvement, and straightforward swing that I can't imagine anyone's not liking it.
As for his alto work, Zoot Sims Plays Four Altos (reissued on Impulse 29060) is one of the most admired saxophone records, not only for Sims's creativity and his accomplishment of overdubbing four alto parts but also for the ingenious compositions and arrangements by George Handy. Zoot's alto work is also outstanding on The Big Stampede (Biograph BLP-12064), a recording with his superb 1956 band, which included pianist John Williams and trumpeter Jerry Lloyd, two excellent, nearly forgotten musicians.

Zootcase (Prestige P-24061) is a two-album reissue of recordings made from 1950 through 1954. Among them is the memorable session with "Morning Fun," "Zootcase," "Tangerine," and the original recording of "The Red Door," which became a staple developed by Sims and his fellow tenor saxophonist Al Cohn. Besides the tenors, the band was made up of trombonist Kai Winding and the formidable rhythm section of pianist George Wallington, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Art Blakey. This one belongs in any basic collection. ..."

And while we are in The Land of the Heavy-Hitter Jazz Reviewers with Doug Ramsey’s selections from among Zoot’s recordings, another member of this august group is Ira Gitler who has been astutely writing about Jazz in book form and record critiques for over a half-of-century.


Here is Ira’s review of Body and Soul [Muse MCD 5356; 32jazz 32017] as published in Tom Piazza’s Setting the Tempo: Fifty years of Great Liner Notes [New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1996, pp. 120-126].


“In listening to a test pressing of this album, someone was moved to say, as the twin tenor tendrils of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims intertwined around the melodic trellis of Emily, “Now, there’s a friendship. She was as right as Leonard Feather back in 1960 when he called them “the Damon and Pythias of the tenors.”

Al and Zoot have had a perfect blendship since January 1948, when they first me in a parking lot in Salt Lake City at the time Al joined Woody Herman’s Second Herd. The musical-social association that began then grew during their travels with Woody and solidified in the immediate post-Herman period in New York, when they had the opportunity to play together in various small groups and at many informal sessions.


Off the stand they drank together, played softball together, visited each other's apartments, and generally strengthened the bond between them. In 1957 they finally formalized their musical affinity by forming a working quintet which spotlighted the two tenor saxophones and occasionally featured their assorted other horns. Although for the next two years they recorded and worked within the new format on an intermittent basis, the group really came into its own in 1959, when Sims and Cohn began working regularly at the old Half Note. Between the several engagements each year at the club on Manhattan's Lower West Side, there were visits to the jazz spots of other cities. Al continued to write arrangements for a multitude of aggregations (including the Cohn-Sims quintet) and both men recorded on their own as well as team-style.

1960 marked the last time they recorded in a two-tenor with rhythm format. The inordinate length of time between recordings for the team makes this one's value go beyond its intrinsic musical worth, which is very high, indeed. The fact that Al and Zoot have not worked together as often in the 1970s as they did in the 1960s is yet another reason that this studio gathering had such a special aura.

The lists of Al's and Zoot's friends do not stop at one. The same characteristics of warmth, humor, and just plain old-fashioned humanity that made their own friendship a reality have drawn many admirers into each man's orbit. The atmosphere in the studio on the afternoon this session was taped was one of quietly joyous celebration. The feeling was verbalized in certain ways, but mostly it was unspoken. The good vibes that were ricocheting around the room were as implicit as the good notes they reflected. With former Herman mates like Terry Gibbs and Lou Levy visiting from the West Coast, and ex-band mate and colleague Frankie Socolow in attendance, this session had all the positive aspects of an alumni reunion.

Both Zoot and Al can communicate a wide range of emotions through their playing. (Forget about hate.) Each has had his knocks just by virtue of living on this planet for forty-five years, but each has the kind of spirit which is able to deflect the flings and marrows of egregious Gorgons. This optimism in the face of reality comes out in the music and is one of the appealing, attractive, uplifting elements in the righteous rhapsody we call jazz, generally speaking and specifically as it applies to Cohn-Sims. There is nothing so potent in the pro-life arsenal as a sense of humor. Al and Zoot are not wanting in this department.


Cohn, the Brooklyn native transplanted to the Poconos, is renowned as a raconteur of droll and ribald stories. The lost art of telling a joke has not gone astray because of his efforts. And he's not bad with a pun-ishing ad-lib, either. He was an S. I Perelman head while still in his teens and into the Marx Bros. and W. C. Fields then, too. Al loves to do The New York Times crossword puzzle, is an avid fisherman, and sleeps in a Saran Wrap nightshirt on a bed of pine needles.

Native Californian Sims, the Westerner who found happiness in New York, exhibits humor of a drier bent. Once, at a record date when someone swallowed only one half an upper and was about to discard the rest, Zoot admonished: "Think of all the kids in Europe who are sleeping' He's just as likely to spring a singing song tide on you, like Ray Sims with the Moon; Zoot Sims to Me I’ve Heard That Song Before; or his ever-popular Sol Schlinger Awhile. He enjoys reshaping driftwood into bird and animal forms; makes some mean chili and guacamole; has been known to Ping-Pong it up; and sleeps nude in the top of a double bunk bed without a ladder.

The excellent rhythm section which backs the twin cantors of caloric clout here is made up of three diverse personalities who blend beautifully, enabling Sims and Cohn to forget about anything but projecting their thoughts and feelings in an inspired manner over a welling billow of harmonic-rhythmic plenitude.

Jaki Byard, the sometimes unpredictably unorthodox and oft-times brilliantly versatile, historically encyclopedic pianist, worked with Al and Zoot at Lennie's on the Turnpike in Boston, the old Half Note, and is capable of being intelligently avant-garde, seriously raggish, unstridently stridish, or any other way you want to play it. Most of the time he enjoys swinging in any of its many guises, like straight ahead with the saxophone seraphs. Presently, Mr. Byard is a Professor of Music at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

One of the deans of the contrabass in American music is George Duvivier, a veteran of the New York recording, radio, and television studios, where his path has crossed with Zoot and Al on innumerable occasions. For tone, time, propulsion, and all-around musical knowledge and experience, Monsieur Duvivier has few peers. Lately, he has been alternating with one of those peers, Milt Hinton, in the Bobby Rosengarden orchestra on The Dick Cavett Show.

Co-leader of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, drummer Lewis is a subtle accompanist who achieves a driving beat without forging huge metal sculptures in the process. He is able to swing a large organization or a small unit and if you were present for the Gretsch afternoon at Wollman Amphitheater during the 1973 Newport-New York Jazz Festival, you heard him play an unaccompanied drum piece that was as notable for its lack of bombast as for its invention. A "musical" drummer, Mel is, in his own way, carrying on the tradition of the late Tiny Kahn.


The repertory of a working Cohn-Sims group is, of course, well stocked with originals by Al, but it also contains material from other writers from the jazz ranks, like trombonist-arranger Billy Byers, whose Doodle Oodle is based on the changes of There'll Be Some Changes Made. When there are some changes to be made, Al and Zoot negotiate them rather adroitly as in this up-tempo, romp-stomp of an opener. Al's keening choruses - with a finishing quote from the old Paramount News theme, The Eyes and Ears of the World - precede Byard's, and Zoot's - with overtones of Ben Webster in his throaty sound - follow Jaki. Duvivier does some walking on his own before the tenors, in the same order, engage in a round-robin with Lewis.

Emily, mentioned at the outset, is by the Academy Award winning Johnny Mandel and was first heard in The Americanization of Emily. Mandel, a former trombonist-bass trumpeter-jazz arranger, is an old buddy of Zoot and Al, who have long enjoyed interpreting his music.

The tenors take turns with the lead as they state the melody in lovingly tender terms, Zoot beginning the chorus and Al finishing. Each backs the other with superb empathy before setting out on successive wondrous solo flights in the same order.
Next is the Samba Medley. We are long past the fad period of the bossa nova, but the good that it rendered unto American music has survived. Zoot did Djalma Ferreira's Recado Bossa Nova in 1962 at the height of the craze. The lilting, minor-key melody lends itself well to the kind of torrid rhythmic impulses that regularly throb through the Sims tenor.

Byard, delineates The Girl from Ipanema without quite ever revealing her original contours but tells us a lot about the inner woman. Then Cohn expands on One Note Samba (like Girl, a creation of Antonio Carlos Jobim) in a dissertation demonstrating that whether it is one note or many, it's what you do with them that counts.

Al's Mama Flosie is dedicated to his wife, Flo, a fine singer known professionally as Flo Handy. It's a funky holler of a rolling, bluesy forty-bar pattern played in fast waltz time. Cohn and Sims each have two strong solo choruses, gathering momentum as they go. After two insouciantly swinging choruses by Byard, Al and Zoot return to trade thoughts.

Body and Soul is the tenorman's domain. Coleman Hawkins planted the flag there in 1939 and it has been the bearer for this standard ever since. For the neophyte, B&S has been both stumbling block and proving ground; for the seasoned pro, a vehicle allowing the deepest kind of soul-plumbing. Al pulls out a plum here, a plum-sized diamond. This is a heavy performance of Johnny Green's masterpiece, adding to its already weighty heritage. If there be such a thing as continued cosmic consciousness, Hawk must be smiling behind this one.

When the Cohn-Sims quintet began, Zoot doubled alto; Al doubled baritone; and on certain numbers both whipped out their clarinets. Eventually, the essence of the group was boiled down to the two tenors. In 1972, however, Zoot again turned to a second horn. This time it is the soprano (he calls it "Sidney" for Bechet) and it has become a love affair, arousing anything but jealousy in his wife, Louise, and culminating in the kind of performance exemplified by Rod McKuen's heart-touching Jean from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Tune, tone, sound, and substance are wedded in a wistfully affecting way as only Zoot can do it.

Gary McFarland wrote the plaintive Blue Hodge for Johnny Hodges, who recorded it in 1961. Zoot steps right out with full-toned ease. After Jaki's solo, it is Al's deep-throated moans which carry forth the blues. Duvivier's nimble fingers pluck the tenors back into the final chorus.


That's the music, an immaculate execution of a body and soul-pleasing array of songs. I use immaculate in the sense of a perfection that is achieved as a by-product of professionalism that can be reveled in and marveled at because it never loses anything at those really important levels. Al says it well when he talks about Zoot's current work. "He's playing better than ever," comments Cohn. "He's never lost that spontaneity and he's be come more polished. Some players get polished and, with it, more mechanical. Not Zoot. I enjoy his playing more than ever."

Zoot feels that Al is "one of the greatest musicians and men I’ve ever met. It's always a pleasure to play with him. He's great now, but if he played all the time, concentrated on it, he'd even be more sensational.”


Sims was referring to Cohn's busy writing schedule, which takes precedence over his playing hours. Recently, he has arranged part of the score of Raisin, the musical version of Raisin in the Sun.

The indications are, too, that the team of Sims and Cohn is once again going to be more of a factor on the live jazz scene. The release of this record should further increase the renewed demand for their combined services.

Audiences are apt to react the way Cannonball Adderley did one night at the old Half Note. Since he had just come from his own job, he arrived at closing time in the midst of the last number of the morning. Placing his ample frame in the club's entrance with his back squarely, or roundly, against the door, he cried: "Alvin Gilbert Cohn! John Haley Sims! Don't stop now!!"
And while we are in the Realm of Major League Jazz writers and critics, let’s continue with Jack Tracy [who was the editor of Down Beat magazine for a number of years in the 1950s, as well as, a producer of Jazz records], and Mike Hennessey, who has written for all of the major Jazz publications as well as published a biography on the life of pioneering be-bop drummer, Kenny Clarke.

Up first are Jack liner notes to Zoot [ARGO 608; OJCCD 228; including Nat Hentoff’s review of the album in Down Beat] followed by excerpt’s from Mike Hennessey’s insert notes to Zoot Case [Gazell GJCD 1021] and Scott Yanow’s review of it for 
www.allmusic.com.

“Zoot Sims has been an active member of the Jazz fraternity ever since lie Joined Kenny Baker's orchestra in 1941 at the age of' 16. since that time lie has worked with Bobby Sherwood. Bob Astor, Sonny Dunham. Benny Goodman and an innumerable number of small groups, including that of Gerry Mulligan. which he left in mid-1956 to form his own unit. Yet it has been only of late that his playing has begun to earn the respect among musicians and fans alike that it deserves.

In addition to all his previous credits, Zoot also is the owner of a badge of distinction which can lie worn in the lapels of just three other men. Along with Stan Getz, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, he was one of tile original members of' the "Four Brothers" saxophone section of the Woody Herman orchestra in 1947 and '48.

No other section of' any Jazz band was ever as well-known as the Brothers, due not only to the unique nickname but also because of the artistry of' all its members.

In turn, the musicians were all propelled to varying degrees of faille through the association.

Stan Getz made it almost overnight. His solo on Woody's Early Autumn was a huge hit, and he became the best-known tenor saxist of the past decade, and a winner of seven consecutive 'Down Beat' polls.

Herbie Steward, a musicians' musician highly respected by his fellow players, retired to the obscurity of' Hollywood studios and dance bands early in the '50s. His lovely tone and stipple conception were the envy of many a contemporary.

Baritone saxist Serge Chaloff, all amazingly flexible musician, had a roaring career underway until some personal difficulties virtually wrecked it.

And so just two of the Brothers remain prominent. Their progress might be likened to that of' the hare and the tortoise. Getz flew to fame. Sims has plodded steadily.

Getz is the consummate artist, the brilliant technician with the floating sound. There are times when you will swear there is really nothing left to play after lie has finished a solo. He explores every devious, twisting channel.


Zoot, as Bob Brookmeyer says, "plays earthy." He is direct, simple, logical, and above all, emotional.

I have long held the theory (though certainly is not one evolved by me) that a musician who has found his sea legs and charts his own personal course is just what he plays.

To explain. Roy Eldridge is the same flaming personality as his playing. So is Dizzy Gillespie. The elfin delight in color and sound that pours from Erroll Garner’s piano is Erroll Garner. Jimmy Giuffre is a calm, dryly humorous student of music.

Zoot Sims is the country boy moved to the city, one who has let enough sophistication stick to him that he can get along with the urbanites. Though he has a firm control of his horn, he shrugs off an unnecessary technical bric-a-brac to dig deeply into blues-based roots of jazz. His playing is piercingly honest and revealing, and though he, too, is one of the many who have been influenced by Lester Young, his sound is thicker and fuller, and the beat he evokes is more akin to a heart-beat than a pulse.

Zoot is a swinger planted ankle-deep in loam.

All those qualities are evident in this collection, the first to allow him so much blowing room. He carries it off superbly, from the first booting notes of 9:20 Special, the old swing era favorite, through Dizzy Gillespie’s Latino Woody ‘N You.In between are a moving eloquent The Man I Love, a skimming excursion over 55th and State, based on a familiar and often employed chord structure [Tea for Two], and Blue Room, played at a finger-snapping tempo.

And then there’s Gus’s Blues, written by Gus Johnson, the drummer on the date. That Old Feeling follows, then Sims picks up the tempo to play Oscar Pettiford’s Bohemia After Dark. It seems fragile in his hands, as if at any moment the instrument might break in two as he pours tenor saxophone conception into it.

Quite a remarkable album, this, one which turns a bright bulb on Zoot Sims, tenor saxophonist.

He does not blink.

Jack Tracy Editor, Down Beat magazine: Album Production – Dave Usher”

Down Beat 1957: Rating – 5 Stars

“”Less is more,’ said an aesthetician several centuries ago while pointing out the power of simplicity, of the direct line of communicating a message. Jack Tracy makes the corollary point for this context in the liner notes: ‘Zoot,’ as Bob Brookmeyer says, ‘plays earthy.’ “He is direct, simple, logical, and above all, emotional.”

The album is a wholly spontaneous one, and as such, merits the full rating as one of the more sustained examples of hot jazz improvisation on recent records. Zoot is one of the very few jazzmen who can make 12” of a one-horn LP a constantly fulfilling experience. His time is apparently as natural in him as his heartbeat (another Tracy point) and his work here is a clear and memorable a definition of what swinging is as you can find. His tone is full and hits with authoritative impact. His conception as fore noted, is refreshingly direct, lean, never banal or scuffling, and as if cleaned of gratuitous ornamentation by the heat.

There is strong rhythmic support with Totah steady, Gus making me wonder for the hundredth-plus time why Basie let him go, and Williams soloing with a fierce, functional incisiveness that complements Zoot well. Can’t find any real complaint anywhere.

The liner even contains the recording date [October 12, 1956].”


And here are excerpts Mike Hennessey’s insert notes to Zoot Case [Gazell GJCD 1021].

“The jazz world owes a substantial vote of thanks to jazz enthusiast Lars Johansson of Morgongava, Sweden who had the great good sense to record this joyous informal session of June 8th, 1982 in Stockholm's Mosebacke pub.

Zoot Sims and AJ Cohn, one of the most creative and compatible partnerships in jazz, were in town for the Stockholm Jazz & Blues Festival. On this particular evening they had no festival commitment so they were invited to jam at the pub. The performances which resulted carefree, relaxed, exuberant - are an object lesson in swing spontaneity and sublime musical rapport. The music is an eloquent definition of what Jazz is - or what should be - all about. It typifies the musical philosophy of Al and Zoot - unpretentious, straight-ahead hard-swinging, happy-go-lucky, irresistibly infectious jazz that comes from the heart, delights the ear and mobilizes the feet.

AJ and Zoot were soulmates. They were born within a month of each other in the Fall of 1925: they both started out on clarinet they both had the imprint of the unique Lester Young on their saxophone styles and each had the same loose-limbed sense of swing.

Actually, the fifth bar in the bridge of the penultimate chorus of "Exactly Like You” says it all far more effectively than I could hope to do. Zoot and Al are improvising freely together while the rhythm section lays out - and. at this particular point in the sequence, they hit on phrases which am virtually identical.

(Incidentally, in preparing the note for this album, I checked out the sleeve of Al and Zoot’s first Sonet date, "Motoring Along", which included this passage in my comments on My Funny Valentine: “And just to underline the rapport between the two leaders, listen to the way their thoughts overlap on the unaccompanied cannon towards the end of the same number." This was a fascinating feature of Al and Zoot's work together).


Alvin Cohn … [is] a prolific composer and arranger and a witty, intelligent soloist Cohn was largely a musician’s musician and much underrated by the jazz public. … Nat Hentoff described Zoot as 'one of those musicians who had the power to make everyone in the room feel the way he does. He speaks to those who need more from music quick tricks.’

The high level of appreciations accorded to Zoot by the public. by critics and fellow musicians makes it hard to believe that in the fifties, he had to take up house painting to supplement his income arid provide for his family.

It was just about 30 years before this album was recorded that Al and Zoot first came together in a small group setting to record some sides for Prestige - one of which, coincidentally enough, was “Zootcase." Trombonist Kai Winding was also in the front line and the rhythm section was George Wallington, Percy Heath and Art Blakey. It was out of this session that the idea of the most agreeable features of the jazz scene over the next two and a half decades came together.


The official Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quintet recorded debut occurred on January 24th, 1956 when it made some sides for RCA Victor with Hank Jones, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson.

In those days both Al and Zoot had rather cooler and less robust sounds than are in evidence on this album, but the compatibility and mutual stimulation was there from the beginning. … Mike Hennessey ….”

And writing in 
www.allmusic.com, this is Scott Yanow’s view of Zoot Case:

“During a 30-year period the very complementary tenors Zoot Sims and Al Cohn teamed up on an irregular but always consistently satisfying basis. This club date from Stockholm, one of their final joint recordings, features the pair backed by pianist Claes Croona, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Petur Ostlund. Both Zoot and Cohn sound quite inspired and they really push each other on "Exactly like You," "After You've Gone" (which features Sims on soprano) and even a surprisingly heated version of "The Girl from Ipanema." Al Cohn’s tone had deepened during the years and, although they sounded nearly identical in the 1950s, it is quite easy to tell the two tenors apart during this encounter. The CD (…) is highly recommended for fans of the saxophonists and for bop collectors in general.”


It’s hard to imagine improving on Al Cohn and Zoot Sims playing together, but Jazz Alive! A Night At The Half Note [Blue Note 7243 1 94105 2 7]is an album that offers a brief glimpse of how this could come about because it contains two tracks on which alto saxophonist Phil Woods joins the dynamic tenor saxophone duo for a 20 minute-plus romp on Wee Dot and After You’ve Gone.For the selfish amongst us, I’m sure that these two tracks rank only as a musical appetizer, and that we would have preferred a continuing feast of Cohn, Sims, and Woods. But alas, it was not meant to be and we must be satisfied with small portions.


Writing in 
www.allmusic.com, Ken Dryden had this to say about Jazz Alive:

“Zoot Sims and Al Cohn always made great music together; this live CD documents portions of two nights' work together at the Half Note in New York City, assisted by pianist Mose Allison, bassist Nabil Totah and drummer Paul Motian. Their brisk setting of "Lover, Come Back to Me" features Cohn, Sims and Allison soloing in turn, building the fire before the eventual trading of fours between the tenor saxophonists. After a relaxed rendition of "It Had to Be You," alto saxophonist Phil Woods is added to the mix for the next two numbers, recorded the very next evening. The guest sets up the percolating mid-tempo setting of "Wee Dot," with the tenors following him. The delightful interplay within the long workout of "After You've Gone" signals the chemistry between the three friends. It's a shame that no unreleased material was located for this 1998 CD reissue, but in any case, bop and cool fans will want to make an effort to acquire this excellent release.”


In addition to his work with Al Cohn in their quintet and touring with his own quartet Zoot, spent a great deal of time in the company of Gerry Mulligan: first in the mid-1950s in the previously mentioned sextet and again in early 1960’s this time with Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

Returning to more of drummer Larry Bunker’s comments about Zoot and his career as a way of making a passing reference to the recordings that Zoot made while he was with Gerry:
“After the concerts with Gerry’s sextet in San Diego, I played a few more gigs with him, but he split for New York and re-formed the group there with a new rhythmic section using Dave Bailey on drums.

I always thought my style of drumming was too intense for Gerry; too propulsive. He seemed to like it some times, but some times he said that it was ‘too busy.’ I think he preferred a drummer who kept straight time with a beat that had more of a loping, running feeling to it; something that was easier for him to play over.

It never made any difference to Zoot. He could go with anything from a time-keeper to a drummer who kicked him in the bu**.

Going back to his time with Krupa and Elliott Lawrence, Gerry was always a big band guy and he was always working on the way he wanted a big band of his own to sound and to feel from the quartet with Chet, to the sextet with Bob Brookmeyer and Zoot, and eventually with his New York big band
 [although it wasn’t referenced so at the time of this conversation with Larry, Gerry’s big band was later to be called “the Concert Jazz Band”].

The things he did with Gil Evans [which have subsequently become known as “the Birth of the Cool recordings”], the charts he wrote for Kenton’s band, but especially the work he did with the sextet, really formed the basis for that big band.


Brookmeyer and Zoot became the foundation. They thought about music in the same way that Gerry did. If you listen sextet charts for The Lady is a Tramp, Westwood Walk and Bernie’s Tune on those early Mercury
 [Emarcy] records, you can hear a lot of the devices that Gerry and Bobby Brookmeyer would use when they wrote those big band arrangements later.

There was always a lot of tight ensemble work, but the charts also left pretty of room for the soloists to stretch out – something Gerry was very keen on.

That’s why he wanted the rhythm section to have a looser feel to it and Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis were the perfects cats for that.

I’m not sure when they first met, but for a long time, Zoot was never far away from what Gerry was thinking and planning, musically. Brookmeyer, too.”

A few years later, I got together with Larry again. The intervening years had been good to him. He was still living in the Los Feliz area of the Hollywood Hills, but this time we met at his house and the ice teas were replaced with a couple of beers. In the context of catching-me-up on his travels, not surprisingly, Zoot’s name came up again, as they remained good friends over the years.


“After I joined Bill Evans, I was in New York a lot for a couple of years and Gerry and I got together every once in a while. It was a really busy time for him trying to get work for the big band. Running a big band ain’t easy and he had passed over a lot of the arranging responsibilities to Brookmeyer, Gary McFarland and a few others. I think he was also looking for a new recording contract, too.


I asked him about our old pal Zoot and he got this weird grin on his face and he said: ‘Swinging as ever. Zoot made the West Coast concerts and a European tour, but he’s really busy doing his thing with Al
 [Cohn] and with his own band. He’s really a small group guy at heart. But I miss him because he adds so much Life to everything he touches.’ [emphasis mine].”
Larry went on to say: “You know, what Gerry said about him is so true. Zoot had so much spirit. He could be a character, but he was a gutsy guy. He came to a gig or a session to play and you always got 100% from him.”


Perhaps as a way of closing this piece it's best to let these remarks by Larry Bunker and Gerry Mulligan serve to stand and, in so doing, to define the essence of the man who was John Haley Sims; endearingly and unmistakably known as “Zoot” to all of us who loved his music.




The following video tribute to Zoot features him with Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band in Zurich, 1960 on Bill Holman's arrangement of The Apple Core.



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