© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
A favourite source of debate is the extent to which Stitt came up with his own style: how much he took from Charlie Parker, and how much came from inside. …. As he grew older, Still settled into his alto style, and the Parker comparison began to seem redundant: both men were working off the same sheet, but Stitt forced his own agenda on to the notes, and could sometimes call up ihe shades of Lester Young and Wardell Gray (who had once given him some informal lessons). He recorded a bewildering number of albums for at least 30 different labels: many of the sessions are entirely routine, since Stitt had seemingly little interest in posterity, but when at his best and with sympathetic accompanists he always proved the durability of hardcore bebop improvisation.
- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia
“Sonny Stilt was a very accomplished saxophone player, and a great musician in terms of having absorbed the tradition. I liked him especially on tenor. He had total control of the sound production, and his ideas were also totally controlled—the result is a very clean expression. But the emphasis was on re-creation rather than creation, and he didn't add much to the vocabulary of jazz. When I heard that kind of playing, I understood how good it was and what it entailed.”
One time in Chicago, I remember he asked to use my horn, and I was really flabbergasted how he could just play on it so effortlessly—unoriginally, but it was very impressive to hear a guy going through the paces, with a great feeling for the time, the line, and the sound.”
- Lee Konitz, alto saxophonist
Teddy Reig began recording Stitt in 1952, and featured him on Roost until 1965, making 18 studio sessions – there were two live sessions, which are not part of this package. These studio dates resulted in 14 LPs (Roost's LPs were titled Roost Records on the LP jackets and Royal Roost records on the labels), only the first being a 10". All 148 tracks, most long (and undeservedly) out of print, are contained in this collection, which includes 15 previously unissued performances.
Reig certainly was no fool when it came to making records, and he surrounded himself with good advisors as well, like Charlie Parker. "Bird had deep affection for Sonny," Reig said in Reminiscing In Tempo. "He said Sonny could play and anytime Bird said someone could play, I listened. So when I got [Roost], I wanted to feature Sonny in the right way. I always felt that Sonny and I had a personal rapport which brought out his best on records."
Reig's boast is accurate; as a body of work, nothing – taking into account some of Stitt's later recorded marvels, including Stitt Plays Bird and the aforementioned Cobblestone dates – surpasses the magnitude of these Roost sessions. Sonny Stitt comes through not just a superb jazzman but as a stunning instrumentalist, a man capable of deep emotion as well as dazzling excitement, truly a saxophonist for all seasons.
© Copyright ® Zan Stewart and Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.
For many Jazz fans, Sonny Stitt seems to be a “love him or leave him” artist primarily for the reasons summed up in the opening line of the Richard Cook quotation: “the extent to which Stitt came up with his own style: how much he took from Charlie Parker, and how much came from inside.”
I never had that problem because I heard Sonny BEFORE I heard Bird and was truly impressed by what Stitt was laying down on some of the Roost Records that are the focus of the following excerpts from Zan Stewart’s insightful and instructive booklet notes to the Mosaic Complete Roost Set.
And to specifically reiterate from the opening Lee Konitz quotation, when I did hear Sonny I, too, was impressed with [Sonny’s] great feeling for the time, the line, and the sound.”
Sonny’s phrasing just knocked me out: his playing was so rhythmically insistent that it swept me along. His improvisations were inventive and adventurous, and yet, everything fit together so precisely and logically.
I spent a lot of time practicing drums to [with?] Sonny’s music and if I had one complaint from a drummer’s point of view it was that he rushed; on medium and up tempo tunes the time was rarely the same from beginning to end. You had to really step on the time to rein Sonny in. But this was difficult to do when Sonny was in full flight.
But Sonny had so much more to offer than rushed tempos and one of the best explanations of all of these qualities are the one that can be found in Zan Stewart’s booklet notes which he has graciously allowed us to reprint on these pages.
"I'm no new Bird, man!…Nobody's Bird. Bird died."
So Sonny Stitt, without a doubt one of the finest jazz saxophonists, told writer Dave Bittan in a 1959 Down Beat feature, responding to a remark about how his music was so much like Charlie Parker's.
Of all the major alto saxophonists of the bebop era, no one has been as compared, and usually in a disparaging manner, to groundbreaking altoist Parker as Stitt – an important, supremely talented yet surprisingly underrated artist who, while not an innovator, could rightly be called a giant.
Even musicians who greatly admired him felt that Stitt– certainly in his early years, the mid-to-late '40s, but throughout his life as well – had concocted an approach that directly paralleled the master.
"He was a copyist," said Stan Levey, who played with Parker in the mid-to-late '40s and later recorded with Stitt in 1956 on Dizzy Gillespie's For Musicians Only and the saxophonist's own 1957 album Only the Blues (both Verve Records).
"Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean were influenced by Charlie Parker. Sonny Stitt was Charlie Parker," said vibist Charlie Shoemake, who transcribed numerous Stitt solos when he was a fledgling improviser and used those solos as part of his later teaching regimen. "He played phrases directly from him."
Numerous critics were less kind in their declarations of copycat, so that Stitt, who died in 1982 at age 58, never really shook the "Bird clone" tag. The New York Times ran this headline on Stitt's obituary: Sonny Stitt, Saxophonist, is Dead; Style Likened to Charlie Parker's.
Nevertheless, Stitt certainly had his share of supporters who saw him as unique, not derivative.
"Even if there had never been a Bird, there would have been a Sonny Stitt," said Kenny Clarke, regarded as the first to bring a modern feel and beat to the drums, in the liner notes to one of the albums in this collection, Sonny Stitt Plays, "…although he's the essence of Bird, he is quite individual in his style."
"There's much debate about his Bird-like tendencies, and he was heavily influenced in a melodic sense," stated contemporary alto saxophonist Jim Snidero. "But then again, who wasn't? Whatever Stitt played sounded like Stitt – lean and mean!"
"Many of the devices, agreed, are secondhand, but they are completely fused with original melodic thoughts…" wrote Michael James in Stitt, Parker and the Question of Influence (Jazz Monthly, January 1960). "Even leaving aside structural differences [with Parker]…I fail to see how the meanest intelligence could mistake his playing for anything but the act of impassioned creation it is."
Stitt himself decried the comparisons. "Bird was one of my favorite musicians," he told Bittan for the article Don't Call Me Bird!: The Problems Of Sonny Stitt (Down Beat, May 14, 1959). "…Of course, he influenced my playing. He influenced everybody in jazz today…I don't think I sound that much like Bird…I may have a few of Bird's cliches, but I can only be myself."
Interestingly, the men did have similar musical philosophies. Bird once said, "It's just music. It's playing clean and looking for the pretty notes." In 1976, Stitt told disc jockey Roy Loggins, " I want to paint this lovely picture on an invisible screen with musical notes and phrases and clichés and whatever, but make it sound pleasant to whoever's listening."
As you make your way through this remarkable series of recordings, it will be clear that Stitt obviously drew inspiration from Parker, and, yes, now and then played his phrases. But before he discovered Bird on record with Jay McShann on Hootie Blues, recorded in 1941, and Sepian Bounce, recorded in 1942, he first came under the spell of two great swing era alto saxophonists: the magnificent Ellington altoist Johnny Hodges, and the often stunning Benny Carter.
An anecdote from one-time Ellington trumpeter Willie Cook supports this. "Sonny…took me over to a jukebox and made me listen to Charlie Parker," Cook told author Stanley Dance, published in Dance's The World of Duke Ellington (Scribner's, 1970). " 'This is going to be the man,' he said. At that time [unfortunately unspecified, but no doubt prior to 1943], Sonny played like Johnny Hodges when he was drinking, and Benny Carter when he wasn't."
"Sonny told me that before he heard Bird, he was heading in Parker's direction but didn’t have his stuff together," said saxophonist Red Holloway, who met Sonny in 1944 in Chicago and later worked with him in both the mid-'50s and late-70s, said. "But once he heard Bird, he knew exactly what he had to do,"
By the time Stitt met Parker, in Kansas City, Mo. in 1943, he had essentially figured out what his idol was on to. Touring at the time with Tiny Bradshaw's band, Sonny sought out Bird, who was both in his hometown, and home base – as a member of Jay McShann's band. The meeting, as Stitt told it over the years – there were no other witnesses, or none that have been quoted – with only slight variance, has become the stuff of legend.
"I was nineteen and went looking for him and saw a man coming out of a drug store carrying an alto case and wearing a blue overcoat with six white buttons and wearing dark, horn-rimmed glasses," Stitt told me in 1981. "I said, 'Are you Charlie Parker?' and he said, 'Yes, who're you?' I told him 'Sonny Stitt' and we went to this place called the Gypsy Tea Room and jammed with a piano player for about an hour. 'Well, I'll be damned,' he told me, 'you sound just like me,' and I said, 'Well, I can't help the way I sound. It's the only way I know how to play.' "
In the end, when all the 'he's Bird, he's not' controversy fades away, what remains is Stitt's recorded legacy – he was one of the most prolific recording artists in jazz – and personal memories of live appearances. And the legacy – this abundantly rich collection of sessions for Roost Records, a perfect case in point – is vast, and informative, revealing Stitt to be a magnificent saxophonist with a personal voice and approach who has been widely embraced by musicians and fans alike.
"Stitt had an intense, soaring tone that was all his own, along with a unique time feel that many saxophonists emulated," Snidero said. "And his technique was absolutely awesome. Very few jazz musicians had command of tempos like Stitt. His music is timeless."
"Oh, he definitely could play, no doubt about that," said drummer Levey.
"He was brilliant," declared Shoemake. "He had a fantastic hard swing, his melodies were creative, though many were Charlie Parker's, and he outlined the harmony in a melodic way and it was great."
To put his prowess into perspective, it’s worth noting the major jazz saxophonists who either considered Stitt an influence or one of their favorites: such masters as John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Booker Ervin, George Coleman, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd and Harold Vick and current aces such as Snidero and Eric Alexander. The critics in his corner have included Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, Max Jones and Joachim Ernst Berendt.
But beside the Bird issue, Stitt had other albatrosses to wear.
Writers often criticized him for being glib, for 'phoning it in' rather than offering a fully present, in-the-moment experience every time he was on a bandstand or in the studio. Occasionally the barbs were accurate, as on Stitt's Impulse! album Now!. John S. Wilson, reviewing the record in the Aug. 29, 1963 issue of Down Beat, wrote, "…Stitt seems to be the ultimate in machine-age jazz musicians, grinding out one capably performed disc after another…This one is, as Stitt's discs invariably are, neatly and cleanly played but without much indication of interest…"
Though Wilson is being unfair in grouping all of Stitt's albums under the 'automatic pilot' umbrella, he's right in that Sonny didn’t always come up with his best. But then, no jazz musician, or artist of any field, does. A musician is limited by his instrument, his knowledge, his facility, his imagination and the given conditions. Consistent excellence is all but impossible.
Given Stitt's regular work schedule and his repertoire built around the staples of the blues, tunes based on I Got Rhythm changes and standards – he was never much of a composer, sticking mainly to blues and “rhythm” changes – he would, despite the standard of perfection that he may have set for himself, run into the occasional rut.
Occasional is the operative word here. Stitt took his tried-and-true material and made it breathe on a consistently high basis as the albums at hand substantiate. And while there is a certain predictability in some of what he played, there was more often the surprising, refreshing idea that redeems anything routine or lackluster. As you'll hear time and again in this collection, he'll play the first part of a well-worn cliché, then suddenly deliver something startling and original. This was one of the ways he kept himself involved.
Despite Stitt's remarkable talent, his consistency was undoubtedly affected by substance abuse. Early in his career, he became addicted to heroin. By most accounts, he had kicked by the mid-'50s, if not earlier. But, as Cook noted, he was also a drinker, and often drank heavily until late in his life.
His live performances may have been affected by alcohol earlier, but in the second half of the '70s, drinking was making him a shadow of his former musical self. When he was paired with Holloway, starting in 1977, he was a mess.
"It was pitiful, man," he told me in 1981, after having been dry for over a year. "I was really a slave. I've come back from the dead, because that's where I was, man. I was dead."
"Sonny used to sit in a chair on the stand, play a couple of choruses, then he'd look at his watch, as if to say, 'Ain't we through yet?' " Holloway said in the same interview.
It took a pair of life-threatening alcohol-induced seizures to get Stitt to swear off. The result was a new Sonny, full of youthful vigor, once again a terror on the bandstand. "Now he's really smoking and you can't get him to sit down, which makes me happy because he's inspired to do something," Holloway related at the time. "I have to work very hard just to keep up with him."
Stitt had realized "playing the saxophone, not those other things, is my natural habit. I just love those saxophones."
And that love, that deep enthusiasm is what many feel that Stitt brought to a musical situation. Whether he was recording with a pick-up trio featuring the delightful pianist Jimmy Jones in a session for Roost in the late-'50s or in a mock tenor battle with his fellow tenorman Gene Ammons, or touring with Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey in the Giants of Jazz in 1971-72 or recording such splendid albums as Tune Up! and Constellation for Cobblestone Records in 1972, Sonny Stitt delivered, making the music come alive and making people happy in the process.
It seems destined that he would become a first-class musician. He was born Edward Hampton Stamps Boatner, Jr. on February 2, 1924 in Boston into a most musical family. His father, Edward Boatner, was a noted composer who once led a thousand-voice choir at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and later taught at Wylie and Sam Houston colleges. His mother, Claudine, was a piano teacher, his brother, Clifford, became a concert pianist, and sister, Adelaide, an operatic soprano. His sister Sarah later sang jazz.
When he was two, the Boatner family moved to Saginaw, Michigan, where his father had a job teaching. At some point, young Edward's mother left Boatner, and later met a foundry worker named Robert Stitt and married him; Sonny adopted his stepfather's surname, the other children didn’t. Robert Stitt eventually became a nightclub operator.
Young Stitt played piano from about age five and started on clarinet at seven, though he might have been a drummer if his music teacher's prejudice had won out. "We were in line for instruments," Stitt recalled, "and Mr. Matthews, the grade school music teacher who was known to hate blacks, said 'What can I do for you, boy?' I told him I wanted a clarinet, but he said he didn't have any, and besides my lips were too thick. At home, I was sad, and I told my mama what happened. So we went and rented a clarinet, and she took me to school the next day. We walked into Mr. Matthew's classroom and my mother said, in her stern New England accent – she was Boston-born and a former classmate of Johnny Hodges: 'I don't care how thick my son's lips are, if you want your job you'd better teach him.' That man turned colors I didn't know existed, but he put me in the back row of the clarinets.
"So I started practicing whenever I could, in the mornings, at lunch, afternoons, evenings, and after two months, new music was passed out and I got through my part without a mistake. I was immediately made second chair, and Mr. Matthews began giving me private lessons. Imagine this man falling in love with a little black boy."
The young clarinetist heard jazz on the radio, favoring Ellington and especially Duke's wonderful altoist Hodges, though he has said that Rudy Williams, whom he heard playing with Savoy Sultans, was his inspiration to take up alto saxophone. His mother bought him a silver-finished Alcazar brand horn out of the Spiegel catalog, and when it arrived, he put the instrument together and played the melody to George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.
Stitt also went to a nearby American Legion Hall, where he heard Benny Goodman with Charlie Christian, Nat 'King' Cole and others. Cole and his group stayed at Stitt's home (blacks weren't welcome in Saginaw's only hotel), eating with the family and hosting an impromptu session in the parlor.
Stitt had a band during some high school summers; cornetist Thad Jones played with him in that group. And he was three months from graduating when Ernie Fields' band came through Saginaw and offered him a job. "I wanted to go," Stitt recalled. "Well, my mother started throwing my stuff on the floor, saying, 'You've got three months to go, you're getting all A's, and you want to go. Well, go and don't ever come back.' So I waited. Then after I graduated, I got a telegram to join Tiny Bradshaw – I knew 'Big Nick' Nicholas, and he recommended me. I started at the Rhumboogie, Joe Louis' place, in Chicago."
Stitt stayed with singer/drummer Bradshaw at least through 1944, when he recorded with him in New York for Regis Records. After leaving the band, he apparently played with Sabby Lewis; this is not in any literature on Stitt but two mentions in Down Beat refer to his being included on Lewis band reunion dates.
In early 1945, Stitt joined Billy Eckstine's phenomenal bebop big band, sitting in formidable reed sections, one recalled by Dexter Gordon. "Sonny Stitt was…sounding like a whirlwind," Gordon told Ira Gitler in an interview published in Down Beat (Dexter Gordon: The Time for Recognition, November 9, 1961). "Part of the sax section was called The Unholy Four – Stitt, myself, John Jackson and Leo Parker. We liked to rehearse…we'd room together, hang out together. We were so full of tempestuous youth that things didn't always go too smoothly."
Stitt, who was off and on the band in this period, recorded with Eckstine in May, 1945 and October, 1946 although he did not solo on any of those titles.
Charlie Parker stayed in California after his and Dizzy Gillespie's not well-received stay at Billy Berg's nightclub in Hollywood from December 1945 to February 1946. Upon his return to New York, Diz hired Sonny, "another marvelous musician," the trumpeter wrote in his autobiography, To Be Or Not To Bop (Da Capo Press, 1985).
Stitt was both in Dizzy's big band and his small group, and the exposure boosted him to the front rank of young beboppers. In the sextet, performing with vibist Milt Jackson, pianist Al Haig, bassist Ray Brown, drummer Kenny Clarke and Gillespie, the saxophonist made his first important recordings, cutting Oop Bop Sh'bam, That's Earl Brother and One Bass Hit on May 15, 1946 for Musicraft. Sonny, now 22, sounds remarkably fluid, offering smooth double-timed passages, but his tone has a sweetness and yearning that closely resembles Parker. Stitt can also be heard on four Gillespie big band tracks made on July 9, again for Musicraft.
On August 23 and September 4, he went into the studio in New York and cut eight tunes (plus two alternate takes) for Savoy in some pretty fine company: pianist Bud Powell, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and drummer Clarke (on the second session). Stitt and Dorham were each credited as leaders on various tracks. The sessions were released on LP as The Bebop Boys<XC> and are currently on CD on Dorham's Blues in Bebop(Savoy).
Bebop in Pastel, which Powell later recorded for Blue Note as Bouncing with Bud, finds Stitt in determined form, his tone stronger, starting his second eight bars with a phrase that Monk used for the opening phrase of Well, You Needn't. Fool's Fancy was another Powell line, based on “rhythm” changes, that the pianist waxed as Wail. Sonny is once more poised and purposeful, as he is on his own Good Kick and Serenade to a Square, a speedy number based on the chords to Cherokee, with Bud's trademark introduction he used later in his own renditions of the latter.
Then on September 6, in a session under Fats Navarro's co-leadership, the alto saxophonist joined the trumpeter, Dorham, Powell, Clarke, tenor saxophonist Morris Lane and bassist Al Hall to make four tracks. Available on Navarro's Goin' to Minton's CD (Savoy), the music includes the Powell now-bebop standard Webb City and Stitt's Boppin' a Riff a moderately-paced “rhythm” changes opus where Sonny again has a strong Bird flavor, though without the master's potent spark.
Stitt now entered a period of limited activity. It has often been written, erroneously, that he was completely off the scene from late 1946 until fall, 1949. In early 1947, the saxophonist – who won the Esquire magazine New Star alto sax award that year – was in Chicago, woodshedding, if not performing. Yusef Lateef recalled him being there and the quietly outstanding trumpeter Freddie Webster is said to have been in Stitt's room at the Strode Hotel on April 1.
From this time until March, 1948, his whereabouts are essentially unsubstantiated. Sometime in late 1947 or early 1948, he recorded twice under the pseudonym of Lord Nelson for the Sensation label, using a band that included vibist Jackson. At the first session, the selections included Body and Soul and Stitt's 3rd song, which was also known as Silver Slipper. Shortly thereafter, a band with Sonny, Bags (Jackson's nickname), trumpeter Russell Jacquet and pianist Sir Charles Thompson recorded four sides in Detroit, again for Sensation. The selections included Stitt's Red Shoes and the standard Fine and Dandy, a favorite of the saxophonist's, who recorded it several times since.
Discographies state that these sessions, now gathered on Milt Jackson/Sonny Stitt: In the Beginning (Galaxy), were made June or later, 1948, in New York then Detroit. The locations may be correct but those dates are not. Stitt was arrested in Detroit for illegal sale of narcotics, convicted, sentenced to two years in prison and subsequently incarcerated at the prison unit at U.S. Public Health Service facility at Lexington, KY from March 10, 1948 until September 9, 1949. It was during this period that Miles Davis sought Stitt to no avail for what became the first of the Birth of the Cool recordings.
The time away was apparently spent constructively, for when Stitt recorded with bop trombone innovator J. J. Johnson for Prestige on October 17, a month after his release, he sounds marvelous, playing tenor saxophone on record for the first time. Sonny has a robust, edgy sound similar to Sonny Rollins and his lines crackle with motion and invention. Blue Mode is a modestly-paced blues, and Teapot is a flagwaver based on the chord changes to Sweet Georgia Brown.
Stitt is likewise remarkable on December 11 and then January 26 of the next year, when he recorded under his name for the first time. He made eight stellar tracks in New York, again all on tenor and for Prestige – then a fairly new label owned by Bob Weinstock.
Though Stitt is not on record as to why he started playing the tenor, educated guesses are instructive. Weinstock, in a recent interview, said, "Then, he preferred it. I think it was more that tenor players were more commercially viable than alto players." (Saxophone great Jimmy Heath has said that he and John Coltrane switched to tenor for that very reason.)
There were also the constant comparisons with Parker. As noted alto saxophonist Charles McPherson said not long ago, "Just because I play the same instrument as Bird did, people think I play like him. If I played tenor, it wouldn't come up."
In a late career interview, Sonny talked about his view of the two horns. "On tenor, I take a different approach, much more like Pres," he stated. "I like to think like Pres, if I could. He was the master. On alto, it's Bird and Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter."
Musicians, critics and fans still argue the question: was Stitt better on tenor or alto? "Sonny Stitt was great, but I really liked him on tenor more than alto," noted alto saxophonist Herb Geller told Charlie Shoemake. Roy Haynes said "I loved him on alto, especially when he was younger, and the music was younger. He was burnin'. On alto, he had that pretty sound, that sweet sound. He made Bird pay attention and not too many guys would do it like that."
Stitt's band for the initial Prestige sessions was comprised of Bud Powell, bassist Curly Russell and Max Roach. The material includes a rippling All God's Chillun Got Rhythm, a swinging Bud's Blues and another, Fine and Dandy, taken at racehorse tempo. These sides plus the Johnson date, all essentials for Stitt fans, can be found on Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell/J.J. Johnson (Prestige).
Over the next two years, Stitt made eight more sessions in New York for Prestige. On February 17, the saxophonist, still playing tenor only, teamed with pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Art Blakey. Among the highlights are Later, a blues credited to pianist Ray Bryant based on a well-known bop riff, and Ain't Misbehavin', an example of Stitt's warm balladry. Then on June 28, joined by Duke Jordan, Gene Wright and Wes Landers on piano, bass and drums respectively, Sonny looks at the medium-paced “rhythm” changes ditty, blazin' and a standard beloved by jazz players, There Will Never Be Another You.
A seven-piece band that included Gene Ammons recorded on October 8. Then on December 15, Stitt was back with a quartet, featuring pianist Junior Mance, Wright and Blakey. Here, Jeepers Creepers is a smooth mover and on Cherokee, Stitt once again plays alto, and sounds much more like himself than Parker. On P.S. I Love You, recorded on February 1, 1951, with Charles Bateman, piano, Wright and Teddy Stewart, drums, Sonny plays baritone, exuding easy vigor on the larger horn. Then on August 14, with pianist Clarence Anderson, bassist Earl May and drummer Stewart, Stitt is deeply bluesy on Down With It and I'm Confessin', playing tenor again. But as with the alto work on Cherokee, he's more himself, emitting the broad, Lester Young-tinged tone that he became known for. (The sessions are available on Sonny Stitt: Prestige First Sessions, vol. 2 (Prestige).
Stitt's final Prestige session of this period mixed a quintet and an octet, with Humberto Morales adding Latin percussion. The tunes include Cool Mambo and Stitt's It. You can find them on Kaleidoscope(Prestige).
During this time with Prestige, Stitt's musical life was also intertwined with that of fellow saxophonist Ammons, his colleague on the Billy Eckstine band. The pair appeared as a team at the famed Birdland jazz club in February, 1950. The following March 5, recording for Prestige, they documented their soon-to-be fruitful partnership with a boisterous Blues Up and Down. This became a number that, as one of the most popular two-tenor tandems ever, the men would play for years to rouse audiences, and themselves. The fellows also laid down a steaming version of You Can Depend on Me. The numbers can be found on Gene Ammons All-Star Sessions with Sonny Stitt (Prestige).
Over the next 18 months, Sonny and Jug stepped into the studios for Prestige five more times. On these occasions, Stitt often played baritone, as on Charbootie, a medium blues waxed on April 5, 1950. These sessions have been reissued on The Gene Ammons Story: the 78 era (Prestige).
Bob Weinstock, who had been a fan of Stitt's since he heard the Savoy Bebop Boys sessions, characterized the saxophonist's life in this early part of his career, starting around 1946. "I used to hear him on 52nd Street [in New York] from time to time," he recalled recently. "Once with Bud Powell, once with Miles [Davis], with J.J. [Johnson]. I thought he was a great player, and those things he did with Bud for me were some of the best things he ever did.
"Around that time [1949-50], he was living in hotels, he was kinda homeless, and I invited him to my home on 83rd St. and West End [Avenue] for meals. He was very, very personable and my mother sort of adopted him. She'd tell him, 'Anytime you want to come over, just call,' and he did. We'd eat and after dinner go in and play records for a couple of hours.
"He and Gene did okay when they had their band, in which Sonny mostly played baritone except on things like Blues Up and Down. They worked this circuit of small black joints, not real jazz clubs, not R&B rooms, either. Black clubs that catered to a hip jazz audience. Places where Billy [Eckstine] and Dinah [Washington] might work. I'd see them back in New York. They'd drive up in a Chrysler Imperial and I'd give them the new 78s. Those Stitt-Jug records sold well; all of Sonny's records did okay, though on his own, he never had a hit."
Ammons and Stitt broke up their band in early 1952; Jug formed another group and Sonny sought work as a single. Now, his career as a dynamic, individualistic alto and tenor saxophonist would really begin.
TEDDY REIG AND ROOST RECORDS
Sometime in 1948, four jazz lovers and then industry mavens gathered over drinks at the Royal Roost jazz club, also known as the Metropolitan Bopera House, located at 1674 Broadway at 47th Street in Manhattan. They were Ralph Watkins, former co-owner Kelly's Stable on 52nd St. and a partner in the Roost; Monte Kay, a proponent of bop who managed the club, and produced shows there and elsewhere; the famed jazz DJ, 'Symphony Sid' Torin; and Teddy Reig, the producer who helped launch the bebop era at Savoy Records by recording the first sides by Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, et al.
"We were sitting there and I said, 'Why don’t we chip in a thousand apiece and start a record label,'' recalled Reig to author Edward Berger in Teddy Reig: Reminiscing In Tempo (Scarecrow Press, 1990). "Although I was the ringleader, I only had $800. But that's how Roost Records was born."
A year later, Reig, who was also involved with the short-lived Three
Deuces Records, brought Jack Hooke in as a co-owner and general manager of the label; Reig also continued to work at Savoy for a while. Eventually, Hooke bought out Torin, Watkins and Kay.
Machito, the Cuban bandleader who helped introduce Afro-Cuban jazz and with whom Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie recorded, inaugurated the Roost label in October, 1948, making Cubop City with trumpeter Howard McGhee and tenor saxophonist Brew Moore. Other early Roost artists included Little Jimmy Scott, Mary Ann McCall and Erroll Garner. In 1950, Stan Getz recorded for Roost; his first sessions were gathered on the LPs The Sounds of Stan Getz and Modern World. The label also released material that Parker had recorded for Dial Records in 1947, and sides which Powell had made for DeLuxe but which were never issued.
In 1952, Reig signed Sonny Stitt and guitarist Johnny Smith, the label's two mainstays. Smith had a major hit, Moonlight in Vermont, from his very first session and recorded exclusively for Roost until the end of 1963. The last official Roost session would be Stitt's Sax Expressions recorded on April 14, 1965.
In the mid-'50s, Reig and Hooke got involved in rhythm and blues, with Reig managing Chuck Berry for a brief time and Hooke the Moonglows. In 1957, Hooke left the label to manage rock DJ Alan Freed. That August, Reig helped lure his friend Count Basie to Morris Levy's Roulette Records and started to produce for the label, which eventually absorbed Roost in 1958.
Reig became the principal producer and A & R man for Roulette's Birdland Series, making important recordings with Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Maynard Ferguson and many more. He also did a lot of the Latin and Latin jazz chores for the Roulette-distributed Tico label. With a few exceptions, his Roost activities had dwindled to yearly sessions with Stitt and Smith.
When Basie left Roulette in 1962, Reig went freelance, creating his own production company to record Basie and others. He continued to record Sarah Vaughan and a handful of others for Roulette's Birdland series, which was winding down. Three of his 1964 productions by Terry Gibbs, Arsenio Rodriguez and Buddy Rich/Louis Bellson, made before Stitt's Sax Expressions, appeared on Roost. But all ties with Roulette/Roost end there.
And after 1965, Roost, Roulette's Birdland Series and Birdland itself were gone. When Stitt came back to Roulette in 1966 to record five albums, Hugh Glover was producing and Sonny was playing mostly Varitone, a fiendish invention that attaches to a saxophone and produces an instantaneous extra sound an octave below the note being played on the horn. It also destroys the timbre of the saxophone and the personality of an artist's sound. Eddie Harris and Lou Donaldson were among the other esteemed players who fell prey to the contraption.
Teddy Reig - a large man who was just under 6 feet tall and weighed well over 300 lbs.– had good instincts for talent. "He had something. Teddy knew the music," said Roy Haynes, who plays drums on several of these sessions. "He was from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn [as was Hooke]. That was something."
Bob Weinstock, who founded Prestige Records in 1949, agreed about Reig's ear: "Those Savoy records were really influential. He had insight, and a tremendous knowledge of musicians. Look at who he recorded: Bird with Miles, J.J. Johnson with Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon. He knew how to do funk plus the bebop."