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Sonny Strikes Back
The jazz saxophonist talks to Les Tomkins about his particular style, being a "lone wolf" and how to work well with others, and discusses the origin of jazz itself.
Source: Jazz Professional
Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Wilderman's Jazz Visions
In 1963 music critic Steve Race accused Sonny Stitt of copying Charlie Parker as hard as he could, and of having “given up all pretence of individuality”. Steve also offered Sonny a piece of advice: “I think it’s time he stopped playing Parker and went back to playing Stitt”. The following statements made to me by Sonny shortly afterwards include his answer to this criticism. Les Tomkins in 1965
We all have our own way of playing. You can’t tell somebody how to live, how to play, or how to feel. Anybody who tries to tell me that, I tell ‘em to go straight to you–know–where. I’m going to have a free mind. How are you going to play if you can’t be free. That ain’t saying nothing. Everyone should want to be themselves. I’m always going to be myself. Like, when they talk about me and Charlie Parker. Me and Charlie Parker sounded the same way years and years and years ago. He said: “You sound like me.” I said: “Well, you sound like me.” And we agreed: “We can’t help that, can we?” Then we’d go off and get some beer, play some music, or something.
One thing about my playing now - I’m not as tense as I used to be. But, you know, travelling around the world, eating out of restaurants and tin cans - it will make you tense. Don’t think it won’t. It’s not the same as being able to go home and relax, have your nice dinner and look at your kids. That’s the way it is, though. I have to go out on the road and make it for my family. I do it all for them. No preference
As for having any preference between the alto and the tenor, I don’t think I know which one I like the best. Saxophone is nothing but a saxophone. It’s just in two different keys. I comply with the wishes of the audience. If they call on me to play an alto solo, I play it for them. If they say: “Play some tenor”, I play the tenor. That’s it. The reason I played mostly tenor in Ronnie Scott’s club last May: it wasn’t my alto. I wasn’t familiar with the horn, and I didn’t like it too much. My horn was in the States being repaired, gold–plated and all that stuff, and the man was so slow about it. So I decided to just wait until I got home, and got my horn back. I didn’t even bring my own alto mouthpiece with me. I played alto whenever they requested it. You see, I know I’m a public servant in music, and I try to please the people - to the nth degree.
A guy who goes to work every day, and comes to hear me play, my job is to play music for him, or her. However, I also had to reproach them at times for not applauding the solos of the other musicians. I said: “Look here, don’t you want to give them a hand?” They seem to sit on their hands. Sometimes people feel like its hip not to applaud. Or maybe they really didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know, it’s just a complex thing. You never can tell.
When you’ve got as good a rhythm section as I had in Ronnie’s, they deserve full encouragement. These guys set out to give their best every night. I played my horn the way I play it, and we just joined up together. I had a very good time. I try to communicate, not only to the audience, but to the band also. Make them feel good. When you write a letter—that’s the only way you’re going to receive one.
My routine of work takes in one–nighters and theatres, as well as clubs. Most times it’s a quartet. Sometimes it’s two horns and rhythm, sometimes a big band. See, I’m what you might call a freelancer, like, the lone wolf. It’s difficult at times, because each little band you play with has a different attitude towards music. You have to analyse them first, and play what they can play. Don’t confuse the band. I know maybe three thousand songs; they might know a hundred songs. So I play the hundred they know, and forget about what I know. Co-operate. Be co-operative. There’s too much strife and stress in the world, as it is. You ain’t supposed to be hurting nobody’s feelings. So my jobs are always happy.
I have to create that good, friendly atmosphere. Be nice to the cats, and they’re going to relax and be nice to themselves, and to you, too. I don’t want to have a miserable job on my hands. It’s the same with sitting-in. I let anybody play that wants to, if he can play. Sure. Who am I to refuse? I’m no judge of anything or anybody. “Come and join the party, buddy. Get your feet wet. Don’t get your feelings hurt, because I’m going to load the boom, if I can.” Maybe he might load the boom on me! You dig? I’ve been out here a long time, and I’ve learned to live with people.
Look, it’s no fun playing by yourself. Try it. Everybody’s got something to offer. Human beings are all different. He might play it this way, he might play it that way, and I might play it the other way. You can play a scale many ways, have an idea many ways. Well, I guess I’m getting more mature as I grow older. I hope so, anyway. I hope I’m learning something. You can’t be stepping on people, now, music-wise or any other way. You can dislike what they do, without having to bug the cat who’s doing it. Maybe you can pass a little hint now and then - what he’s doing wrong. But you’re not supposed to try and correct him too much. He’s got a mind of his own. You got two painters, they’re going to paint the same picture. Each sees it in his mind’s eye his own way. So you got two different pictures.
Of course, you’re going to find the way out cats. Some people will conform to the correct notes and chords, and try to use some common sense with their ideas. And there’s some that are a little reckless, and are trying to find something different. Music has to have a rhythmic beat, time, clarity of notes, ideas, imagination, emotion, and to paint a pretty picture. Unless he’s angry - then he can paint an angry picture.
There’s no new path to jazz. Jazz is jazz. They can mix the notes up however they want to, but there’s no way to change it. They’ve gained knowledge, sure, but all this came from the servitude of the slaves. They used to be so unhappy they’d go down there and be moaning, and singing songs. That’s all they could do. So that’s how it started. Spiritual music - that’ll never change.
Some musicians seem to want to forget that jazz comes from slavery. I’m never going to forget it. How you going to forget something that happened to you, and your people? Not me. No - it happened to me. We can only try to make conditions better. Modern jazz, that didn’t start with Bird. Did you ever hear a song called “Tickle Toe”? And Don Byas, he was playing the same way a long time before Bird got here. Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Blanton, Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian, Charlie Shavers, do you think they weren’t articulate musicians? Man, this is nothing new. It was there in the first place, they just hadn’t tried to develop it. They were satisfied with themselves. The people have been asleep on it, that’s all. But they’re learning fast.
You can’t expect people who have day jobs to have an extra sense of music. Their perceptive qualities are slightly under par. They want to know. Like, I listen to the rock ‘n’ rollers. My wife even has me doing the Twist. I try to be tolerant to any kind of music. And I play with all of ‘em - Memphis Slim even. I might do anything. I ain’t got good sense. At times I just laugh at myself. Ornette and Coltrane have their way of playing, that’s all that is, man. That’s the way they hear and think. They play the same notes we do, they’ve just got a different way of going about it. Maybe they’re going to the moon, I don’t know. Bon voyage. I’m going to stay here on earth.
I like to see them people pat their feet, and snap their fingers, and enjoy it. I don’t want to mystify anybody. You must understand this, too - they’re doing it for a reason. They’re seeking something. They ain’t just making a lot of noise. Because Coltrane plays right. He just plays rapid. Like Johnny Griffin. And I think sometimes it goes over the people’s heads, they’re going so fast. People can’t understand all that stuff.
Lester Young told me a long time ago: “Sonny, just take your time, and let ‘em pat their foot, baby”. Coleman Hawkins told me the same thing. So I do that. It’s easier on the musicians, really. I ain’t going to put myself under no strain. Take my time, play something pretty, swing. But, see, everybody ain’t like that. Some cats are nervous, and they feel as though they have to do more on their instrument, I imagine, than what was done before. And they’re trying to find a way.
But you can’t do no more than has already been done. Remember a man named Art Tatum - now who can play any more than that? I used to go and listen to him, and Oscar Peterson is the only one who has come close. And Charlie Parker - who can outplay him? Then there’s Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and an old man named Louis Armstrong. And Coleman Hawkins - he’s not young any more, but, buddy. YOU get on that bandstand with him, or any of those cats I called off, and you got your hands full! You better believe me. And you’re going to lose the race if you start to mess.
These young guys who come on with all that animosity and petty jealousy, and they’re going to conquer somebody - I don’t know why they do that stuff. That’s stupid. All they should do is go up there and learn, and enjoy what they’re doing. Jazz is supposed to be a happy thing. You take one of today’s weirdies and put him on the stand with Ben Webster, Don Byas, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, he’ll go home with his head in his hands. You ain’t supposed to play over people’s heads. You’re trying to give a message to people, and make it as simple as possible for the average man.
I play for the children sometimes. They say: “Oh, Uncle Sonny, will you play for us?” So I go and sit down at the electric piano, and I play for ‘em and sing to ‘em. And they understand what I’m doing. If a child can understand, baby, that’s it. My little niece and nephews dance to my records, too. And I learn all the newest dances - because I’m going to stay as young as I can as long as I can. My mother’s almost 60 years old, and she can run, dance, do anything like that. Plus my grandmother: she’s 105 years old, and she can get up and walk as fast as I can.
Singing? Oh, yes, I get carried away. It’s a show, like, to make the people warm up a little bit, and make ‘em feel at home. If you don’t understand the notes, you can understand the lyrics. It’s trying to make them relax and be happy. You don’t have to bend them your way all the time. Okay, so a guy or lady might ask me: “Mr. Stitt, would you play ‘Misty’ for us, please?” ‘Now they must have a reason for asking for that song. They like the song very much. So what kind of musician would I be to say: “I’m not playing that kind of music for you”? These people are paying my way, my family’s way. They like my music and they like me, so why shouldn’t I try to please them? You ain’t supposed to go down the drain, but just don’t play on the ceiling.
As for the fault-picker, he finds no fault with himself? He’s the perfect human being? There’s nothing perfect on this earth: I don’t have time to criticise people - I’m too busy criticising myself. What we can try to do is to better ourselves. Don’t make the same mistake twice. I’ve made my mistakes. I ain’t going to say that I wasn’t wrong about a lot of things in my life. But I did learn to try to make myself more respectable in jazz, and not act like an idiot. This is a great profession we have, and it should be respected highly. It’s just like baseball, football, cricket, horse–racing, dentistry or medicine.
I got one beef about the general public. All musicians are not perverts, dope fiends or bad-acting characters, and I hope the people learn to understand that everyone in this world is human, and there will be mistakes that they will make. But when the man or woman that makes the mistake corrects it - give him credit. Because it may be hard for him to change himself, to conform to society’s ways of living. I try to be a good man, and to lead a Christian life to the best of my ability. And I just want people to learn that jazz is a wonderful thing.
Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved