Mike Stern Remembers Cornelius “Sonny” Fortune

The guitarist offers praise for his bandmate (5/19/39 – 10/25/18) and tales of his gigs with Miles Davis

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Sonny Fortune (photo: Alan Nahigian)

When I was 22 and playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears, [BS&T pianist] Larry Willis did some recording with Sonny Fortune, and Larry played some of that stuff for me. I’d heard other records that Sonny had been on over the years, of course, and I’d heard him live a couple of times in New York. Sonny was around a lot, playing all the time, and it was always awesome. A real homegrown kind of player, you know what I’m sayin’? He knew a whole lot but wasn’t overly schooled; it was really coming from his ears and heart and experience.

Then I got to know Sonny for real when we were doing this Four Generations of Miles project [in the early 2000s]. It was originally with George Coleman, but George wasn’t feeling so good about playing at all for a while because his wife had passed, so Sonny started doing it. Both those guys are amazing to me, but it was just a pleasure to play with Sonny. The way his vibe was, you met him and you liked him right away. Then you got to know him for a couple of gigs and you fell in love with the cat. His attitude, the way he played, the whole being was really, really special. And he played some cool shit—these snaky kinds of lines that went in and out but just seemed like they always worked out. He had tons of energy, put his heart and soul into everything he’d play, and he really knew how to connect with an audience. Whether it be a beautiful ballad or burning on rhythm changes, he’d tear it up.

Sonny told me lots of stories about Miles. He said one time they were playing at some huge rock festival with 10,000 people screaming out there, and they had all the amps—it was that band with Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey—so it was loud as hell. And Miles came up to Sonny and said something, but Sonny couldn’t hear what Miles was saying. So Sonny started yelling, “What? What are you saying?” Miles cut off the whole band by moving his arm—Sonny said he looked like he was in slow motion—and then he went up to Sonny and said, “Play your flute!” In front of 10,000 people, he cuts off the whole band to say that. That just cracked Sonny’s ass up. And the way he told the story, it was hysterical. Fit Miles to a tee.

That was a good hookup, Miles and Sonny, but of course Miles’ band was really electric at that point and Sonny was more of a straight-ahead player. Anthony Jackson told me the rest of the band was taking bets on how long Sonny would last. This’ll give you an idea of where Sonny was at: He said—again, this is according to Anthony—“Miles Davis called me, and he wants me to play something called a wow-wow pedal.” [laughs] But apparently it worked out pretty good for a while. Sonny played great with Elvin Jones too. I heard them together at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and at the end of one of his solos Elvin said, “Sonny Fortune, genius!” He gave it up to Sonny big-time.

I had this accident a couple years ago where I fell and got nerve damage in my hand, and Sonny was so sweet about it, and so funny at the same time. He called me up and said, “I heard you had an accident, call me back.” Soon as I got him on the phone, he said, “Mike, you clumsy motherfucker!” It turned out he’d fallen too just recently, but he’d lucked out and somehow he didn’t hurt anything. So he understood; he’d been telling all his friends, “After a certain age, watch out.” Then when he saw the extent of the damage I had, he was really supportive, always saying things like, “Man, you’re still playing, and you’re playing your ass off.” He was a warm cat—that’s how he played and that’s how he was.

We had a gig at Birdland a few weeks before he went to the hospital. He had a catheter and was getting ready for that final surgery they gave him for his bladder [during which he suffered a series of strokes]. It didn’t seem like anything serious, but he had tubes in him and he looked a little weak. He kept saying, “I’m doin’ the best with what I got!” And then when I got the news, it just broke my heart. I mean, this was a cat who lit up a room, and such a funny motherfucker too, always laughing. I loved him, and I miss him unbelievably.

[as told to Mac Randall]