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Norman Simmons, Accompanist Extraordinaire, Dies at 91

The pianist worked with an assortment of storied vocalists, including Carmen McRae and Joe Williams, and backed Charlie Parker on his final Chicago gig

Norman Simmons
Norman Simmons in 2003 (photo: Andrew Lepley)

Norman Simmons, a pianist, composer, arranger, and educator who was best known and celebrated as an accompanist for jazz singers, died May 13 in Mesa, Arizona. He was 91.

His death was first reported by JazzEd magazine and subsequently confirmed by WBGO radio, who spoke with Simmons’ close friend, singer Antoinette Montague. Cause of death was multiple myeloma.

Although Simmons had a career as a bandleader, it was a sparse one, with 10 albums across 60 years (and a 20-year gap between his first and second recordings). His major success came in supporting roles. As an arranger, his 1966 treatment of “Wade in the Water” for Ramsey Lewis spawned a Top 20 pop hit. However, he was especially in demand as a vocal accompanist, doing acclaimed and highly successful work with Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Helen Humes, Sarah Vaughan, Dakota Staton, and Joe Williams, among others.

Nevertheless, his credentials as a bebop-schooled piano player were well earned in his formative years on the scene in his native Chicago. Simmons was the house pianist at the South Side’s Beehive Lounge, in which capacity he supported Charlie Parker during the latter’s final Chicago performance in February 1955. He also played with the likes of Red Rodney, Wardell Gray, and Lester Young during their stops through the Windy City.

“In the artistic sense, I didn’t consider how I wanted to make a living,” he told interviewer Monk Rowe in 2007 about his commitment to playing music. “I just considered how I wanted to live.”

Sarney Norman Simmons was born October 6, 1929 in Chicago to Sarney Simmons, a barber, and Blanche Simmons (née Gibson), a hotel worker. Simmons’ father owned his own barbershop, and was successful enough to afford an upright piano for the family—thus giving his son a gateway into music. He began playing by ear, picking out the tunes he heard on records by Duke Ellington (his first major influence). In school, when he played those songs back for the a cappella group, he found he attracted girls to the piano, encouraging him to dig deeper into music.

While attending Wendell Phillips Academy High School, Simmons excelled in visual arts as well. “We had a course in careers,” he recalled to Rowe, “and I decided, ‘Well, if I decide to be an artist, either I’m going to be painting pictures and waiting till I’m dead before I get any recognition from them, or I’m gonna work in a situation where someone’s gonna be telling me what to do.’ I decided … democracy was most represented in the music. This is where individuals accepted each other on another level other than the way the rest of society did. And I decided this is where I wanted to be.”

Simmons enrolled at the Chicago School of Music at 16. By 19 he had formed his own band; at 22, he was the house pianist at the Beehive (and, at times, the C&C Lounge on the South Side). In addition to work with Parker, Rodney, Gray, and Young, Simmons accompanied singer Dinah Washington and appeared regularly with Chicago staples like saxophonist Paul Bascomb, trumpeter Ira Sullivan, bassists Malachi Favors and Victor Sproles, and drummer Vernel Fournier. In 1956, he recorded his first album, Norman Simmons Trio, with Sproles and Fournier on Chess Records’ Argo subsidiary.

Convinced by vocalist Ernestine Anderson to move to New York in the late ’50s, Simmons soon found work accompanying Dakota Staton, as well as fellow Chicagoan Johnny Griffin. He wrote three of the six compositions on Griffin’s classic 1959 album The Little Giant, wrote all of the arrangements for 1960’s The Big Soul-Band, and was the pianist in Griffin’s co-led quintet with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

In 1961, Simmons began a long musical relationship with Carmen McRae, with whom he worked into the 1970s, eventually becoming her musical director. He also continued working with Staton, freelancing as a pianist and arranger as well (including his work with Lewis on “Wade in the Water”). In the ’70s he accompanied Betty Carter and Anita O’Day, and in 1976 finally released his second album under his own name, Ramira the Dancer. Beginning in 1985, Williams’ primary association was with singer Joe Williams, for whom he was pianist and musical director until the singer’s death in 1999.

In the 21st century, Simmons was the pianist for the Duke Ellington Legacy (with Ellington’s grandson and namesake, guitarist Edward Kennedy Ellington II) and remained a busy freelancer. He recorded his last four albums in an uncharacteristically prolific period between 1999 and 2002. In his last years, however, much of Simmons’ attention went to working as an educator, whether at higher-education institutions like the New School or William Paterson University, or through nonprofit foundations such as Jazzmobile or Jazz House Kids.

Simmons leaves no known immediate survivors.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.