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Sonny Fortune Dies at 79

The Coltrane-inspired saxophonist and flutist worked with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and other greats

Sonny Fortune in 2007
Sonny Fortune in 2007 (photo: Dmitry Scherbie)

Sonny Fortune, a saxophonist and flutist with a brawny, intense style who was best known for his long association with Elvin Jones (and brief association with Miles Davis), died Oct. 25 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by National Public Radio. The cause of death was complications from a series of strokes.

Fortune, who most prominently played alto saxophone (though he frequently played soprano and also worked on tenor and baritone), was one of the key altoists to emerge in the troubled American jazz scene of the 1970s. He was part of a post-Coltrane wave of jazz saxophonists (and in fact came to New York from his native Philadelphia contemporaneously with John Coltrane’s death), but steadfastly developed his own sound while exploring the new language Trane had established on the instrument. He was also an intrepid explorer of the possibilities of fusion, particularly its extensions of Latin rhythms and textures.

In addition to Jones and Davis, Fortune worked with conguero Mongo Santamaria, pianist McCoy Tyner, and vibraphonist Roy Ayers before establishing his own solo career in 1974, continuing until a few months before his death.

Cornelius Fortune was born May 19, 1939 in Philadelphia. A doo-wop singer in his youth, he turned later to saxophone, deciding at 18 to embark on a career in jazz. After studying at Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music, Fortune remained in the city for nearly a decade, working in rhythm & blues and jazz bands, especially in the soul-jazz idiom. His first recording, 1965’s Trip on the Strip, found him co-leading a session with Philadelphia organist Stan Hunter.

Encouraged by Coltrane, Fortune finally moved to New York in 1967, joining the band led by Coltrane’s sometime drummer Jones. The first stint with Jones was brief, and after another quick spell with saxophonist Frank Foster, Fortune joined Santamaria’s band in 1968, remaining with the percussionist until a short-lived move to Los Angeles in 1970. Returning to New York, he joined Tyner’s band—another Coltrane alumnus—where he would stay until 1974.

In September of that year, Fortune recorded his album Long Before Our Mothers Cried for the Strata-East label. That same month, he accepted an offer to replace Dave Liebman in Miles Davis’ pathbreaking fusion ensemble—arriving just in time to put his imprimatur on the classic album Get Up With It. He worked with Miles for three more albums and a tour of Japan, departing shortly before the trumpeter’s sudden retirement.

Fortune’s own music (as captured on recordings like 1978’s Serengeti Minstrel) drew from Davis’ interest in funk rhythms and electronic textures, Santamaria’s soulful edge and dense Latin percussion, and Coltrane’s propulsive, often atonal and unbridled blowing, as well as his history in modal music and hard bop. While Fortune’s sound on the alto was also audibly indebted to Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, he wore the tenor icon’s influence as a badge of honor. “I loved Miles, but Coltrane really changed my life,” he told a Greek interviewer in 2013. He renewed his association with Jones in the mid-1980s, working with him through the 1990s, and in 1999 led a session called In the Spirit of John Coltrane.In the 2000s, he also worked with a Coltrane tribute trio alongside bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Rashied Ali.

In the 2010s, Fortune did pay tribute to his tenure with Davis in a quartet led by guitarist Mike Stern called 4 Generations of Miles. He also continued his own career (which had included a run at Blue Note Records in the ’90s), leading a quartet in the 2000s that featured pianist George Cables and drummer Steve Johns.

“Jazz is complicated,” Fortune said in a recent interview. “When I first heard it, I didn’t like it. But there was something about it that forced me to embrace it because I felt like it was a step above. It was something I had to evolve up into, and I still recognize that worth in the music.”

Originally Published