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Sonny Simmons 1933–2021

The alto saxophonist and English horn player made waves in the ’60s, faded into alcoholism and homelessness, then rebounded for an impressive comeback

Sonny Simmons
Sonny Simmons at Iridium, New York City, December 1995 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Sonny Simmons, an alto saxophonist and English hornist who cut a unique and long-overlooked figure in the jazz avant-garde, died on April 6. He was 87.

His death was first reported by the French newspaper Libération. Location and cause of death have not been disclosed.

Raised in Northern California, Simmons first gained attention on the Los Angeles jazz scene as the heir apparent to Ornette Coleman. He formed a partnership there with saxophonist and flutist Prince Lasha, which continued as both musicians moved first to New York and then back to California. Simmons also established a solo career on both coasts. However, his profile remained low and was brought even lower by personal problems that left him alone and homeless on the streets of San Francisco, playing for spare change under the name Blackjack Pleasant.

Discovered busking in the early 1990s by Parisian jazz club owner Geraldine Postel, and with assists from saxophonist Branford Marsalis and SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline, Simmons built his career anew. He recorded a critically acclaimed album, 1994’s Ancient Ritual, and accepted a booking in Paris from Postel, which became a springboard for a tour of the European jazz festival circuit. Work with Horace Tapscott and Anthony Braxton followed, as well as co-leadership (with multi-reedist Michael Marcus) of the quartet the Cosmosamatics.

Though he was best known as a saxophonist, Simmons considered the classical English horn, or cor anglais, his first instrument. He was a pioneer of its use in jazz—not the first (that was probably Garvin Bushell with John Coltrane in 1961), but certainly its first regular practitioner. He first recorded on the horn on Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones’ 1964 album Illumination! and continued using it throughout his career, playing it exclusively on his 2001 release Tales of the Ancient East.

Simmons was long associated with free and avant-garde jazz; however, he never embraced the movement as firmly as it did him. Often favoring highly melodic and arranged music on his early recordings, including 1968’s Music from the Spheres and his album The Cry! with Lasha, Simmons was as likely in his later career to play inside as out. “I got sucked into the avant-garde when I was a young cat,” he told journalist Andy Hamilton in 2007. “But actually, I’d just as rather play beautiful melodies, with my own compositions, with a groove. That’s my true heart … [N]ow that I’m in the autumn of my years, I want to come inside again – I’ve been outside a long time!”

Huey Simmons was born August 4, 1933 in Sicily Island, Louisiana. His father, an itinerant preacher who played the drums, gave his six-year-old son a cheap accordion that he played in church every Sunday.

The Simmonses moved to Oakland, California in 1944; Simmons regarded it as the place where he grew up. While attending Oakland Technical High School, he became enchanted by the sound of the English horn in the 1944 film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The school orchestra had no English horn and assigned him the saxophone instead. He saved up to buy a tenor; shortly after he finally purchased it in 1949, however, Simmons underwent another musical revelation when he saw Charlie Parker at a Jazz at the Philharmonic performance. He soon switched to alto.

After graduating from high school, Simmons began playing with blues and rhythm & blues bands, including those led by Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker. He also met and began working with Prince Lasha, who had followed his childhood friend Ornette Coleman from Texas to California.

It wasn’t Simmons’ only connection to Coleman. When the free-jazz innovator became infamous for his music and relocated to New York, Simmons (then based in Los Angeles) was L.A.’s plastic alto saxophonist in waiting. For similar reasons, he attracted the attention of Contemporary Records owner and producer Lester Koenig, who had first recorded Coleman; he signed Simmons and Lasha for two records, the first of which, The Cry!, was recorded in 1962. (The second, Firebirds, came five years later.)

Lasha, who had previously spent time in New York, convinced Simmons to move there with him in 1963. It was also Lasha who at that time gave Simmons the nickname “Sonny,” because, he said, “I didn’t want to take ‘Huey’ Simmons to New York … I had to dress him up a little.” Immediately upon arrival they were hired by Sonny Rollins for his residency at the Village Gate, and they recorded soon after with Eric Dolphy on his Iron Man album and with Garrison and Jones on Illumination! Simmons also found another musical partner in trumpeter Barbara Donald, who became his wife and collaborator. They worked together on his 1966 debut for ESP-Disk’, Staying on the Watch.

As the ’60s wore on, Simmons began moving back and forth between California and New York, and in 1969 he spent some time upstate in Woodstock (during which time Jimi Hendrix invited him over to play English horn). His career continued primarily in California, although it diminished through the ’70s; after 1971, he did not appear on a commercially released album for more than a decade. In 1978, he and Donald divorced, and he spent much of the next 15 years in an alcoholic haze, eventually winding up homeless.

With his career resurrected in the 1990s, he became a more prolific and in-demand musician, building a substantial following in Europe and an almost reverential following among players in New York and beyond. He sustained that momentum into the 2010s. His final recording, 2014’s Nomadic, was a collaboration with the Indo-jazz trio Moksha Samnyasin.

Simmons was predeceased by his ex-wife Donald and daughter Raisha. He is survived by his son Zarak and five grandchildren.

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.