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Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins: Tales of Two Sonnys

Sonny Stitt
Sonny Rollins

Producing a jazz album can be a bitch, especially if the producer and artist are not hitting it off. One might enter the studio with the necessary musical experience, technical know-how and appreciation for the musicians–and all the equipment’s tweaked and working, all the sidemen are on time–and still there can be hurdles. What can seem so harmonious and easy-rolling based on the final recorded product may in fact be a project that barely made it past personality conflicts or issues known only to those in the studio.

Just ask Gary Giddins, who relates two stories below: one that he witnessed, of two veterans coming to the close of their association. And another in which he played a primary role, his baptism by fire in the studio–which may help explain his decision to stick to journalism.

When Orrin Keepnews had Riverside Records, he put out an unbelievable number of good records. Obviously, I never saw him work on those records, but his son Peter brought me to a Sonny Rollins session when Orrin was producing for Milestone. Apparently there’s a thing that musicians know about Orrin: He hates the tune “Stella by Starlight.” No matter what the tune was, Sonny constantly quoted that song over and over again. Orrin remarked, “This is Sonny’s way of telling me that he doesn’t want us to use any of this stuff. But that’s OK. We needed a rehearsal session. We’ll continue tomorrow and then we’ll get the record.”

Well, the record came out, Horn Culture–and much of it consisted of what we heard on that “rehearsal” day. That kind of thing happens. I’ve always wondered if that session hastened the ending of Orrin’s association with Sonny. In any case, Sonny’s Milestone albums definitely improved when he began producing himself in association with his wife, Lucille.

Sometimes it can get out of hand. I went to see John Hammond produce a Bill Watrous album once, and he had the unbelievable gall to interrupt a take in the middle because he did not like a solo by one of the musicians. Watrous said, “That’s it, John!” and he left the building. Poor John had to have been in his 60s, but he was obliged to run down a few flights of stairs to catch him outside and plead with him to come back to the studio to finish the record. John was more reserved after that.

My first shot at producing came when [then Muse owner] Joe Fields asked me if I wanted to do the next Sonny Stitt record. Of course I said, “Yeah!” I put together a great band: Roy Haynes, Barry Harris, Richard Davis were the rhythm section, and then I added Jimmy Heath to create a dual tenor thing, not a battle, but a benign competition. I went to ASCAP and I got all these great lead sheets for tunes that hadn’t been done to death. I’m in my 20s, and I’m real excited. So everybody arrives and we’re all in good spirits. Then Sonny looks at the lead sheets and gives me a glare, like, “Oh yeah? You’re going to tell me what to do, what to play?'”

Sonny says, “I need a bottle of” and he names his brand. I said, “Sonny, why don’t we just do the first hour and then we’ll take a break?’ But he’s adamant. He needs a bottle. So we sent somebody to get him one–Teacher’s, J&B or something. He consumed half of it and then promptly threw up on Jimmy’s shoes, which he had taken off to stretch his toes. Right on his shoes. From that point on the record was a mess. But we did it. We recorded for six hours. We got an album.

I remember during that session Jimmy said one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard. He said, “Man, Sonny sounds like Al Jolson today.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “All those tags!” It was true. Every solo ended with the same [sings tag]. He didn’t have an ending. It would just go on and on and on with these corny modulated tags.

I called up Fields and I said, “Joe, I’m really, really sorry but Sonny got sick. There’s nothing here.” He said, “What do you mean there’s nothing here? You know how much money I put into it? We’re putting out a fucking record!” He really ran my ass off. We spent more time with the engineer editing the tape than we did recording it. It was called Mellow, and even with all those great musicians, oh, my god, it was just an awful, awful record.

There was one moment where Sonny–I can’t remember the tune, but at the end of it he played, like, a five-minute tag. It was horrible. We had to cut it out but we needed an ending and I was totally opposed to fade-outs. So I realized that he played the same note just as he was coming to the end of a real chorus that he played at the very end of the piece–except that they were an octave apart. I looked at the editor and he said, “I think you’re right.” So we spliced it so that it sounds like a glissando and that’s the way it was reviewed: “Sonny ends with this amazing glissando.” [Laughs]

Some of the old-timers, they’re going to test you. Rollins tested Orrin, an old friend, and Stitt tested me, a complete stranger.

I think one reason so many jazz records are so dull now is that the A&R man has practically disappeared from the business. Those guys–George Avakian, Norman Granz, Don Schlitten, Alfred Lion, Les Koenig–were really hands-on. They came from a generation that actually felt responsible for the finished product. They sat down with the artist over lunch and said, “What do you want to do this time, and what kind of musicians? Do you have any ideas for tunes–what kind of a theme? How are we going to organize this?” You can see that sort of thing more recently in Arif Mardin’s work with Norah Jones. They didn’t make a jazz record, which disappointed some jazz fans, but he helped her express herself, which ought to be the producer’s ultimate goal.

Look, what did Norman Granz do for those Art Tatum solo records? Nothing but turn on the tape recorder. But he had a concept; he had a passion to right a wrong, which was that this great genius was being underrecorded. He said, we’re going to go into the studio and you’re going to play for however many hours. With Tatum you could do that. Or putting Teddy Wilson back together with Lester Young. Granz gambled that he would get something memorable, and he did. Apparently once the recording started Norman didn’t have a lot of input. His input was no longer necessary. A great producer understands how much or how little he should involve himself.

Don Schlitten produced the great records from the later part of Sonny Stitt’s career because Sonny knew that Don understood and respected the music. Don assembled ideal rhythm sections and, in a way, I think Sonny was playing for him. Sonny certainly was not going to play that way for me. I hadn’t made my bones with him.