Sonny Criss: "Uniformly Excellent"
I’ve got a few friends in Northampton who are going to love this film featuring Sonny Criss with the Hampton Hawes All-Stars. I doubt that many towns of 30,000 have core constituencies of Criss fans, but Hamp’s got ‘em for sure, so I’m dedicating this one to Bobby, Dave, Josh, Alan and John. It’s Criss, looking sharp and sounding great, who's the brightest of many highlights in this 1970 performance which also features Harry “Sweets” Edison, Hampton Hawes, and Teddy Edwards, and blues legend Big Joe Turner, at Memory Lane on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. (That's Bobby Thompson on drums and the legendary Leroy Vinegar on bass.)
While none of these players ever suffered from overexposure, it's Criss who may have been the most taken for granted. The Memphis native was born in 1927 and was playing saxophone before his family moved to Los Angeles in 1942. Ira Gitler's history of jazz in the 1940's, Swing to Bop, devotes several pages to Criss's story, including his recollection of a Memphis musician who was his original inspiration, the saxophonist Hank O'Day. Criss described his playing as "very beautiful and very powerful." O'Day later taught another Memphis alto player with a similarly bluesy, gospel-inflected style, Hank Crawford. But it was Charlie Parker's solo on Jay McShann's "Hootie Blues," recorded in 1941, that really impressed the 14-year-old Criss.
"We had those records at home in Memphis," he told Gitler. "The first time I ever tried to put anything down on paper was one of Bird's tunes when he was with McShann." A few years later he heard Parker's playing on "Bebop" and "Congo Blues," and said, "When I heard those records just like my mind popped. I didn't have the slightest idea what he was doing, but I felt it...Before that I was listening to...Cleanhead Vinson, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter...Pete Brown. I liked everybody. Till I heard Bird [then] it was all over."
Criss made a quick study of Parker. As saxophonist Jackie Kelso reported in Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles, he heard a live broadcast shortly after his discharge from World War II service and assumed it was Parker. "I said, 'My God, Bird is in town! They didn't tell me Bird is in town!' Well, to make a long story short, it wasn't Bird. It was Sonny Criss. That guy was playing beautiful, brilliant tone, cascades of notes."
Galvanized by Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's fabled appearance at Billy Berg's in Hollywood in 1946, Criss, Hawes and Edwards were among the first locals to form a core of modernists in Los Angeles. Sonny played on a celebrated Just Jazz concert with Howard McGhee and Wardell Gray in '47, and he held his own on "The Hunt" and other epic tenor battles featuring Wardell and Dexter Gordon at the Elks.
He shared the bandstand with Parker when both altos were featured with Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1949, and that same year he made his first date as a leader for Norman Granz on Mercury/Norgran. (Thereafter, his recording activity came in fits and starts including sessions for Imperial in 1956; Prestige in the late 60's; and Muse and Impulse in the mid-'70's.)
In 1952, Parker, Criss, and Chet Baker played a jam session at the Trade Winds in Inglewood, CA. Bird hailed the trumpeter to Miles Davis and others upon his return to New York and employed Baker on subsequent West Coast swings, but Criss "made a good account of myself," as he told Gitler. Here they are playing "Donna Lee," with Bird, as usual, up first.
Criss joined Buddy Rich in 1955 and appeared on The Swingin' Buddy Rich, a superb small combo date with Sweets Edison and Jimmy Rowles. On the strength of this association, he made three sessions with the r&b-oriented Imperial Records; the last of these, much like Bird's last date, was devoted to Cole Porter tunes. Bob Porter, who described the Imperials as "uniformly excellent," produced Criss's recordings for Muse in the mid-'70's, including a tribute to Red Sox ace Luis Tiant, "El Tiante." Porter spoke for Criss fans far and wide when he told Ted Gioia in West Coast Jazz, "Sonny's was a talent too big to be denied...I don't know anyone who was exposed to his playing who didn't enjoy him."
As it happened, however, too few were "exposed" to him, and Criss never enjoyed much commercial success or job security. Audiences in Southern California were less receptive to bebop than back East, and West Coast cool was never for Sonny, nor was the prospect of steady work with big bands. "I feel like you're part of the establishment in big bands," he told Gitler. "Part of an assembly line and they restrict you. It's not really my thing."
Art Farmer, an early colleague of Sonny's in Los Angeles, detected a flaw in this devotion to a purist ethic. In Central Avenue Sounds, Farmer said, "Sonny was strictly a jazz player. He said, 'I shouldn't have to do that, I'm a jazz player.' So that just closed down a lot of possibilities, because if you play jazz, well, a lot of your income is going to be from making records...So he didn't get as far as he should have." Alas, Criss got as far as 1977, the year in which he was diagnosed with stomach cancer; he took his own life on November 19 of that year, a month after his 50th birthday.
Bob Porter sent these thoughts about Sonny earlier today: "What stands out for me after all these years is the ability of Sonny Criss to reach across time and engage people with the force of his playing. Try putting on one of his great sessions for people who have never heard him. Invariably, the result is the same: someone will venture forth with “Wow! Who is That?” or some such. It never fails.
"He needed a manager. So often good management makes the difference in career terms. It is taken for granted these days but it was the mid-70s when jazz management started to become more professional. It was too late for Sonny by that time."
We'll hear a couple of sets of Criss's music in Thursday's Jazz a la Mode.