Sonny Stitt

After posting about Northampton’s Jazz Workshop series last night, I flipped the calendar and saw that Sonny Stitt’s 88th birthday anniversary is today.  Stitt made a career of sitting in, of working with house rhythm sections on the non-stop round of gigs he played for over 35 years, so he’d feel right at home with Paul Arslanian at the Clarion.  Alas, Stitt died in 1982 at the age of 58, but he left an enormous recorded legacy, and 30 years since his death he remains a revered and influential figure, a model of how to play modern jazz with swing and soul and technique to spare.

I first saw Stitt in 1972 when he was touring with the Giants of Jazz, a sextet that included Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Roland Hanna, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey.   Hanna was a last-minute replacement for Thelonious Monk who’d been touring with the Giants and was on the bill for this concert at Boston College, but by then Thelonious was beginning to withdraw from the scene.  As it happened, Stitt was the most riveting player on the bandstand for this 18-year-old, in part because he reminded me so much of Charlie Parker and because his blues playing left me awestruck.  As Lester Young would say, Sonny knew how to tell a story.  Check out this one from Newport 1958; that’s Springfield native Sal Salvador on guitar. 

(James Moody, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie in 1970's attire)

1972 was also the year that Stitt recorded Tune-Up!, a session with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and the great Boston-based drummer Alan Dawson.  In a career already full of superior efforts, Tune-Up! was an instant classic.  And at a time when new recordings of bebop were few and far between and even less attention was being paid to them, Tune-Up! made such a compelling case for the enduring power of modern jazz that it earnedDownBeat’s Album of the Year award. 

While all of my experiences seeing Stitt took place in Boston, I’ve long been aware of an appearance he and pianist Jaki Byard made at UMass in the early ‘70’s at the Orchard Hill Residential College.  I first heard about it from Archie Shepp, who by his own admission was taken to the woodshed when he and Stitt locked horns that night.  Shepp, theretofore an iconoclast who’d come to prominence in the 60’s as one of the most original stylists affiliated with Free Jazz, suddenly became a bebop avatar, and before the decade was  through he’d recorded sets of tunes by Bird and Horace Silver as well  as Classic Blues and spirituals.  Credit Edward "Sonny" Stitt, a son of music professor and vocal coach Edward Boatner, with the ongoing education of Professor Archie Shepp.

We’ll hear Sonny Stitt in tonight’s Jazz à la Mode, interweaving sets of his music with Stan Getz, whose 85th birthday anniversary is today.  Both Aquarians were acolytes of the first order: Stitt of Charlie Parker, and Getz of Lester Young, but they made indelible impressions of their own, and on one occasion recorded together on a Dizzy Gillespie tour de force, For Musicians Only..   No one questioned their qualifications.




  1. Anonymous says


    Your personal recollections of hearing these players, telling their stories, and sharing the effect that their music had on you is very engaging. 


  2. Anonymous says

    Thanks for the memories Tom, hard to believe that Sonny Stitt was only
    58 when he passed away; he was a fabulous player who claimed to have
    developed his concept of bebop independently from Bird and took up the
    tenor to differentiate himself.  It was only after Bird died that he
    picked up the alto again and did that great Stitt plays Bird recording
    for Atlantic – from then on, he played both horns.  I played The
    Eternal Triangle from from Dizzy's Sonny Side Up a couple of weeks
    ago, about as cookin' as For Musicians Only,  a couple of the first
    jazz records I ever bought!

    Toronto-based drummer Freddie Webster who passed away a few years ago
    had some great stories including one about Sonny Stitt recounted by a
    Vancouver-based colleague Gavin Walker:

    "One great story comes to mind that I always got him to tell to any
    visiting player I introduced him to is this: Sonny Stitt was booked to
    play a week at the Town Tavern. Freddie was the drummer and Stitt was
    his usual diffident self hardly saying a word to the band except
    calling the tunes, setting the tempos and the keys and not even so
    much as introducing them (they were all Torontonians so he assumed
    everybody knew them but still!!!). On the last night of the gig Stitt
    invited the whole band to his hotel room for a taste.The surprised
    band raised their glasses in a toast and Stitt said, "I want to thank
    all you guys for trying".

    Nou Dadoun – The A-Trane CFRO

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