Sonny Criss "He Didn't Get As Far As He Should Have"

Oct 23, 2017

October’s quite a month for big-time jazz birthdays, and this year it’s ringing with major milestones, including the centennials of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, the 95th of Illinois Jacquet, and the 90th of the ever-ready Lee Konitz, who's still touring and making records. It’s also the birthday month of such living exemplars as Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Esperanza Spalding, Bill Charlap, and Jimmy Heath, who's got Konitz beat by a year.  October 23 is the 90th of the alto great, Sonny Criss, who was born in Memphis in 1927 and died in Los Angeles in 1977 at 50. Criss’s death was a suicide, reportedly motivated by the painfulness of a stomach cancer that had required him to stop playing.

Seven years earlier, Criss looked sharp and sounded great when he was filmed with a group of Southern California jazz legends at Melody Lane on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The band also featured trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards, pianist Hampton Hawes, and the great blues shouter Big Joe Turner, along with Bobby Thompson on drums and Leroy Vinegar on bass. (See below for an addendum to this file, which has an audio dropout on "Teddy's Blues.")

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 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 gospel-inflected style, Hank Crawford. But it was Charlie Parker's solo on Jay McShann's "Hootie Blues," recorded in 1941, that really impressed a 14-year-old William “Sonny” 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 held his own on "The Hunt" with McGhee, Wardell, and Dexter Gordon at the Elks. The 19-year-old's solo begins at 1:45 on this epic tenor battle that Jack Kerouac later glorified in On The Road.

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 ‘60s; and Muse and Impulse in the mid-'70s.

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. Criss spoke for himself when he told Gitler that he "made a good account of myself” with his idol. He's the first soloist here on Tadd Dameron's bebop blues, "The Squirrel."

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 Imperial Records; the last of these, much like Bird's last date, was devoted to Cole Porter tunes. Bob Porter, who described the Imperial sessions as "uniformly excellent," produced Criss's recordings for Muse, 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."

Criss was showcased on a 1968 album featuring compositions and arrangements by Horace Tapscott. The Penguin Guide lists it among its Core Collection, and hails it for Tapscott's Inventive writing and the opportunity it provided Sonny to "play in front of a carefully orchestrated mid-size band."

Criss is credited several times in Bob Porter’s new book, Soul Jazz, an account of jazz in the black community between 1945 and the mid'70s.  A few years ago when I first wrote about Criss, Porter sent along these thoughts. "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. [But] it was too late for Sonny by that time."