One of his earliest gigs was with Howard McGhee’s band, which also featured Charlie Parker. While clearly influenced by Parker, he was not merely a disciple as has sometimes been said. Criss had his own crisp, bluesy tone and was particularly strong on ballads and slow melodies. His playing is a mix of the sweetness of a Johnny Hodges with the urgency of a Charlie Parker. Criss cut his teeth with Al Killian, Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, and others on the Los Angeles Central Avenue scene. He moved from band to band, appearing on a few jam session recordings for Norman Granz and on sessions led by Johnny Otis and Billy Eckstine.
In 1956, he made several recordings with Imperial Records, including Criss Cross and Sonny Criss Plays Cole Porter. He moved to Paris for a while, where he recorded the engaging Mr. Blues Pour Flirter, Vols. 1 and 2 (1963), among others. In the late 1960s, he made a number of fine albums, mostly in the hard bop tradition, for Prestige, including This is Criss and Sonny's Dream, which started to bring him a little more notice - he won the Down Beat award for “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 1968 (which sounds like a pretty thankless award if you ask me).On November 19, 1977, Criss committed suicide. He was still playing in top form and getting more widely heard at the time, so the reason for this was a mystery. Finally, more than a decade after Criss’s death, his mother, Lucy, revealed that he had been suffering with stomach cancer. I have lately been listening to his 1975 album, Out of Nowhere, where he is ably accompanied by the wonderfully named Dolo Coker on piano, and Criss’s playing is as full of emotion and inventiveness as ever. I guess, because of his tightly packed suitcase of a personality (to continue the clothing-related metaphors), Criss simply let his music do the talking for him, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.