October 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sonny Criss!

Out Of NowhereSaxophonist William “Sonny” Criss was born on this date in 1927 in Memphis. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 15 and he remained there for much of his life. This may partly explain why, despite his obvious abilities, Criss never achieved due recognition - most West Coast musicians at the time usually made the trek to New York City in search of fame and fortune. But he was also an introspective man who didn’t toot his own horn except on the bandstand. Fellow saxophone player Teddy Edwards once said of Criss that he was like “a closet full of coats with the shoes underneath.”
     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.

1 comment:

  1. Was Sonny Criss ever married? Maybe not. I heard he was living with his mother at his late
    40's. BTW, where are his saxophones? Are they in the museum? I am so curious..... KTKIM from
    Pohang, S. Korea.