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Jazz

Pianist Norman Simmons

An older Black man wears a red sweater and white turtleneck.
Henry Ferrini
/
Ferrini Productions
Norman Simmons from a 2015 video interview,

Pianist Norman Simmons is best remembered as a jazz arranger and accompanist to singers like Anita O’Day and Sarah Vaughan. Simmons died this year at age 91, and KNKX jazz host Abe Beeson says his talents went far beyond his supporting roles.

Growing up in Chicago in the 1930s, Norman Simmons loved Duke Ellington, not just for his piano playing but for his arrangements as well.

Though Simmons was a be-bopper in his youth – as the house pianist at Chicago’s Beehive Lounge, he backed up Charlie Parker, Lester Young and other visiting stars – arranging soon became his calling card.

Saxophonist Johnny Griffin hired Simmons to arrange “Wade in the Water” for his big soul band, and they made it a hit in 1960.

Simmons also earned a reputation for working with singers. In fact, it was singer Ernestine Anderson who persuaded him to leave Chicago for New York City.

There, Simmons was often found backing Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter and, later in his career, Anita O’Day.

On his work as an accompanist, Simmons said it came naturally because he loved acting as an “instant arranger” – orchestrating in response to the singer’s voice and the lyrics.

Later in life, Simmons dedicated himself to teaching – with Jazz House Kids, William Paterson University and The New School. He was also a proud member of the Ellington Legacy Band in recent years, and recorded most of his handful of albums in the last couple of decades.

Of his life in jazz, Simmons told a 2007 interviewer, “In the artistic sense, I didn’t consider how I wanted to make a living – I just considered how I wanted to live.”

Simmons died May 13. He was 91.