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Saxophonist Sonny Simmons

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Matt Brown Guildford, UK
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Sonny Simmons

Avant-garde and free-jazz saxophonist Sonny Simmons died this year. Paige Hansen says that his weaving and winding music ended up mirroring his topsy-turvy life.

Huey "Sonny" Simmons was born in Sicily Island, Louisiana, in 1933.

Simmons' father was a travelling Baptist preacher who also practiced voodoo. His dad would drum and gave then 6-year-old Sonny a squeeze-box accordion to play. It’s the only instrument he had as a child — and he played it in church every Sunday.

No music lessons for young Sonny, but through the radio he found his love: the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and also classical music.

When he was 14, the family moved to Oakland, California — where Simmons says he was influenced by the politics of the Black Panthers and Black Power. He said he wanted to be in the band at those rallies.

When you hear Simmons' avant-garde sound, you can almost understand the hurt and pain felt by some in those movements. What can sound cacophonous and off-putting to some can be an artist’s way of making a statement.

Simmons co-wrote a tune called “Prelude to Bird” with one of his collaborators, Prince Lasha.

Simmons was quoted in one interview as saying, “I had plenty of idols but all of them fade except one — Charlie Parker. He was the only one that really stayed heavy up on me. ... It’s like he was God.”

McCoy Tyner’s recording "Oriental Flower" introduced Simmons to the world. On “Oriental Flower,” he plays the English horn, which he considered his main instrument.

After years on the West Coast experimenting with psychedelic counter-culture, Simmons' life hit a pause. He became strung out on heroin and was homeless, but still busking on the streets of San Francisco for almost 15 years.

Eventually, a French club owner hired him, and from there, he got a record deal to make a couple of albums — among them “American Jungle.”

Simmons’ richly full life ended in New York City, where spent almost two decades playing gigs and continuing to grow his chops. He described himself as "a brother who is still alive ... who walked with the giants ... played music and recorded with them."

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.
Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.