Hailed as the father of free-jazz guitar, Sonny Sharrock carved his own unique niche in the world of jazz by adapting the free-form improvisational style pioneered by 1960s jazz horn players to the guitar. One of the first jazz guitarists to incorporate dissonance, distortion, feedback, and chord clusters into his playing style, he revolutionized jazz guitar concepts by developing an abstract, passionate, and truly original instrumental voice. His string-breaking, rule-shattering, free-for-all improvising influenced two generations of guitarists from jazz master Nicky Skopelitis to rock players Vernon Reid and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. “My view of improvisation is very personal,” Sharrock wrote in Guitar Player. “It’s full of love, anger, truth, lies, and, in the end (I hope), sense.”
Sharrock began his musical career in the late 1950s singing in local, street-corner doo-wop groups. He became intrigued by jazz in 1959 after hearing Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album. He began voraciously listening to jazz, particularly Davis, drummer Art Blakey, and saxophonists Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. By 1960 Sharrock was converted. “I was a total jazz head, and I wanted to be part of the music,” he told Gary Parker Chapin in Option. “I was going through that period in my life that everyone goes through—you know, when you’re 18 years old, you’re out of high school, and you’re looking for truth and meaning … you go through all the arts. I tried to write, to sculpt, I tried to paint, and I was horrible at all of those things. But all this time I loved the music. So I decided to try to play.”
The guitar was not Sharrock’s first instrument of choice. Originally, he wanted to play saxophone, but asthma prevented this. So he bought a $12 guitar and started experimenting with jazz in 1960. From the beginning, Sharrock’s approach to the guitar was unique; rather than basing his style on other jazz guitarists, he looked to his idols, horn players Davis, Coleman, and especially Coltrane, for inspiration.
Primarily self-taught and unable to read music, Sharrock credited his lack of formal music training as his biggest asset in developing his singular “shards of splintered glass” sound. “I just started playing,” he explained to Mike Bourne in Down Beat “I didn’t have enough technique to copy anybody. So I just didn’t bother. I used to just make up my own little things and eventually I just started playing like I do, and I never did play anybody’s licks.” Sharrock did, however, attend the Berklee School of Music from September of 1961 to February of 1962, studying composition.
Born Warren Harding Sharrock, August 27,1940, in Ossining, NY; died of a heart attack, May 25,1994, in Ossining.
Sang in street corner doo-wop groups, 1954–59; took up guitar, 1960; played with various jazz musicians including Olatunji, Byard Lancaster, Pharaoh Sanders, Frank Wright, and Dave Burr, New York City, beginning in 1965; made first recorded appearance on Sanders’s Tauhid, 1966; played, toured, and recorded with Herbie Mann, 1967–73; released first album as a leader, Black Woman, Vortex, 1970; led own band with wife Linda, 1973–75; worked with Bill Laswell’s Material and Last Exit projects, 1985–90; released duet album with Nicky Skopelitis, Faith Moves, CMP, 1990; reunited with Sanders to record Ask the Ages, 1991.
Nigerian drummer Olatunji. He quickly became an integral part of the avant-garde New York jazz scene called the “New Thing.” Between 1965 and 1967 he played with saxophonists Byard Lancaster, Pharaoh Sanders, and Frank Wright, and pianist Dave Burr. He made his first recorded appearance in 1966 on Sanders’s album Tauhid.
Sharrock began collaborating with jazz flutist Herbie Mann in 1967 and played with him on and off for the next five years. He toured internationally with Mann, including appearances at both the Newport and Montreux jazz festivals. His work with Mann brought Sharrock to the attention of a number of other prominent jazz musicians who were eager to work with him. In 1969 he played on Mann’s Memphis Underground and saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova, then made an uncredited appearance on Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson the following year.
Sharrock gained critical acclaim for his work with Mann, but he felt constrained by the highly defined structure of Mann’s bossa nova-based jazz. He broke out on his own with his first album as a leader, Black Woman, in 1970. In an interview in Down Beat shortly after the release of the album, he said, “I’ve got my own music and my own way of playing, and I have to do it. And, I can’t do it with Herbie.”
In 1973 Sharrock left Mann to form his own band along with his wife, jazz vocalist Linda Sharrock, bassist Sirone, drummer Milford Graves, and trumpeter Ted Daniel. The group released two albums between 1973 and 1975 and toured both the U.S. and Europe. Although the projects brought Sharrock some renown and a wealth of playing experience, the band never really achieved widespread popularity. They disbanded in 1975. With the exception of an occasional club appearance, Sharrock was absent from the jazz scene for the remainder of the 1970s.
Sharrock returned to the experimental spotlight in 1985 with the critically acclaimed album Guitar. That year bassist/producer Bill Laswell asked him to sit in on the recording of his band Material’s album Memory Serves. In addition to releasing the solo effort Seize the Rainbow in 1987, Sharrock continued his association with Laswell throughout the late 1980s, appearing on albums with both Laswell’s Material and Last Exit projects, including Headfirst into the Flames and Iron Path.
Sharrock joined with guitar prot6g6 Nicky Skopelitis in 1990 to record an album of free-style duets entitled Faith Moves. Also in 1990 he made a successful bid for more commercial recognition with the rock-oriented album Highlife. He returned to his uncompromising style of jazz in 1991 with Ask the Ages. That album, a ferocious, free-flowing session that reunited Sharrock with his mentor, Pharaoh Sanders, is considered by many to be Sharrock’s best.
In 1994, Sharrock signed a big-budget deal with RCA Records to record a rock-oriented album that would identify him as “the godfather of grunge”—grunge being a popular rock style notable for noisy guitar—and feature guest performances by younger guitarists he had inspired. But, the album would never be made. Warren Harding “Sonny” Sharrock died of a heart attack in his home in Ossining, New York, on May 25, 1994.
America’s leading exponent of free-jazz guitar for nearly 30 years, Sharrock secured his place in the annals of the great jazz innovators by refusing to follow in anyone’s footsteps. “Imitating someone else’s sound is unforgivable,” he wrote in Guitar Player. “No one remembers the imitators. Miles is Miles, Coltrane is Coltrane, and Sonny Sharrock is Sonny Sharrock. For better or worse you are your own truth. Your improvisation must have feeling. It must swing, and it must have beauty, be it the fragile beauty of a snowflake or the terrible beauty of an erupting volcano. Beauty—no matter how disturbing or how still—is always true. Don’t be afraid to let go of the things you know. Defy your weaker, safer self. Create. Make music.”
Black Woman, Vortex, 1969.
Paradise, Atco, 1975.
Guitar, Enemy, 1986.
Last Exit, Enemy, 1986.
Seize the Rainbow, Enemy, 1987
Live in New York, Enemy, 1989.
Faith Moves, CMP, 1990.
Highlife, Enemy, 1990.
Ask the Ages, Axiom, 1991.
Feather, Leonard G., Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon Press, 1976.
Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 1988.
Down Beat, June 11, 1970; June 1992; July 1993; August 1994.
Guitar Player, February 1989; January 1992; September 1994.
Musician, February 1993.
Option, January 1, 1990.
Rolling Stone, July 14, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the All-Music Guide, Matrix Software, 1994.
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