Inspired by saxophonists like Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims dedicated his life to playing mainstream jazz. “Throughout his career,” wrote Scott Yanow in All Music Guide, “Zoot Sims was famous for epitomizing the swinging musician, never playing an inappropriate phrase.” During his 40 years as a performer, he played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Stan Kenton. Sims’ commitment to 1950s jazz remained intact through the free jazz and fusion eras, only to find swing and bop come back into style in the late 1970s. “He was praised by critics,” noted Burt A. Folkart in the Los Angeles Times, “for his free-flowing ventures in traditional 4/4 and 3/4 time, saluted for his seemingly effortless but complex, spontaneous solos and lauded for his harmonic values in an age of brash dissonance.”
John Haley Sims was born on October 29, 1925, in Inglewood, California, the son of two vaudeville performers, Pete Sims and Kate Haley. Pete Sims was often on the road, leaving the family with too little money to pay the gas and electric bills. At the age of ten Sims discovered his talent for music. “I played clarinet three years, until my mother bought me a Conn tenor…,” Sims wrote in an autobiographical sketch that appeared in the New Yorker. “I kept it through my Woody Herman days in the late forties, and I finally sold it for twenty-five dollars. I never had any lessons.” He quit high school after one year and began performing with Ken Baker in Los Angeles in 1940. Baker had a habit of placing funny nicknames behind the player’s music stands, and young John stood behind the one titled “Zoot.” The nickname stuck. When Sims joined the Booby Sherwood Orchestra in 1942, he was already a professional musician at the age of 17.
Sims seldom remained with one band for an extended period and he traveled continuously. “He was on the road much of his life,” wrote Whitney Balliet of the New Yorker, “and he appeared all over the world.” He played with Benny Goodman in 1943 and Sid Catlett in 1944, and then entered the Army for a two-year stint. Sims’ tenor saxophone reached a larger audience between 1947-49 when he became part of the Four Brothers in the Woody Herman band. Playing alongside saxophonists Herbie Steward, Stan Getz, and Serge Chaloff, Sims had found a place where his musical ideas could grow. “I loved that band,” Sims recalled. “We were all young and had the same ideas. I’d always worried about what the other guys were thinking in all the bands I’d been in, and in Woody’s I found out: they were thinking the same thing I was.” Sims finished out the decade playing with Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich, and Goodman.
He continued to bounce from band to band in the early 1950s, and even became a house painter for a year and a half when work was hard to find. He formed one of his most enduring musical relationships in the 1950s with fellow tenor Al Cohn. “The two tenors were so
Born John Haley Sims on October 29, 1925, in Inglewood, CA; died on March 23, 1985, in New York, NY; son of Pete Sims and Kate Haley (vaudeville performers); married Louise Ault, 1970.
Began playing tenor saxophone, age 13; joined Bobby Sherwood Orchestra, 1942-43; joined Benny Goodman’s big band, 1943; served in U.S. Army, 1944-46; received fame as one of the “Four Brothers” in Woody Herman’s band, 1947-49; freelanced with Stan Kenton and Gerry Mulligan; teamed with Al Cohn, 1952; toured Soviet Union with Benny Goodman, 1962; played with John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and Sonny Rollins at the Titans of Tenor concert, 1966; recorded for ABC-Paramount, Impulse, Prestige, Bethlehem, Pablo Riverside, Biograph, Affinity, RCA, and Pacific Jazz labels.
Addresses: Record company —Fantasy Records, 2600 Tenth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, phone: (510) 549-2500, website: http://www.fantasyjazz.com.
complementary,” Yanow wrote, “that it was often difficult to tell them apart!” In 1956 the two led a quintet. Pianist Dave Frishberg, concurred, recalling to Balliett, “I told [Zoot Sims] that if Al Cohn was the Joe DiMaggio of tenor saxophonists he was the Ted Williams.” They recorded Al and Zoot in 1957 and played shows at the Half Note near Greenwich Village, solidifying a musical partnership that would last over the next three decades. Sims rejoined Goodman in 1962 for a tour in the Soviet Union, and in 1966, he appeared with Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Coleman Hawkins at the Titans of the Tenor concert in New York City.
While Sims continued to play swing in the late 1960s and 1970s, he worried that his style of mainstream jazz had become outdated. Even in the late 1950s when he was establishing his credentials, new saxophonists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman led audiences to view swing and bop as old-fashioned. The dominance of free jazz in the late 1960s and fusion in the early 1970s led many traditional musicians to flee to Europe, where their music was received warmly. During the mid-1970s, however, the pendulum began to swing back again. Saxophonists like Scott Hamilton began to emulate Sims’ style in his recordings. Sims’ new work on the soprano saxophone also helped to raise his profile once again.
Sims married journalist Louise Ault in 1970; the match was evidently a happy one: “His playing took on a new fullness and warmth,” wrote Balliett. “By the mid-seventies he had become a saxophonist of the first rank.” Although the couple lived in New York, Sims continued his itinerant ways during the decade, traveling to Australia with Goodman, and to Scandinavia with Cohn; he was honored at the “Salute to Zoot” show at New York University in 1975. A few years later Sims’ liver became infected from chronic alcohol abuse and he was faced with a choice: “Give up drinking,” according to the Los Angeles Times, “or give up living.” “He opted for the former,” Folkart wrote, “and went back out on the road as a sober saxophonist.”
In 1982 Sims curtailed his performing schedule when doctors found a growth behind his right kidney. He recorded several memorable sessions on the Pablo label in the early 1980s, including Blues for Two with guitarist Joe Pass, and On the Corner, a live set from the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. He played selective dates in the mid-1980s, and performed at an all-star event with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter a few months before his death. Sims died of cancer at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York on March 23, 1985.
Sims recorded over 50 albums during his four-decade career. “He always sounded inspired,” Yanow wrote, “and although his style did not change much after the early 1950s, Zoot’s enthusiasm and creativity never wavered.” Friends remembered him warmly. “He was a dream to play with,” guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli told Balliett. “He was always good, he was always charged up, he never pussyfooted.” African American bandleader Benny Carter, concurred, reminiscing in the Los Angeles Times, “Zoot is the outstanding refutation of the negative theory that whites can’t play jazz. And a beautiful fellow to boot.”
Zoot Case, Prestige, 1950.
Quartets, Prestige, 1951.
Morning Fun, Black Lion, 1956.
The Four Brothers: Together Again, RCA, 1957.
Either Way, Evidence, 1961.
Body and Soul, Muse, 1973.
Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers, Pablo, 1975.
Hawthorne Nights, Pablo, 1976.
Zoot Plays Soprano, Pablo, 1976.
(With Harry “Sweets” Edison) Just Friends, Pablo, 1978.
For Lady Day, Pablo, 1978.
Passion Flower, Pablo, 1980.
Blues for Two, Pablo, 1982.
On the Korner, Pablo, 1983.
Quietly There, Pablo, 1984.
Erlewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide to Jazz: The Experts’ Guide to the Best Jazz Recordings, Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
Holtje, Steve, and Nancy Ann Lee, editors, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1985, p. 6.
New Yorker, May 12, 1986, p. 112-14.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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