Saxophonist Sonny Stitt was among the most active performers and most-often recorded figures in jazz from the 1950s until his death in 1982. When Stitt entered the jazz world as a young man, the difficult and harmonically dense bebop style was just beginning to grow. Stitt helped it along, thanks partly to a competitive nature that demanded top-notch playing from his contemporaries as well as himself. Specializing in tenor and alto saxophone, Stitt also played the rarer baritone sax and even the electronically modified Varitone saxophone that came on the market in the 1960s. Not as well known as some of his contemporaries, Sonny Stitt helped make bebop saxophone one of the styles most closely identified with jazz in general.
A native of Boston and the son of a college-level music instructor father, Edward "Sonny" Stitt was born on February 2, 1924. When Stitt was young, the family moved to Saginaw, Michigan. He started piano lessons when he was seven and studied the clarinet later on. Saginaw was a small city, but in the heyday of big-band jazz Stitt found plenty of opportunities to hear top performers in person or on 78 rpm records. A local saxophonist named Big Nick Nicholas gave Stitt lessons on that instrument, and he picked up more skills from nationally prominent Wardell Gray—unable to find lodging in Saginaw's segregated hotels, Gray would crash in Stitt's bedroom while the youngster attended school. By the time he was in his teens, Stitt was hanging around a local American Legion hall that hosted jazz shows after hours, and it didn't take him long to talk his way onto the bandstand.
As America's involvement in World War II deepened, and older jazz musicians enlisted or were drafted into the army, Stitt found work with touring bands. He spent one summer with a band led by a musician named Cornelius Cornell, and the next with the swing band of Claude and Clifford Trenier. By this time, Stitt was hooked on jazz and ready to make his mark on the musical world. "I used to always live with a Down Beat magazine like all the kids did," he was quoted as saying in Jazz Spoken Here. Stitt listened closely to saxophonist Lester Young and to swing clarinetist Benny Goodman. Finishing high school in Saginaw at his mother's insistence, he quickly signed on with Boston's Sabby Lewis Orchestra. In 1943 he joined a group called the Bama State Collegians, traveling with them from Detroit to New York City.
There he landed in the middle of a musical revolution, where alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie used small improvisational jam sessions to break free of preexisting melodies and develop the new bebop style. Stitt was present at the style's creation. After a stint with Tiny Bradshaw's big band in 1943 and 1944, he joined the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, a group heavily populated with future bebop musicians. Stitt's skills grew, and by 1945 and 1946 he was playing in a big band and a sextet led by Gillespie, both among the top ensembles in the country. His fast-rising career was interrupted by a growing heroin addiction; barred from New York clubs by police, he spent time as a sideman in Detroit and Chicago. Finally he was sentenced to a three-year prison term on narcotics charges. Later, with encouragement from Gillespie, he conquered his tendencies toward substance abuse.
Stitt resumed performing in 1949. At the time, he was known as a disciple of Charlie Parker, and some of his early recorded solos show a very close correspondence with Parker's style. Some jazz fans called him by the slightly unflattering nickname "Little Bird," referring to Parker's "Bird" moniker. There is some evidence, however, that Stitt developed his style independently of Parker, whom he encountered for the first time during a 1943 swing through Missouri with the Bradshaw band. Parker was impressed by how much Stitt's playing sounded like his own, and trumpeter Miles Davis, another Missourian, heard Stitt on that same tour and testified to his unique gift. Stitt formed a quintet with saxophonist Gene Ammons and began playing tenor and baritone saxophones in addition to the alto instrument that he had played up to that time; the alto in the years after World War II had become Parker's domain.
Stitt and Ammons often engaged in thrilling duels on the bandstand, and throughout his career Stitt thrived on matching his chops against those of other players. Off the stage, however, he was a thoughtful man who often encouraged young jazz musicians. In 1949 Stitt made his first recordings as a combo leader, forming an impressive group that included pianist Bud Powell, bassist Curly Russell, and drummer Max Roach. He quickly turned to the new and jazz-friendlier LP album medium in the early 1950s, beginning an impressive series of more than 150 LP recordings. Stitt recorded for major jazz labels such as Verve, as well as for transitory entities that issued just a few albums. His collaborators on disc included Ammons, pianist Oscar Peterson, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and, on one memorable Verve album, Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
For the Record …
Born on Feburary 2, 1924, in Boston, MA; died on July 22, 1982, in Washington, DC; son of a music instructor.
Toured with various bands, early 1940s; moved to New York, 1943; began working with bebop musicians; performed with Dizzy Gillespie, 1945–46; recorded and performed in many small combos, often with saxophonist Gene Ammons, 1950–52; recorded frequently for Verve and other labels, 1950s; toured England, performing on Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series, 1958–59; performed with Miles Davis, 1960; member, Giants of Jazz, 1971–72; extensive freelance work, 1960s until death.
In jazz venues Stitt was an equally familiar presence. He often appeared with the touring Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble organized by promoter Norman Granz, traveling to England under its auspices in 1958 and 1959. He performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 and appeared in a documentary film, Jazz on a Summer's Day, made at the festival. In 1960 he performed with the Miles Davis Quintet. Stitt performed frequently in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, playing as far afield as Japan, Israel, and Brazil. He was part of a Giants of Jazz tour that brought together several jazz veterans in 1971 and 1972. On stage or on record, it was the multiple-saxophone "battle" that often brought out the best in Stitt's technically formidable playing. Other favorite saxophone collaborators were Art Pepper, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and Ricky Ford, but he appeared with nearly every significant performer in modern jazz at one time or another.
In his later years, Stitt often led a freelance existence, playing with ad hoc backing groups in cities he visited. He continued to tour internationally, but during a 1982 trip to Japan he began to show symptoms of lung cancer. He died in Washington, D.C., on July 22, 1982.
Genesis, Prestige, 1949.
Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell/J.J. Johnson, 1949–50, Prestige, 1949.
Live at the Hi Hat, Vols. 1 & 2, Roulette, 1954.
New York Jazz, Verve, 1956.
Saxophone Supremacy, Verve, 1959.
Sonny Stitt at the D.J. Lounge, Chess, 1961.
Stitt and Top Brass, Atlantic, 1962.
Primitivo Soul, Verve, 1962.
Soul People, Prestige, 1964.
Sonny Stitt Blows the Blues, Verve, 1970.
Tune Up!, 1971, Muse.
Constellation, Muse, 1972.
In Walked Sonny, Sonet, 1975.
I Remember Bird, Catalyst, 1977.
The Last Stitt Sessions, Vols. 1 & 2, 32 Jazz, 1982.
1946–1950, Classics, 2001.
1951–53, Classics, 2004.
Stitt's Bits, Prestige (box set), 2006.
Prestige First Sessions, Prestige.
Sonny Stitt Plays Arrangements of Quincy Jones, EMI Toshiba.
Verve Jazz Masters 50, Verve.
Enstice, Wayne, and Paul Rubin, Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-Two Musicians, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed., Grove, 2002.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, Morrow, 1989.
"Sonny Stitt," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 12, 2006).
"Sonny Stitt," BBC Radio 3 Jazz Profiles, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/jazz/profiles/sonny_stitt.shtml (July 12, 2006).
"Sonny Stitt," JazzSpot, http://www.jazzspot.com (July 12, 2006).
"Sonny Stitt," Verve Music Group, http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/artist.aspx?ob=per&src=prd&aid=2810 (July 12, 2006).