Local filmmaker's project brings jazzman to town

Jazz lover Rosie Shakian heard a saxophone echoing through the concrete canyons of the San Francisco financial district.

"I knew that must be Sonny," Shakian says, in the documentary Baltimore filmmaker Robert Brewster made of jazzman Sonny Simmons' life. "I followed the sound of the music. There he was like a Shakespeare of the streets. And I just stood and listened and it was exquisite."


Sonny Simmons played for 15 years on the streets of San Francisco, like Shakespeare's King Lear in an evil time. Simmons was brought down in the late 1970s and 1980s by drink, drugs and separation from his family. A decade earlier, he had been a leading exponent of "free jazz," jazz liberated from the chordal-based improvisation of the bebop years.

Simmons played with saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, even Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, those demi-gods of jazz music. He recorded a five-star album, Illuminations, with drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner and bass player Jimmy Garrison, Coltrane's rhythm section. He even wrote an avant-garde Afro-Scottish "folk" tune for the 1963 recording.


"I'm one of the founding fathers from that era of taking the music a few levels higher than bebop," he says during a phone conversation from New York, where he's landed after playing in Paris for several years.

"I get more respect and work in Europe," he says. "I was much happier as an artist and a person living in Paris."

These days, he's reclaiming his life and his place in jazz music. He'll play Saturday night at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson Theater on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. Brewster's 60-minute film biography of Simmons, In Modern Time, will open the show.

At 71, Simmons is lean and vibrant and wears a face taut and weathered as an eroded Yoruba sculpture.

He answers the phone "Son, yo." ("We're in the 'yo generation' now," he says.) But he sounds a bit like Sun Ra, the Saturnian jazzman, when he says, "I've always loved jazz music. But I'm moving on to a higher galaxy of sound."

At the Patterson, he says, he'll play according to "the feel of the place and the vibes. I can play any way I want to. I have the mastery over that. ... I let the spirit lead me."

He believes in the fundamentals. He even loves the honking rhythm and blues sound of Big Jay McNeely, whose Deacon Hop was his favorite record half a century ago when he was a teenager in Oakland, Calif.

"That's my grits and gravy," he says. But it's a long way from the sophisticated jazz of his recent CD, Ancient Ritual, an exploration along the frontiers of jazz.


"If they want to hear avant-garde [at the Patterson]," he says, "I'm in the briar patch like a jack rabbit."

He likes to deploy the down-home images from his Sicily Island, La., birthplace. His father was a traveling preacher, his mother sang in the choir and he played "an old squeeze-box accordion." He says they were run off their land in 1939 by a racist plantation owner. He remembers armed men on horseback. The family arrived in Oakland a few years later.

His first real instrument was the English horn, which he still loves and often plays. He switched to alto sax in high school when his parents couldn't afford to buy him the horn.

And he has a strong sense of himself as an artist.

"Of course," he says. "I believe in what I'm doing. ... I love the gift that God gave me, and I always stood by it through the years. I never relinquished it. I never sold out."

Even on the street in San Francisco, he never compromised his music.


"I wasn't playing garbage," he says. "There were moments on the streets that were eternal. I played on the streets sometimes better than inside clubs. Because I was free and I could do what I wanted to. ... I just played with my spirit.

"I had no other talent but that, and I refused to stand on the corner with a cup," he says. "I said I'll keep my dignity and earn my living by playing on the streets. I don't care what the world says. And I did it."


Who: Sonny Simmons, jazz saxophonist

Where: Creative Alliance, Patterson Theater, 3134 Eastern Ave.

When: Tonight at 8 p.m.


Admission: $18; $15 for members, students

Call: 410-276-1651, or visit