Happy Birthday, Sonny Stitt!
Jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt Edward Boatner, Jr. was born on February 2, 1924 in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Saginaw, Michigan and was born into a very
musical family. His father was a singer composer and college professor. His brother was a classically trained pianist, and his mother was a piano teacher. He was one of the best-documented saxophonists of his generation, recording over 100 albums. He was nicknamed the “Lone Wolf” by jazz critic Dan Morgenstern, in reference to his relentless touring and devotion to jazz.
Adopted by the Stitt family, he was already playing professional in high school as a member of the Len Francke Band, a local popular swing band. Like so many young men of his generation he was inspired by the music of Charlie Parker.
In 1943, Stitt first met Charlie Parker, and as he often later recalled, the two men found that their styles had an extraordinary similarity that was partly coincidental and not merely due to Stitt’s emulation. Parker is alleged to have remarked, “Well I’ll be damned, you sound just like me”, to which Stitt responded “Well, I can’t help the way I sound. It’s only way I know how to play.” Kenny Clarke remarked of Stitt’s approach that, “Even if there had not been a Bird, there would have been a Sonny Stitt”.
Stitt’s earliest recordings were made in 1945 with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. He had also played in some swing bands, though he mainly played in bop bands. Stitt was featured in Tiny Bradshaw’s big band in the early forties. Stitt replaced Charlie Parker in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1945.
Stitt played alto saxophone in Billy Eckstine’s big band alongside future bop pioneers Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons beginning in 1945 when he started to play tenor saxophone more frequently, in order to avoid being referred to as a Charlie Parker imitator. Later on, he played with Gene Ammons and Bud Powell. Stitt spent time at the Federal prison in Lexington Kentucky between 1948–49 for selling narcotics.
Stitt, when playing tenor saxophone, seemed to break free from some of the criticism that he was imitating Charlie Parker’s style, although it appears in the instance with Ammons above that the availability of the larger instrument was a factor. Indeed, Stitt began to develop a far more distinctive sound on tenor. He played with other bop musicians Bud Powell and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, a fellow tenor with a distinctly tough tone in comparison to Stitt, in the 1950s and recorded a number of sides for Prestige Records label as well as albums for Argo, Verve and Roost. Stitt experimented with Afro-Cuban jazz in the late 1950s, and the results can be heard on his recordings for Roost and Verve, on which he teamed up with Thad Jones and Chick Corea for Latin versions of such standards as “Autumn Leaves.”
Stitt joined Miles Davis briefly in 1960, and recordings with Davis’ quintet can be found only in live settings on the tour of 1960. Concerts in Manchester and Paris are available commercially and also a number of concerts (which include sets by the earlier quintet with John Coltrane) on the record Live at Stockholm (Dragon), all of which featured Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers. However, Miles fired Stitt due to the excessive drinking habit he had developed, and replaced him with Hank Mobley. Later in the 1960s, Stitt paid homage to one of his main influences, Charlie Parker, on the album Stitt Plays Bird, which features Jim Hall on guitar.