Prestigious jazz polls in Down Beat and Playboy magazines recognized Edward “Sonny” Stitt as one of the giants of jazz. Critic Leonard Feather called him “one of the most consistently swinging performers in contemporary jazz, both on the alto and tenor saxophone.” Other critics described his playing as “warm and fluid” or “truly mellow.”
He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, February, 1924, into a multi-talented family and came to Saginaw as a youngster. His mother Claudine Wicks, taught both music and dance at Saginaw’s First Ward Community Center and at the Civitan Center. She was Sonny’s first music teacher and started him on piano lessons when he was only six years old. He took up the saxophone when he was ten. “I always knew I wanted to be a musician,” said Sonny.
He attended the Saginaw schools: Potter, Central Junior and Saginaw High. The music teacher at Central, Kenneth Mathews, recognized his talent and encouraged him to play in the school band. Sonny also played in the band at Saginaw High.
After graduating in 1942, he worked at gigs in Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, before joining singer Tiny Bradshaw’s band in 1943. The Bradshaw band toured the west, giving him important exposure to audiences and other players.
One such player was the legendary Charlie (The Bird) Parker, the brilliant saxophonist Stitt would be compared to all his life. In Robert Reisner’s book, Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker Sonny described his first meeting with Parker. He had heard Parker’s albums and was eager to meet him. When the Bradshaw band played Kansas City, he immediately headed to one of Parker’s favorite spots. “I rushed over and said, ’Are you Charlie Parker?’ He said he was and invited me then and there to go and jam with him. At the end of an hour-long session, Parker said, ‘You sure sound like me.’”
According to Saginaw News jazz columnist Mike Manley, “Stitt was no carbon copy of Parker. He was an original who developed his own style of playing before he had ever heard of Charlie Parker.” Manley added, “The two shared a mutual admiration society that lasted until Parker’s death in 1955.” Jazz critic Nat Hentoff added, “The lore had it that Sonny was Charlie Parker’s successor, that the Bird had actually told him so.”
From Bradshaw’s band Sonny went on to play with two of the most important bands of the 1940s bebop era: Billy Eckstine’s big band and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s group. While he was playing with the Gillespie group Stitt made his record debut, playing alto on “Cherokee” and baritone sax on “P. S. I Love You.” The recordings, captured on Gillespie’s “In the Beginning” album, are among the most famous in jazz history.
Stitt’s international reputation grew as a result of his extensive tours overseas. He toured Europe in 1958-59 with Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” In 1964, he toured Japan with a sextet that included trumpeter Clark Terry and trombonist J. V. Johnson. In 1966, he and his group played at the famous Golden Circle Club in Stockholm. In the 1970s, he was a member of the Giants of Jazz Tour, playing with such legendary names as Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey.
In a career that spanned five decades, Stitt made over 300 albums, some of the best of which are “Genesis”; and “Constellation” which tied for 1972’s best album in the Down Beat Critics Poll.
Sonny made frequent visits to Saginaw, often returning to do benefit performances and workshops to encourage young musicians. Longtime friend Gerry Holmes recalled that “he was concerned about the way black youngsters lost sight of what our heritage was. There are many rooms in the house of music but jazz is our stuff. He was also concerned that the academic domain was turning out music mechanics.” Holmes said that was one of the reasons Stitt taught at Yale University for several summers, trying to stem that tide.
In 1975, Stitt came home to Saginaw for a special honor: he was named Saginaw High’s Distinguished Alumnus.
Sonny and his wife Pam had a daughter, Katea and a son, Jason. Sonny died in 1982.
His music lives on in his recordings but many thought he was at his absolute best in person. Nat Hentoff described one such night at Basin Street West in New York. “That night Sonny Stitt was moving efficiently through a set when the rhythm section stopped—and Sonny executed a long break, lightning flashes of searing, ineluctably connected, thrusting notes that seemed to have a palpable force. The effect on the room was as if those sounds had cast a spell. All conversation stopped. Hands about to light a cigarette or reaching for a drink froze.” That was the magic of Sonny Stitt.
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