A Spontaneous Moment: An Interview with Sonny Fortune
Sonny Fortune is getting better every day. The veteran reedman -- proficient
not just on his preferred alto saxophone, but also tenor, baritone,
soprano and flute -- has played with everyone from Trane to Miles, Roy
Ayers to Mongo Santamaria. Lately, though, Sonny’s been looking
inward: founding his own label, honing his skills as a composer, and
burning up stages as one half of the fiery Sonny Fortune-Rashied Ali
Duo. At sixty-five, Sonny is finding that critical acclaim is following
from his decision to go his own way, resist the lures and compromises
of the industry and play the music he yearns to.
It’s a decision he’s made before. A Philly-bred disciple of Coltrane, and perhaps the horn player most deeply devoted to keeping Trane’s musical legacy alive, Sonny’s versatility, chops and improvisational genius have placed him in myriad musical contexts and more than a few potential pigeonholes. As a member of Mongo’s hugely successful early-seventies group, and again as a major-label recording artist in the mid-seventies, Sonny has consistently chosen to step away from situations in which financial rewards outweighed musical.
That’s how I got to know him in 1997: because he was out on the road, doing what he loved. Sonny was touring as a long-standing off-and-on-again member of the late Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine (Sonny is perhaps the only horn player who can claim both of Coltrane’s percussionists as major collaborators), and I was touring as Elvin’s drum tech as a means of researching my first novel. The on-stage exchange of energy between these two musical titans -- no less than the comedic backstage banter between these two old friends -- did more than anchor the band. It was a glimpse at history. Sonny elicited from Elvin the kind of earth-shaking, gorgeously expansive intensity one hears on those 1960s Coltrane recordings. Very few musicians were capable of scaling such heights with Elvin, traveling with him to such summits of sprit and swing. Sonny is one of them.
He also has the uncanny knack of being on the uptown 2 train whenever I am, and I don’t even live in New York anymore. It was through one such Fortuitous encounter that I arranged to meet with Sonny at his Upper West Side apartment; I’d never bothered to get his phone number before, assuming that I’d simply run into him the next time we both happened to be out with Elvin. Thus, the first half-hour of our conversation was devoted to reminiscing about our recently departed friend -- another musican who Sonny’s work now helps to keeps alive. Then I drooled over Sonny’s vinyl for awhile. Eventually, we rolled the tape.
Sonny, you and I traveled quite a bit together with Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine. And one of the wonderful things about that band, to me, was the breadth of age among the musicians. You had Elvin, in his seventies, you in your sixties, and then cats in their forties, thirties and twenties. It always strikes me how different the musical landscape must be for those young guys today from what it was when you were coming up. From what I’ve heard and read, it seems like cats of your generation were playing all the time, all night, going from one spot to the next. I wonder if you think it’s possible for today’s generation to saturate themselves that fully -- not just in the music, but in what it means to be a jazz musician.
don’t think there are as many outlets as there were. But when
I came along there weren’t as many outlets as there were before
me. I caught the tail end of a lot of clubs, and I felt like there weren’t
enough then. But one of the elements that came with my era is playing
a lot. I don’t mind playing a lot. A guy came up to me last week
in Boston, at one of my shows with Rashied, and said “I don’t
know why you enjoy this situation you’re in.”
Thinking so much blowing is exhuasting?
Right. But Rashied and I are playing as long as we choose. We’ll play one tune for an hour. People, when they see us, they can’t even believe it. Last week, I soloed an hour on one tune myself. I’m not gonna hear what I want to on a computer. I’m not gonna get what I want from writing something down. I’m not gonna get what I want from listening to somebody. I get what I want from playing, and the more I do it the happier I am. Jones was like that. I think that was the thing that made him and Coltrane connect, because Coltrane was like that. Sheezus Christ, was he like that! I think Elvin walked away with that being a part of his psyche. That was a thing he and I shared. He knew how I felt about music. I knew how he felt about music.
A young person might not necessarily have the outlets to develop that. But are they instigating the places? I used to go get cats and we’d go make places to play. We’d go in clubs where they didn’t have music and play for nothin’. Anywhere, just to be playing. If anything is missing in the young, it’s that. Number one, the places in which to do that don’t exist. Number two, guys don’t necessarily feel like that’s a priority. Guys say “I’m getting on my Mac and do whatever, make a drum beat and download this and that” and feel like they’re doing something. And maybe they are. I don’t know; I can’t tell. But for me, as far as music’s concerned—I’d rather be out there doing it.
Your resume is like a who’s who of jazz and funk -- Elvin, Miles, Mongo, Dizzy, Oliver Nelson, Leon Thomas, McCoy Tyner, Nat Adderley, Roy Ayers, Buster Williams, Joe Chambers, Mtume. Is there anybody you haven’t played with yet that you want to?
It’s great to be able to say that.
Rght now, I’m trying to create my own dynamics. I play a lot of music, but I want to play it in my own situations. I’ve written a number of tunes, and one thing I feel very proud about is my compositions—they sound like they were written by different people.
What’s your process of composing like?
I just sit down and work my brains out. It’s very frustrating, because very, very seldom does something come to me. I usually have to sit down and work at it for a long time. I usually start out figuring there’s nowhere I can get it, and it kind of comes. But I decided recently -- when I left Elvin for the last time, which was about four, five years ago -- that it was time for me to compile my compositions and bring that object to the forefront.
What do you tend to listen to when you’re at home?
I don’t listen to music that much.
Is that right? So I can have those nine hundred records sitting over there?
No (laughs). There’s no way in the world that you can have those records. Nobody can have them. Matter of fact, this record right here needs to be replaced because I made a mistake and left it on my receiver one night and left the receiver on, and the receiver got so hot that it warped the record. This is Charlie Parker at Massey Hall, and I don’t know when I’ll listen to it, but I’ve got to get another one because my records, man... y’know. My CDs are in my bedroom and my albums are out here. I don’t listen to hardly any of them, but if I need to check them out, they’re there. I’ve got some great albums.
Do you have certain records you go to for certain reasons? Like, for me personally, if I need a certain kind of inspiration I’ll put on A Love Supreme. I might put on Impressions. Do you have albums you always go back to to check out certain things?
I used to, but no more. I tell you man, right now, I’m into zeroing in on myself. And that doesn’t mean that I listen to myself, because I don’t. Usually, when I’m finished with a record, I’m finished.
But you do tend to re-record some of your compositions.
I do from time to time, yes. But when I record them I don’t listen to them to duplicate what I’ve done. Matter of fact, a CD just came out of a Mongo Santamaria gig we did for the BBC around 1970. All of us that were in the studio for that session, through the years we often spoke of the recording because we thought it was a great one, but Columbia didn’t want to release it because it didn’t fall into the commercial genre that Mongo was in at that time. And when I finally listened to it, I was blown away. I was like, “wow, wow, wow.” But then after a while I got depressed, because I said to myself, “You mean to tell me you’re still playing the same way you were playing thirty five years ago?”
What made that record less commercial? Was it the length of the tracks?
No, it was the the music. It was more authentic, more traditional as opposed to the popular tunes we were doing at the time -- instrumental versions to vocal tunes that were very popular. And we worked everywhere. We worked Hollywood, we worked Vegas. I mean, we worked all the great rooms. It was a heck of an experience for me.
Mongo was the first guy who really took you on the road, right?
Yeah. I have a high regard for Mongo. He gave me the opportunity to see the world and he was a very gracious man, one of the few people that paid musicans union scale, which is a rarity.
And your first New York gig was with Elvin. How did that come about?
I’m from Philadelphia and got started in music relatively late. I was about 18, and I had already been married and had a family and whatnot. SoI pursued music with all of that being taken into consideration -- took it step by step. I worked around Philadelphia and then I decided to try to come to New York and find out whether I could get something going. My first week here, I had to work, I had a day job. I was into all of that.
So the bass player Jymie Merritt told me about a gig, a jam session on 52nd Street at Beefsteak Charley’s, and he told me to come by there and sit in. When I got there the place was packed. And horn players was against the wall. It was a small bandstand in a big club and the horn players were lined up all the way around to the door, waiting to sit in. I had to pay to get in, and then they made an announcement that they had to discontinue the jam session to let the featured band go on. And so it ended up that the ‘featured band’ was Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Jane Getz and me! And the people had no idea who I was. All I know is when I finished, the guy at the door gave me my money back.
And that’s when I met Elvin. I had seen him many times, but that was the first time I met him He told me he was working at Pukie’s Pub and to come on down and sit in. I’d go down there and hang out until like three, four o’clock in the morning. The guy I was staying with would wake me up for my day job. I was dead, jack. Frank Foster was working with Elvin at the time, and he had to take off to write some music for Basie [Foster was the Basie Big Band’s musical director], and would I be interested in taking his place. I said Sure, of course. About a week or so later, I quit my day job -- before I even knew for certain that I’d be able to keep the the job with Elvin.
You and Elvin had a beautiful kind of chemistry on the bandstand.
I always saw something special with Elvin and he knew that. I mean, that’s why we went through what we went through. I was in and out of that band for almost sixteen years. Strangely enough, I don’t ever recall telling him about how Coltrane told me to play with him if I could. I don’t know if you were with us at [the Londson club] Ronnie Scott’s the last time I was in the band, but that was the first time that Elvin -- you know how he used to introduce everyone in the band -- he came out and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, me and this guy, we go back a long ways. We’re kind of like brothers.” I forget how he phrased it, but he referred to the fact that we were both self-taught, and then he said that Coltrane had told him to come search me out! That was the first time he ever mentioned that, and that was only about five or six years ago.
You know, I was working with Elvin the night Coltrane died. We shared some very profound moments. I’d worked with Elvin for about two, three months, at Pukie’s Pub. It was a quartet: Billy Green, Wilbur Little, Elvin and myself. We were working at this place six nights a week. I remember that night very well. Nobody knew that Trane had died. It was on a Sunday and I didn’t find out that he died until that Monday when I went home to Philly. I ran into his cousin on the bus and his cousin told me. I had just called Trane on Saturday, and Alice told me he was asleep.
Did everybody know how sick he was?
No. The last time I saw him I saw him was somewhere around February. I told him I was thinking about moving to New York and he wished me luck and said that I would be fine and if I got the opportunity to play with Elvin, take it. But he’d told me, not in that particular conversation, but a few months earlier, that he couldn’t quite figure out why he was so tired all the time. I don’t think he was aware of what was going on. Medicine wasn’t quite as sophisticated as it is now.
I know Trane was a big influence on your playing; you’ve even dedicated a recent album to him. Was he also a mentor?
Well, yeah, more or less. I didn’t know him that well, but whenever he came to town I’d say what I could to strike up a conversation with him. I only played with him once, about a year before he died. I would, as a young kid, try to figure out what he was playing, and he definitely rattled my foundation. I never saw Charlie Parker, but those who did kind of identify with that—they speak about it the same way, and say you had to have seen it. I would say the same thing about Trane -- to hear that sound at the moment for the first time. I’m telling you, jack, I remember – I used to walk out the club shaking my head. I was like, man, Jesus Christ, what are those cats doin’? What are they doin’? What is this? It was brand new, super-profound, way up front. And now, that sound is so commonplace; people are somewhat perplexed as to why it was so mind blowing.. At that particular time man, nobody, nobody, was playing what they were playing.
Was Trane one of the people who made you decide to get into the music at 18?
Well, when I started out I didn’t like Trane. He didn’t hit me until –it was like on a Friday night (laughs).
It’s always on a Friday night.
He’d left Miles. He put out his first recording of My Favorite Things—I think they’re using that now on some TV commercial. I’ve heard it a couple of times, I’m trying to think what the commercial is. But just to hear a phrase automatically makes you -- it’s almost like self-hypnosis. It throws me into a state and I remember hearing that recording. I don’t remember whose house, but it was on a Friday night, and Saturday morning I went to the record store and bought that record and played it until it turned brown and never looked back from that point on.
I’d seen him many times before -- it was the concept of that record. He had some different chords. Jones was playing some different music. I saw him before Jones. I saw Trane playing with Miles and the quintet. I saw him with Miles and Cannonball. I saw him when Pete La Roca was in the band, when Steve Davis was in the band. I didn’t see him when Billy Higgins was in the band, but when Elvin came to the band that’s when the whole thing took another direction. Jones was brand new, bad to the whole environment.
So from playing with Elvin you went to Mongo, and then to Miles?
No, I went from Mongo to McCoy Tyner. I worked with McCoy for about three years, and I did three records with him. [Sahara, Song for My Lady, and Song of the New World.] And then from McCoy I went to Buddy Rich, and then from Buddy Rich I went to Miles.
That’s five very different bands right there. Clearly, you were making a reputation as a very versatile cat.
Yeah, things were moving for me. If anything, things were moving too fast. I was offered a Strata-East recording date in 1970, when I was working with Mongo. But I felt like I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have no music, so I waited.
Until 1975. And that Strata-East record, Long Before Our Mothers Cried, is a classic. Do you own the masters? I’d love to see that reissued.
Yeah, but I wouldn’t release that again because I’ve already re-recorded all that music. I recorded the title track for Blue Note -- I did three CDs with Blue Note in the ‘90s. They’re hard to get now. Just about everything on that Strata-East record, I’ve recorded on different albums. But I do have the masters -- that and my new record are the only masters I have.
What was it like recording on Strata-East? I’d imagine you had a lot of freedom, since it was a musican-owned label.
Yeah but I didn’t know nothing -- that was the beginning. I was fumbling around in the darkness. In the liner notes of this Continuum CD I just did, I mentioned that this is the third attempt at doing the album. Strata-East was the first. I did another in the ‘80s, but I sold the master to a German label. This is the first time I took it the whole way and what I experienced from this completely surpasses anything that I’ve done. Simply because now I understand, I was ready, the image I had in my head was clear.
How is it running your own label?
It’s a lot of work but it’s very fulfilling. When you’re recording for another label, no matter how independent you try to get, you’re still dealing with somebody else’s money. There’s a feeling that I’ve gotten from recording my new CD – it’s something I’ve never felt before in all the years I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing. I feel like I’m involved in something that’s mine. And I like it a whole lot. Not to say I won’t record with another label, but if I record at another label it’ll help serve this label here.
Do you want to extend the label to the point of putting out other artists’ music?
I wouldn’t mind putting out somebody else’s music. The only problem with that endeavor is I’m not ready to become a business man. I’m still a player. I’m still excited about picking up my horn and blowing.
It’s great to hear that, because I know there have been a few times when you’ve had to deliberately redirect your career, so as to be true to yourself musically. Can you talk about some of those moments?
Well, the success of the music that Mongo was doing was something I was concerned about – I didn’t want to get locked up in that. Matter of fact, Creed Taylor [of CTI Records] was offering me—that may be stretching it, but he certainly paid for me to come a long distance to do the two recording dates I did with George Benson [Tell It Like It Is and The Other Side of Abbey Road]. We were in Las Vegas, and he paid for me to come to New York for the first date, paid for my hotel room and everything. The other date, we were in Boston, and he paid for me to come to New York.
So I was kind of like parallel to Grover Washington. I was moving in that direction, but that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. Even Mongo and them used to get kind of pissed at me, because I used to take all my records and my record player on the road, and my records were not about them at all. It was about Eric [Dolphy] and Trane and Miles, and that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I came to New York for.
By the time I worked with Miles, things were jumping for me pretty much. My first major label recording was on A&M Horizon (1975), and people even now are talking to me about that record. It got a lot of response, a lot of exposure for me. And then I did another record with A&M Horizon called (1976).
And then you jumped to Atlantic, a real powerhouse of a label, and did Serengeti Minstrel in ‘77, Infinity Is in ‘78, and With Sound Reason in ’79.
The last two albums were commercial albums and that was when I started getting very frustrated because the music business was changing and the jazz musician was being asked to delve into the fusion. Those records, especially the last record I did, With Sound Reason -- which is where the name of my label, Sound Reason, comes from -- it’s like a one-over-one smooth jazz recording. One of the problems with the business of music is that the artistry of music has to weave its way through that—that business -- if it’s going to survive.
Especially as the commercial expectations for jazz began to really rise in the mid-to-late seventies.
Fusion was coming in. Jazz musicians were being forced to consider another point of view, and a point of view that was more appealing to the masses. All of us, with very few exceptions, those who weren’t established and those who were established. Miles was one of them, Cannonball was another one, I won’t say Ramsey Lewis because he was kind of established as a commercial artist already, but Herbie Hancock—everybody delved into this fusion, trying to find this common ground, so if you were trying to get known, such was the case with me, trying to branch out on your own, sooner or later it had to knock on your door.
That’s what happened with Atlantic. I was making great money. I had a whole lot of money in the bank, but man, it was the most wasteful time in my whole career. I was so frustrated. I couldn’t write a note. The last two dates, the last day I didn’t even write a composition. I felt like anything that I wrote wouldn’t contribute to where I was going and I started being concerned about money and then I found it to be a very, very, very weird kind of place. But it came from the fact that I was kind of elevating in the business. So I made a move.
How did that go down?
I just ran into [keyboardist] Larry Willis in Europe a couple of weeks ago and I reminded him of this story, because it all came to a head over a tune he wrote. He wasn’t on the record, but he was the guy I went to to help me with this concept of fusing jazz and commercial. He had worked with Blood, Sweat and Tears, so I wanted the jazz guy who’d played with the rock band to give me something I could grab ahold of. There’s a couple of tunes we did —I play them now, but I don’t play them the way we recorded them. The irony is that when I recorded these tunes, I omitted a lot of the tune because of the endeavor that we were pursuing—if I had played all of the tune it wouldn’t have worked as a commercial tune, so we took a section of the tune to make it more commercial.
So there was a great tune that Larry had written on With Sound Reason, but the guy at Atlantic -- not the producer, but my boss, the guy who was overseer of me and the music -- told me he heard vocals on the tune -- he wanted to add vocals. I said “man I don’t hear no vocals.” And that was the end of me. I was so frustrated that I went there prepared to make that statement.
You were looking for a way out?
I wasn’t looking for a way out -- but like I told some guys at the record company, I ultimately gotta live with what I’m doing. I’m trying to sell records just like you are trying to sell records, but I’ve got to feel comfortable about this whole endeavor here. I don’t want to go all the way over there to sell records. So that’s what changed my whole career.
I’m trying to imagine what the vibe was like at those recording sessions, because you had all these incredible musicians, but it seems like nobody was playing what they wanted to play. Everybody was making these compromises.
Well, I don’t know. When I did those dates, I went after guys who were doing fusion music because I didn’t, and still don’t, like jazz cats playing fusion. So I went after guys that were kinda jazz-oriented but whose main bag was fusion, and tried to put myself in the middle of it. I think there were some great dates. The drummer, Steve Jordan, was a heck of a drummer. I just saw him this summer for the first time in 25 years, working with Sonny Rollins at the Lincoln. He was on David Letterman for years -- if you watch David Lettermen in the ‘80s, he was there. He was the kind of cat who had a jazz background but was playing fusion music. I think that’s what made it work. Those guys, they weren’t as crazy as I am. You know, there’s a whole lot of people who aren’t as crazy as I am (laughs). I’m the guy that wants to play this crazy music.
At that time, were you playing in the clubs also?
That was another problem with the record label. They’d have me in the studio, and you got the wa-wa and the synthesizer and the electric bass and the guitars and all of this. And then people would come see me in the club. and I got bass, piano and drums.
And an audience who bought your record, and expects you to play that way live.
I said listen, if you all buy me the equipment, I’ll play it. I wasn’t going to invest my money in all that, because it wasn’t something I believed in.
Did you have a whole different group you were gigging with?
I did a few gigs with those studio guys, but those were high-end guys. In those days record labels were paying out great bread. Every time I went in the studio my salary went up and my advance went up, plus I was getting paid for the record gig. The jazz musician doesn’t get that any more.
I kind of gave up the pursuit of being a band leader. One of my frustrations was that the guys I wanted to work with -- I’m talking about jazz guys -- were always working in different situations, moving in and out of bands. And there’s a question of having the money. And so the bands I could afford to have, I wasn’t always satisfied with. It was a very, very difficult task trying to keep a band that you felt good about. Because I’ve always been about music. It hasn’t been about “don’t you wanna be a bandleader, don’t you wanna be popular, don’t you want to stand in the front?” No, not necessarily. If the music is great, I’m there. 20, 30 years later, it’s still about that. That’s what kind of put me back to working with Elvin as a sideman.
Tell me a little bit about Miles’ band. What years were you there?
I was with the band in ‘74 , and I did about four albums with Miles. [Agartha, Pangea, Big Fun and Get Up With It.] I’d turned down an offer from Miles earlier, when I was with McCoy, but by 1974 I was ready to do something exciting and new.
Was fusion a pressure thing with him, or was it where his vision was taking him?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. My personal opinion -- that I foresee is worth about a hill of beans, or a quarter of a hill -- is as far as I’m concerned, when Coltrane died everybody said “whew!” As far as the jazz world, that’s what I believe. Because when Trane was alive, those who were in the front, at the vanguard, were busy pursuing music. When John stepped out it went in a lot of different directions, including Miles. I may get a lot of heat for even making that statement, but that’s how I feel about it.
Was Miles pressured? I don’t know. Miles said he wanted the crowds Hendrix and those cats had -- twenty thousand people and whatnot. And probably somewhere in Miles’ psyche he was saying “How in the world can those cats be drawing those crowds when this music here is as bad as it is?” Because there was no doubt that jazz was stepping into some incredible frontiers. Whatever you could think of was being played. But like art in general, it got swallowed up in the business. But the business may be the result of the people. People get caught up in an easier way. Nobody wants to do geometry or trigonometry—maybe a little adding and subtracting. I don’t know if that’s a good analogy.
Works for me.
Jazz is complicated—when I first heard it, I didn’t like it. But there was something about it that forced me to embrace it because I felt like it was a step above. It was something I had to evolve up into, and I still recognize that worth in the music. So for the masses—that’s asking a lot.
It can be appropriate to ask a musician why he plays music. There’s many different directions, many different emphases. For me, the tradition that I come from is called spontaneous improvisational music that swings. That completes that whole package and puts a bow on top of it—that swing puts a bow on top of it because there’s a lot of expressions in music that don’t necessarily have that objective. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any other objective, until the spontaneous improvisational guy starts leaning in another direction -- and even he or she has that option if they feel comfortable -- but when that other direction is taken because of money, well... I certainly feel comfortable where I stand, and that’s all one can ask for. One of the great things about this music here that I’m a part of, the composition becomes something that you carry with you. It’s only a vehicle to be spontaneous at the moment, all the time. Once I play that melody—I’m playin’ it tonight like I didn’t play last night, and tomorrow I’ll play it unlike the way played tonight. And that’s the thing that really fulfills me in this music—I don’t see no fun in getting up out of my bed today and reliving what I did yesterday. For me the fun is today is brand new. So I equate this music with that kind of reality.