Sonny Criss Day

October 23, 1927 – November 19, 1977

A tribute to the forgotten but talented altoist

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Alto-saxophonist William (“Sonny”) Criss was born on October 23, 1927 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Criss moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 15 where he freelanced as a teenager.

While inspired by Charlie Parker, with whom he played opposite while with Howard McGhee’s short-lived band, Criss had a deeper and thicker tone along with a bluesier style although he was always bop-oriented.

Criss had an up-and-down career, touring with Jazz At The Philharmonic in 1947, performing at Gene Norman’s Just Jazz Concerts, recording with Billy Eckstine, Gerald Wilson (1954) and Buddy Rich, and having occasional sessions of his own but, while based in Los Angeles, he was largely overlooked during the peak years of West Coast cool jazz.

After spending time in Paris (1962-63), Criss returned to L.A. where he freelanced, led a few excellent sessions for the Prestige label, and stayed underrated throughout his career.

Sonny Criss suffered from stomach cancer in his last year, committing suicide when he was just 40.

The altoist did not appear much on film but he is in fine form during this jam session set from Los Angeles’ Memory Lane in the early 1970s.


Sonny Criss, alto sax
Harry “Sweets” Edison, trumpet
Hampton Hawes, piano
Leroy Vinnegar, bass
Bobby Thompson, drums

-Scott Yanow


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