Remembering Sonny Simmons

August 4, 1933 – April 6, 2021


A tribute to the adventurous altoist

Huey “Sonny” Simmons passed away on April 6, 2021, at the age of 87.

He was born on Aug. 4, 1933, in Sicily Island, Louisiana.

Simmons grew up in Oakland and spent much of his career based in the San Francisco Bay area.

He began on the English horn and started playing alto sax when he was 16, inspired by Charlie Parker.

After playing locally for years, Simmons moved to New York where he developed his adventurous avant-garde style and personal sound.

Simmons, who made his recording debut with flutist Prince Lasha in 1962, was a sideman on Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man and Conversations records in 1963 and that year also recorded on the Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison album Illumination.

He worked regularly with Lasha, led albums of his own for ESP and Arhoolie, and his wife trumpeter Barbara Donald was a major part of his recordings starting in 1969.

Simmons’ problems resulted in a difficult life that included a decade being homeless, but he made a comeback in the 1990s, leading two albums for the Qwest label.

He also led many records for small labels (often based in Europe) and worked with fellow saxophonist Michael Marcus in the cosmosamatics during 2001-13.

Here is Sonny Simmons performing in a trio with pianist Bobby Few and bassist Masa Kamaguchi in Lisbon, Portugal in 2008.

-Scott Yanow

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