In the seventies, while a young man appropriately bored with the slamming two-dimensional dynamics of late-period jazz-rock (which had morphed into a stylized arena of tick-rock riffing termed "fusion" that was monotony incarnate), I ventured forth into older jazz forms, bop, swing, big and, Ellington, Davis, Mingus, people who swung over unpredictable tempos and fantastic chords. It was a love affair that hasn't stopped yet. Curiously, though, I formed jazzbo attitudes about artists I hadn't heard, a phenomenon not uncommon among some of us desperate for a hip reputation. You followed the herd-thinking. What I heard was that alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt was nothing but a low down Charlie Parker imitator, technically adept and adroit in extemporizing over a 6/8 time breakdown of a popular tune, but he was a technician only, without a soul. I went with that for years and dug into my Miles Davis phase, binging over a the late eighties and nineties on as Much MD as I could afford, everything from what he'd done as a sideman with Bird and through his various labels as band leader, from the hard bop session he'd done, through the modal experiments and into the blistering jazz-rock he created., noting, as well, the history of his saxophone players, a fine fettle of reed geniuses: George Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Dave Leibman. Nothing but the best for Miles. I was one of those who scoured the used CD bins, looking for my preferred artists and one day, lo! I came across a record titled "Walkin': A Jazz Hour With Miles Davis" on released on the now-defunct economy label Laserlight.
Featuring a previously unavailable live performance in Stockholm in 1952, this was not the classic earlier studio album "Walkin'" (one of MD's many masterpieces), but so what, it was Davis live and on sale. Reading the personal, all seemed worth the purchase despite the misdirection of the title, as it highlighted, worthies like pianist Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on drums, Jimmy Cobb on drums, on saxophone...Sonny Stitt?? The plagiarist, the rip off artist, the Parker wannabe? The man I relegated to the minor leagues without endeavoring to hear what he played like? With Miles? This wasn't so earth-shaking a revelation as I might want to make it sound and, of course, I didn't ask myself that sequence of disbelieving questions presented in incomplete sentences. I was curious and bought the record. I was more than pleasantly pleased with the hard bop brilliance of the band--Miles Davis of this period is essentially flawless as he applies to his muted, modulated, middle register approach to the hard-charging changes this fine band challenges him with--and came to the conclusion that Sonny Stiff had been given the short shrift as a musician.
The resemblance to Parker is there, undeniable, and it's understandable how jazz snobs of the time, wanting to consecrate jazz as America's art music in opposition to the tradition of European classicism and establish both canon and criteria for our best gift to the world, would deride particular players, diminish them in stature without fair estimation in an effort to create standards for an emerging aesthetics. Understandable and unfair because what I discovered was a musician of envious fluidity and lyric invention within his scope as an improviser who could negotiate steeple-chase tempos and obstacle course chord progressions with precision and yet never, or at least rarely, lose a song's melodic nuance ; for all the high-velocity bravura bop-related jazz musicians are known for, Stitt had a ribbon-like, sweetly undulating method of teasing notes and shading their sounded presence with variations within the pitch, a legacy from the blues that maintains a vocal quality, a sharp note of surprise as the solo unfolds.
Stitt was not a bloodless technician. Whatever debt he owed to Charlie Parker is nearly besides the point; the style is something Stitt took possession and made it his means to express something that, in itself, was beyond race, economics, and the general ugliness mere existence weights us with; it is simply beautiful and exciting music made by a musician who deserves to be reexamined for his best recorded moments. Life itself does not get rosy, as a unified condition of creation that maintains a just and serene equilibrium, merely because a black musician could make beautiful music with a saxophone. Whatever his whole story, Sonny Stitt remained black and a male and, above all, only human when it came to the combined forces of human stupidity, judgment and physical gravity pitted against his too-too vulnerable flesh. He made his music, found some solace for those moments during and after the notes played, and then returned to the eternal struggle of being in the world, dragging our burdens, sometimes easily, sometimes slowly, dirthfully, always toward the grave. But the magic a person can make with imagination, skill, a mind that wants something better than the weight of weather and wealth grinding them into the ground, well, I believe, that much makes life worth living and worth going back. We have the capacity to make this life of ours a better one, if only by the smallest increments, a little at a time, and , let us not forget, we can make the lives of each other better, even if only slightly.