Jazz Institute of Chicago

Most Valued Player: Sonny Red

by Nic Jones

The jazz gospel that was preached by Charlie Parker was deep and wide enough to have influenced legions of musicians. Sonny Red was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 17, 1932, and as an alto sax player he learned much from Parker, though like many he went on to form his own voice on the instrument during the course of his sadly brief career.

His first professional gig was with pianist Barry Harris, a fellow native of Detroit, in the late 1940s. 1954 found him working with both the trombonist Frank Rosolino, with whom he played tenor sax, and Art Blakey. Three years later he worked in New York with the trombonist Curtis Fuller, and recorded with him at that time.

Always a fluent soloist, Red succeeded in making a name for himself as a sideman, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s he built upon that reputation with albums under his own name for the Blue Note and Jazzland labels, for the latter of whom he recorded on more than one occasion.

Barry Harris and Cedar Walton split the piano duties on the LP The Mode, with Harris playing throughout the Images album, which proved to be Red's last for the label. These albums find him mining Parker's rich musical seam, whilst at the same time establishing his own instrumental voice, helped in no small part by a feeling for the blues which escaped many of his higher profile contemporaries. This and a certain languor in his phrasing kept his playing at some distance from the more incendiary approach of the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Criss.

On The Mode, Red's theme statement and solo on Henry Mancini's "Moon River"—hardly the likeliest of jazz vehicles—is a manifesto for his musical approach. Both are imbued with a level of good nature that's hard to resist, especially when as here it's accompanied by the obvious desire to communicate in an honest and unpretentious manner.

This period was the high point of Red's career in terms of recording under his own name. With the passing of time he reverted to the status of sideman, significantly with ex-Charles Mingus tenor sax player Clifford Jordan, and trumpeter Donald Byrd.

The legacy of Red's recordings in this period provides evidence of a musician who always came to play. The Mustang! album, recorded in 1966 under Byrd's leadership, finds Red frequently upstaging the leader in the solo department, and holding his own in the company of the perennially underrated Hank Mobley on tenor sax.

It may have been the case that Red was taken for granted during his lifetime; certainly the course of his career was paralleled not only by developments in the music with which he appeared to have no sympathy, but also by a downturn in the general fortunes of jazz. Slim of discography and unfortunately modest of reputation, Red died in Detroit in March of 1981, before his fiftieth birthday.

Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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