Sonny Fortune: Thank God For That Day Job
by Chuck Koton, All About Jazz
July 2, 2008
With an auspicious name like Sonny Fortune, could there be any doubt that this man would find success and fulfillment down whatever path he chose to follow in life. Fortune-ately for jazz lovers, he focused his talent and energy on the saxophone.
Fortune's destiny began at the beguine-ing; he was born at the right time, May 19, 1939, and at the right place, Philadelphia. While the City of Brotherly Love has been considered a second-tier jazz city by some, Philly indisputably gave birth to and nurtured a long list of great musicians , many of whom went on to gain wider recognition after moving to New York.
The city's fertile jazz ground may have first been seeded when bebop genius Dizzy Gillespie moved there from North Carolina in 1935. And those early seeds were surely fruitful and did multiply. John Coltrane's family moved there (also from North Carolina), putting down roots on the city's North Side in 1943. A short list of the many great players born there includes the Heath Brothers (Percy, Jimmy and Albert), Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Pat Martino and, more recently, Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco.
In a city with such a hip and historic jazz scene, Sonny Fortune did not have to go far to explore the music that would become his passion. In fact, he didn't have to leave North Philly. “The scene was great,” Fortune says. “It [jazz] wasn't something I had to go seek. The music was prevalent right there in the neighborhood. [Drummer] Sherman Ferguson lived about two blocks from me, and we ended up putting together the first band I played in. [Saxophonist] Odean Pope lived two blocks from me. Hasaan, the piano player, lived there. It was a very vibrant time.”
However, even though Fortune was born into this jazz incubator, he didn't thrive immediately. He had picked up an alto saxophone but packed it away without making the necessary commitment to master the instrument. So what motivated Fortune to seriously pursue the music? “I had a horn and had become a little discouraged,” Fortune explains, “but at some point...Well, I guess it was my day job. I was working at a corrugated box factory, and it was clear that job was going nowhere. I was always having issues with my boss, trying to get better wages and better working conditions. And I decided I had this horn in my closet. I didn't know about any programs [job training], but I had this horn. It was at this point that I started practicing four hours a day after I got back from work.”
Once Fortune became more proficient, there was no shortage of jam sessions where he could really get a jazz education. “Oh man, there were a lot of cats there,” says Fortune. “Cats from North Philly, South Philly..Germantown guys...I was in the learning stage and I was going to jam sessions with guys who became the cats. [Bassist]Reggie Workman, [pianist] Kenny Barron...I had to sit there for the longest time waiting to play a tune I knew. These cats weren't gonna accommodate me.”
Fortune's neighbor, Odean Pope, suggested a way he could get more playing time. “I was frustrated,” Fortune continues, “but Pope said I should try and find some guys who were my peers and start a band. So I started a band with Sherman Ferguson and a couple of other guys from the neighborhood.”
It was around this point in his development as a musician that Fortune began seriously listening to the music of another Philly sax player, John Coltrane, who would become his life-long inspiration. Fortune has admitted that when he first listened to Coltrane's playing with Miles Davis, he didn't think Coltrane knew what he was doing. However, after hearing My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1960) at a friend's house, he was blown away. He bought the album the next day and Coltrane's spirit has imbued Fortune's life and music ever since. Fortune even studied at the legendary Granoff School because “Trane went there.”
After paying his dues and achieving a professional level of proficiency, Fortune packed his bags and his horns and moved to New York City. He had learned all he could in Philadelphia, now he had to put himself to the test and go where all the great musicians lived and worked. In the late 1960s he began playing with the great Cuban conguero, Mongo Santamaria, and, as the band spent a great deal of time in Los Angeles, Fortune briefly relocated to the West Coast. However, the laid back vibe of L.A. was not inspirational enough and he returned to New York, where, after playing with Elvin Jones, Fortune joined the band of one of those great musicians from the old neighborhood in Philly, McCoy Tyner. Although they were somewhat familiar with each other from Philadelphia, years would pass before they became friends. “My ex-wife and I would be sitting on the steps and I'd see him walking in the neighborhood and at dances,” says Fortune, “but I really didn't get to know him until I played with him at this gig in Chester [Pennsylvania].
During his years with Tyner (1972-74), Fortune established himself as one of the most dynamic sax players on the scene. His playing on several of Tyner's recordings, including Sahara and Song For My Lady, both released in 1972 on Milestone, already displayed his signature intense, urgent modal sound. After this productive association it was time to move on and up. In two years, Fortune would be touring and recording with the legendary Miles Davis during the trumpeter's electric fusion years. From his experience with Davis, Fortune “learned the importance of the rhythm section,” a lesson that would serve him well throughout his career.
These high profile gigs led to an Atlantic Records recording contract and Fortune's most financially lucrative years. Unfortunately for Fortune, the contract would come with a high price. One day, one of the company's producers came to him with the “brilliant” idea of adding strings to make one of the recordings more commercial. “That was that,” says Fortune. The saxophonist would have to go his own way and follow his muse rather than surrender to the venal interests of the music business.
Since those early years, Fortune has continued to play at the very peak of the jazz world. He rejoined the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in the early 1990s and went on to make a succession of excellent recordings as a leader. In particular, three Blue Note recordings which, thanks to a sweet deal, his own Sound Reason label now controls, display Fortune's passionate blowing style on a mix of standards, Thelonious Monk compositions and his own originals.
More recently, Fortune has performed in a variety of settings from Coltrane tributes, to the Three Altos Project, where he toured at different times with the late, great bebopper, Frank Morgan, as well as Charles McPherson and Gary Bartz. In 2006 he performed a series of mind blowing duets with Coltrane's final drummer and fellow Philly native, Rashied Ali. Perhaps most importantly, Fortune has tried to work as much as possible with a regular band in order to generate and maintain the intimate connection that only hours and hours of rehearsal and performance can create.
Fortune's last two recordings—Continuum (2003), on his own Sound Reason label, and You and the Night and the Music (18th and Vine, 2007)—both feature long-time collaborators. Pianist George Cables, who thankfully has recovered from double transplant surgery and is playing again, bassist Wayne Dockery and drummer Steve Johns perform on Continuum, while Chip Jackson replaces Dockery on You and the Night. All of these musicians have played with Fortune for years. Clearly, as he learned years earlier from Miles Davis, Fortune knows the value of a tight rhythm section.
The urgency and immense depth of sincerity felt, when listening to both of these recordings, is testimony not only to the spirituality and power of Fortune's playing but also to the breadth of his ability. The self-produced Continuum includes mostly original compositions while You and the Night, which reached #2 on the jazz charts and remained in the top 50 for months, features Fortune interpreting standards and two originals. Perhaps the popularity of his recent recording will bring Fortune the recognition of a wider audience that has so far inexplicably eluded him. (Perhaps it is not so inexplicable since Fortune, thankfully, is unwilling to compromise his standards for greater “marketability”). It is certainly a sad commentary on the music industry that an artist like Fortune does not have a recording contract with a major jazz label.
The good news is that Sonny Fortune is aging like a fine Rico reed (a #2.5 by the way). He recently celebrated his 69th birthday, yet Fortune's live performances continue to leave audiences feeling as if they were seated in the path of a hurricane. A live recording is long overdue.
Many years have passed since Fortune took control of his own destiny and embarked on a journey of musical discovery. Just think, if labor relations had been cool in that Philly box factory, Sonny Fortune might never have pulled his alto out of the closet. Thank God for that day job!
Sonny Fortune will be performing in Italy and Spain during the summer of 2008, so European jazz fans will have the opportunity to experience his intensity first-hand.