A stint with Stitt
The swing and big-band eras in the evolution of jazz brought the music firmly into the mainstream.
Swing orchestras were the vehicles that carried many a pop tune into the ballrooms and gymnasiums of America and fed the careers of songwriters and the publishing houses that supplied sheet music to the amateur musicians of the country.

The big bands that followed brought with them a looser, goosier rhythm, one more suitable for the dance floor and one that departed from the popular tune formula. It also opened up the radio airwaves and thereby brought professionally rendered performances straight into parlors and living rooms.

All was well in jazz and the music grew ever more popular and satisfying to a generation of listeners -- until, that is, it took a hard left turn with the birth of bebop. When that invigorating channel opened up, bop left the mainstream behind and went its own way, leaving behind many of the fans of big bands and swing, but picking up a new constituency of mostly younger devotees.

Its requirements were exacting and rigorous. Technical facility was required, but the instrumental renderings of popular tunes were replaced by ever more adventurous experiments with chord structures, polyrhythms, tonalities, tempos and time signatures. And though at first blush it appeared to be an elitist form, it was a quite proletarian movement. Musicians who might otherwise have starved found work in after-hours clubs playing for audiences that wandered in and out in street clothes instead of ball gowns and tuxedoes. The artists formed a community that included their fans. And, like all artists of any consequence, they pursued their chosen form in the face of much opposition.

We all know the greats of bebop: Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey ad infinitum. The small cadre of bop greats created at style that has had some influence on all later styles of jazz -- no mean achievement.

Every jazz fan I know has his favorite musicians. I'm in the habit of changing favorites from day to day, depending on my moods, the tunes to which I listen, the weather and the various frictions of living. All these conspired the other day as I was visiting some friends, and out of that hodge-podge emerged the great bop saxophonist Sonny Stitt. My buddy pulled a couple of discs and off we went.

Though Sonny left us in 1982, his playing struck me that day as astoundingly fresh. There was no fooling around and certainly no chaff. In keeping with the great bop tradition of the cutting contest -- during which musicians vie to blow one another off the bandstand -- Sonny sounded as though he were having a cutting contest with himself. He led his band with assurance. The arrangements served the tunes, the experimentations were daring, the playing impeccable, the blend as smooth as an oiled sardine.

Our primary listening that afternoon was "Constellation" [Muse, 1972] and I think it was the best Stitt I've ever heard.

But there are other wonderful recordings by the man that merit a bop fan's attention: "Soul Classics" [Prestige, 1988, reissue of cuts culled from the early 1960s through early 1970s], "Stitt Plays Bird" [Atlantic, 1963], "Tune-Up!" [Muse, 1972], and "Last Stitt Sessions-Vol. 1 & 2" [Muse, 1982].
In a recording career that began in 1946, Sonny Stitt brought all of bebop's virtues straight into the 1980s, right up until the time of his death. He had the chops and he laid down some of the tastiest licks in jazz.

All you young sax players out there who are smitten by Bird are on the right track. But don't neglect Sonny Stitt. His music will give you a new window on the bop phenomenon and will add a few arrows to your musical quivers.

That's why bop endures and that's why Sonny Stitt has earned his place in its pantheon of greats.