Stitt is a member of the New England Jazz Hall of Fame but his entry there, though surely deserved, is probably due to the accident of birth. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (Oxford University Press) lists his place of birth as Boston and the date as February 2, 1924. Yet Stitt was raised in Saginaw, Michigan and was an active part of the Detroit jazz scene in his formative years.
Most fans are aware of the massive migration of Motor City jazzmen to New York in the 1950s. Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, Curtis Fuller, Doug Watkins, Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams and Sonny Red were some of the most prominent. During the early years of World War II, Detroit harbored an extraordinary group of saxophonists. Yusef Lateef (then known as Bill Evans), Wardell Gray, Big Nick Nicholas, Lucky Thompson, Teddy Edwards and Stitt were all active. Stitt and Edwards were the youngest and at the time each was playing alto sax. There is a good deal of information on this period in “Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1940-1960” by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert (University of Michigan Press).
Gradually the name bands of the time plucked these budding stars out of Michigan. Gray went with Earl Hines, Thompson with Lionel Hampton, Edwards with Ernie Fields while Nicholas and Stitt both joined Tiny Bradshaw. Stitt was with Bradshaw until he joined Billy Eckstine in early 1945. From there he joined Dizzy Gillespie and made a big impression in his earliest recordings with Dizzy as well as some Savoy sides with Kenny Dorham and Bud Powell. He also acquired a heroin habit which dominated his life during much of 1947 at which point he had moved back to Detroit. While in Detroit, he recorded for Sensation under the pseudonym Lord Nelson and took part in a session led by Russell Jacquet for the same label.
Much of 1948 and a period of 1949 were spent in prison after Stitt had been convicted of narcotics possession. When he returned, he was playing tenor and he impressed everyone with his ability on the larger horn. He began a three year association with Prestige Records and at the same time put together a band with an old friend from the Billy Eckstine band, Gene Ammons.
The recordings for Prestige by Ammons & Stitt used joint billing because each man had his individual deal with Prestige but, in terms of billing on the road, Ammons was the man and Stitt was more of a junior partner. When Stitt left the group in 1952, he began a life as a jazz nomad, constantly traveling and working with a new rhythm section in each town. He began an association with Roost Records in 1952 and for a while he featured alto, tenor and baritone sax in his shows.
The last association of Sonny Stitt to have a significant effect on his playing came in 1956 when he joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic organization of Norman Granz. Stitt toured the US with JATP in 1956 and 1957 and appeared with the JATP troupe in Europe as well. Being on stage with the likes of Flip Phillips, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz each night made Stitt not only appreciate the opportunity he had but inspired him to make the most of it. For many years, he carried a clipping from a Melody Maker review in London headlined “Sonny Stitt Stole the Show”.
The JATP experience provided a leg up in stature but all of a sudden his ballad playing, especially on alto, got better. He was paying closer attention to the melody now and the occasional impatience he displayed in stating themes completely disappeared. During his JATP years he became quite friendly with Stan Getz and discovered that they shared the same birthday. It became a ritual for the two men to find each other, regardless of where in the world they might be, on February 2 in order to wish a Happy Birthday.
By the time we get to “Stitt Plays Bird”, Sonny Stitt had become the complete freelancer, with no exclusivity in his booking or record company deals. The Atlantic record date was his first of the year but before 1963 was over he would also have recorded for Pacific Jazz, Impulse, Argo, Roost and Prestige. Yet this album project would be a departure for Stitt. It was repertoire driven and a salute to the giant of bebop saxophone. You don”t give that kind of assignment to anyone less than a great player.
The results provided the single most heralded album in Stitt”s career to this point. The combination of fresh players such as Jim Hall and Richard Davis with veterans such as John Lewis and Connie Kay proved to be the right mix although none had appeared on a Sonny Stitt album before. There is delightful interplay between alto and guitar on the second chorus of the faster than usual “Now”s The Time” while “Yardbird Suite”, slower than usual, finds a perfect, utterly relaxed groove. These two performances, not released in the original LP, had to be rescued from a playback reel when the masters were destroyed in a fire. “Hootie Blues” might better be titled “Blues for Hootie”. This performance does not feature that melody and contains very few allusions to the magnificent single chorus Parker solo on the original Jay McShann band recording of “Hootie Blues”.
Sonny Stitt died in 1982. He recorded over one hundred albums in his life but few of them achieved the kind of celebrity as “Stitt Plays Bird”. While he recorded three separate tributes to Duke Ellington and he continued to play Charlie Parker tunes, he never revisited the idea of doing another album of Charlie Parker music. What makes this homage so compelling forty years after the fact is that it was played by Sonny Stitt in the spirit of but not the letter of Charlie Parker. There have been vocalese treatments and Super Sax arrangements of Charlie Parker songs and solos that recreate each note perfectly. The ability to make Charlie Parker”s music come alive requires someone who knows the material and knows himself .It requires someone who has met the challenges, climbed the mountains and achieved Hall of Fame stature. It needs a great player such as Sonny Stitt.