Remembering the Musical Genius of Sonny Stitt Saginaw\'s Lone Wolf

In a League with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, a Local Legend's Surviving Companions Recount a Living History of an Iconic Musician from the Golden Age of Jazz

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music, National Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 763   By: Robert 'Bo' White

24th January, 2013     0

Sonny Stitt is acknowledged as one of the greatest saxophone players from the last great era of jazz. Stitt recorded 300 LPs from his tentative ascendance in the forties through the halcyon days of the fifties and sixties and the decline and fall in the seventies. He was Saginaw born and bred and though his notoriety and influence has waned in the last thirty years or so, there are still a few people that have vivid memories of Stitt's genius.

Sonny was born in Boston but was raised in Saginaw. He attended Central Junior High and graduated from Saginaw High School in 1942. Sonny was a close friend of Jack Bruske, a fellow student at Central Junior High. At the time Stitt played clarinet and Bruske played the coronet.  As their interest in music advanced, teacher Ken Mathews mentored the daring duo and tutored Stitt on the saxophone and Bruske on bass.  


Music was part of Sonny's genetic makeup just like his eye color or temperament. It washed over every fiber in his body and defined him. He became the music. His father taught music, his brother was a classically trained pianist and his mother was a piano teacher. Sonny's path was preordained. He would follow the shadow of his forefathers.


Following graduation Sonny's wanderlust led him to play across the United States, Europe and the Far East. He toured with several bands including the Tiny Bradshaw Band, Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie. He performed with such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Oscar Peterson. Bill Cosby admired Sonny's music and mentioned him more than once on network television. As Sonny continued to evolve and experiment with sound he also became interested in mentoring others. He taught and lectured at several universities including Yale and Notre Dame. Not bad for a kid who cut his teeth at the El Morocco and the Cabana at 6th and Washington.


He accumulated several awards through the years including a Grammy nomination for his 1972 masterpiece Tune Up, 1973 Record of the Year Constellation, and Playboy All-Star Jazz Winner 1961.


Flint jazz great Sherm Mitchell remembers Stitt to be a one of a kind talent with his own unique style and voice. Sherm recalls Stitt's complete dedication to craft and his insistence on excellence even when he struggled with substance abuse. He was mercurial and sometimes volatile. Mitchell recalls seeing Stitt and Miles Davis fist fighting onstage, “He had a temper. He got angry when they played the Minor key in Detroit.  It was when Sonny did a solo - they had words onstage. He threatened to knock Miles' head off and away they went.”


It ended their brief collaboration “He was a very bright man”, recalls Mitchell. “I first met him in the sixties. It was the heyday of modern jazz and Sonny was a fabulous musician. He had his own facility with the saxophone - baritone, tenor and alto. We went out with Sonny on tenor sax and my trombone. We worked in Grand Rapids and Toledo.  I remember Sonny as a reluctant icon - there is no one today that can play like Sonny Stitt.” 


As Stitt's career took off, he was often compared to Charlie Parker - the Bird. Mitchell disagrees, “In no way did Stitt try to copy Parker. Sonny had his own style. He was basically an innovator. He could turn it inside out and put it back together before it's finished. He could read music and he was just a great player. Mitchell toured with Sonny on an irregular basis and usually within a 200-mile radius of Flint. Mitchell acknowledges that the great talent in mid-Michigan including Flint and Pontiac was often taken for granted with Detroit in such close proximity. Detroit was no doubt a breeding ground for talent, but not to the exclusion of the Saginaw/Flint/Pontiac nexus.


Mitchell feels Stitt's legacy will be preserved like Coltrane or Mile Davis. “Like any of the other great jazz players, Stitt & Parker were so good that nobody could aspire to their level of genius. It cannot be imitated. You don't hear anyone that can play like that anymore. The new musicians can't do it. The industry prefers music that anyone can imitate, that way the artist can't control what they play.”


It is often acknowledged that the music industry doesn't want original thinking. It's like the auto industry or current FM radio - they want everything to look and sound the same. Innovation is discouraged in favor of sales. That's why so many of the modern country and rock bands sound like everyone else. There is no individual identity and they don't have any importance - it's all disposable. Mitchell's lucid analysis resonates deeply like throwing a pebble in the water and watching the ripples grow wider and wider then disappear. 


Mitchell taught music at MSU and the University of Wisconsin and plays fourteen instruments. He feels that you cannot teach what Sonny Stitt played. It is a natural gift that cannot be taught in schools. He sees originality and craft dying off in jazz and music in general, “Every major big band - Basie, Ellington, Woody Herman - once they died off, the industry didn't want unique composition and performance. They wanted something that could be replicated. Sonny Stitt was so unique you couldn't imitate him.”


Kenny Anderson was a well-known Jazz bandleader in Saginaw and was one of Sonny's nearby mentors. His widow Gladys Anderson is still living in Saginaw and continues to carry a torch for the great music created by her husband and Sonny Stitt,


“I first saw Sonny at the Cabana. He was playing at the Cabana on Sixth and Washington, right where North Sixth comes into N. Washington.  Oh, Sonny was great. He was terrific on the sax. Terrific. I'd sit there, and I'd get goose bumps just listening to him because I'd been around music all my life practically. And he was terrific. I really was crazy about the blues. But he could blow…I don't know to this day I think about it. I wonder where he got the breath. And he'd hold a note for a minute or two or whatever, just a long time. He was afraid he might fall out, you know? He was blowing so hard and so long, you know.”


Gladys recalled her husband's relationship with Stitt, Sonny was about 15 to 20 years younger than Kenny and he would stand out in back behind the Cabana and watch him play. Sonny would stand up on those oilcans to listen to Kenny's band.  And Kenny would go out and see them and tell them to come on in. Because they were under-age and at that time you couldn't go in the bars when you were underage.”


Gladys felt that Sonny's fame was well deserved. “He could play just about anything. He was just a beautiful artist. It's just too bad that his health was bad but he'd still perform. He'd walk into the club, and everybody knew him, of course. They'd say, there's Sonny, there's Sonny. They were just so elated to see him. Usually his mother would come too. His mother was a musician. She was very nice… she'd come to protect him.”


Sonny and Kenny were closely aligned but they were a study in contrasts. Gladys acknowledged the bond between the two musicians, “Sonny would keep to himself mostly. But Kenny would greet everybody in the place, like in-between, of course they had showgirls, you know, and strippers, and everything. Kenny would go in between tables and go and greet everybody. Sonny didn't trust people easily. He was terrific. He knew his music. He knew it. It was his own music, his own composition. My husband loved him dearly because of his ability and his playing, how well he played. When Sonny would come to the house, he and Kenny would sit and drink and talk for hours on end.”


She understood that family meant a lot to Sonny. She recalls, “Sonny grew up with his father Bob Stitt. He had a tavern out on N. Washington. It used to be called Kwaters Bar. It was a very restricted Polish bar. They didn't have blues band or jazz until Sonny's father got it. Bob Stitt was a gentle man…a big man. He was very proud of Sonny.”


Frankie Johnson grew up in the Stitt household and considered Sonny and Momma Wickes as parental figures. He loved them dearly and learned many of his life's lessons through their wise counsel. The following is an excerpt of a recent interview with Mr. Johnson. He gets down to the real skinny and provides us with a first-hand account of the life and times of Sonny Stitt.


Frank, how did you get to know Sonny Stitt?


I grew up in the home of Sonny's mother, Claudine Wickes, from infancy until she walked me to the old bus station to go to the army. That was in 1961. First off, Sonny's real name is Edward Boatner. His father was a famous composer of Negro spirituals. You can look him up on the Internet. There are a lot of things about him. How he came about with the Stitt name was my foster grandmother. She married a Robert Stitt here in Saginaw around I guess mid-'30s. Sonny was a teenager in '37 or '38, and he took the name. His birth father, Edward Boatner, was very well known worldwide in the music field on his own. In fact, he led a thousand man chorus in 1937 World's Fair in New York City.


Sonny came from a great musical family. His grandmother was a piano teacher here, taught dance - she was famous. His mom Claudine “Mommy” Wickes was famous too. I remember Sonny from maybe age nineteen.  He bought a new 1955 Chrysler station wagon because he was always on the road. He was married to a girl named Barbara Lancaster. He traveled for two or three years in this green Chrysler New Yorker. He wasn't the best driver in the world. He was also a drinker, so he usually had someone to chauffeur him around. He would visit Saginaw maybe three or four times a year.


When did he leave Saginaw?


He left in 1942 following his graduation from Saginaw High School. In fact he had an opportunity in the 11th grade to leave with a band. You remember Tiny Bradshaw? This was the big band era. Tiny Bradshaw came through town and heard this young man play and he offered him a job whenever he was in Detroit. But Sonny couldn't go because Mommy wouldn't let him go. So the day of graduation he got on a bus and met up with the Tiny Bradshaw. That was his first band. This was during the war, so they weren't recording in 1942, as there was a ban on vinyl recording. That's how they recorded, you know, vinyl disks.  In 1946 or '47 he went with the trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band. He took Charlie Parker's chair.


He was compared to Charlie Parker.


Yeah, their music style was similar. I can tell the difference because I've heard his records since I was a child. In fact it was kind of an anchor around Sonny's neck, being compared to Charlie Parker.


Sherm Mitchell feels Sonny had his own voice.


Yeah, he had his own voice. Well, you know he was playing alto at this time and Charlie Parker did also, but he switched to tenor. I have an early '50's recording that shows his evolving style.


I have a story I'd like to tell but maybe I shouldn't tell. It's personal about where he went. He spent two years in a prison.


I didn't know that.


There was an incident, from what I understand, in Chicago in 1947, 1948, and there was a fellow who died from injecting drugs, one of Sonny's band mates. Sonny was in the same room. So he spent two years in Ft. Leavenworth. It was a hospital for drug addiction - to help him recover because he was hooked at the time. He was still a young man and around that type of crowd of people there was a lot of temptations.


Edward, his father, never lived with Sonny. I guess Mommy and his father were married, but I think they separated when Sonny was maybe two years old. I did see him once. We went to New York in the early '50s, and he had a music studio. He was a piano teacher. I remember he had a room full of manuscript papers and a big baby grand piano and things. Those were the things that I remember, some personal things that people didn't know.


Robert Stitt, his stepfather, was well known in the city in his own right. He owned a club on Washington Street. It was called the El Morocco. He must have opened the El Morocco in '56 or 57. It was in Buena Vista Township. It was on the corner of 25th and Washington - now it's long gone. He opened up that club and Sonny came here to play it. He was a more of a mature artist by that time. Mommy had a group of tap dancers. They were very well known in the state. They called themselves the Silvertime High Steppers. She put on a dance at the old UAW Hall for a fundraiser. It was on Sixth and Washington. There was a bowling alley downstairs. The UAW Grey Iron built it. Sonny came back because at that time he wasn't traveling with a band. He was picking up musicians. I saw his address book once - it was a very large book of musicians in every town that he was familiar with.  In 1970 he traveled with Bud Patterson on organ and Billy James was the drummer. He traveled most of the '70s with that group.


Did they record too?


Yeah, he made many recordings. He just overextended himself in albums. He had probably one of the highest number of albums (300) recorded by anyone, any recording artist. He was never under contract to any one record company, this was one way he could go…say to Chicago to pick up a thousand dollars for a few hours work, you know, go ahead and make a record and take the money and run. So yeah, he did that. 


It sounds like you've known Sonny from childhood


I've done research because he was my hero. It was cool when he came here. He dressed fancy and he was cool. Sonny was a friend of my father - that's how I got to know him. They were school chums.

My father went in the army in World War II. When the war was over in1946 he brought my sister, my mother, and me up from Florida. He took us over to Mommy Wickes' house, which at that time was on Franklin Street. It was very hard for him to find apartments to rent because the soldiers were coming home in 1946. She was living on 714 N. Franklin, and she had an upstairs apartment. We never left after that night. Later she bought a bigger house so we would have more room. We grew up like a family. She did all the cooking. She did a lot of the discipline. Her husband, I called him Uncle Lonnie, he was like my grandfather. Sonny was born in 1924 and he was like a father to me.


Gladys told me that her husband Ken Anderson was a good friend with Sonny


Kenny was a premier musician here before Sonny. He was older than Sonny. He was probably 10 or 12 years older than Sonny. He was a mentor to Sonny, Gladys's husband was.

He was a friend. My dad Jack Johnson also played in Kenny's band. He's well known here as a musician. There were several articles in the Saginaw News about him.


Were there any venues in Saginaw where Sonny performed?


At that time he used to play at the Cabana Club, the old Cabana Club, over on Washington. Street. Sonny didn't play here a lot. If he did, it was just for a jam session. Sonny would come about four times a year. But he didn't play during the time I was growing up. I heard a story about him playing at the Cabana Club in 1950. He also played at the old Saginaw Auditorium. He came here with Gene Ammons and Choker Campbell, a bandleader that played with Sonny in Saginaw and Flint.


Choker Campbell?


Choker Campbell was the musical director when Motown started. He conducted the bands that backed up the Four Tops, the Temptations and Smoky Robinson on their first world tours in the '60s. I remember it as a kid. I must have been about 15. Sonny and I rode around all day when he came to town. We went to Flint one night to hang with Choker. I remember Choker describing this new record company in Detroit, and that was Motown.


I used to go to Idlewild, a resort here in Michigan up near Reed City. We met this fellow named Arthur Braggs. He was an entrepreneur of sorts. What he did, he conducted the numbers rackets here. We lived next door to him on Franklin Street. We called him Uncle Arthur. He had a big club in Idlewild, Michigan. This was before African-Americans were welcome in the other places, resorts, and things. People would come from Chicago, Detroit, Flint and Saginaw. This was where African-American families would go and spend their summer. Mr. Braggs had a club there called the Paradise Club. He would bring in name acts like Dinah Washington. I remember seeing her with a big fur coat on in the summertime. She had a blue Chrysler Imperial, a four-door Chrysler Imperial.


Did Sonny play there also?


He played there once or twice. Sonny was friendly with Mr. Braggs and he would go visit him. Mr. Braggs was a little older than Sonny. He played out there maybe once in a while, but that wasn't something he did regularly. At that time Sonny couldn't work in New York. When he got in this trouble in 1947, they took away his Cabaret card. In New York City you had to have a cabaret card to play in a club that sold alcohol and beverages. So they took that away from him because of the incident that happened. He didn't get it back until 1957.


He would play in New York City, but he had to play in a theater. He couldn't play in a club. So he did a lot out on the east coast, west coast. He went out with Norman Granz, a jazz entrepreneur. Granz had a touring company, “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” He went to Europe and he took the whole group. That was 1956 and '57.  In fact, they toured for several years.


When was the last time you saw Sonny?


I saw him the year he passed and once the year before. When we heard on the news that he had passed…my wife is from Cassopolis, Michigan. We were taking our vacation down in Indiana, Michigan border, a farming community. So we drove back up, and we had two kids, Mamie and me. We took on my dad, and we drove over to Washington, DC. We got there. We missed his wake. We got there the night before the funeral. I stayed with his wife and Pam's brother and my wife stayed at Sonny's house. I have some pictures of us sitting on his back porch. At that time he was more settled when he married his last wife. He had his own home, you know. Most of the time I knew him, he was a vagabond. Not a vagabond as in not having substance, but he traveled all the time. He never had his own home. But he put down roots.


Did Sonny mentor you?


I called him Uncle Sonny. I'll tell you a story. I must have been 12 years old, and I was going into the seventh grade. I was going to take band. Sonny came home in the summer before I went into junior high school. He took me to a store downtown, and he bought me this bicycle. They had to put it together, you know. We went home, and we were going to pick it up the next morning. I go home and I tell all my buddies, “Hey, I'm getting this bicycle.”


Mommy came home from her work at the First Ward Community Center there. He called Mommy - he called his mother Queen. He said, “Queen, I'm buying Frankie a bicycle.” She said, “He don't need no bicycle. He needs a clarinet.” That's where I got the word clarinet …Sonny started with it and so did I!


I'll tell you another story. We were riding in this car, me and a friend of mine. It was a rainy day. He was going through a puddle, and he sprayed on a fella who was standing on a curb there. He went around the block and gave this guy some money to get his coat cleaned.


Yeah, Sonny was always a gentleman. I had to sleep with him when he came. Arrangements at that house were normally my sister had a guest room. My mother had her own bedroom. Mommy and Uncle Lenny had their own bedroom, and I had a rollaway bed in an alcove upstairs. When he would come, if he didn't bring a girlfriend, sometimes he brought a girlfriend, we would sleep in my sister's room, which was the guestroom. I remember the first time I smelled marijuana. I remember him on the side of the bed smoking, and my grandmother, Mommy, would always air that room out.


You know a funny thing, Stevie Wonder has roots here. He lived next door to us. His family did - on Third Street. They lived next door to us. I remember him. I'm a little older than Stevie and I played with his cousins. This is before he became famous. Oh, I could tell you a little story about them. Sonny had bought a Polaroid camera, one of the first ones. This is the early '50s. This was where you take a picture, you pull it off; and then you had to put that chemical on it. He was taking pictures. I remember he got all the kids together; the next-door kids and Stevie would have been in that picture. I remember a little blind boy. He was a toddler then. He was born in 1950 and this would've been 1954 or '55. He didn't stay here long. He moved to Detroit, but his family still stayed there, the Dallas family and the Lawsons. It was a big extended family. They lived right next door to us.


There was so much music in Saginaw.


Sonny has two children, Katea and Jason Stitt. Both of them live in the Washington DC area. I don't talk to Jason much, but I talk to his daughter. In fact, she's planning on coming visit us. She wants to know more about her father and she also wants to know about his hometown. I remember her coming here when she was pre-teen. She came to visit one summer and stayed at Mommy's house. I'll get you her number. She's an artist in her own right. She is a poet and she's also worked with George Clinton. She was doing like promotional things of that sort and she has a radio show, a jazz radio show. I think it's in the morning.


That'd be great. I'd love to talk to her.


EPILOGUE: Frankie Johnson told me that Sonny's legacy needs to be preserved and that we should build a monument to him. He should be huge in Saginaw.  I agree. Our community needs to remember this remarkable man. We should not let his incredible contributions to music and culture fade from public awareness.


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