Edward ‘Sonny’ Stitt (2 February 1924 – 22 July 1982) was an American jazz saxophonist of the bebop/hard bop idiom. He was one of the best-documented saxophonists of his generation, recording over 100 albums.
Stitt was an avid disciple of Charlie Parker – imitating him almost note for note in some of his early solos – and the closeness remained until Stitt began favouring the tenor sax over the alto. Stitt gradually developed his own sound and style, although he was never far from Parker on any alto solo.
Stitt was born Edward Boatner, Jr. to a musical family in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. He was soon adopted by another family, the Stitts, and he later began calling himself ‘Sonny’. While in high school he played in the Len Francke Band, a local popular swing band.
During the early 1940s, Stitt played alto sax in Tiny Bradshaw’s band and, in 1943, he first met his hero, Charlie Parker. The two men found that their styles had an extraordinary similarity that was partly coincidental, not just due to Stitt’s emulation.
Stitt joined Billy Eckstine’s big band in 1945, playing alongside other emerging bebop stars like Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. In order to avoid being referred to as a Bird imitator, he started to play tenor sax more frequently. Later, he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band and sextet, and at times was in a two-tenor unit with Ammons. His first recordings were with Gillespie and Stan Getz, and in 1949, he recorded with Bud Powell and J.J. Johnson for Prestige.
In the 1950s, Stitt recorded a number of sides for Prestige Records as well as albums for Argo, Verve and Roost. He experimented with Afro-Cuban jazz in the late 1950s, and teamed up with Thad Jones and Chick Corea for Latin versions of such standards as ‘Autumn Leaves’ for Roost and Verve. Stitt led many combos in the 1950s, and rejoined Gillespie for a short period at the end of the decade.
After a brief stint with Miles Davis in 1960, he reunited with Ammons. Their records are regarded by many as some of both Ammons and Stitt’s best work, and their partnership has become known one of the best duelling partnerships in jazz. During the 1960s, Stitt also recorded for Atlantic, finally addressing the Parker question with Stitt Plays Bird.
Stitt also ventured into soul jazz and recorded with fellow tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin on the Soul People album in 1964. Around that time, he also appeared regularly at Ronnie Scott’s in London, resulting in the live album The Night has a Thousand Eyes with Ronnie Scott himself.
Stitt was one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with an electric saxophone, which he played on the albums What’s New in 1966 and Parallel-a-Stitt in 1967.
In the early 1970s, Stitt joined all-star group Giants of Jazz, also featuring Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kai Winding and Al McKibbon, and made albums for Atlantic, Concord and EmArcy. Stitt’s recording output slowed down somewhat in the 1970s, although he did produce the classic ‘Tune Up’ in 1972, which is regarded by many jazz critics as his definitive record.
Stitt continued playing and recording in the early 1980s, until his death in 1982.
This video from 1964 shows the Sonny Stitt/J.J. Johnson Sextet performing ‘Buzzy’ for a Charlie Parker memorial broadcast in London, featuring Howard McGhee (trumpet), Walter Bishop Jr. (piano), Tommy Potter (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums).