Edward “Sonny” Stitt was born into a musical family on February 2, 1924. His father was a professor of music, his mother a piano teacher, his brother a concert pianist, and his sister a singer. He began on piano, took up clarinet and alto sax, and later switched to tenor to avoid comparison with Charlie Parker. “On tenor,” says Dan Morgenstern in his book Living with Jazz: A Reader, ”Stitt had few peers. He takes his cues from Lester Young, but there’s not a trace of cloning. On this axe, he is indisputably his own man.”
Stitt was a virtuoso on the horn and relished competition on the bandstand. In his book Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the 80’s Gary Giddins says, “Stitt had the qualities essential to a tenor battler; he was implacable, indefatigable, inventive.”
Still playing alto, Stitt joined Billy Eckstine’s band in 1945, recorded with the early boppers, and played in Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet and big band in 1946. By 1949 he took up tenor sax (as well as baritone) and his early quartet recordings feature both horns. In 1949 he recorded a memorable session with pianist Bud Powell and trombonist J. J. Johnson which is notable for their famous version of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.” He recorded with fellow tenor player Gene Ammons (whom he’d met in the Eckstine band) into the ‘50s, and in 1957 he joined Gillespie and Sonny Rollins on a quintessential bop date, Sonny Side Up, highlighted by the Stitt vehicle “The Eternal Triangle.” He recorded with the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1959 and then joined Miles Davis for a short time in 1960.
According to Giddins, “The graceful, athletic, almost ravenous saxophonist...turned bewilderingly inconsistent by the mid-‘70s.” However, Giddins has high praise for the two albums Stitt recorded with pianist Barry Harris’s quartet in 1972, Tune Up and Constellation, the latter of which tied for first place in the Down Beat critics’ poll. “His best work,” says Giddins, “...will live as long as anything in jazz.”
Stitt was a compulsive “road warrior” who traversed the country and recorded prolifically, making him one of the best documented musicians on record. Excluding bandleaders such as Ellington and Basie, Morgenstern says, “Sonny Stitt made more records as a leader than any other jazz instrumentatlist.” Although eclipsed in his era by the extraordinary attention focused on Charlie Parker, Stitt was highly admired by both fans and musicians. “Equipped with magnificent technique and iron chops, and gifted with an innate ability swing, he could turn on the music seemingly at will,” says Morgenstern. He died in 1982 just three weeks after his festival appearance replacing Art Pepper who died earlier that summer.