If one picks up several rather compendious reference works on jazz in this, the more or less twelfth decade of the music’s existence, you will find no mention of William “Sonny” Criss. These include John Chilton’s “Who’s Who of Jazz,” first published in 1972 and revised several times since, and Gary Giddins’ “Visions of Jazz: The First Century,” published in 1998. A review of the collected writings of Whitney Balliett, who covered jazz for The New Yorker, from 1954 to 2000 turns up only two passing references to Criss. It is as if he has been written out of the jazz history books in the manner of a de-canonized saint who’s been deleted from the hagiographies when his miracles turned out to be parlor tricks.
But Criss was and is a figure of more than a little importance in the development of the alto sax, and his music remains a lyrical bridge between the sensuous tone of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time altoist, and Charlie Parker, who sacrificed tone to speed and forever changed the syntax of the alto with his pyrotechnic solos.
Criss was born in 1927, two decades after Hodges and seven years after Parker. He grew up in Memphis, where he played after school with a fellow named “Shifty” Henry, whose life and work is now lost to recorded memory. After finishing school in 1946, Criss played with (among others) Johnny Otis, the Greek-passing-for-black R&B pioneer, bop trumpeter Howard McGhee (sometimes with Parker), and jazz crooner Billy Eckstine.
His first break came in 1947 when he joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic touring company and gained exposure playing before fans who came to see better-known musicians. He was hired by Stan Kenton, a popular white bandleader, for his West Coast “Jazz Showcase ’55,” and on the strength of these gigs had made enough of a name that he could form groups around himself as headliner. He toured the U.S. with Buddy Rich, and began to record as leader for Imperial Records in 1956.
In 1962 Criss made the fateful decision to move to Europe, where he stayed for three years; the move took him out of the jazz limelight in the U.S. at a time when his career could have taken off here. When he returned to America he recorded three noteworthy albums for Imperial, a label better known for its R&B artists (including Fats Domino) and pop vocalists such as Ricky Nelson and yodeler Slim Whitman. It is not clear that Imperial knew what to do with Criss; the album “go man!” features a pseudo-Beatnik white couple on the cover, and the liner notes recount how jazz “classics have been dolled up and presented so that the layman and even children can enjoy them.” As Charlie Brown used to say, good grief.
Criss had a reputation among knowledgeable listeners as a player who honored tradition while at the same time expanding it. He remained underrated–Balliett called him a “Charlie Parker offshoot” after hearing him at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival–and he began to fade from view as he recorded less frequently. The market for jazz was shrinking, and Criss was out of date; his blues-tinged bop style had been rendered unfashionable by West Coast “cool” jazz, and then fellow Memphis native Charles Lloyd’s ethereal 1968 album “Forest Flower” appeared to deliver the final blow to bop and blues.
On November 19, 1977 Criss committed suicide, shooting himself. The reason why he chose to end his life was unknown at first; he had begun to develop a career outside of music, teaching and working in social services, and his playing was as good as ever. Moreover, a revival of classical jazz styles was underway at festivals and on record. Things should have been looking up for him.
It wasn’t until 1988 that his mother revealed that Sonny had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1977. “He kept still about it,” she said, “and worked for as long as he could.”
We are in his debt that he did.
Con Chapman’s biography “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.