Sonny Criss Biography

William Criss, 23 October 1923, Memphis, Tennessee, USA, d. 19 November 1977, Los Angeles, California, USA. Criss first came to prominence in Los Angeles in the mid-late 40s, playing with Howard McGhee, Billy Eckstine, Gerald Wilson and Jazz At The Philharmonic. One of the first alto saxophonists to absorb the lessons of Charlie Parker, Criss developed into a fluent, intense bebopper whom Ornette Coleman later described as ‘the fastest man alive’. In the mid-50s he worked with Buddy Rich’s quintet and also led his own groups, including line-ups with Sonny Clark and Wynton Kelly. In 1961 he settled in Paris for a number of years, then returned to Los Angeles and recorded a series of mostly excellent albums for Prestige (1966-69). Perhaps most outstanding was the big band Sonny’s Dream (Birth Of The New Cool), which featured the compositions and arrangements of Criss’ west coast colleague Horace Tapscott.

Following a breakdown, Criss became involved in social work, chiefly with alcoholics but also playing and teaching in schools. In 1974 he revisited Europe and a little later began recording again, making a trio of superb small-group albums that displayed as well as ever the uniquely affecting alto tone which writer Mark Gardner called ‘a piercing, passionate sound from the heart’. Two later albums that ladened Criss with strings and a supposedly funky beat were less successful artistically. In November 1977, shortly before a scheduled tour of Japan, Criss died at home from gunshot wounds that were possibly the result of an accident but, it is generally believed, were more probably self-inflicted.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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