Essential Sonny Stitt Albums – The Underrated Lone Wolf of Jazz

Jazz critic Marc Myers was on-point when he wrote that “you either love Sonny Stitt or you’re completely unfamiliar with the saxophonist.”

Whether you’re in the first group or the latter, we hope you’ll enjoy our pick of some of the best Sonny Stitt albums as part of our quest to highlight the most influential saxophone players of all time.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 2nd 1924, Sonny Stitt is one of the few greats who recorded extensively on both alto and tenor sax.

(In fact, we’d challenge you right not to come up with another more well-known musician who was famous on both of these types of saxophones!)

Emerging in the early ’40s era of bebop, he was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker but suggestions that he was a ‘copy’ of the alto saxophone great are not fair; ​​as drummer Kenny Clarke said “even if there had not been a Bird, there would have been a Sonny Stitt.”

That said, his motivation to switch to tenor was in part to distance himself from those comparisons. It arguably worked, and he established a much more distinctive sound on that instrument.

Luckily for us, Sonny Stitt toured and recorded relentlessly throughout his career, with his final sessions coming just 6 weeks before his death in 1982.

Interestingly for an artist with more than 100 recordings, he didn’t stick with the same group of jazz musicians for long. In fact, renowned journalist Dan Morgenstern described him as a “Lone Wolf” for this very reason.

But what we may miss in terms of a cohesive group (think Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet) we gain in the sheer number of musical meetings he committed to record.

As fans and students of jazz history, we get to hear him record with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis to Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson – to name just a handful.

It’s also perhaps testament to his skill and confidence on the instrument that he never shied away from collaborating with his fellow saxophone players, notching up recordings with Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Booker Ervin, Paul Gonsalves and many more.

Got your attention? Read on for five our our favourite Sonny Stitt albums which tell just a small part of the story of a hugely underrated jazz saxophone great…

Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, J. J. Johnson

Recorded 1949-1950

Whilst compilation albums rarely make it onto essential listening guides (at least at Jazzfuel!) this one is important in documenting the early phase of Sonny Stitt’s playing on tenor.

Co-lead by pianist Bud Powell and jazz trombone great J. J. Johnson, it is made up of recordings from 1949 & 1950 and features bebop great Max Roach on drums throughout.

Recording quality varies across the different sessions, as do the line ups, but it’s a great addition to the Sonny Stitt discography to discover his playing from that early period.

Listen out in particular for his playing on the upbeat jazz song Taking a Chance on Love.

New York Jazz

Recorded 1956

This 1956 outing for the record label Verve is another highlight in terms of great Sonny Stitt albums.

Produced by the legendary Norman Granz, it features an A-list rhythm section of pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jo Jones.

Stitt’s blusey bebop stylings are on full display here, with blistering solos and hi-octane versions of jazz standards such as Twelfth Street Rag and I Know That You Know.

Some of the playing showcases just why even Parker himself was reported to have told him “well I’ll be damned, you sound just like me!” This is no Parker clone though: his playing his highly distinctive, fresh and inventive.

The medium tempo renditions of Alone Together and Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea give the listener another great insight into his blues-inflected, hard-swinging style.

Sonny Side Up

Recorded 1957

Recorded in 1957 and released two years later by Verve, Sonny Side Up brings together Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Whilst it only consists of four tracks, it’s nonetheless noteworthy for a now-famous version of On The Sunny Side of The Street, as well as epic 10+ minute rendition of The Eternal Triangle and After Hours which allow the soloists to stretch out.

For fans of jazz history, it’s also a fascinating opportunity to hear how two saxophonists heavily influenced by Charlie Parker developed their own very distinctive voices.

Listen out for the stop time section for the sax solo on “I Know That You Know.”

Boss Tenors

Recorded 1961

In 1960, Stitt joined Miles Davis’s band, alongside Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers. Whilst the made it to Europe for a tour – something documented by live recordings in Paris and Manchester – the engagement was short-lived due to the saxophonists excessive drinking.

Whilst it would have been fascinating to see how he developed as part of Miles’ band, the brief period didn’t dent his appetite for work and the following year he recorded Boss Tenors in Chicago.

Captured in August 1961 the album follows a popular format of the time, putting two established players together for a head-to-head session.

Sonny Stitt is joined by fellow saxophonist Gene Ammons (also known as ‘The Boss’) who was known for his bluesy hard bop style of playing.

Subtitled as “Straight Ahead From Chicago” it does exactly what it says on the tin: a demonstration of some high level, hard-swinging jazz.

Hearing the two alternate sections of the melody on jazz standard There Is Greater Love is a great way to notice the subtly different style of the players.

Along with John Houston (piano), Buster Williams (bass) and George Brown (drums) this Verve studio album is a worthy addition to any jazz record collection.

Now!

Recorded 1963

Recorded and released in the summer of 1963, Now! Was the first Sonny Stitt album for the legendary Impulse record label, and is one of his most famous albums.

Featuring Hank Jones on piano, Al Lucas on bass and James ‘Osie’ Johnson on drums, the recording again documents Stitt’s rather unique position as both a tenor and alto player, hearing him on both instruments.

Stitt originals such as Touchy and Surfin’ are mixed with interpretations of classics such as Lester Young’s Lester Leaps In and the beautiful jazz ballad I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.

Compared to some of his more frenetic, bebop playing of the 40s and 50s, this session shows him as a measured, highly melodic saxophonist, whilst not losing the bluesy soul ‘bite’ of his earlier playing.

Whilst he might be most remembered for his energetic and intricate improvisation style, his version of My Mother’s Eyes once again demonstrates his deft touch playing down-tempo songs.

More Sonny Stitt Albums

Thanks for reading and hopefully you found some useful listening tips here!

As we mentioned, the saxophonist recorded more than 100 albums in his career, so this list – whilst highlighting some of the most famous Sonny Stitt albums – barely scratches the surface.

There are many gems that we didn’t have space to include so (as always) it’s worth diving into the full discography to discover your own personal favourites!

A good place to head next is the 148-track compilation ‘Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Studio Sessions’ which was released in 2001 and covered extensively by Jazz Wax here.

After that, head to your record store or online listening platform of choice!

Like what you heard by Sonny Stitt? Head over to our saxophone homepage for more profiles, including bebop great Charlie Parker and tenor legends John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins…

You can also find many of these great musicians in our pick of the 50 best jazz albums of all time.

6 thoughts on “Essential Sonny Stitt Albums – The Underrated Lone Wolf of Jazz”

  1. Thank you Mr. Fripp! Sonny Stitt is a monster. I was listening to jazz radio driving the freeways in LA in the 1970s and heard a burning alto solo. I thought “This guy’s got Bird’s chops but it isn’t Charlie”. Chuck Niles, the radio DJ, confirmed my suspicions and said that was Sonny Stitt. I love listening to him still.

    Reply
  2. Superb overview for a jazz drummer unfamiliar with Stitt. I particularly appreciate the total musical focus…we all have, and make lifestyle choices…sometimes to our benefit, sometimes (in retrospect) because we could….keep on keepin’ the beat Matt. Appreciate you.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for putting Sonny Stitt in the spotlight once more! He is one of the greatest treasures of the bebop era, period.

    Your selection of records is not bad, but I’d like to highlight a few more:

    * Blues Up & Down, Vol. 1 (Prestige 7823, on the name of Gene Ammons), from 1950,
    * the Mosaic 9-CD issues is great as Marc Myers says, but if you’d have to choose just one track, try this one: https://youtu.be/mjXOmiCmBBY
    (Bloosey, on alto, with Hank Jones, Wendel Marshall and Shadow Wilson, 1957)
    * two Cobblestone LPs from 1972: Tune-Up (CST 9013) and Constellation (CST 9021), with Barry Harrus, Sam Jones and Roy Brooks.

    Reply

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