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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,442

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This is the grave of Zoot Sims.

Born in 1923 in Inglewood, California, John Sims grew up in a performing family. Both of his parents were vaudeville performers. His older brother Ray was also an avid trombonist who played with Benny Goodman and Anita O’Day, among others. So it’s not surprising that Zoot, as he became known, would also go into music. He started with drums and clarinet, but moved toward tenor sax in his teens. He fell in love with the work of Lester Young. He dropped out of high school to play professionally, got a gig with Kenny Baker for awhile, then played with Goodman. The war got in the way of that of course and he was in the Army Air Corps. When he returned, it didn’t take him long at all to establish himself as a major musician of the immediate postwar era. He came back and played in many of the leading big bands of the era, including with Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich. Woody Herman heard him and picked him up for his band in 1947. He was one of the four great sax players in the band–later known as the Four Brothers–that included Stan Getz, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff. Later, when he worked for Kenton, he discovered what he didn’t like. Kenton ran a tight ship and didn’t allow much room for solos. This meant he and Sims did not get along at all and Sims got out of that band as quickly as he could. In fact, after the band’s bus got into a wreck on a highway in Pennsylvania, a furious Sims just quit on the spot. Not sure how he got back to civilization.

But Sims also realized times were changing in jazz and he negotiated those changes well. Still, it took time. After he left Kenton, Sims had some time when he struggled to find work. The Big Band era was nearing its end. He went back to California and painted houses for awhile. But his good friend, the baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan was looking for a tenor for his sextet in the mid 50s. He brought Sims on board and this gave Zoot a lot more attention. Mulligan and Sims played beautifully together and this might be the most beloved moment in Sims’ long career.

Although he never had a major band of his own, Sims mostly worked as a leader by the late 50s until the end of his life. This began even when he was in Mulligan’s band. I mean, in 1956 alone he released ten albums under his own name, which seems more than a bit excessive, though I am sure modern people such as Matthew Shipp have had ten albums in a year at one point or another. He had a lot to say and he now could get the studio time and the quality musicians to see his vision onto vinyl. He did still do backing work for some of his heroes, such as Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, and Clark Terry. What made Sims popular forever was that he was one of the great swingers. No matter how the world of jazz changed, everyone respected the great swinging musicians and it was hard to find someone more perfect at swing than Zoot Sims. So Sims did change his music over the years, but that core of swing remained at his center. He and Al Cohn also played together for many, many years.

Unfortunately, Sims was a heavy smoker and it put him in the ground in 1985. It also didn’t help that he was a massive alcoholic, though he did stop drinking in the early 80s since he was on the point of death. He worked until almost the end, though I can’t imagine lung cancer and blowing into a saxophone goes very well together. He was 59 years old.

Zoot Sims is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.

Let’s listen to some Zoot!

If you would like this series to visit some of Sims’ collaborators, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Benny Goodman is in Stamford, Connecticut and Artie Shaw is in Westlake Village, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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