Born: May 19, 1939 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
When critics speak of Sonny Fortune, names like Coltrane, Cannonball, Young, Bechet, Hawkins and Parker are mentioned. Quite a legacy - but well deserved - for Sonny Fortune embodies all of the finest qualities of those late, great musicians: hard work, dedication to his art, and exceptional music. Lucky for us, Sonny is still here and blowing hard.
Born in Philadelphia on May 19, 1939, he was 18 years old before deciding to pursue a career in jazz. In 1967 he moved to New York. Says the quiet, straight-talking Fortune of that move: Eventually, in order to find out if you really have what it takes, you have to go to the center, and that's New York...you can only do so much in your hometown.
After a brief stint with Elvin Jones and Frank Foster, Fortune, an early admirer of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, joined Mongo Santamaria's group, with whom he remained for over 2 years. He moved to Los Angeles in 1970, but stayed in California for only seven months and came back east where he worked with vocalist Leon Thomas before joining McCoy Tyner with whom he played for 2 1/2 years. During this period, in which Fortune started playing the soprano sax, he cemented an already solid reputation as an instrumental innovator with his contributions on Tyner's albums Sahara, Song For My Lady, and Song of the New World.
Fortune then went on to work independently with his own ensemble and with drummer Buddy Rich, and was featured on the live LP recorded at Rich's Manhattan nightspot, Buddy's Place. In September 1974, Miles Davis offered Sonny a job in his fusion group. Fortune had previously turned down the same offer to stay with Tyner, but now he eagerly accepted the opportunity to move on to something completely new. Fortune, by now accomplished on several instruments (clarinet, flute, tenor and baritone sax included), stayed with Miles for a year, recording four LPs, Big Fun, Agartha, Pangaea and Get Up With It.
Over the years Sonny has also recorded with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, Oliver Nelson, George Benson and Nat Adderly, to name a few. In June 1975 Sonny formed his own group, marking his debut as a leader with two critically-acclaimed LPs for A&M Horizon, Awakening and Waves of Dreams. He's had many albums released since then. Sonny's three Blue Note CD's received rave reviews. Four In One, his album of the music of Thelonious Monk, was released in the Fall of 1994. His second Blue Note CD, A Better Understanding was released September of 1995, and consists of all original material in groupings from duo to septet. Sonny's third CD for Blue Note, From Now On, was released in September 1996 and consists of both original material and compositions by other artists. The raves have continued and it was featured on many year-end Ten Best lists.
In addition to leading his own quartet, the following 10 years saw Sonny playing with the Nat Adderly Quartet and as a featured soloist with the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. In 1987-88 he was part of the Coltrane Legacy Band that also featured McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman.
Sonny's groups have always featured his own compositions, and he has toured around the world, including the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan. CBS TV's 48 Hours with Dan Rather did a feature on Sonny, which was broadcast in late 1993. He is a featured soloist on the soundtrack for the Jack Nicholson film, The Crossing Guard, and was the subject of a recent CBS Sunday Morning feature with Billy Taylor. He headlined the first Chicago Playboy Jazz Festival and was the featured jazz performer at the 1995 Atlanta Montreaux International Music Festival. He has been touring the U.S. consistently over the past few years.
Fortune is still busy with live appearances, including the St. Lucia Festival and the Canadian jazz festivals. He also performed in a special trio with Reggie Workman and Rashied Ali at concerts in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. that were dedicated to John Coltrane, as well as being part of a special Elvin Jones ensemble performing in New York City in celebration of Elvin's 70th's birthday and performing with Elvin at the Playboy and JVC jazz festivals.
The seeds for In the Spirit of John Coltrane, released on Shanachie in January 2000, were planted in 1959, when Sonny first heard Trane's album My Favorite Things. From that point on Coltrane became the primary inspiration for Sonny a male figure whose influence on Sonny's life is rivaled only by that of Sonny's own father. In the Spirit of John Coltrane, which features performances from Coltrane alumni Reggie Workman and Rashied Ali, underscore Fortune's reputation as, quoting Stereophile magazine, one of the most intriguing alto players in contemporary jazz.
Of all of Trane's lasting contributions, perhaps the greatest to the future of improvised music was his example of spiritual integrity and physical drive. Sonny blows with both.