John Haley Zoot Sims was born in Inglewood, California. Growing up in a vaudeville family, Sims learned to play both drums and clarinet at an early age. His father was a vaudeville hoofer, and Sims prided himself on remembering many of the steps his father taught him.
Following in the footsteps of Lester Young, Sims developed into an innovative tenor saxophonist. Throughout his career, he played with renowned bands, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich. Sims was also one of Woody Herman's Four Brothers, and he was known among his peers as one of the strongest swingers in the field.