Criss, Sonny [William]
- Neil Tesser
(b Memphis, TN, Oct 23, 1927; d Los Angeles, CA, Nov 19, 1977). American jazz alto saxophonist. He moved to Los Angeles at 15, where he studied with Samuel Browne and remained most of his life. As a teenager he performed with various orchestras on their West Coast tours; he first attracted attention in 1947, performing at the impresario Gene Norman’s Just Jazz concerts and on recordings with, among others, the vocalist Billy Eckstine, the trumpeter Howard McGhee, and the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. In 1948 Criss played on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, which included Charlie Parker and also led to his association with the drummer Buddy Rich; after a tour with Stan Kenton, he played in Rich’s quintet during the mid-1950s, recording albums in 1955 and 1958. In the early 1960s, dissatisfied with his career prospects in the United States, Criss moved to Paris, but by 1965 had returned home, where he made a splash with Sonny’s Dream: Birth of the New Cool (1968, Prst.), featuring nonet arrangements by Horace Tapscott. A measure of Criss’s resurgence was his Talent Deserving Wider Recognition award in the Downbeat Critics’ Poll in 1968—at the age of 41. After another fallow period, he recorded two excellent albums for Muse Records, which displayed his speedy hard-bop technique and distinctive, billowing tone. His star seemed on the rise again; his suicide in 1977, at the age of 50, consequently shocked the jazz world. In 1988 Criss’s mother revealed that he had suffered from stomach cancer leading up to his suicide.
- H. Siders: “Sonny Criss: One-horn Man,” DB, 33/10 (1966), 27
- M. Gardner: “Sonny Criss Discography,” DF, no.16 (1970), 9; no.17 (1970), 3; no.18 (1970), 3
- Obituary, Los Angeles Times (20 Nov 1977)
- Obituary, New York Times (21 Nov 1977)
- D. Salemann, D. Hartmann, and M. Vogler: Sonny Criss, 1943–1952: Solography, Discography, Band Routes, Engagements in Chronological Order (Basel, 1987)