By Steve Provizer
In no way was the recognition that Ira Sullivan received commensurate with his skill.
In jazz, “doubling” means playing more than one instrument, but not at the same time, à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Certain kinds of doubling aren’t that unusual. For example, many people play trumpet and fluegelhorn, but the technique for playing those horns is essentially the same. And, while most reed players specialize in one sax (soprano, alto, tenor, or baritone) many play other members of the sax family when called on. Thanks to the clever system Adolphe Sax invented, mouthpieces must be changed, but fingering remains pretty much the same.
But the improvising musicians who can go proficiently and fluidly between playing trumpet and saxophone can be counted on one hand. Ira Sullivan, who recently died at age 89, arguably attained a higher level of technical and musical expertise in these two families of instruments than anyone else in the history of jazz. Not only did Sullivan exercise tremendous chops on both sets of instruments, but he swung like crazy: his chosen area of operation was Bop and Post-Bop, among the most technically demanding styles in jazz.
Sullivan, who came from a musical family but was self-taught, gained a strong initial reputation in his hometown of Chicago in the ’50s, gigging with the jazz elite, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge. In 1956, he was invited to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers but he did not want a life on the road. A family-oriented guy, he quit Blakey after seven months and went back to Chicago. He then moved to Florida in the early ’60s, continued to play and teach.
In the ’50s, he’d played with trumpeter Red Rodney (who’d been with Charley Parker) and hooked up with him again in the ’80s. The quintet played fiery and exciting music. As a trumpet player, Rodney had a better tone and wider range than Sullivan, but the technical edge between them was thin. In fact, Sullivan applied a more advanced harmonic approach than Rodney. Sullivan’s sax playing was outstanding and remained so as he moved into his 80s.
This group did some touring, so more listeners were able to learn about Ira Sullivan. He mentored younger players, like Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, and was sought out to perform on recordings by Elvin Jones, Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes, and many others. But in no way was the recognition he received commensurate with his skill. It’s not possible to determine whether or not Sullivan would have become more of a household name if he had stayed on the road or lived in New York City. But the diminished reputations of other musicians who did not follow that popular path says yes. His was an individual and brilliant voice. There are many great recordings and some live video of Sullivan and Rodney well worth checking out. After you do, you’ll wonder out loud, “Why didn’t I know about this guy?” I guarantee it.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.