William “Sonny” Criss (alto saxophonist) was born on October 23, 1927 in Memphis, Tennessee and passed away on November 19, 1977 in Los Angeles, California at the age of 50.
Sonny Criss moved to Los Angeles at the age of 15 where he remained much of his playing career. When he became professional after finishing school, he joined various bands visiting the West Coast and performed with such artists as Billy Eckstine and Johnny Otis. He also featured in Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concerts alongside stars such as Howard McGhee, Stan Getz and Wardell Gray. Criss had developed his own, concise, bluesy tone by this point, and though his basic style did not vary much, his ability on the instrument continued to develop.
His first major break came in 1947, on a number of jam sessions arranged by jazz impresario Norman Granz, working. In 1956 he signed to Imperial Records, based in New York, and recorded a series of “underground” classics namely, Jazz U.S.A , Go Man! and Sonny Criss Plays Cole Porter featuring pianist Sonny Clark.
Criss played with Buddy Rich’s quintet and recorded a fine session with Rich and Wynton Kelly live in Chicago “Sonny Criss at the Crossroads”, but his base in LA generally left him isolated. Resigned to relative obscurity in LA he opted for a move to Paris where he was given due recognition and made some dazzling records for local companies. He continued to play and record sporadically after returning from the continent, in particular a series of fine mid-60s albums for Prestige gave him critical acclaim.
Prestige signed him in 1965, and he continued to record well-acclaimed albums which were mainly rooted in hard bop traditions. The records produced during this period demonstrated his inventive play on the alto sax, and contributed to his growing national recognition. Although some of these albums marketed Criss as a survivor, Sonny’s Dream was more substantial, featuring charts by Horace Tapscott. Later sessions were recorded for Muse and Impulse.
He won the Downbeat award for “Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition” in 1968, an accolade perhaps typical of the man and artist. He then returned to tour in Europe in 1974 and appeared at Monterey with Dizzy Gillespie in 1977.
On November 19, 1977, Criss took his own life. For more than a decade after his death, the reasons for Criss’s suicide remained unclear. His playing toward the end was in peak form, and audiences were gradually reacquainting themselves with the pleasures of serious jazz such as Criss had to offer. The mystery of his motive was finally cleared up in 1988 when his mother, Lucy Criss revealed that her son was suffering from stomach cancer: “He kept still about it and worked for as long as he could.” One can easily imagine Criss remaining silent; he was an introspective man, one who carried both his disappointments and his joys quietly within himself. Criss rarely complained about whatever troubles he faced, medical or otherwise. Just as rarely did he dwell on his achievements or his hopes for the future. He let his music speak for him.