Zoot Sims: A Saxophonist’s Saxophonist

Zoot Sims: A Saxophonist’s Saxophonist

Written by Anne E. Johnson

He had the coolest name to go with his cool sound. Zoot Sims was a saxophonist’s saxophonist, a musician everybody wanted to work with because he made everything he played sound better.

A native of California, John Haley Sims was born into vaudeville in 1925. He liked to show off the tap steps his hoofer dad had taught him. When he was a kid, everybody in the house played an instrument – his older brother, Ray Sims, had a solid career as a big band trombonist – so Zoot took up the only one that no one else was using, the curved clarinet, which was so similar to a saxophone that it was sometimes called a saxonette. Listening to Ray’s records got him hooked on jazz.

His biggest inspirations were Ben Webster and Lester Young (I wrote about Young in Issue 161), and he absorbed them like a musical sponge. By the time he was 15, he knew jazz would be his life, so he dropped out of school and started touring, first with Bobby Sherwood’s big band, and then with Ken Baker’s. Playing mostly tenor but sometimes alto, he caught the attention of Benny Goodman, who invited him to join his ensemble in 1943. A few years later, he was snatched up by Woody Herman, and that’s when his career really took off.

Herman’s band already had three terrific sax players: Stan Getz, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff. When Sims showed up, they became a quartet to be reckoned with, calling themselves the Four Brothers. As an ensemble within the larger band, their intense polyphonic sound really helped set the Herman group apart. The foursome also made albums on their own.

The next obvious move for an up-and-coming jazz musician was to try his luck in New York, which Sims did in the early 1950s. He soon joined the Stan Kenton band but squirmed under Kenton’s dictatorial leadership and his unforgivingly tight swing band arrangements. So back Sims went to California, where Gerry Mulligan found him painting houses to make ends meet and offered him a more suitable job in his own ensemble. They worked together for a decade. Meanwhile, Sims made another important connection, fellow tenor sax player Al Cohn. The recordings they made together are legendary.

Sims died in 1985 at the age of 59, leaving behind a legacy of swing-influenced improvisation that kept swing not only alive but relevant and cutting-edge long after the jazz mainstream had decided it was obsolete.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Zoot Sims.

  1. Track: “Howdy Podner”
    Album: Zoot Sims in Hollywood
    Label: New Jazz
    Year: 1954

This quintet comprised Sims plus Ralph Penna on bass, Jimmy Pratt on drums, Kenny Drew on piano, and Stu Williamson on trumpet and valve trombone.

Two of the album’s four tracks, including “Howdy Podner,” were by tenor saxophonist Bill Holman. It’s a jumping swing track with a taut beat and a bebop edge. Sims’ solo, relaxing the feel after Williamson’s turn beforehand, starts at 1:34. It’s a good example of how Sims updated swing, making it a natural bridge into modern jazz.


  1. Track: “Morning Fun”
    Album: Whooeeee
    Label: Storyville
    Year: 1956

This group called itself the Zoot Sims-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet. Sims and valve trombonist Brookmeyer were joined by Hank Jones on piano, Bill Crow on bass, and Jo Jones on drums – truly an ensemble of masters.

Sims didn’t do a lot of composing, especially in this early period, which makes “Morning Fun” an interesting rarity. He played this tune a lot over the years. The opening illustrates how Sims seemed to relate his sound to that of the valve trombone, which has a similar pitch range to a tenor sax but a darker, more rounded timbre, making it an ideal companion for unison playing.


  1. Track: “Ten Years Later”
    Album: The Four Brothers…Together Again!
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1957

The Jimmy Guiffre tune “The Four Brothers,” which the saxophone section of Woody Herman’s band was named after, turned 10 years old when this album was made. Sims, Getz, Steward, and Chaloff had all moved on to other ensembles, so it’s a treat that they managed to reconvene for this record, supported by a gifted rhythm section.

Al Cohn wrote “Ten Years Later,” which recaptures the tight harmonies and musical camaraderie from the early days of these saxophonists’ careers. Producer Bob Rolontz deserves a nod for his fine work clarifying and distinguishing all these close-knit reeds.


  1. Track: “Doggin’ Around”
    Album: Down Home
    Label: Bethlehem Records
    Year: 1960

It’s hard to decide whether the playing of Sims or of pianist Dave McKenna is the true star of this record. The two of them are on fire.

Even as he conquered bebop and cool jazz, Sims never lost his knack for the jump-blues energy that had been so popular when he started in the 1940s. Composed by Edgar Battle, “Doggin’ Around” lets Sims recapture that spirit, as does this whole album of swing-era standards.


  1. Track: “Over the Rainbow”
    Album: Waiting Game
    Label: Impulse!
    Year: 1966

The influence of Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan comes to bear in this album’s arrangements, leaning toward to the pop side of Latin jazz with a sometimes-alarming helping of strings. But more importantly, their influence is felt in Sims’ playing.

Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” might seem like a surprising choice. Don’t let the sentimentality of the first chorus drive you away. Sims turns this into a bossa nova, and it’s well worth sticking around for the wistful improvisation starting on the second chorus at 2:30.

  1. Track: “Mama Flossie”
    Album: Body and Soul
    Label: Muse
    Year: 1973

Body and Soul is a duet album with Al Cohn. By 1973 they had been friends and collaborators for about 20 years and could slip their minds and instruments into a single groove as if they had melded into one musician.

Cohn, a prolific composer, wrote “Mama Flossie.” The exactness of their unison playing on the refrain is breathtaking. When they exchange solos, listen for Cohn’s more daring syncopation and Sims’ rich tone and conversational phrasing. Mel Lewis is the drummer turning what could have been straightforward triple time into an intricate polyrhythm.


  1. Track: “Main Stem”
    Album: Hawthorne Nights
    Label: Fantasy
    Year: 1976

Bill Holman wrote the arrangements and conducted the 10-piece band on Hawthorne Nights. Sims is one of four saxophonists, giving this group a sound reminiscent of his Woody Herman days.

“Main Stem” is one of two Ellington tunes on the collection. In this lively version, just this side of frantic, the saxophones team up against trumpeters Oscar Brashear and Snooky Young.

  1. Track: “The Fish Horn”
    Album: I Wish I Were Twins
    Label: Decca/Fantasy
    Year: 1981

I Wish I Were Twins is a duet album with pianist Jimmy Rowles, another of Sims’ longtime and frequent collaborators. Rowles earned his reputation as a top-notch accompanist because of his willingness to truly listen to his collaborators and bend with their creative choices.

During the last decade or so of his career, Sims was not only composing more, but also spending more time playing soprano sax. He wrote “The Fish Horn” as a vehicle for that instrument. Akira Tana plays drums and Frank Tate is on bass.

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