Ira Sullivan on Still Playing Jazz at 82: "Real Musicians, We Don't Quit Working"
Photo by Howard A. Gitelson
Ira Sullivan is a true jazz legend. He goes back so far that he was snapping fingers with the cool cats in Chicago for the birth of Bebop.
By the time he turned 18, he was playing trumpet, sax, flute, and flugelhorn alongside some of the best in the business. You may also know him from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Here's what Ira has to say about his new band, Nica de Koenigswarter, and Charlie Parker.
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Crossfade: So you're 82 and still playing shows?
Ira Sullivan: Real musicians, we don't quit working. Every gig is a new start, a new chance to be creative.
You're from Chicago. How'd you end up in Miami?
I came down for a visit and just stayed. I raised my family here, and I built my own career.
Did you ever play the historic Hampton House in Brownsville?
Yeah. They had some great jazz musicians there, and a lot of talent to draw from locally.
But the main guy I played with was a drummer from Chicago who came down here named Guy Viveros.
Where'd you play at?
On 79th Street, there was a couple clubs, like Jillie's. That's when Larry King was down here on WIOD. We started up a group, the Guy Viveros Quartet, and we started playin' together.
And let me tell you somethin' about Guy: One night, Johnny Carson had Buddy Rich on his show and said to him, "Every drummer in the world thinks you're the greatest, Buddy, who do you like?" And Buddy Rich said, "Well, there's this skinny kid in Chicago named Guy Viveros who I think is just great!" Nobody'd ever heard of him on TV, but the switchboard in Chicago lit up like a Christmas tree from all the musicians. Guy was one of the greatest drummers that anybody ever heard. He sucessfully avoided success all his life.
You've played with some of the greatest musicians ever, haven't you?
I got to play with Charlie "Bird" Parker in Chicago for a week. I was the extra added attraction with Roy Eldridge.
What about in Miami?
I worked seven years at the Rancher Motel Lounge. We had guests like Bill Cosby, and Muhammad Ali. Once, Stevie Wonder came up and sat in with me at 17 years old and played harmonica. He was just a young kid, very nice young man. And Judy Garland's daughter, she was a star too, showed up. This was the kind of customers down here. So many came down.
What about recording-wise?
Well, Henry Stone was the man here dealin' records. And I recorded an LP for Atlantic Records at Criteria Studios. They knew me from playin' in the club. Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd came in one day, heard me, and that was that. See, after bein' someplace for seven years, people get to know you, if you're good. Liza Minelli, Ali, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson came to see us. Nina Simone all discovered me there
What's the place again?
The Rancher Motel Lounge on 125th and Dixie Highway in North Miami. Right down the street from Pumperniks Restaurant. That's where we took all our breaks.
So you built a big name up for yourself here.
If anybody asked, "Hey, any jazz in town?" Somebody would tell em', "Go see Ira Sullivan at the Rancher." I was six nights a week there.
What is jazz?
It's creative music. It's like an artist when they sit down to paint, not something somebody else painted, it's their own, that's the best thing I can tell you. It's creating your own, making up your own.
Where is it from?
Jazz is America's art form. Jazz was created in America. It has influences from Africa, Spain, Cuba, but it was formed in America. And all over the world, they're fanatic about it.
You ever play with Charles Mingus?
Yeah. So, we're playing with Guy at this club. And around midnight, he shows up with tux on. And with him, there's this gentleman with a bass. We started playing and then I said, "Who is this guy?" He says, "I'll tell ya later." We get to the end of the set and he says, "Hey, folks, this is Charles Mingus." Wonderful man, wonderful player.
You ever meet that lady who hung out with all the musicians? What's her name?
Yeah. Nica de Koenigswarter was a friend of Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. I used to hang out at her apartment when I was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
She was a nice, intelligent woman. It was just like being at someone's house who you knew, and then Charlie Parker would come in, and Monk would come in, all the guys. Art Blakey knew her well.
She was a nice, wonderful person. She loved jazz and she loved musicians. Horace Silver the jazz pianist wrote "Nica's Dream" for her. Her name was Nica de Koenigswarter.
You sure have played with a lot of people.
By virtue of growing up in Chicago. I played with every jazz musician you can name.
The greatest rhythm sections. Max Roach. Elvin Jones, I did one of his first record dates. I never had to go search for jazz. I was surrounded by it. I played with Herbie Hancock when he was 18 years old.
Why'd you leave Chicago again?
I wanted to raise my family, so they had someone who was home. The musicians I met didn't get to be with their families. Stan Getz hardly knew his son. It was like they were a couple of friends. He was out getting famous
Who is in your band now?
Brian Murphy on the piano, from Toronto, Canada. A good piano player and composer and arranger. He arranged a whole album of Latin jazz for Tito Puente. Bebop Latin Jazz, talented fellow.
Jamie Ousley on bass, contra bass, acoustic bass...his album, I forget the name of it won first place last year in the jazz category. Up in the first place echelon.
John Yarling on drums. He's a fellow who has played with everybody. And he was a drummer early on in IKO IKO and has played with a lot of biggies.
Marc Berner on flute. He plays C flute, alto flute, bass flute, and contra bass flute, which is taller than he is.
Ira Sullivan. Wednesday, January 15. Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. The concert begins at 12:15 p.m. and admission is free. Visit jazzinthegables.org.
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