‘Some of the singers I work for come on with big bands, so that gives me a chance to write for a big orchestra. Yes, I like that field. I like it all, and I’ve done all different kinds of work in the last couple of years… but not much jazz as it happens.’
And what about the pop field? Modern hippie groups, as opposed to popular singers?
“Well, I haven’t had any call for that so far. What’s my opinion of it? It doesn’t reach me too much. I like guys who can really play, and I don’t think that’s what they’re trying to do.
‘I don’t mean to knock these groups. I guess I don’t understand what they’re trying to do. It’s hard for me to judge what’s good and what’s bad in that music. They tell me some of it is good, but nearly all of it sounds the same to me. I did hear a rock and roll group I liked, though, and it turned out to be the Beach Boys. Very musical stuff, I thought.
‘Really it comes down to age, I suppose. If I was that age, maybe I’d be pt that when I was that age I was practising. In my playing that music, too. Except the young days I was trying hard to master an instrument.”
Zoot Sims’ attitude to that scene is almost non-commital.”No, I don’t even know about it, the music. But those kids and all those flowers and things. I think it’s better than Hell’s Angels, however they do it.”
As for Charles Lloyd, often accused of taking the flower path: ‘Yes, I like his music. It’s a little more advanced than ours. You know, he’s working on newer lines.
I said that I found Al and Zoot’s music fully satisfying. ‘Good, Zoot said, ‘It sounds kind of mainstream, doesn’t it?”
Discussing jazz trends, he expressed a tolerant view about avant-garde music. It’s something that has to happen. I mean, if you’re young you’re not going to play like Coleman Hawkins today. It’s got to change: it cannot stand still. Take Hawkins… he doesn’t stand still, either.
“Mind you, I’m not one of the changers. I know a couple of musicians I grew up with who changed their styles overnight almost, playing this free form. But they can’t do it. It isn’t like pressing a button. You can’t play it if it isn’t in you.’
What does Sims listen to for pleasure these days?
I still like all my old favourites but I don’t have to listen to them so Well, I much now. Mostly I go for guitar music. Oh, Segovia… that’s what I like to hear when I get home. I have to get away from jazz sometimes.
‘But you know what makes very relaxing listening? Old Billie Holiday records. There was something about those records… they used popular songs of the day, Billie and Teddy Wilson, but they picked the best of them.’
‘Before we started talking Zoot was practising flute, the one Harold McNair gave him. I wondered how the new craft was progressing, and whether he’d blown the instrument in public.
‘No, Zoot said firmly. I’m not ready for it. I don’t want to play it until I’ve learnt it properly. I still crack notes once in a while. You know, the embouchure is hard on a flute; you can’t leak any air’.
We used to go on the road and all but we stopped that. We’ll still occasionally take something that’s not too far from New York, but the Half Note sort of keeps us in town quite a bit. Well, four engagements a year there, and record dates and a few festivals. That takes care of it, and of course Al writes.”
What numbers shall we be hearing from them at Scott’s?
We’ll do the things we’ve recorded,’ says Zoot, ‘and a whole lot of other numbers we’ve added. I’m afraid we’re going to need an extensive rehearsal for some of them.
Today, few tenors can escape the warm wind of the bossa nova, and Sims has been bossa-ing in the studios. He says:
‘Al and I haven’t really been doing bossa novas, but I have an album out in the States and it’s doing nicely. Al wrote half the date, and Manny Albam did the other.
‘How do I feel about bossa nova? The melodies from Brazil, they’re beautiful. And I find the tunes easy to blow on. It’s really big in the States now; you know, it’s really caught on. And on the Continent… more than in this country.
‘Of course, they’re going to run it into the ground, ruin it, but that doesn’t take anything away from the original music.’
In 1967 when the Sims-Cohn group was making another return appearance at Ronnie’s, now situated in Soho’s Frith Street, I asked for joint reactions.
Zoot Sims and Al Cohn are regular visitors to Britain, but this doesn’t mean that their familiar duo sound is any less welcome than it was. The warmth, swing and sheer teams man ship of their current Scott Club offering are as endearing as ever they were, and it is no surprise to see the nation’s saxophonists trekking nightly towards Frith Street. (I’ve been in every night but one since they opened, Harry Klein told me.)
Zoot and Al, to coin a phrase, play good together. And that is something to pleasure the ears of club-goers who feel deprived just lately of the basic jazz sustenance.
‘It’s been a very happy visit this time,’ said Zoot. We’ve had good crowds pretty well every night and we’re both enjoying it. We haven’t played together a great deal recently and this has been a ball. I think I like to play now more than I ever did before.
Al Cohn confirmed the ball. “We generally have a good time. You know what a jazz performance is: it can’t be top all the while but most of the time we have a ball.
I suppose six months of the year would be the most we work together.Generally it’s a little less. That’s why we have fun, I guess, because we’re not playing together all the time. So we don’t get tired of ourselves.”
When the Sims-Cohn Quintet is laying off, Al devotes much of his time to composing and arranging.
‘Mostly I’ve been working with singers, and I’ve done the orchestrations for quite a few industrial shows lately. Paul Anka, Steve Lawrence, Tony Bennett and Bobby Vinton are some of the singers I’ve written for.
John Haley-as I sometimes addressed him, having read Leonard Feather’s dictionary-was the first American ‘single’ to be booked into Ronnie Scott’s fin 1961), and be became a regular and popular ‘resident’ at the club, both old place and new, as a solo attraction and in partnership with Al Cohn. When he wasn’t blowing with Cohn, Zoot was often talking about him. In fact, in conversations with me, he mentioned Al more than any other jazz musician. He also spoke of Basie, Ellington, Herman, Wilson and Holiday, Parker, Rollins, Lester Young, Goodman, Getz and Tubby Hayes with variable approval.
Zoot had his own sense of humour as well as his own sax style. One Saturday I came back from Belfast and realised it was Sims’ final night at Ronnie’s; so down I went to catch him. Backstage between sets I told him I’d just returned from the Belfast Festival. Who’d you see?” he asked. I said: Mostly Illinois Jacquet. He grinned. Illinois, he said. I can hear him from here.
At the close of his first season at Ronnie’s, in November of ’61, Zoot left.Britain for Paris. Before he went, I asked for his afterthoughts on the London trip. This, from the Melody Maker of 2 December, captures the novel nature of these musical exchanges at that period.
Zoot Sims is not a loquacious man; when he said that what he really wanted to say was how friendly everyone here had been, he clearly meant it and more.
‘To tell you how I feel about this visit. I’d have to think about it and write you a letter, he explained.
And later: “Everyone is concerned about jazz over here about what you’re playing and everything, and that’s all right. But what has really impressed me about England is the people themselves, as people. I can’t speak about the British in general, but in our field, those I’ve met have all been fine and very friendly. To me, that’s more important than the other thing, though, of course, I’m delighted if my playing has been enjoyed.’
He broke off after this marathon speech and took a small mouthful of tomato juice-an unusual choice for John Haley Sims (My family gave all of us the wrong names”) and one probably dictated by the previous night’s celebrations. After an eventful farewell date at the Marquee where he played a set with Ronnie Scott’s rhythm section and two final numbers with Johnny Dankworth’s orchestra Zoot had been given a send-off party at the Scott Club. There, besides pushing the boat out, Ronnie Scott and Pete King presented Sims with a silver brandy flask. Other musicians gave him a selection of ‘Goon’ records. Naturally, all this affected him. Zoot told me that he preferred t work to concerts in any event, but this particular club had been nearly everything he could ask for.
I was comfortable there,” he said. “I was here before, as you know, with a concert package, but this is a completely different experience,’ he went on. ‘I don’t enjoy playing concerts too much. And that show I didn’t enjoy at all. So there’s no comparison between my two visits.
The thing about Ronnie’s club is that it reminds me of the Half Note. The atmosphere is warm; it’s an easy-going place; musicians like it; it has the same kind of management. I feel there’s a connection between the clubs already. I’ve
played them both, and Tubby Hayes has been over and made it at the Half Note. You know, Tubby-he did it just like that….”
Zoot snapped a finger and thumb to demonstrate the decisive way in which Hayes won over the American patrons. And now,” he said, “I’d like to see Ronnie have a try there..
‘How would he go over? That depends on the amount of confidence he feels. I’ll tell you this: if he decides to go, everybody there will help all they can to see that it works out all right.
‘I really feel this about the two clubs. Both of them get going; there’s good guys work at both, and if there’s some way of doing a regular exchange between them, then it should be done. It can only be to everyone’s benefit. I mean, if the musicians can play and are happy there… what else? So let’s make a big thing of it. I’d like to see this club exchange publicised, like to see it grow.”
When Sims has finished his three weeks or so in Paris (I’ll be at the Blue Note probably) he hopes to revisit London before returning home.
‘I plan on looking in for a few days,’ he says. I open at the Half Note on Boxing Day with Al Cohn and the quintet. I’d love to come back here with Al and work the Scott club. I think it could work out. We have a whole book of tunes and I’m sure Al is well liked in Britain.’
So Zoot Sims takes away a very favourable impression of us. But not more favourable than the one he leaves behind. Ronnie Scott summed up the situation: ‘My God!’ he said. “What an anticlimax this week’s going to be.”
One year later Sims was back in Ronnie’s and about to be reunited, for his second week, with sidekick Cohn (they first crossed axes early in 1948). Zoot spoke more about Al than himself for the Melody Maker of 8 December 1962.
‘Well, I hope we’ll kill ’em.’ The hope was expressed I ZootSims, hoping as much on Al Cohn’s behalf as on his own. Sims has already been resident for a week at Ronnie Scott’s club, and he hasn’t needed help to keep the place crammed.
‘I’m glad to be back in Ronnie’s myself, he said, ‘but I’m especially pleased about being joined by Al on Friday. It’s his first time here, and I think you will enjoy him.
‘Yes, he’ll enjoy it, too. He always enjoys playing, and on the social side… he has so many relatives here.
As for me, I feel Al and I have something more to say musically when we’re together. We have a library, and a lot of things worked out. You know, it’s easier with Al because we have a band. There’s more we can do. When I’m here alone, I’m up there thinking of tunes to play, and making things up. Yes, I know about improvisation and all that, and I like it. But I know so many tunes I can’t think of when I’m on the stage.
‘Al and I have the arrangements, and we’ve played together a lot since-oh,I guess it was around ’57. We met in 1948 in Woody Herman’s band, of course, but it was in ’57 we made a couple of record dates and just took it from there.