Interview (Jazz) - Sonny Fortune

Alto saxophonist, flautist and jazz great Sonny Fortune came to my jazz history class last week and we talked about his illustrious career playing with some of the seminal architects of jazz music.  Among many of the jazz greats, Mr. Fortune has played with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, Mongo Santamaria, and McCoy Tyner.  

The director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble Mr. Fred Irby, brought Mr. Fortune to campus to play with the big band and he brought him by class to meet my students and to answer any questions they had about his life and musical experiences.  We had a good chat and I’ve transcribed some of our talk here.

Student:  What type of things did you have to overcome being a musician?

Mr. Fortune:  Well let’s see… perseverance…Things were a little easier years ago…the music industry was a little more wide open than it is today… so, actually for me it wasn’t that difficult.
I started out in Philadelphia working with the local bands and then just progressed until I decided to come to NY around 1967… and about a month after being there I started working with Elvin Jones and I was working with him the night the when Coltrane died.

Things just continued to happen from that point on.  I actually worked with Frank Foster’s big band for a while.  

Mr. Irby:  On the album “Minority” 

Mr. Fortune:  No this is before the album “Minority.”  They went into the Empire State building opposite Buddy Rich’s big band so it was two big bands and then shortly after that I started working with Mongo and things just continued…. I went from one setting to another.

Me:  What are some of your most memorable experiences?

Mr. Fortune:  Well…I enjoyed working with Mongo and I enjoyed working with McCoy… actually I enjoyed working with all of those cats but Elvin was the guy that probably I enjoyed the most and I missed the most.

Me:  Why is that?

Mr. Fortune:  Well I don’t know…you know, speaking of magic, I used to call him the magician.  I used to say to him…man you know what, I walked down some of the same streets you walked down, I never heard anything like this…where you get this from?  ‘Cause the thing that impressed me with Elvin I remember when I first saw him live with Coltrane ...he was original…I hadn’t heard anybody like him before or actually since that has been that original.

That was my most memorable experience and through him …went to Japan often, Europe often

Me:  Which country likes jazz the most?

Mr. Fortune:  I would say that there is probably a bigger appreciation in Europe… but…in terms of enthusiasm they’re all about the same… people react to good music and… they react to bad music as well, if the music is good the audience is usually appreciative.

Student:  Could you talk about some of the obstacles that you’ve faced playing the saxophone being a musician? 

Mr. Fortune:  Well…I didn’t find the obstacles in people I found the obstacles in the instrument…. Playing the instrument …I find the reed instrument the saxophone probably … well all of the …there’s just such an incredible combination that you have to put together to get the results that you want… I’ve wrestled with that for years and doing so playing other instruments, but the instrument that gave me the most trouble is the one I’m playing now, the alto.

Student:  When you were first starting did you ever think your career was going to be this big?

Mr. Fortune:  No, I started at a weird time I get married when I was 16 and I started the horn when I was 18.  By the time I was 19 I had a wife and two kids so I was busy trying to get it together and provide for a family and that was a hurdle… dealing with those circumstances it wasn’t easy.

Student:  How did the civil rights movement affect your music and playing during that time?

Mr. Fortune:  It affected me a lot it was one of the reasons that brought me to the music.  One of the things I appreciated about this music was that it kind of presented another kind of attitude at the time… you’re talking about for me the late 50s early 60s…For most of your age bracket jazz was very popular then… The guys that I was attracted to were people that I thought were addressing civil rights issues.

A couple of my compositions… matter of fact my first recording is called “Long Before Our Mothers Cry” and that had civil rights connotations attached to it.  It was a concept that I embraced from working with Mongo actually in Japan they just re-released that album this year again on CD.  So I more or less have been conscious then and continue to be.

Mr. Irby:  Were you with Mongo before “Watermelon Man” or after?

Mr. Fortune:  After … I was the “Cloud Nine” guy that was his next biggest hit after “Watermelon Man” and he featured me on that whole album … that was the big hit at the time, we worked everywhere.  At that time the music was kind of going through a transition from … I don’t know how to describe it other than it became more commercial and so … Mongo he paid well.

Me:  You talking about the 70s and 80s?

Mr. Fortune:  I worked with him in the late 60s.  I guess to keep that kind of pay he was paying out you had to more or less kind of go commercial, that is what prompted the “Cloud Nine” Album.  We did about 2 or 3 other albums that had that concept, which was primarily soul music put to a jazz interpretation.

"Cloud Nine" - Mongo Santamaria featuring Sonny Fortune

"Long Before Our Mothers Cried" - Sonny Fortune

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