Leo Wright was born on December 14, 1933 in Wichita Falls, Texas and studied saxophone under the tutelage of his father. His first recording was made in 1958 with vibist Dave Pike and the next year played the Newport Festival with bassist Charles Mingus’ group. He followed this joining Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1959, remaining until 1962.
In addition to his sideman work, Wright established himself as a leader in the early ’60s, leading New York-based bands that included the likes of Ron Carter, Junior Mance, Charlie Persip and Kenny Burrell, among others. In 1960 he signed with Atlantic Records and recorded “Blues Shout” with Mance, Persip, Art Davis and Richard Williams.
After leaving Gillespie’s band, Leo went on to play and record with Lalo Schifrin, Jack McDuff, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Johnny Coles, Gloria Coleman and Jimmy Witherspoon. Moving to Europe he spent time working with George Gruntz, Carmell Jones and Lee Konitz in the group Alto Summit. Eventually he moved to Berlin playing in a studio band and freelancing.
Back in New York by 1978, Wright co-led a studio session Red Garland for Muse Records and then retired from music around 1979. He re-emerged in the mid-’80s and was playing gigs in Paris by 1986, working with Grachan Moncur, Kenny Drew Sr. and Nat Adderley. In the years before his death Leo would perform and record with his wife Elly Wright, making his final recording with her titled “Listen To My lea”.
Leo Wright, bop alto saxophonist and one of the finest flutists jazz has known, passed away on January 4, 1991 in Vienna, Austria.
Sheila Jordan was born Sheila Jeanette Dawson on November 18, 1928 in Detroit, Michigan but grew up in Summerhill, Pennsylvania. By the age of 28 she returned to Detroit and began playing piano and singing semi-professionally in jazz clubs. She worked a trio that composed lyrics to Charlie Parker’s arrangements, who influenced her greatly.
In 1951, she moved to New York and started studying harmony and music theory with Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus and married pianist Duke Jordan a year later. By the 60s she was gigging and doing session work in Greenwich Village and around town in various clubs; and in 1962 was discovered and recorded by George Russell on his album The Outer View. That led to her recording Portrait of Sheila in 1962 that was sold to Blue Note.
Over the next decade Sheila withdrew from music, supported herself as a legal secretary but by the mid 70s was working again with musicians like Don Heckman, Roswell Rudd, Lee Konitz and Steve Kuhn. She has had a notable career as a solo artist since then with her ability to improvise entire lyrics, although success has been limited.
Jordan has been an Artist In Residence teaching at City College, worked in an advertising agency, recorded for Steeplechase, ECM, Home Eastwind, Grapevine, Palo Alto, Blackhawk and Muse record labels. She has performed and recorded with George Gruntz, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley Harvie Swartz and Bob Moses among others and as a songwriter continues to work in both bebop and free jazz mediums.
Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet was born October 31, 1922 in Broussard, Louisiana to a Sioux mother and Creole father and bandleader. They moved to Houston, Texas when he was just an infant and grew up performing in his father’s band primarily on the alto saxophone.
At 15, Jacquet began playing with the Milton Larkin Orchestra, a Houston-area dance band. In 1939, he moved to Los Angeles, California where he met Nat King Cole and would sit in with the trio on occasion. In 1940, Cole introduced Jacquet to Lionel Hampton who hired him and asked him to switch to tenor.
In 1942, at age 19, Illinois soloed on the Hampton Orchestra’s recording of “Flying Home”, one of the very first times a honking tenor sax was heard on record. The song and solo became such a hit that every sax player who followed, notably Arnett Cobb, Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Forrest, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Sonny Rollins, memorized them.
Quitting the Hampton band in 1943 and joined Cab Calloway’s Orchestra appearing with the band in Lena Horne’s movie Stormy Weather. Returning to California in 1944 he started a small band with his brother Russell and a young Charles Mingus.
It was at this time that Jacquet appeared in the Academy Award-nominated short film Jammin’ the Blues with Lester Young. He also appeared at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert and in 1946 he moved to New York City and joined Count Basie, replacing Young.
Through the 1960s and ‘70s he continued to perform mostly in Europe in small groups through the 1960s and 1970s, then led the Illinois Jacquet Big Band from 1981 until his death. He was the first jazz musician to be an artist-in-residence at Harvard University in 1983, played “C-Jam Blues” with President Clinton on the White House lawn during Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993.
Illinois Jacquet, a skilled and melodic improviser, and a pioneer of the honking tenor saxophone that became the hallmark of early rock and roll, passed away of a heart attack in his home in Queens, New York on Thursday, July 22, 2004. He was 81 years of age.
Jimmy Heath was born James Edward Heath on October 25, 1926 and he originally played alto saxophone until influenced by Charlie Parker’s work with Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie, he switched to tenor.
He shared a short tenure with Miles Davis’s group in 1959, replacing John Coltrane, then also worked with Kenny Dorham and Gil Evans, and composed most of the 1956 Chet Baker/Art Pepper album Playboys. During the 1960s, he frequently worked with Milt Jackson and Art Farmer.
Jimmy recorded a string of impressive albums for Riverside and worked as a freelance sideman and arranger. He has recorded as a leader for Cobblestone, Muse, Xanadu, Landmark, and Verve. By 1975, he and his brothers formed The Heath Brothers with pianist Stanley Cowell.
As an educator, in the 1980s, he joined the faculty of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in the City University of New York. With the rank of Professor, he led the creation of the Jazz Program at Queens College along with teaching at Jazzmobile. He served on the Board of the Louis Armstrong Archives, and the restoration and management of the Louis and Lucille Armstrong Residence in Corona, Queens.
Tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger Jimmy Heath, nicknamed “Little Bird” is the brother of Percy and Albert and the father of James Mtume and is a 2003 recipient of the NEA Jazz Masters Award and honorary Doctorate in Human Letters.
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William “Sonny” Criss was born on October 23, 1927 in Memphis, Tennessee and at the age of 15 moved to Los Angeles. Developing a concise, bluesy tone he easily fit into the bands he drifted between such as Howard McGhee’s playing alongside Charlie Parker, Johnny Otis and Billy Eckstine.
As his ability continued to increase his first major break came in 1947 with Norman Granz, playing on a number of jam sessions. In 1956 he was signed to Imperial Records, recorded a number of underground classics like “Jazz U.S.A.”, “Go Man” and “Sonny Criss Play Cole Porter” that featured Sonny Clark on piano.
He would go on to record for Muse, Impulse and Prestige record labels, worked with Wynton Kelly, rooted himself in the hard bop tradition recording charts by Horace Tapscott and also several well-acclaimed albums like Sonny’s Dream.
Alto saxophonist Sonny Criss settled in Los Angeles and continued to perform and record but by 1977 had contracted stomach caner. Unable to bear the pain, he committed suicide by gunshot on November 19, 1977. after contracting stomach cancer earlier that year and unable to bear the painful condition he was experiencing.