Category Archives: Advent Calendar

Dan’s Advent Saxophone Calendar #18 – Sonny Stitt

Sonny Stitt was born in 1924 into a musical family.  His biological father was a baritone singer and music professor and his mother was a piano teacher.

Sonny was given up for adoption in 1924 by his father. No one seems to know why Sonny was
given away, but the child was adopted by the Stitt family, who raised him in Saginaw. He later began calling himself “Sonny”. While in high school in Saginaw, Stitt played in the Len Francke Band, a local popular swing band.

In 1943, Stitt first met Charlie Parker, and as he often later recalled, the two men found that their styles had an extraordinary similarity that was partly coincidental and not merely due to Stitt’s emulation. Parker is alleged to have remarked, “Well, I’ll be damned, you sound just like me”, to which Stitt responded: “Well, I can’t help the way I sound. It’s the only way I know how to play.” Kenny Clarke remarked of Stitt’s approach: “Even if there had not been a Bird, there would have been a Sonny Stitt”.

Sitt played Alto Sax alongside Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons in Billy Eckstien’s Big Band, but spent time in prison for selling drugs at the end of the 1940’s. Stitt switched to tenor saxophone as the comparisons to Charlie Parker started to affect him.  His command of the Bebop language on both tenor and alto could only be said to be second to Parker, and on tenor he, (in my opinion) sounds better than the handful of recordings we have of Bird dabbling on the larger saxophone!

In 1957, Stitt recorded Sonny Side Up with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, it is still considered one of the finest ‘two tenor’ battle recordings out there.  Stitt replaced Coltrane in Miles Davis’ band in 1960.  Stitt was not a good fit.  Some stories are that he and Miles didn’t see eye to eye musically, others say Stitt’s drinking annoyed Miles so much that he fired him.

Stitt recorded a number of memorable records with his friend and fellow saxophonist Gene Ammons, interrupted by Ammons’ own imprisonment for narcotics possession. The records recorded by these two saxophonists are regarded by many as some of both Ammons and Stitt’s best work, thus the Ammons/Stitt partnership went down in posterity as one of the best duelling partnerships in jazz, alongside Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and Johnny Griffin with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Stitt would venture into soul jazz, and he recorded with fellow tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin in 1964 on the Soul People album. Stitt also recorded with Duke Ellington alumnus Paul Gonsalves in 1963 for Impulse! on the Salt And Pepper album in 1963. Around that time he also appeared regularly at Ronnie Scott’sin London, a live 1964 encounter with Ronnie Scott, The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, eventually surfaced, and another in 1966 with resident guitarist Ernest Ranglin and British tenor saxophonist Dick Morrissey.

Stitt joined the all-star group Giants of Jazz (which also featured Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kai Winding and bassist Al McKibbon) and made albums for Atlantic, Concord and Emarcy. His last recordings were made in Japan. A rejuvenated Stitt also toured with Red Holloway in the late 1970s, who noted a marked improvement in his playing. In 1982, Stitt suffered a heart attack, and he died on July 22 in Washington, D.C..

Dan’s Advent Saxophone Calendar #17 – Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis has had the biggest influence on my life outside of my family. A generous, inspiring musician he is someone who displays incredible integrity both on and off the bandstand.

Born in Louisiana in 1960, Branford is the eldest son of the Marsalis family, one of the foremost musical families in America. His father, Ellis Marsalis is one of the most accomplished Modern Jazz pianists in New Orleans, and one of the most respected jazz educators in America.

Whilst younger brother Wynton was the star of the 1980’s jazz scene, Branford has carved out his own illustrious career, starting with Art Blakey in the early 80s, playing some of the best pop saxophone ever recorded with Sting and The Grateful Dead and then leading one of the most hardworking jazz quartets of the past twenty years.

Initially starting out on Clarinet, (learning from New Orleans master, Alvin Baptise,) Branford was not a jazz fan as a teenager, preferring the funk and soul music of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and even Elton John! He attended the Berklee College of Music and joined Art Blakey’s band after younger brother Wynton in the early 80s. World Tours with Blakey, Herbie Hancock and others led to Wynton creating his own band, which Branford left in 1985 to join Sting’s first band after the Police.

After spells composing film music, (Mo Better Blues & The Russia House) Branford was the bandleader on the ‘Tonight Show’ before heading back into jazz in the late 90s, firstly with fellow Sting band mate, Kenny Kirkland on piano, then after Kenny’s untimely death, Joey Calderazzo took over on piano.  Branford kept the same band together for over twelve years and produced some of the best modern, acoustic jazz of the late 20th and early 21st century.

An outspoken critic of many of the current jazz education programs, Branford is an incredible musician and inspiring teacher, who is worth listening to with or without a saxophone in his mouth!

Dan’s Advent Saxophone Calendar #16 – Melissa Aldana

Melissa Aldana is the 16th person on our saxophone advent calendar and the youngest saxophonists on the list.

Melissa was born in Chile in 1988, starting on the Alto Sax aged just six! She moved onto the Tenor Sax in her teens after hearing the sound of Sonny Rollins, (her first tenor was her grandfather’s Selmer Mark VI.)

Destined to be one of the most important jazz saxophonists of the 21st Century, start listening to Melissa today!



Dan’s Advent Saxophone Calendar #15 – Mark Turner

Mark Turner is one of the most accomplished and copied tenor saxophonists on the scene today.

A student of the Warne Marsh school, Mark was born in Ohio, but raised in Southern California.  He started learning the Clarinet in Primary School and moved onto the Alto Saxophone in his teens.  Turner studied at California State University, before the Berklee College of Music, where he graduated in 1990.


Dan’s Advent Saxophone Calendar #14 – Jan Garbarek

Jan Garbarek has one of the most distinctive voices on the saxophone.

Born in Norway in 1947, Garbarek has become the ‘voice’ of the ECM label. His trademark sharp-edged, bright tone coupled with his use of minimalism has made him popular with fans and musicians alike.

I first became aware Garbarek in the 90’s through his work with the Hilliard Ensemble, but it was my college sax tutor Mike Haughton who really inspired me to check out more Garbarek.  I’ve used Garbarek as an inspiration for work at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Ely Cathedral, (see below for the soundcloud clips.)

Dan’s Advent Saxophone Calendar #13 – Phil Woods

Phil Woods is our Advent Calendar number 13 and he was one of the finest Alto Players of the late 20th and early 21st Century.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Woods began playing the saxophone at the age of 12, and was at first an admirer of Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. He had a few private lessons in his mid-teens with the pianist Lennie Tristano, and then attended the Manhattan School of Music and then Julliard, (where he studied Clarinet, not saxophone!)

He got his big break playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in the 1950’s and then went on to make a number of small band recordings in the late 50’s early 1960’s.  A move to Paris with Chan Richardson, (Charlie Parker’s former common law wife) led to a more experimental Avant Garde output.  He returned to New York in the late 70s, taking on more commercial work, including the incredible sax solo on Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

A fine teacher, Woods put his efforts into teaching jazz in the 80s and 90s and became increasingly bestowed with honours for his contribution to music.

Phil Woods died aged 84 on 29th September 2015.