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Saxophone Summit
Saxophone Summit  Biography
 GMN Recordings

Alto greats Sonny Fortune, Gary Bartz and Bud Shank are joined by tenor legend Jimmy Heath and a sparkling rhythm section for a great performance at this year's North Sea Jazz Festival.

Jimmy Heath

Born in Philadelphia on October 25, 1926, saxophonist Jimmy Heath comes from two important Jazz families, the one that produced his brothers, bassist Percy and drummer Al ("Tootie") - and the somewhat larger family of great Philadelphia saxophonists like John Coltrane, Sonny Fortune, Benny Golson, Bill Barron and so many more.

Growing up in a musical household where all the children were encouraged to pursue music, Jimmy took up the alto saxophone at the relatively late age of fourteen, forming his first band while still in his teens. Like many young reedmen of that era, he was enamored with Charlie Parker, preferring his more modern stylings over the classic sound of greats like Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.

In 1947, Jimmy moved to New York to join the band of trumpeter Howard McGhee, switching to the tenor sax following the tradition of the bop-style tenor of Dexter Gordon. Two years later he began a four year stint with his idol, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, alongside Coltrane. Here he not only was featured as a player, but also as an arranger and composer.

In 1955, following the unfortunate malaise that plagued so many of the post-Parker musicians, Jimmy’s narcotics problem led to his incarceration for nearly four years, an outrageous reality of the moral hypocrisy that further victimized such great artists as Gene Ammons and Tadd Dameron.

Upon his release in 1969, Heath briefly played with Miles Davis and began to receive serious recognition. His composition, 'Gingerbread Boy,' stayed in Miles’ repertory for many years and is now a Jazz classic. Forming his own group that same year, Heath made a series of fine recordings for Riverside during the ‘60s, establishing himself as one of Jazz’ top saxophonists and composers.

In 1975 he premiered his 'Afro-American Suite of Evolution,' commissioned by Jazzmobile, for which he also taught for ten years. That same year he formed the Heath Brothers with Al and Percy, performing together off and on for many years. In 1988, he began a ten-year tenure teaching at the Aaron Copland School of Music at New York’s’ Queens College. Overcoming a bout with cancer, Jimmy continues to perform all over the world with his own groups, most recently including his protégé, altoist Antonio Hart.

Bud Shank

For more than fifty years, saxophonist/flautist/composer/arranger Bud Shank has exemplified the West coast style of Jazz. Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1926, Shank first came to prominence in the late ‘40s in the big bands of Stan Kenton and Charlie Barnet. Settling in California shortly thereafter, he began long tenures with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars and trumpeter Shorty Rogers.

Strongly influenced by altoist Art Pepper, Shank’s cool, but swinging and distinctive sound placed him in a variety of highly diverse settings, performing with Miles Davis, among others. A pioneer of Latin American and Jazz fusion, his mid-fifties group with renowned Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida pre-dated the classic Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd 'Jazz Samba' recording (widely considered a seminal work of this genre) by nearly a decade.

Always able to successfully cross the barriers between commercial and classic Jazz, Shank’s World Pacific and Pacific Jazz recordings during the ‘60s were enormously popular, with two of them, 'California Dreamin' and 'Michelle' rising high on the charts.

In the 1970s, Shank formed the renowned L.A. Four, along with Almeida, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The group toured extensively throughout the world well into the ‘80s. Continuing to work in the Latin and Chamber Jazz modes, Shank has also performed as special guest with orchestras as varied as the Royal Philharmonic, the New American Orchestra and Duke Ellington’s.

During the '80s, Shank continued to explore new settings, collaborating with legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar, koto player Kimio Eto and exploring the Western Classical realm of Bach, Ravel, Debussy, Faure and Scriabin.

Today Shank, a four-time winner of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ prestigious Most Valuable Player award, juggles a busy career touring, composing, arranging and teaching.

Sonny Fortune

The great saxophonist/flautist/composer/leader Sonny Fortune is recognized by musicians as one of the greatest saxophonists in Jazz. Unfortunately, the public has not caught on, making him the most underrated musician since the incredible Booker Ervin. Like Ervin, Sonny, whose primary horn is the alto, has a huge sound, virtuoso technique, unbridled passion and a magnificent blues-based lyricism at any and all tempos.

Another in the line of great Philadelphia saxophonists, Fortune came to Jazz fairly late, taking up the saxophone in 1957 at the age of eighteen.

Previously, his only musical experience was street corner Doo-wop, for which his deep, mellifluous voice was ideal. Originally a disciple of Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker, Sonny was somewhat mystified by John Coltrane. Soon, though, Trane became his most profound influence and a guiding force as they became close friends. It was the Great Man who connected Sonny with the amazing Elvin Jones, a relationship that has continued off and on for nearly 35 years. Sonny, who was slated to join Trane’s group, played one of his first gigs with Elvin on the night Trane left us.

After playing with Mongo Santamaria for 2 ½ years, Sonny moved to L.A. briefly in 1970, returning to New York seven months later to begin a 2 ½ year stint with another member of Trane’s peerless Quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner. It was during these years, playing alto, soprano and flute, that Sonny began to achieve his reputation as a master improviser and saxophone innovator. After leaving McCoy, Fortune worked with Buddy Rich and his own ensemble before joining the group of another Jazz icon, Miles Davis, performing on some of the incomparable trumpeter’s most adventurous electric recordings, like 'Agartha,' 'Pangaea' and 'Get Up With It.'

Although Sonny continued to work as a sideman with Elvin and Nat Adderley, his primary focus has been on his own groups, usually a quartet or quintet. His late ‘70s recordings on the short-lived A&M Horizon label are classics. A three-record stay at Atlantic Records in the early '80s found Fortune in a fusion setting that damaged his career as a hardcore Jazz artist and he was unrecorded and largely ignored for more than ten years, until he signed with Blue Note in 1994, producing three spectacular albums - 'Four In One' (a Monk tribute), 'A Better Understanding,' and the incredible 'From Now On.' Sonny was also profiled on CBS’ 'Sunday Morning' and '48 Hours' and was a featured soundtrack soloist in the Jack Nicholson film 'The Crossing Guard.'

His most recent endeavor for Shanachie Records is 1999’s 'In the Spirit of John Coltrane,' a work commissioned by Meet The Composer and the Rockefeller Foundation for The Coltrane Project of Philadelphia, for which Sonny served as musical director. And rightly so as Sonny continues to tour with his own group, keeping alive the Coltrane tradition of commitment, integrity, passion, exploration and spiritual energy unmatched by any other musician on today’s scene.

Gary Bartz

Grammy Award winning jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz first came to New York in 1958 to attend the Juilliard Conservatory of Music. Just 17 years old, Gary couldn't wait to come to the city to play and learn. "It was a very good time for the music in New York, at the end of what had been the be-bop era," says Bartz. "Charlie Parker had passed away three years previously but Miles' group was in its heyday, Monk was down at the Five Spot, and Ornette Coleman was just coming to town. Things were fresh." Back then, Gary could regularly be found drinking Cokes in the all ages "peanut gallery" of Birdland, enjoying a marathon bill of performers. "If I didn't have money to get in, I'd help somebody carry a drum and sneak in," laughs Bartz. "I learned that early on."

Circa mid-'60s, the alto saxophonist - still in his early 20s - began performing throughout the city with the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln Group and quickly established himself as the most promising alto voice since Cannonball Adderley. "In those days, we used to go by people's lofts and stay for weeks, just working on music," says Gary. "Folks would all chip in and buy food, and one of us would cook. But there was always music, because people were dropping by at all hours. We didn't even think about it; that's just what we did. We were very unselfish about what we were writing because, after all, music doesn't belong to any one person. It belongs to the people, to everybody."

With the splash of his New York debut solidly behind him, Bartz soon joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. According to the story, Gary's parents owned a club in Baltimore, the North End Lounge. When his father hired Blakey for a gig, Gary grabbed the opportunity to fill a sax player vacancy in the band. After his performance that night, the young Bartz was officially hired to join the Jazz Messengers; in 1965, he would make his recording debut on Blakey's 'Soulfinger' album.

From 1962-64, Gary joined Charles Mingus' Workshop and began practicing regularly with fellow members of the horn section, including Eric Dolphy. In 1968, Bartz began an association with McCoy Tyner, which included participating in Tyner's classic 'Expansions' and 'Extensions' albums. Work with McCoy proved especially significant for Bartz because of the bandleader's strong connection to John Coltrane — who Gary succinctly cites as a profound influence. Gary continues to perform and record with McCoy to this day.

During his first two years with Tyner, Gary was also touring with Max Roach and taking some time out to record on Max's Atlantic Records release, 'Members Don't Get Weary.' "With Max, there was that bond with Charlie Parker," declares Bartz. "Charlie Parker is why I play the alto saxophone."

Bartz received a call from Miles Davis in 1970; work with the legendary horn player marked Gary's first experience playing electric music. It also reaffirmed his yen for an even stronger connection to Coltrane.

In addition to working with Miles in the early '70s - including playing the historic Isle of Wight Festival in August, 1970 - Bartz was busy fronting his own NTU Troop ensemble. The group got its name from the Bantu language: NTU means unity in all things, time and space, living and dead, seen and unseen.

Outside the Troop, Bartz had been recording as a group leader since 1968, and continued to do so throughout the '70s, during which time he released such acclaimed albums as, 'Another Earth,' 'Home,' 'Music Is My Sanctuary,' and 'Love Affair.' By the late '70s, he was doing studio work in Los Angeles with Norman Connors and Phyllis Hyman. In 1988, after a nine-year break between solo releases, Bartz began recording what music columnist Gene Kalbacher described as "vital ear-opening sides," on such albums as 'Monsoon,' 'West 42nd Street,' 'There Goes The Neighborhood,' and 'Shadows.'

Bartz followed those impressive works in 1995 with the release of his debut Atlantic album 'The Red And Orange Poems,' a self-described musical mystery novel and just one of Gary's brilliantly conceived concept albums. Back when Bartz masterminded the much-touted 'I've Known Rivers' album, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, his concepts would be twenty years ahead of those held by some of today's Jazz/hip hop and acid Jazz combos.

So it continues with 'The Blues Chronicles: Tales Of Life.' A testimonial to a steadfast belief in the power of music to soothe, challenge, spark a crowd to full freak, or move one person to think. It adds up to a shoe box full of musical snapshots from a life lived and played with passion and stirred - with both joy and sadness - by the blues.

Gary's latest release, 'Live At The Jazz Standard, Vol. 1' - Soulstice, is the first of a series of recordings documenting his legendary, non-stop style, live performances. This initial release on his own OYO label bares testimony to Gary's continuing growth as a composer, group leader, and master of both the alto and soprano saxophones. A quartet session recorded in 1998, it will be followed by 'Live At The Jazz Standard, Vol. 2,' scheduled for late Spring 2000 release, which features Gary's exciting Sextet. Scheduled for release this year, 'Soprano Stories' will find Gary exclusively performing on the soprano saxophone in a studio quartet setting. With over 30 recordings as a leader (as well as more than 100 recordings as a guest artist with others), Gary Bartz has taken his rightful place in the pantheon of Jazz greats.

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