Sonny Fortune, who played alto saxophone like an erupting volcano, with a flute sound reminiscent of a mysterious night covered by a full moon, died Oct. 25, in New York City at St. Luke’s Hospital. He was 79.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said his longtime booking agent, Reggie Marshall. Fortune had been in the hospital since suffering a series of strokes in September.
During his six decades as a saxophonist and composer, Fortune became one of the most influential musicians in jazz. At the same time, he was one of the most underrated musicians, never receiving his just due as a significant contributor to the music of jazz.
Although he was popular internationally, his gigs in New York City mainly evolved around the Smoke Jazz & Supper Club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His final gig as a bandleader was at Smoke with his regular working band: pianist Michael Cochrane, bassist Calvin Hill and his longtime drummer Steve Johns, who joined the band in 1999. “I was so honored he liked what I did and was very proud that he believed in me,” said Johns.
Through the years, such musicians as pianists Ronnie Mathews, George Cables and John Hicks played in the quartet. Both Fortune and the bassist Hill were bandmates in McCoy Tyner’s band.
Aside from his bandleader duties, Fortune was a regular member of the tribute band, 4 Generations of Miles, featuring guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Jimmy Cobb. When performing in New York, they often played at Birdland.
“Sonny was one of my dearest friends and instrumental in my expansion of the music,” said drummer and educator Ronnie Barrage. “My working with McCoy Tyner was because of him. Sonny was one of the last real warriors.”
In 2012, Jack Kleinsinger’s Highlights in Jazz saluted Fortune at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
Although Fortune played soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; clarinet; and flute, his primary instruments were the alto sax and soprano sax and the flute. As a leader or sideman, Fortune continuously explored and expanded his music perspective. He was in the pursuit of trying to find something different. He admired Coltrane “because he was pursuing the music.”
Cornelius “Sonny” Fortune was born May 19, 1939, in Philadelphia. As a teenager, he loved R&B music and fancied himself a good do-wop singer, patterning his style after his favorite 1950s singing groups, the Spaniels, Drifters and Clovers.
He married at age 16 and was a father of two children by 18, the same year he got his first alto saxophone after his father’s first down payment. It was at that moment that he stopped listening to do-wop and soul music and forced himself to listen to jazz, in 1957. Ironically, he thought he could master the saxophone in six months, and when that didn’t work, he packed it away for one year. On realizing his day job wasn’t very fruitful, he returned to his saxophone. This time, he said, “I became very disciplined. It was listening to John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ that turned me around. His playing was about Black thought.”
In honor of his mentor, he recorded “In the Spirit of John Coltrane,” featuring Coltrane alumni Reggie Workman and Rashied Ali, on Shanachie Records (January 2000).
Shortly after arriving in New York in 1967, Fortune joined Mongo Santamaria’s group, which exposed him to different cultures. He later joined McCoy Tyner, with whom he played for two and a half years. Joining Tyner’s band was his primary goal. For him, it was the Coltrane connection. Miles Davis asked him to join his band, but he chose to remain with Tyner, but he accepted when Davis asked him again during his stint at the Village Vanguard with his own group.
Staying with Miles for a year, he recorded the albums “Big fun,” “Agartha,” “Pangaea” and “Get Up With It.” During an interview with this writer in 2014, he stated, “Miles was definitely one of my heroes. It was an unbelievable experience. The music he was playing was somewhat out of my realm, but it was Miles.”
Fortune recorded a live album, “Last Night at Sweet Rhythm,” which was a farewell to the Greenwich Village club, previously known as Sweet Basil, that had long been his second home. “Sweet Rhythm had an open door policy with Sonny, all he had to do was tell me when he wanted to play and that was his engagement,” said James Browne the club’s former owner. “Sonny was all about the music and a man of great integrity.”
Fortune’s three Blue Note CDs that received rave reviews include “Four in One, the music of Thelonious Monk” (1994), “A Better Understanding” (1995), all original material in groupings from duo to septet, and “From Now On” (1996) consisting of both original material and compositions by other artists.
Fortune later formed his independent label, Sound Reason, and released such CDs as “Continuum,” a collage of nine tracks (with seven originals). He played alto, soprano and tenor saxophones, as well as alto flute on various tunes. “My record label is my meager attempt to start my own business,” he said in an interview. “We are consumers rather than owners in this society.”
To watch Fortune play alto saxophone is equivalent to being in the eye of a hurricane with winds blowing at 160 miles per hour. He plays with the riveting intensity of an improvisational jazz wizard dispensing notes sharper than Othello’s dagger dripping with callisthenic rhythms that dare to explode the sun. Fortune once remarked, “When I play I’m playing for real.” He is the living torch, playing in the tradition of influential giants John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker.
“It’s a travesty for Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and others to have said what they said and for us to be where we are at today,” Fortune shared during an interview with the Amsterdam News. “I saw jazz as a step up. So how can we step up to be more accountable, reliable and understandable? I am more concerned about my people recognizing their worth than I am about jazz.”
Full details on Fortune’s family were not available at press time. It was confirmed that he has a son, Dwayne Fortune, and granddaughter.