Chicago jazz great Ira Sullivan dies at 89

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Ira Sullivan, shown in 2012, died Sept. 21, 2020. He was 89 years old. - Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Sometimes it seemed as if Ira Sullivan could play anything that had a mouthpiece.

Tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, trumpet, fluegelhorn, flute, alto flute — the man applied his comprehensive virtuosity and pervasive musicianship to all of them, switching from one to the next with seeming effortlessness, often during a single set.

That he also was a bebop master who came of age in the era of Charlie Parker and shared a stage with him in 1955 added to Sullivan’s mystique. And though Sullivan, who grew up in Chicago, moved to Florida at the end of 1962 and lived there ever since, he always considered himself a Chicago jazz man to the core, as did the music world.

Sullivan died in the early evening of Sept. 21 of metastatic pancreatic cancer in his Miami home at age 89, said his wife, Charlene Sullivan.

“He took Chicago with him when he came down here,” she said.

A regular presence on the Chicago scene, Sullivan even late in life returned here annually around the time of the Chicago Jazz Festival, hosting sessions at the Jazz Showcase, with festival headliners dropping in for the privilege of riffing alongside him. The final time was last year.

“Ira as a musician was fearless, a natural,” said flutist Marc Berner, who joined Sullivan in his Chicago residencies every year since 2008.

“A lot of people said (to Sullivan): How can you play trumpet and saxophones and flute?

“I don’t think it’s something that Ira really thought about much,” added Berner. “His approach was so organic that when he switched from one instrument to another, he didn’t have to be thinking about anything. He just adjusted his embouchure accordingly and had the ability and the gift to do that.”

What came out of Sullivan’s instruments could range from extraordinarily complex lines to disarmingly direct phrases. The musicality of Sullivan’s work linked both.

“Ira is one of the greatest soloists in the history of the music,” said former Chicago trumpeter Brad Goode, a Sullivan protégé.

“The world didn’t always recognize or understand the depth of his artistry. A lot of people didn’t realize it. But we (musicians) did. We always did. And we always appreciated what he was giving to us.”

Indeed, though Sullivan did not achieve household-name status — except in some very hip households — jazz cognoscenti perceived the musician’s stature the moment they heard him.

“I met him in 1954, and I was just starting to get into bebop jazz,” said pianist-vibraphonist Stu Katz.

“It was really the dawn of that era, and I heard him play in person, and on the spot I thought: I’ve got to follow this guy around as long as I live. This guy has it.

“For sure he was very powerfully inspired by Charlie Parker, but he maintained an originality and an ability to take that inspiration and not sound like a clone – even though he could. He could play just like Charlie Parker, particularly on alto saxophone.”

Because of Sullivan’s wide-ranging gifts, playing alongside him was not always easy.

“He was the first person I ever worked with who would not call a tune,” said Katz. “He would just expect me to know what he was going to do.

“And he would tag one tune after another as it came into his mind, and that was his approach to music. You couldn’t stop concentrating, because in the middle of a song he could change everything.”

Born May 1, 1931, in Washington, D.C., Sullivan picked up a trumpet at age 3-1/2, not long before his family moved to Chicago. His mother, father, uncles and aunts all played instruments, and their example rubbed off on him.

“I went from the crib to the trumpet,” he told interviewer Ted Panken in 1992.

A self-taught musician, Sullivan developed his saxophone prowess in high school, and as a teenager immersed himself in Chicago’s thriving jazz scene.

“That was a beautiful thing about Chicago,” he told interviewer Panken. “When you went to see a movie in downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing. It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra or even just a dance band. But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened. And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with. That was really a very exciting time in my life. … Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town.”

Like many young musicians of the mid-20th century, Sullivan came under the spell of trumpeter Harry James’ golden tone and considered him a major influence. At age 16, Sullivan started playing jam sessions around Chicago, finding himself increasingly in demand.

Working alongside Parker, when Sullivan had become a young pro, proved enlightening.

“I played for a week with Bird in Chicago,” Sullivan told JazzTimes magazine of a 1955 gig at the long-gone Beehive. “He asked me to come to New York to play with him, and then he passed away a month later. But a doctor had gotten him so healthy that I had some great days with him, playing and talking about art and literature. He was always trying to educate himself and was one of the warmest individuals I’ve ever met.”

In 1956, Sullivan ventured to New York to begin a seven-month tour with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, but life on the road didn’t appeal to him.

“I vowed never to do that again,” Sullivan told JazzTimes.

He preferred to be close to home, which may help explain why he didn’t build as wide an audience as his gifts merited. But that wasn’t his priority.

“He was a family man,” said Charlene Sullivan, his wife. “He turned his back on fame in favor of family.”

Yet Sullivan’s brilliance is documented on dozens of recordings, including collaborations with Red Rodney, Elvin Jones, Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes and others.

“He used to sit in every once in awhile with my EARS group years ago,” recalled Chicago trumpeter Bobby Lewis. “He was always on top of his game.”

And Sullivan declined conventional wisdom about Chicago musicians needing to prove themselves in New York.

“Everyone always said: You gotta go get your New York stamp,” Sullivan told JazzTimes.

“And I’d reply: We lay in wait for cats from New York here. I had everything I needed in Chicago.”

In addition to his wife, Sullivan is survived by daughter Leslie and sons Brev and Brogan Sullivan, and two granddaughters.

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