Jazz Titan Ira Sullivan Off to Visit Bird, Red Rodney & Bebop Heaven
In the comprehensive jazz dictionaries of the early 1970s, I first learned about Benny Carter, a man who could play both trumpet and woodwinds. This was relatively rare, because the embouchures for those instruments are almost completely different. Then I later came across two more gentlemen who could also play both brass and woodwinds, and both had the initials I.S., and their names appeared back to back in the dictionaries.
One was Idrees Sulieman (born Leonard Graham) of St. Petersburg, who was an unsung bebop giant and contemporary of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker who performed on dozens and dozens of great sessions here before moving to Europe and joining the brilliant Clarke-Boland Big Band. We became friends when he moved back to the U.S., and I wrote his discography back in 1980.
The other was Ira Sullivan, another unsung bebop giant who lived during the bebop era in Chicago before moving to South Florida. And so it was that I met Ira through Vic Hall, the original host of The Sound of Jazz on WUSF 89.7 in Tampa, where I hosted a show for 26 years.
Over the years, I was fortunate enough to hear Ira perform more than a dozen times in various groups in the Tampa area and in Orlando, and we struck up a fine friendship, in no small part due to my (now ex-) wife Lonni’s award-winning pepper jelly. At some point, Lonni brought along a jar of pepper jelly to give him as a present, and he was hooked for life! (Yes, it IS that good!)
And I have 31 of his albums, 23 of them autographed, several of them specifically mentioning pepper jelly. Which is why it is difficult wrapping my head around the fact that I had not seen Ira recently, and now he is gone, after 89 years on the planet, positively heaven-bound and ready for that massive jam session awaiting his arrival. He died September 21.
Ira Sullivan’s music is extremely important, but he was far bigger than the music. Ira was a wonderful, spiritual, embracing man who never met a stranger. He was quick to invite musicians to join him — especially young players. There was about him an aura that filled up the room, and everyone there was the better for it. He gave of himself constantly, and every musician who has performed with him will tell you that.
Ira grew up in Chicago, where his trumpet chops earned him the chance to play with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Wardell Gray, and dozens of other top-shelf jazz players. His first recording date was in 1955 with another bebop trumpet man of short physical stature and huge chops: Red Rodney. They would record again in 1957 before reconnecting in 1980 in Florida.
1956 was a busy year, recording with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, J.R Monterose, and Rita Reys and getting his first feature slot on The Billy Taylor Trio Presents Ira Sullivan. Ira had his first two albums under his name on the Chicago Delmark label: Nicky’s Tune (1958) and Blues Stroll (1959). He was featured on a Roland Kirk album in 1960, and in 1962 he curated a concert that made it to album called Bird Lives! with Ira and the Chicago Jazz Quintet.
Then came the move to South Florida and a solo album on Atlantic in 1967 titled Horizons, followed by an incendiary recording with Eddie Harris in 1970: Come On Down! (to Miami’s Criteria Recording Studios). The trail went cold for a bit before Ira burst back onto the scene with a series of excellent albums, starting with Ira Sullivan (1976, Horizon), Ira Sullivan (1977, Flying Fish).
Next, he appeared on two 1977 albums on Galaxy Records: Red Alert by Red Garland and Philly Mignon by Philly Joe Jones. The next year, Ira recorded two solo albums on Galaxy: Peace and Multimedia.
If any one album adequately explained Ira Sullivan, it was the title of his 1980 album on Stash Records: the incredible Ira Sullivan plays fluegelhorn, trumpet, alto and tenor saxes, flute and gauche cabasa (yes, that is really the title).
In 1980, Ira and Red Rodney reunited, and for the next five years plus, magic happened. They recorded three live albums that year and a studio album in 1981, all on Muse under Rodney’s name. Then came two superb albums on Elektra-Musician: Spirit Within (1981) and Sprint (1982, live). Those were billed as The Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan Quintet, or, as we liked to call it, Red Sullivan.
I saw them play during my “bachelor party” in 1981 and made several guests leave the wedding early so they could catch the quintet on the band’s second night.
Ira put together a magnificent project in 1983 called Strings Attached, featuring his quintet and a string quartet; I was fortunate to catch one of their few performances… less than a mile from my house! Later, there were collaborations with Stu Katz, Joe Diorio, Ted Shumate, Tony Castellano, Jim Cooper, and the Bob Albanese Trio. His last recording appears to be Sun Stone with the Roberto Magris Sextet in 2019.
We saw Ira numerous times at The Village Lounge at Lake Buena Vista (think Disney) performing with the house trio under the direction of pianist Bubba Kolb. Of special note were his Christmas shows; his “We Three Kings” on very outside soprano sax still reverberates in my head, and the time when Rich Matteson (euphonium), Idrees Sulieman (trumpet), and Ira (tenor) recreated that Jazz Messengers sound was a time-traveling event.
We’ve provided a Spotify playlist of as much music as they list. Just know that the man was a thousand times greater. May his memory be a blessing! It will always be for me; our son’s name is Spencer Ira.