Saxophonist Sonny Stitt, who is playing at Blues Alley this week through Saturday, is known as a musician who likes the challenge of a "cutting" session - locking horns in head-to-head combat with a fellow performer.
In this kind of session he plays with a pugnacious authority. "I am good," he says plainly. "If you don't believe me, put me on the bandstand with anybody and I'll show you".
Asked if it was true that he once fell victim to Zoot Sims in a jam session, he scoffed, saying, "I cut him to pieces. Zoot's my friend. I don't want to say anything bad about him. Now Stan Getz won't even play with me anymore. We hooked up in a battle once.
"I got hold of Sonny Rollins once. It was on a Dizzy Gillespie record date. Dizzy told me, 'He's waiting for you. He said he's going to slice you every which way.' I started writing a tune for the date. Called it 'The Eternal Triangle.' Passed out music to Dizzy and Sonny. I knew what I was going to play, but Sonny didn't. I didn't hear anymore out of Sonny Rollins after that."
Stitt didn't play with his usual pugnaciousness Monday night at Blues Alley. Sitting in a chair on the bandstand, he seemed too relaxed. In most instances he played brief improvisations before turning over the proceedings to his rhythm section.
Stitt played most inspired music in duets with bassist Marshall Hawkins, whose superlative melodic and rhythmic sense sparked the saxophonist. Pianist Marc Cohen and drummer Bernard Sweetney, the other members of the rhythm section, were excellent.
Stitt, 53, is slender with a small paunch and long tapered fingers. He was one of the contributors to the beginnings of modern jazz in the '40s.
Charlie Parker was the number one alto saxophonist and Stitt had to bear the burden of being number two. He says the only time they performed together was at a jam session in Kansas City in the early '40s. Both told each other they sounded alike.
Sitting in the rec room of his Chillum home, the saxophonist took a sip of cognac and talked about his recording activity. "My next album is going to be with strings," he said. "It'll be all Ellington tunes."
Stitts is the most recorded saxophonist ever. Why? "I record to make money," he answers. "And I also want to leave something. People forget about live perfomances, but records will last."
The musician performs all over the world. He's so rarely home that most jazz listeners don't realize he lives in the Washington area. Nevertheless, he's been here for 20 years - first on 16th Street in the District for 12 years and in Chillum for 8 years.
Stitt settled in the area after marrying the former Pamela Gilmore. They have two children, Katea, 12, and Jason, 7.
"I like Washington," he says."But I also like San Francisco, Miami and - best of all - New Orleans. My family's here, though. So this is where I'll stay."