Voices were raised in remembrance, solo horns swayed with favorite melodies and words were spoken with love and optimism at the wake last night for saxophonist Sonny Stitt.
His friends came by the score, people who had known Stitt and his family as longtime members of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, jazz fans who had known him as one of the hardest blowing musicians in the field, musicians who had known him as a gentleman and, as guitarist Bill Harris put it, "a gladiator of the tenor sax."
Dr. George Ross, a musician and professor at the University of Maryland, blew a soft "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," one of Stitt's favorite songs, one he had recorded on "I Remember Bird" in 1977. Stitt's life had been tied, down some thought, to the hard style of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, who died in 1955. For much of his career, Stitt found himself often described as "the closest thing to Bird." And the praise carried a weight, as well. Parker's long and near-public dying was a far cry from Stitt's sudden passing. He had flown to Japan for concerts in early July, but had to return on July 17; he was taken from the airport to his home by ambulance. Stitt, 58, died of cancer Thursday night at the Washington Hospital Center.
Stitt was best known for his high-velocity solos on medium- and up-tempo tunes, but the music that coursed through the church last night reflected another side of his playing, the lyrical ballad exposition rooted in the work of Lester Young. Ross' haunting baritone sax line wafted through the emotionally charged air as Stitt lay in a half-opened coffin, surrounded by floral arrangements, including one that came from comedian Bill Cosby with a simple message: "I'll see you later."
There were two large floral displays shaped like saxophones, with notes floating up to heaven. Next to the coffin sat Stitt's last horn, a Selmer 7, given to him by the company when his own horns were stolen several years ago. In a brief recitation, Bill Harris, adapting a poem by James Weldon Johnson, set up a strong theme and went back to it several times, much as Stitt would have gone back for endless choruses on familiar ground: "Weep not, weep not, he's not dead, he's resting in the bosom of Jesus."
Dozens of Washington musicians were at the wake last night, including pianist John Malachi, who played meditative hymns as mourners quietly filed past the casket; others there included Rick Henderson, Marshall Keyes, Charlie Hampton, Bullmoose Jackson, Nap Turner, Reuben Brown, Ron Holloway. Many had played with Stitt, who tended to pick up rhythm sections wherever he was instead of keeping a touring unit together. Organist Don Patterson came down from New Jersey; Baltimore saxophonist Arnold Sterling played a quietly confident "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
Talk turned to encounters with Stitt, who had lived in Washington for more than two decades but who hardly ever played here, so strong were the demands for him in Europe and Japan, as well as across America. "We'd been friends since the '40s," Harris recalled, zooming in on their one close encounter at a New York club in 1957. "That's the night that I learned a saxophone player can wipe out a guitar player," he said warmly. "Sonny said, 'C'mon, let's play some blues, you like that anyways.' It was a slow-tempo 'Now's the Time.' He played so much, about 10 choruses, and when he was through I was mesmerized, couldn't think of anything to play."
"Whenever people came to see Sonny Stitt, they knew they were going to hear some saxophone," said internationally renowned bassist Keeter Betts, who was more likely to run into Stitt at an airport than on a stage. "I talked to a lot of musicians, and when they knew Sonny was coming, they got themselves together, they'd go and woodshed a little bit because he was a higher caliber than the average saxophonist. That shows respect."
One of Stitt's students, Washingtonian Davey Yarborough, had worked with Stitt over the last 18 months. "One day he was writing out something for me to play and he was doing it with an ink pen. I told him that whenever I wrote anything out, I used a pencil in case I made a mistake. He looked at me and said 'I'm not allowed to make mistakes.' And that was true; I never heard a mistake. His demeanor as an instructor was always that of a grandfather; he was a stern instructor, but you wanted to do what he asked. I found myself working harder to please him than to learn music."
Stitt's death was so sudden that many musicians who might have attended the funeral services scheduled for today at 11 at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church (4606 16th St. NW) were unable to do so because of scheduling conflicts. The list of honorary pallbearers attests to Stitt's longevity and reputation in the jazz field: Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, McCoy Tyner, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet and Johnny Griffin, among others.
Diane Ellis, 27, had been a Stitt student for nine years. He'd first heard her while she was a high school student and invited her to come sit in, her first exposure to the world of night clubs. They had met at the funeral of Gene Ammons, Stitt's frequent partner in tenor battles from the '50s. Ellis worked with Stitt in Chicago several weeks ago, and suspected something was wrong when he was unable to give her any lessons. "He never told me I was ready, until this last time," she recalled sadly of the man who became her godfather. "He said, 'You really sound good,' and he'd never said that before." Ellis, the last of the jazz figures to perform at the wake, unburdened herself with a lush, slow version of "My Way."