Living the Blues
Life has changed but the songs remain the same for American jazz great Sonji Kimmons
By Lionel Rolfe 11/26/2013
I see my friend Sonji Kimmons as kind of a metaphor for this country’s relationship to its collective soul. Sonji grew up in South Los Angeles — her mother was a nurse at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. She sang gospel in church and when she was 13 cut some of her own 45s with Dot Records, one of the archetypical blues music labels. It wasn’t until she got to Europe that she forged a really good concert career as a jazz pianist and singer. She’s been back in LA since just before the turn of the Millennium, returning because her mother was sick. But of late she’s developing an obsession — it’s time to return to Europe, where she was treated as the real artist that she is.
America has a history of allowing Europe to recognize its greatest talents first. The greatest American writer of all time, Mark Twain, was dismissed as little more than a humorous newspaper columnist and raconteur of the California Gold Rush. It was the English who first realized his importance.
Unquestionably, jazz is America’s greatest musical form. It is our classical music. Like the Russians, we have excelled in producing great writers and great musicians. But our musicians, whether classical or jazz, often have to go to Europe to make their livings and find a real audience.
Folks rarely say what to me is obvious, that George Gershwin was our greatest classical composer, not Aaron Copland, as is the usual pronouncement. Jazz is great because it grows out of the earth and the sweat and the passions of struggle and existence. It is the one form of music that savors the shapes and sounds of its notes unlike the cacophony of corporate music that has no humanity.
Now I don’t know if Sonji is quite as great a singer as Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday or her hero Dinah Washington, but those folks are gone now, so it doesn’t much matter. I do know that she is very good. What is clear is that these people live on in Sonji’s body and soul. She has played with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr.,Tina Turner and Shirley Bassey in some of the world’s greatest venues. She toured with Pepe Lienhard’s Orchestra for more than a decade. She also was the headliner for many years with the famed Swiss funk-rock-jazz group Split and recorded four albums while touring with them.
There was some recognition that one of its prodigal daughters was coming home when Sonji returned to the city of the Angels. Variety wrote that “Europe’s wonderful jazz treasure for 20 years is now home in Los Angeles.” Rolling Stone reported, “One song and you’re hooked. She has a voice and rare style that keeps you wanting more.”
Unfortunately, Sonji’s an international and local treasure that has been in reduced circumstances of late. She’s had her share of health issues, pain and money troubles, and only a few shekels have been thrown her way by a few Los Angeles nightclub proprietors.
When I met Sonji, she was a neighbor in my apartment complex. We met at the Jacuzzi. Both of us were trying to get rid of aches and pains. In her case, she was dealing with a failing hip. She was working pretty regularly then. She had a regular gig at the Magic Castle. She also played weekly at a place in Long Beach and another in downtown Los Angeles. But her hip got so bad she had to have an operation. She had no income for several months and when I next saw her she was in a desperate struggle to keep from being homeless.
I went to watch her playing at a local dive, MJs, which is next door to the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake, in one of her first returns to work. There was a smattering of real fans in the audience who knew how special she is.
She played her heart out. I was hoping that this would prove to be the beginning of a long residency. The telltale signs were disconcerting. The proprietors didn’t help her carry in her gear and when she sat down to play there was no place for her to put a comforting glass of wine or a bottle of water by her piano. There was no flat surface by her tired old Yamaha, only the rounded top of a stool brought over for her to put down her sustaining fluids. She carefully put down her wine glass after a gulp so it wouldn’t crash to the floor. She also didn’t have light on her music stand, so she had her own source of light. She turned the handle of a crank-up flashlight between each song, to her merriment and the enjoyment of her audience.
At one point, she excused herself and went to the corner to get over a coughing spell. Then she apologized, because she was suffering from flu. She said she was deeply embarrassed because her voice was raspier than usual. When she said that, I smiled and debated with myself whether to say what I was thinking: “Baby, you should get the flu every time you sing.” She thought she sounded terrible. No, I said, “it made you sound even better.”
Her voice was deep and fuller than usual. The words were clear as glass, yet wonderfully gruff and expressive. Her singing gave new meaning to all the old love songs.
She then sang one song that had an almost “Mac the Knife” snarl to it. There was nothing sappy to it. It was about the intense pain that comes at the end of a love affair and a tough love way of dealing with it. Whose song was that, people asked.
“Mine,” she said, “I just made it up.”
The audience seemed surprised.
“No, I really did,” she insisted. “Just now.”
She obviously was on a roll. Someone piped up, “Nothing but a Hound Dog.” So she did her own unique variation on the old Elvis song, funny and delightful. But a not untypical fight between the promoter and the owner over who took what cut of her pay ended the gig. They disagreed, so her next appearance was canceled, although no one bothered telling Sonji.
No wonder she keeps looking back to her days of yore in Europe. She lived in Zurich for years and came to love it as her own home. She loved the way people seemed to be committed to music, not just as entertainment, but as sustenance for the soul.
Still, for the last few years she has had no choice but to live the impoverished life that most self-respecting jazz musicians have in Los Angeles. Recently, she was sad because she couldn’t go hear Barbra Streisand sing, because of transportation and financial woes. She knows somehow that tends not to be the way life was lived in Europe. She misses living in Europe, because one way or another, she would have been able to hear Streisand.
An apparition when she is at her best, Sonji is a very handsome woman in her 60s. It is no accident that when she was 19, she won a beauty contest. The beauty is still there, and so is something of a tough life written on her face, which nonetheless does not prevent an unusual glow and sparkle when she smiles. When she sings, you realize the soul you hear in her playing is the stuff her own hometown should not so quickly discard.n
A version of this story first appeared on Huffington Post. Lionel Rolfe is the author of several books about music, literature, history, philosophy and politics, all available at Amazon’s Kindle Store.