John Haley “Zoot” Sims was an American jazz saxophonist, playing mainly tenor but also alto (and, later, soprano) saxophone. He first gained attention in the “Four Brothers” sax section of Woody Herman’s big band, afterward enjoying a long solo career, often in partnership with fellow sax players Gerry Mulligan and Al Cohn, and the trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.
Sims was born in 1925 in Inglewood, California to vaudeville performers Kate Haley and John Sims. His father was a vaudeville hoofer, and Sims prided himself on remembering many of the steps his father taught him. Growing up in a performing family, he learned to play drums and clarinet at an early age. His brother was the trombonist Ray Sims.
Following in the footsteps of Lester Young, Sims developed into an innovative tenor saxophonist. Throughout his career, he played with big bands, starting with those of Kenny Baker and Bobby Sherwood after dropping out of high school after one year. He played with Benny Goodman’s band in 1943 and replaced his idol Ben Webster in Sid Catlett’s Quartet in 1944.
Sims served as a corporal in the United States Army Air Force from 1944 to 1946, then returned to music in the bands of Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich. He was one of Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers”. He frequently led his own combos and toured with his friend Gerry Mulligan’s sextet, and later with Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band. Sims rejoined Goodman in 1962 for a tour of the Soviet Union.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Sims had a long, successful partnership as co-leader of a quintet with Al Cohn, which recorded under the name “Al and Zoot”. The group was a favorite at New York City’s Half Note Club. Always fond of the higher register of the tenor sax, he also played alto and late in his career added soprano saxophone to his performances, while recording a series of albums for the Pablo Records label of the impresario Norman Granz. He also played on some of Jack Kerouac’s recordings.
Sims acquired the nickname “Zoot” early in his career while he was in the Kenny Baker band in California. The name was later appropriated for a saxophone-playing Muppet on The Muppet Show.
Sims played a 30-second solo on the song “Poetry Man”, written by singer Phoebe Snow on her debut eponymous album in 1975. He also played on Laura Nyro’s “Lonely Women,” on her album “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.”
photo: from album cover ‘Zoot Sims Quartet’
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