The great blind tenor man Sonny Bird-Hutcherson sits languidly in his hotel room armchair smoking a cigarette. His weather beaten face and ruffled grey hair are marks of experience in a business where only the strong seem to survive. He has clearly been in this game a long time.
During a break from his hectic touring schedule I had the honour of being able to interview the great man, an encounter that proved to be somewhat intriguing.....
PP: Sonny it's good to finally get to meet you.
SBH: Yeah sorry about my disheveled appearance, I just got up.
PP: So how's the tour going?
SBH: Oh you know, as well as can be expected, it's a tough time to be touring you know.
PP: Why because of economic recession?
SBH: No, my back's killing me, I can't stand up for too long these days.
PP: So have the audiences been good?
SBH: Good as gold, I just wish there were more of them.
PP: Oh so you mean it's been difficult pulling numbers in then?
SBH: Pulling teeth might be an easier prospect. 'Course that would affect my embouchure. Yeh, it's been tough but hey, the jazz life.
PP: So you're on a coast to coast American tour right now. Are you getting to see the sights or is it just constant travelling and performing?
SBH: Well you know when you've been in the business as long as I have, one city is just the same as another, it all becomes much of a sameness....when you've been in the business as long as I have....
PP: So how long HAVE you been in the business?
SBH: Off and on for the last 46 years now.
PP: You say 'off and on', you haven't always played for a living then?
SBH: Well you know it's always ups and downs isn't it? The work isn't always there. Sometimes man you know, I'll be doing a stint at Vine St. and the next thing you know I'm diggin' potatoes. You know the scene.
PP: So you're a keen gardener then?
SBH: Well I use the term diggin' potatoes metaphorically.
PP: Oh I'm sorry I'm English, sometimes we take things a bit too literally. I couldn't help but notice the dirt under your fingernails.
SBH: As I said I've just got up. Don't you have dirt under your fingernails when you just get up?
PP: Well frankly no.
SBH: Well man you know, when you've been in the business as long as I have....
PP: Let's talk a little about technique. I notice you play a lot of endless phrases using the technique of circular breathing. Do you have big lungs?
SBH: You know man it's a funny thing. I've never played the saxaphone better than when my wife had her first baby 32 years ago. During her pregnancy she made me go to these childbirth classes, Le Mars I think they're called. They would make me do these deep breathing exercises with Jackie, my wife. You know, in out, in out. It was really good discipline for me and really built up my stamina for playing the horn.
PP: So you witnessed two births then so to speak?
SBH: Oh yeah and over the years several more. We have eleven kids now.
PP: So you must be playin' your ass off?
SBH: You better believe it.
PP: Do you recommend any finger exercises for that really high note stuff you do, you know the squealing harmonic thing?
SBH: Well first of all I like to play pinball. Man I'd spend days on those things if I had the time.
PP: How does that help?
SBH: It keeps my palms moist for starters and really helps my brain to hand message reactions. You gotta keep those fingers active you know, especially at my age. As far as the high note squealing thing goes as you call it, personally I like to think of it as "Effective harmonic random note targetting", man I just play as fast and as loud as I can. Aim to blow your liver out and those squeals will just happen, sure as a duck takes to water.
PP: And to what musical purpose, who...I mean how...no, when would you incorporate this device and yes most important...why?
SBH: The chicks dig it!
PP: It has been said that you don't take any bull from members of your band, you have quite a reputation for being a tough leader. Have you always been this way?
SBH: Well I guess I learned it from when I was in Buddy's Band.
PP: Buddy Rich?
SBH: No Buddy Rosenberg. Close but no cigar.
PP: Oh I'm not too familiar with him.
SBH: Well I guess you can be forgiven for that, he never really did hit the big time, he just worked a lot, you know, played the bagel belt.
PP: The bagel belt?
SBH: Yeah man you know, weddings, barmitzvahs, the casual scene.
PP: Was that a good time?
PP: I've never eaten better, kinda miss the cat you know?
PP: So he was pretty stern with his band members was he?
SBH: Well ironically no, his band was always slammin HIM. You see he was the piano player who sang. He was always gettin' the wrong chords mixed up with the wrong lyrics.
PP: You mean he would call a tune and start playing another?
SBH: Yeah, we would all just grind to a halt. He was such a pro he would just have this Vegas smile on his face and plough right on through. Sometimes we would just let him. We nailed him afterwards though. I just vowed that I would be in control of my band after that time.
PP: How tough are you?
SBH: Not as tough as I was, I always make sure they eat now.
PP: You used to deny them food on the road?
SBH: Sure if they got out of line. That was a long time ago.
PP: I notice looking around here that you are a very neat and tidy person. Do you do all your own housework?
SBH: You mean when I'm not out on the road?
PP: Well yes presumably when you're on the road you CAN'T do your own housework.
SBH: I have to admit man, I'm not big on cleaning although I do like things to be clean. Jackie does most of it, she seems to know where everything goes. When I come back off the road she's moved everything anyway. She tells me I'm just in the way you know? I try to spend house cleaning day in the garden?
PP: Diggin' potatoes?
SBH: Well you know.....
PP: Yeah I know metaphorically speaking. So how old were you when you first started playing saxaphone?
SBH: I got my first horn when I was five years old.
PP: It must have been bigger than you.
SBH: Oh yeah man, one time I even tried to climb into the bell of the horn, I was at that inquisitive age you understand.
PP: And what happened then?
SBH: Two hours later my dad found these two legs sticking out of this horn. It must have been quite a sight for them. Still, they got me out in the end. I had to persuade them to trade in the Baritone sax for something smaller for me. I think they got me a soprano or something. Might have been a clarinet, I dunno, something I couldn't climb into anyway.
PP: Did you learn to read music at an early age?
SBH: Well you know being born a blind person does not always help in that area.
PP: Oh I'm sorry that was insensitive of me.
SBH: Hey forget it man, it was definitely a problem for me. I spent a long time fighting it.
PP: How do you mean?
SBH: Well I tried the idea of 'Music Braile' for quite a while but I found that I had to learn to play one handed. Finding music that contained only certain notes was a drag too. That was a pain man, I had to give up the idea of being a studio cat. It just wasn't gonna work.
PP: Would you say that as a blind person your other senses are stronger?
SBH: Oh yeh definitely, my ears are real sharp. I smell pretty good too.
PP: I think WE should be the judge of that!
SBH: Hey kid don't get cocky, I told you I just got up.
PP: Sorry, just kidding. You're a pretty snappy dresser for a man of your age. Do you spend much time choosing stagewear?
SBH: You know man sometimes the music just doesn't get over. Jazz is a tough call. I've spent a lifetime trying to get over. Sometimes you need a gimmick. I like to think of clothes as my gimmick.
PP: Aren't they also a neccessity?
SBH: Oh sure man, you gotta wear clothes, although the concept of 'no clothes' might be a cool gimmick too.
PP: So what sort of outfits are you wearing for this present tour?
SBH: Well the boys are wearing Hawaiian shirts, Huckleberry Finn hats and cowboy boots.
PP: And you?
SBH: I'm into this Brooks Brothers 1950's three piece suit and spats. Sometimes I grab a Huck Finn hat. Depend's on how the gig's going.
PP: That's quite a contrast on stage don't you think?
SBH: As I said it's a gimmick man. You gotta get over.
PP: You've played with some of the greats; Ella, Getz, Dizzy, the list is endless. I should think you'll be buying a house real soon?
SBH: At my age I should have a house here and a house there. But man, the jazz scene is bleak and even back then there were no guarantees. As long as I'm blowin' the horn and makin' the rent, that's cool with me.
PP: Well it's been great talking with you Sonny. Good luck on the tour and give my regards to your wife and all your kids.
SBH: Yeah man, be cool.
I grab my cassette recorder and brief case and make my exit, leaving the great man sitting in his armchair to contemplate life. A life that has been an uphill battle, a financial disaster and quite possibly a backyard full of potatoes. Perhaps genius is never truly rewarded. Perhaps the reward is wisdom, the gift of large lungs or a keen dress sense. One can only speculate.....