Sonny Fortune, a saxophonist whose powerful sound and assured yet questing style made him a steadfast presence in jazz for more than half a century, died on Thursday in New York City. He was 79.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said his longtime booking agent, Reggie Marshall. Fortune had been at Mount Sinai Hospital since suffering a series of strokes in September.
Principally known as an alto saxophonist, Fortune also had an authoritative voice on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, as well as clarinet and flute. His body of work spans the spirit-minded avant-garde and the most swinging modern jazz, along with multiple strains of fusion — both as a member of a well-documented Miles Davis band and on his own albums.
Because Fortune emerged in the wake of saxophonist John Coltrane’s death in 1967 — and had his most visible early appointment with Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s longtime drummer — his music has often been framed as an extension of that legacy. He accepted this more as a gift than a burden, also working in the early ’70s with Coltrane’s former pianist, McCoy Tyner, and in the Coltrane Legacy Band, which featured Tyner and Jones with bassist Reggie Workman.
But unlike some other avowed Coltrane disciples, Fortune never lost his own voice to imitation. And it was possible to hear other echoes and parallels in his work. Writing in The New York Times in 1975, John S. Wilson described Fortune as a saxophonist “who draws out the full tonal qualities of his instruments in much the same way that Duke Ellington’s great baritone saxophonist. Harry Carney, did. Richness and completeness of tone are combined with great facility in almost everything he plays.”
Cornelius Fortune was born in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 19, 1939. Though drawn to music early, he initially gravitated to singing, before turning seriously to the saxophone in his late teens. He studied at the Granoff School of Music, which also counted Coltrane and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as alumni, and found work with an assortment of local rhythm-and-blues bands.
He moved to New York City in ’67, and on the advice of Coltrane, who’d been a friend and mentor in Philadelphia, immediately sought out Jones. His other early sideman appointments included stints with Mongo Santamaría, the Afro-Cuban percussionist and bandleader, and Leon Thomas, the avant-garde soul-jazz singer. Fortune also worked briefly with trumpeter Nat Adderley, and in the high-octane big band led by drummer Buddy Rich.
The first album fully under Fortune’s name is Long Before Our Mothers Cried, a loft-scene artifact originally released on the Strata-East label in 1974; along with trumpeter Charles Sullivan and pianist Stanley Cowell, it features a battery of hand percussion. The title track, one of five Fortune originals, moves with determination, but no particular hurry, through an Afrocentric groove.
Fortune employed a similar sensibility, and some of the same musicians, on two albums for the Horizon label, Awakening (1975) and Waves of Dreams (1976). Then came a series of fusionesque albums on Atlantic Records, like Serengeti Minstrel (1977) and Infinity Is (1978), which incorporated elements of funk and disco.
A renewed focus on swinging sensibilities in the ’90s resulted in several notable albums on Blue Note, including Four in One (1994), a Thelonious Monk tribute featuring Kirk Lightsey on piano. A 1996 release, From Now On, was hailed as a post-bop triumph; it features a first-rate band with pianist John Hicks, bassist Santi Debriano and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. (Among the featured guests are Eddie Henderson on trumpet and Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone.)
Fortune worked periodically in recent years with a tribute band called 4 Generations of Miles, featuring guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Jimmy Cobb. He also formally acknowledged his touchstone with a 2005 album titled In the Spirit of John Coltrane. Fortune’s most recent release was a live album, Last Night at Sweet Rhythm, which bade farewell to a Greenwich Village club, previously known as Sweet Basil, that had long been his second home.
According to Marshall, the final gig Fortune played as a bandleader was in mid-July, at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club in New York. “You know how they say an athlete leaves it all on the field?” Marshall said. “Well, Sonny left it all on the bandstand, right up until the end.”