The name of Zoot Sims may be unfamiliar to some, but he earned his spot on the list of top tenor saxophonists the hard way. He was, simply put, a hell-for-leather improviser who could out-swing any rival, whatever their instrument. Zoot never became a superstar like his onetime “brother” in the Woody Herman reed section, Stan Getz, nor was he a distinguished composer-orchestrator like his longtime partner Al Cohn. But this terror of a competitor could kick anyone’s rear end in a jam session, and you had to pity the fool who dared take him on.
Starting in his youth, saxophonist Zoot Sims fashioned his seemingly effortless sound from the music of early masters Lester Young and Ben Webster. Playing alongside some of jazz’s great bandleaders, accompanists and soloists — and eventually as a leader himself — Sims then refined that sound over a long and productive career. Never a musician to chase trends, he always kept two classic jazz principles in mind: Always play with indomitable swing, and have faith in the infinite variety to be gleaned from a familiar set of chord changes.
Sims led his own groups off and on for 30 years, co-led the Zoot Sims – Al Cohn Quintet, and was a valuable sideman in the big bands of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan and others. Over the years, he found ample opportunity to demonstrate his formidable chops on soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones as well. Throughout his career, Zoot Sims was famous for epitomizing the swinging musician, never playing an inappropriate phrase. He always sounded inspired, and although his style did not change much after the early 1950s, Zoot’s enthusiasm and creativity never wavered.
“Zoot was not the kind of guy who talked about music or analyzed it. He just loved to jam and he could play the hell out of the tenor saxophone. He was a basic, uncomplicated guy, who loved to play Jazz.”