John Haley (Zoot) Sims, a saxophonist who endeared himself to jazz aficionados around the world as one of the original “Four Brothers” of the Woody Herman band and as a musician praised by his peers for his consistent virtuosity, died Saturday morning at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City of cancer.
He was 59, and despite his illness had continued to perform until a few weeks before his hospitalization. Services will be held Monday night in New York City. He is survived by his wife, Louise, and five brothers.
An Inglewood, Calif., native who said he never learned the origin of the name “Zoots” that was written on his music stand by a band leader many years ago, Sims was known in Europe for his pairings with Gerry Mulligan, in Russia where he played in 1962 with Benny Goodman, and throughout the 50 United States, where he began performing when he was only 17.
Praised for His Talents
He was praised by critics for his free-flowing ventures in traditional 4/4 and 3/4 time, saluted for his seemingly effortless but complex, spontaneous solos and lauded for his harmonic values in an age of brash dissonance.
Most of those accolades came early in his career, in the 15 years after he took his first regular job as a clarinetist upon leaving high school. That was with the Bobby Sherwood orchestra in 1941. He moved to the Goodman band after a year and continued a lengthy association with the famed band leader.
Unpretentious and quiet, Sims was one of the few musicians able to sustain a relationship with Goodman, a stickler for discipline.
‘Got Along Fine’
“I know Benny’s reputation,” Sims said in a 1983 interview with The Times, “and the strange things he’s done to some musicians, but we always got along fine.”
But it was Herman and not Goodman who established Sims as a true scion of an emerging movement called “modern jazz.”
Stan Getz, Herb Steward, Serge Chaloff and Sims became known as the “Four Brothers,” the Herman saxophone section. It was a unit remembered both by those who first heard them and then by a second generation of jazz fans through a standard instrumental work of the same name.
Joined Kenton in ’53
In 1953 Sims joined Stan Kenton in what many feel was Kenton’s finest band, and then formed a quintet with Al Cohn, a later addition to the Herman band and a fellow disciple of Lester Young. Leonard Feather, The Times’ jazz critic, once described Sims and Cohn, his long-running partner, as “fraternal rather than identical twins . . . who evolved their own directions.”
Sims added the soprano and alto saxes to his public repertoire and began touring Europe with Mulligan and--under Norman Granz’s auspices--with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
He played Philharmonic Hall in New York in 1972 in a brief reunion with Herman; went to Australia with Goodman and to Scandinavia with Cohn; performed at major jazz festivals on both coasts and was hailed at a “Salute to Zoot” concert at New York University in 1975.
But by 1979 a constant companion had begun to take its toll.
That year Sims’ liver had become infected because of alcohol abuse, and a doctor had told him “to give up drinking or give up living.” He opted for the former and went back out on the road as a sober saxophonist.
Sims lived in New York most of his life but returned to Los Angeles often in the 1960s and ‘70s for club dates at Donte’s or Shelly’s Manne Hole. In 1981, on one of his last trips West, he performed in concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
By 1982 he had curtailed his playing again--this time because doctors had found a growth behind his right kidney. It was the beginning of the cancer that was to kill him. But he continued to make selective appearances, even fulfilling a cruise-ship commitment last November in which he and Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan and others entertained at a weeklong jazz-at-sea festival.
He made nearly 50 albums under his own name, backed up such vocalists as Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing and recorded with Count Basie and other big bands.
His reputation among his contemporaries probably was best summed up by Carter, the noted black band leader and fellow saxophonist:
“Zoot is the outstanding refutation of the negative theory that whites can’t play jazz.” And then, after a pause: “And a beautiful fellow to boot.”