- Terelle Jerricks
Sonji Kimmons, one of the last great but mostly unheralded blues pianists and singers in the world, made a rare appearance at MJs, a gay nightclub in Silver Lake one recent Saturday, and was set to appear the following Saturday.
But due to a not untypical fight between the promoter and the owner, that appearance, which had been scheduled, was cancelled. It wasn’t that Sonji had played unnoticed–she had a large turnout who hung on her every note.
Hopefully this misstep will not occur again. Sonji has been out of sight recently because of medical problems. Now she’s waiting to start playing around town again.
Sonji Kimmons has appeared as a headliner on some of the top venues in Europe, Asia and Africa, but since her return to her native Los Angeles in 1997, she has been less appreciated. In this she isn’t unusual. Many of the American jazz greats who once called Los Angeles home have traditionally beat their way to places like London and Paris and Zurich to ply their trade.
This has been a pattern not only among black jazz musicians. Mark Twain didn’t really get appreciated as the great writer he was until he went to Europe.
Sonji won excited applause from large crowds abroad, in Asia, Africa as well as Europe. She lived in Zurich for years, and came to love it as her own home. She loved the way people not just loved but lived their art. audiences.
Here, she has no choice but to live the impoverished life that any self-respecting jazz musician eventually finds in Los Angeles. Recently she was sad because she couldn’t go hear Barbra Streisand sing, because of transportation and financial woes. She knows somehow that tends not to be the way life is lived in Europe She misses living in Europe, because one way or the other, she would have been able to hear Streisand.
Combine the dedicated artist with the sensitive soul who sings those blues songs of love gone bad, even in person Sonji Kimmons is an apparition. A handsome woman in her 60s, it is no accident that when she was 19, she won a beauty contest. More importantly, she recorded a solo 45 for Dot records, one of the archetype labels, when she was 13.
Music has been her passion from an early age. A product of the hood, her mother was a nurse at County-USC and of course she developed her musical chops from gospel music at church.
Now people like Dianna Washington and Billie Holiday have been dead for decades, but they live on in Sonji’s body and soul. She has played with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., Tina Turner and Shirley Bassey, in some many of the world’s greatest venues. She toured with Pepe Lienhard’s Orchestra for more than a decade. She also was the headliner for many years with the famed Swiss funk/rock/jazz group, Split, and recorded four albums while touring with them.
She returned to Los Angeles because her mother was sick–and maybe she had a bit of homesickness on her own. But career-wise, returning to Los Angeles was not the best move she could have made.
The prodigal daughter had returned home, but came to wonder why at times. She played around enough–she was a regular at the Magic Castle before she had a painful hip operation–and other nightclubs. This wasn’t touring on the biggest concert stages of the world, but people heard her. And there are those who know what Los Angeles has in Sonji Kimmons.
Variety, for instance, noted that “Europe’s wonderful jazz treasure for 20 years is now home in Los Angeles.” And Rolling Stone reported that “One song and you’re hooked. She has a voice and rare style that keeps you wanting more.” Jazzplayer noted that “Today there is no one like her. A unique gift for us to experience.
But fading press clippings did not always pay the rent. You can argue why Los Angeles has rarely been a good home to real musicians–jazz and classical, even though many of both kinds have made their homes here but end up having to go to Europe. I think you can argue until that changes, Los Angeles will always be a pretender city for real artists among the great urban centers despite its pretensions.
Sonji also argues that one doesn’t really grow until one sees the world. She’s proud that she’s traveled many different parts of the world, playing out the music in her soul to thousands of foreigners who seemed to really appreciate her. Sometimes she plays videos of some of those concerts, so different than her life here, playing for this club or that club.
Recently she made a debut on the scene at MJ’s, and the audience seemed genuinely moved, and that moved her. She played and sang like an angel. Come and hear a real Los Angeles treasure.
As Ken Hense, an inveterate music lover who was in the audience last Saturday, said, “Somebody like Sonji shows us the difference between ‘good’ and ‘WONDERFUL.’ ‘Good’ is common – in L.A. you can walk into almost any club and get ‘good’ – but it’s usually boring after a few minutes – if that long. ‘WONDERFUL’ is rare. Over 45 years, I think I’ve had the best seat in town on several occasions. Like gold – you have to find it – and when it’s gone you might not find it again…”
Lionel Rolfe is the author of several important books, all available on Amazon’s Kindlestore, including “Literary L.A.,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and co-author of “Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise & Fall of Utopian Los Angeles.”