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sonny white

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  • Born: Panama
  • Died: New York, NY


Biography All Music Guide

All Music Guide:

This pianist was born Ellerton Oswald, a name that surely doesn't sound as jazzy as the one he would later adopt when he began working in the mid-'30s in a combo led by Jesse Stone. He continued playing piano until his death in 1969, sticking religiously to one form of jazz or the other without ever compromising. Although not a big name in jazz, his stylistic range is broader than some other players who are much more famous, spreading from the early hot jazz sounds of master soprano chirper Sidney Bechet to the speeding-down-the-turnpike hard bop of tenor player Dexter Gordon's The Chase! projects. He played and recorded with Willie Bryant, Sidney Bechet, Teddy Hill, and Frankie Newton in the late '30s, but it was his recording sessions with jazz vocalist supreme Billie Holiday that form his most enduring legacy from this period. He can be heard accompanying two of the singer's favorite moods; dark and cynical on her classic "Strange Fruit" and groovy and upbeat on "Fine and Mellow." The bands on these sessions combine fitting and swinging rhythm sections with tremendous soloists, and being part of one of these groups was the jazz equivalent of having been sprinkled with fairy dust. That seems to have been the case with White, whose employment through the '40s was with major players, including popular bandleader Artie Shaw and brilliant reed man and arranger Benny Carter, the latter gig preempted by World War II and continued immediately thereafter. Listeners exploring the works of several other of the finest singers in jazz and R&B will come across White again even after leaving Holiday heaven. He appears on recordings by blues shouter Big Joe Turner, one of the guys who put the zip into rock & roll, as well as that classy disciple of Lady Day's, the wonderful Lena Horne. Between 1944 and 1946, he got in on Dexter Gordon sessions that helped establish the tenor player as a new Sir Galahad. The pianist needed strong chops in order to feed the horn players chords while they soloed at great length. These popular loose jams were released under titles such as the previously mentioned The Chase! as well as Blowin' the Blues Away, a title that, considering the zesty music it accompanies, ought to come with a money back guarantee. In 1947, he was sucked into the band of Hot Lips Page, a trumpeter whose hot jazz background echoed White's previous employment with Bechet. Trumpeter Harvey Davis is an obscure character who is no relation to another slightly more famous trumpeter with the same last name, but he did hold down an eight-year residency at the Cinderella Club in New York City, and for many musicians staying in one place is something of a dream. This group moved on to Jimmy Ryan's in 1954. White worked with Wilbur DeParis until the early '60s, then in several groups including a combo led by Eddie Barefield in 1968. His final employer was swing trumpeter Jonah Jones, with whom he was still gigging when he died in the early '70s.

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