British Columbia

Jazz legend Sonny Criss remembered by Vancouver saxophonist Dylan Cramer

Just months before his hero Sonny Criss died, a teenaged Dylan Cramer travelled down to L.A. to train with him

Just months before his hero Sonny Criss died, a teenaged Dylan Cramer travelled down to L.A. to learn from him

Cover of an album by Williams 'Sonny' Criss, considered one of the greatest underground jazz musicians of all time. Ornette Coleman once called him “the fastest man alive,” thanks to his swinging, bebop sound.

A Vancouver saxophonist will be playing a tribute to his former mentor William "Sonny" Criss — considered to be one of the greatest underground jazz musicians of all time — at an upcoming concert.

When Dylan Cramer was 17, he heard Criss's music and immediately decided to drive down to Los Angeles to find him.

Dylan Cramer released a tribute album to his mentor Sonny Criss In 1997, 20 years after Sonny's death. (Dylan Cramer)

"As soon as I heard him play, something inside me said, 'I've got to go find him, I've got to study with him'," Cramer told Hot Air host Margaret Gallagher.

Little did he know, the time he spent with the American musician was some of Criss's last months alive.

In late 1977, Criss took his own life — his mother later revealed that he had been suffering from stomach cancer at the time of his death.

"I'm just the luckiest guy in the world I got to be in his room for eight months," Cramer said.

Tribute concert at Frankie's

Cramer and his quartet will pay tribute to the late legend on Friday, Jan. 29 at Frankie's Italian Kitchen & Bar in Vancouver.

Cramer said Criss's sound, which he described as "full of warmth and colour," was what inspired him to save up money, drive down to L.A. in the 1970s and seek out his mentorship — although Criss took some convincing to take him on as a mentee.

"Sonny had a wall that he put up. He was a very private person," Cramer said.

"He was extremely rude and offensive to me several times when I phoned him, but I kept calling because something was telling me, 'You've got to get to this guy'.

A sudden connection

Eventually Criss relented, and Cramer said they instantly had a connection.

William 'Sonny' Criss in 1960. Criss had a devoted following in his home of Los Angeles, and in France, but he failed to earn the recognition many felt he deserved before his untimely death in 1977. (Getty Images)

Cramer's father died when he was 13, and at that time hadn't talked about it to anyone. He thinks Criss, who had never known his own father, sensed the pain in his new mentee.

"He put his horn down and sat on the couch … and he just stared at me for a long time, and then he said, 'What's wrong with you boy?'

"And then, from holding this secret in about my father for six years, telling him, he just nodded his head, and that was it, we were brothers for life," Cramer said.

"He was so kind to me, and he had no reason to be. I was a very green player, I didn't know what I was doing, I had no experience in jazz. He could've easily just said, 'I don't think so,'  but he took me in like a brother."

Follow your heart

Cramer said he learned a lot from the veteran musician — how pain can be channeled into music, the importance of knowing the words to a song so that one's music can complement it, as well as the fast playing that Criss was renowned for.

Cramer said he is grateful he had the drive to seek out his musical hero and learn from him, even though he was young and inexperienced at the time.

I don't know how many of my students would have traveled all the way down there to do that, but I'm always encouraging them to take chances and to follow their heart," he said.

"If your heart is telling you something, go for it. Don't close that channel off, because we need that as artists, and the world needs that."

To hear the full episode of Hot Air with guest Dylan Cramer, listen to the audio labelled: Vancouver musician Dylan Cramer reflects on his mentor Sonny Criss


  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said Dylan Cramer teaches at Capilano University. He does not.
    Jan 25, 2016 10:42 AM PT