Sonny Dallas

Sonny Dallas, bass | Session at Sonny's basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004| Photo by Mark Weber

Sonny Dallas, bass | Session at Sonny’s basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004| Photo by Mark Weber

I loved Sonny’s walking. He was a master of that rock-solid four-even-quarter-notes to the measure. He just laid it out steady as a steam roller. How a person is able to walk through the chords of jazz standards, with aplomb, is a marvel to me. A perfect example of simple yet profound.

He told me some great stories. His love of Teddy Kotick, and Paul Chambers. And later, his admiration for the bass player Marc Johnson on Bill Evans’ last recordings.

His connection with Lennie was so deep I probably should merely direct you to the extant recordings — NOTE TO NOTE (Jazz Records); and the Look Up And Live television broadcast Live from the Half Note, June 6, 1964, released in various configurations on CDs and LPs over the years, also DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM, and by extension Lee Konitz’s MOTION.

Session at Sonny's basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004 | John McCutcheon, drums; Richard Tabnik, alto; Sonny Dallas, bass | Photo by Mark Weber
Session at Sonny’s basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004 | John McCutcheon, drums; Richard Tabnik, alto; Sonny Dallas, bass | Photo by Mark Weber

It must have been RT who introduced me to Sonny Dallas. Sonny had been laying low way out on Long Island, playing informally, coaching high school football, collecting lava lamps, and accumulating electronic gear he’d find at garage sales (he was one of the first cats I knew who had an MP3 player with a little flash card he wore on a strap around his neck) because he never gave up the habit of listening to music.

In certain knowing circles Sonny is regarded as being a member of Lennie Tristano’s greatest quintet.

Sonny moved to NYC in 1955. He had been trained thoroughly in his hometown of Pittsburgh so that when he came to town he was never out of work. I don’t know what it was but Sonny liked to talk to me. He might merely have been at that time in his life when he felt like talking.

Whenever he’d call I’d drop everything and sit down and listen because he would usually want to kill an hour or more. He’d catch me just as I was about out the door to go swimming ( I used to swim every Friday in those days — 25 cents at the high school pool nearby) so, what are you going to do? This is Sonny Dallas for crissakes. A very accomplished individual.

Session at Sonny's basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004 | John McCutcheon, drums; Richard Tabnik, alto; Sonny Dallas, bass | Photo by Mark Weber
Session at Sonny’s basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004 | John McCutcheon, drums; Richard Tabnik, alto; Sonny Dallas, bass | Photo by Mark Weber

So, I was gassed when I was invited to one of his private sessions.

New York Style: Transportation


I’m staying at 113th & Broadway
catch the (1) train to 66th walk
over to RT’s on 67th we catch a train
or cab, something, head further
south in the hubbub, wait on some corner
for John the drummer to slide up, we pile
into his tiny car (Mini-Cooper) and cross
about sixteen bridges, causeways, detours,
roads-under-construction, tollbooths, speed and lights flashing
everywhere till we get onto the open road heading directly
east to Sonny’s

If an ensemble is not careful a strong walking bass can take over. The path that that bass is taking is inexorable. Pre-ordained. Writ in stone.

One of the funniest stories was a gig he had at a prison, probably in the 60s, and some of the toughs were up next to the stage and one giant gorilla kept taunting Sonny, “Hey, bass player, let my man play, my man is all together on that bass.” And Sonny was no wallflower, he was a big sinewy cat himself, but this was making him nervous. Killers and gangsters are nipping at his heels. So, he finally says, “Okay, man, take it.” And this guy gets up there and goes “BLAM BLAM BLAM” on the bass, strumming some ridiculous nonsense until Sonny goes, “Give me that bass, gawd damn,” and the guy says, “Yeh, I’m getting it together, man.” And Sonny says, “Sure you are.”

Another crazy story was this jam session when he learned some uptight L7 was due to arrive and Sonny decided to flip his wig — he took off all of his clothes and stood there stark raving naked playing bass as if nothing was the least bit abnormal. Just for laughs, living the artist’s life in Greenwich Village of the 50s.

Or the time Bill Evans fired him. Now, mind you, to the end of his days Sonny revered Bill’s music (he had that MP3 player with the ear phones loaded with Bill’s music). But, Sonny was a player, he wanted to range free. Bill had arrangements and various rococo decorative things he required of his bass players. After a couple weeks of this Sonny blew a cork and said, “I can’t cut this,” and over the telephone he started grunting his hard-hitting walking line, and at the end of that night Bill wrote Sonny a check and cordially said, “It’s been good working with you, Sonny.”

Session at Sonny's basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004 | John McCutcheon, drums; Richard Tabnik, alto; Sonny Dallas, bass | Photo by Mark Weber
Session at Sonny’s basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004 | John McCutcheon, drums; Richard Tabnik, alto; Sonny Dallas, bass | Photo by Mark Weber

It was like he stepped out of a time warp. He was like an archetypal bohemian hipster, his talk was full of you dig, you got eyes? man, you down with that?

It was Sonny paid me one of my proudest compliments when at this session he said, “Man, I feel like you’re in the band, man, I can feel you listening.”

To ride a galloping horse across an open plain is something I never got to do in this life, but I did get to hear Sonny Dallas.

Mark Weber | February 28, 2o12

Sonny Dallas, bass | Session at Sonny's basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004| Photo by Mark Weber

Sonny Dallas, bass | Session at Sonny’s basement studio, Shirley, New York, December 2, 2004| Photo by Mark Weber

12 Comments

  1. Francis Dominic Joseph Dallas
    October 27, 1931 – July 22, 2007

    aka Frank “Sonny” Dallas

    His loving wife Teresa and their poodle Pebbles

  2. Great page! Frank “Sonny” Dallas was a great person, great teacher, great musician, great historian…just a multi faceted genius! Two things: 1. He really helped me see how jazz was the center of the artistic universe at one time. He’d look out into the audience and see actors, writers, poets, painters…all who wanted what jazz “had.” 2. One time I asked him, “Sonny, how did you do it?” He knew exactly what I mean: how did he play so great on such difficult and original music for a decade when many bassists could not handle even one set with Lennie Tristano? I mean, Sonny had chops, but so did others; Sonny had an original harmonic sense but so did others…what made him different? What? What?……….his reply: “I let myself be vulnerable!”

  3. And, by the way, it WAS me who “got you in” to meet Sonny. He was pretty reclusive and didn’t want to be interviewed or photographed by anyone… I literally laid my friendship with him on the line and said: “Sonny, I Know you’ll dig Mark; if you don’t, you can blame me!”…and of course, y’all became great friends. I knew it all the time…heh heh…

  4. Is that beautiful woman at 1:45 – 2:01 in the YouTube footage Sheila Jordan?

    This is the Look Up And Live television show.

    What great cinematography, what a band, what a time!

  5. Hi Mark –

    Great stuff, like you and Richard I still love Sonny dearly. He was one of the few men who I have kissed on the lips! (It’s an Italian thing …)

    I still think of him constantly, and from time to time I listen to the recording of his WYRS interview, it is great to hear his voice again, so full of life. I’ve heard similar but slightly different versions of some of your stories, and in my head I hear him telling them.

    I couldn’t be at the service for him that Richard put together but I wrote a brief tribute and Bob Keller read it at the church. I subsequently have written a book, the website is a link to it. The piece about Sonny is in the Appendix but he appears in the first sentence of the book and is prominent throughout.

    Thanks again for the memories!

    John Klopotowski

  6. I just got back from listening to Ted Brown, Mike Kanan, Murray Wall & Taro at the Kitano where I had a nice conversation with Judy & MIke Canterino…& then I open my email & get this……talk about a beautiful end to a great evening….I was actually at Connie’s (I think) one night when Richard called up Sonny, it was toward the end & Rich passed the phone around & I introduced myself & just said I play tenor & we talked for a brief few minutes……charley

  7. Richard Tabnik

    March 1, 2012 at 10:51 am

    John the Boptist!

    Great to hear from you!

    Best to you and yours always!

    Keep in touch!

    RT

  8. Thanks Mark, this is great reading.

  9. I don’t know why the two portraits of Sonny are so grainy. I like them, though. They look something like a Seurat painting. This could be damage done at the airport with their witless determination to catch terrorist poets with cameras. They stripped me down to my pants and teeshirt that December and it was cold at LaGuardia. Then they fried my film in their X-ray machine.
    AH WELL . . . .

    By the way, that’s a Gretsch electric bass that Sonny is playing.

  10. Regarding the beautiful lady at 1:45 – 2:01 in the Half Note footage, Sheila Jordan watched the film and says that it is not her.

    Connie has identified the lady as Mickey Silverman who is Steve Silverman’s wife.

    In my radio interview with Sheila yesterday she says that she was frequently at the Half Note during those days and was most likely in attendance this night.

  11. telcon w/Richard Tabnik this morning

    Asked him how many years he participated in those informal jam sessions at Sonny’s. He said, “Two years, once a week, and we hardly missed a week.” Every Friday evening he and McCutcheon would drive out from the city. Jimmy Halperin would be there about half the time, and other times it was only a trio, and then there was a trumpeter that dropped in from time to time.

    They also played at Billy Bauer’s Memorial at St Peters, the “jazz church” at 53rd & Lex. The band for the memorial was Connie Crothers, Sonny Dallas, John McCutcheon, Jimmy Halperin, and Richard Tabnik. They played only one tune: Billy’s “Marionette” (loosely based on “September in the Rain”). RT said Sonny was a complete pleasure to work with during rehearsals and the performance of this complicated piece of music. No recording is known to exist, alas.

  12. did he ever talk about his children? I am sure he didn’t. he wanted nothing to do with us anyway.

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