Sonny Simmons, Barbara Donald, and Juma Sultan Interview

“Yeah, they was very musical peoples, in fact, on this island, it was a tribal-like thing on the weekends. All the peoples would get together and they would go into this spot, their favorite spot and they would have festivities of music and voodoo. They’d deal in voodoo and witchcraft and all that. It was all surrounded with music.” – Sonny Simmons

  • Sonny Simmons, Barbara Donald, and Juma Sultan interview 00:00
Interviewees: Sonny Simmons, Barbara Donald, Juma Sultan 
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Date: March 1969
Location: unknown
Language: English

This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission.

Sonny Simmons, Barbara Donald Interview Transcript:

A Note About the Transcriptions: In order to expedite the process of putting these interviews online, we are using a transcription service. Due to the challenges of transcribing speech – especially when it contains regional accents and refers to regional places and names – some of these interview transcriptions may contain errors. We have tried to correct as many as possible, but if you discover errors while listening, please send corrections to

Chris Strachwitz:               Sonny Simmons, Wondering if there’s anything to begin with that you might like to say about your music. How did you get into it? Where do you want to start?

Sonny Simmons:               I can say in regards to that, that I’m not a musician by profession but by nature. It’s an ordained divine gift which I’ve inherited and I think that’s why I am what I am today. I am what I am.

Chris Strachwitz:               You’re self-taught, are you? You just taught you everything.

Sonny Simmons:               Right, right. I taught myself everything.

Chris Strachwitz:               What is your birthday?

Sonny Simmons:               I was born August 4, 1933, in the state of Louisiana in an island called Sicily Island, Louisiana.

Chris Strachwitz:               Is it off the gulf?

Sonny Simmons:               Right, right off the gulf, right. It’s a little body of land surrounded by water, called Sicily Island, Louisiana. I  was born there and I came to California when I was 10. I’ve been venturing out all over the earth all this time up until now where we at today here, discussing about this next album which we’re going to make.

Chris Strachwitz:               Did you hear any music when you were little that you remember affected you?

Sonny Simmons:               Yeah, very much so. I heard quite a bit of music when I was between the ages of 4 and 5. I knew then that it was the driving force inside of me which drove me to express music. I knew that I would be dedicated then.

Chris Strachwitz:               Did your parents play music at all?

Sonny Simmons:               Yeah, they was very musical peoples. In fact on this island, it was a tribal-like thing on the weekends. All the peoples would get together and they would go into this spot, their favorite spot and they would have festivities of music and of voodoo. They’d deal in voodoo and witchcraft and all that. It was all surrounded with music.

Chris Strachwitz:               What kind of music was it? Was it that French stuff?

Sonny Simmons:               No, it wasn’t. This was African music.

Chris Strachwitz:               Is that right?

Sonny Simmons:               Yes, pure African music.

Chris Strachwitz:               Was it mostly drums or did you have horned instruments?

Sonny Simmons:               We had all types of instruments. We had the tambourine, horns, hand drums, strap drums, all different kinds of makes of drums that the people had created themselves on this island, which we lived.

Chris Strachwitz:               Was your ambition always been to play music or did you ever think about doing anything else?

Sonny Simmons:               Oh, no, no. No, I knew that that’s what I was going to do. I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to just that.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see. When you started to play horn, did you have any idols that you were listening to at the time?

Sonny Simmons:               Oh, yeah, I had plenty of idols but all of them fade except one. Charlie Parker. He was the only one that really stayed heavy up on me, you know what I mean? It’s like he was God.

Chris Strachwitz:               Then you played out here …… before you went east?

Sonny Simmons:               Yes. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:               You want to mention any of the people out here that maybe influenced you?

Sonny Simmons:               You meant before I went back east?

Chris Strachwitz:               Yeah. You said when you were 10 you came out here and then you stayed here until you went. You remember anybody in particular that inspired you out here?

Sonny Simmons:               There was quite a number of musicians coming from the east. Such as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, J. J. Johnson, and quite a few fellows, Charlie Mingus and all the greats that came to the coast during the period that I was here, we always got together and played a little bit. I was offered work by several of them but I wouldn’t take it because I was involved. The Prince and I, this is Prince Lasha here. We had a group going at that time so we managed to stick it out.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see. When did you go east for the first time?

Sonny Simmons:               ’63.

Chris Strachwitz:               In ’63. Why did you happen to go there? Did you think you had to be heard in New York?

Sonny Simmons:               That’s the jazz mecca. You have to always go there to really get your recognition. The Prince and I made a record called The Cry! from Contemporary Records in Hollywood.

Chris Strachwitz:               When did you do that?

Sonny Simmons:               We did that in ’62 and it was released ’62 of November. We did it in ’62 of November, it was released February of ’63. We started towards New York after that.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see. It was about 5 years ago.

Sonny Simmons:               About 6 years ago.

Chris Strachwitz:               Have you been overseas at all?

Sonny Simmons:               No, we going to make a trip overseas I think this May or April or something like that.

Chris Strachwitz:               You’ve never been over….

Sonny Simmons:               No, I have never been across the water.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see. How about this group that you’re playing with now?

Sonny Simmons:               This group in the (tape skips)

Chris Strachwitz:               Should we ask Barbara a few things? How she got started? [crosstalk 00:05:35] fascinating.

Sonny Simmons:               Right, right, you can do that. I think you’ve got just about enough on me.

Chris Strachwitz:               Barbara, would you mind giving us your birthday too, for the historians?

Barbara Donald:               My birthday is September 2, 1942, Virgo.

Chris Strachwitz:               In where?

Barbara Donald:               Virgo. I’m a Virgo. My birth sign.

Chris Strachwitz:               Oh, I see. Where were you born?

Barbara Donald:               In Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Chris Strachwitz:               Minneapolis, Minnesota. When did you first get into playing music?

Barbara Donald:               I was about 2 years old.

Chris Strachwitz:               Is that right? Did you start with trumpet right off?

Barbara Donald:               I started with piano.

Chris Strachwitz:               What kind of music were you listening to at that time? Do you remember?

Barbara Donald:               I started with legitimate music. I went through a lot of the stage of music.

Chris Strachwitz:               You mean the pop music or classical?

Barbara Donald:               Classical. I never was too interested in pop music.

Chris Strachwitz:               Did you play in high school?

Barbara Donald:               Yeah, I played in high school.

Chris Strachwitz:               In bands? When did you first get interested in jazz?

Barbara Donald:               I was about 12.

Chris Strachwitz:               Oh, it was that early. Hey there. What kind of people did you hear when you started playing?

Barbara Donald:               My first influences when I was that young were Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. Clifford Brown was I think the most anyone…

Chris Strachwitz:               When you finished school, did you go right to New York?

Barbara Donald:               Yeah, I went to New York when I was about 17.

Chris Strachwitz:               When you were 17. Did you meet some of the jazz musicians then?

Barbara Donald:               Yes, I was working with a rock ‘n roll band at the time I went there.

Chris Strachwitz:               Oh, yeah?

Barbara Donald:               Yeah.

Chris Strachwitz:               What was the name of the group?

Barbara Donald:               I don’t even remember, it’s been so long. I stayed there for some time and then I came back here. That’s when I met Sonny Simmons.

Chris Strachwitz:               Oh, you met him here on the west coast.

Barbara Donald:               Yeah, I met Sonny Simmons here in San Diego. We were working in San Diego.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see. Where was he playing at? Do you remember?

Barbara Donald:               Let’s see. A club called the Shoji in San Diego. I don’t think it’s there anymore.

Chris Strachwitz:               What kind of music were you playing there?

Barbara Donald:               We were playing probably not advanced as we are now, but we were ..

Chris Strachwitz:               You were still playing lots of the

Barbara Donald:               Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:               That’s good. Was it soul jazz? What would you label it?

Barbara Donald:               It was soul and everything. It was all mixed in.

Chris Strachwitz:               Who was it? Was it Prince Lasha?

Barbara Donald:               No, it was Sonny Simmons’s group at that time.

Chris Strachwitz:               Then you went with him back east?

Barbara Donald:               Yes, we went back east, right.

Chris Strachwitz:               You’ve been playing with him ever since then?

Barbara Donald:               Right.

Chris Strachwitz:               Is that right? I was wondering because you’re incredibly close.

Barbara Donald:               We’ve been playing together for a long time.

Chris Strachwitz:               Are there any ideas that you want to express about what you feel this music is about?

Barbara Donald:               I don’t think it’s about anything in this particular decade.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see.

Barbara Donald:               I think it’s about what’s going to be happening tomorrow all over the world.

Chris Strachwitz:               Who is this?

Barbara Donald:               This is Zarak Zarak Symphony.

Chris Strachwitz:               He travels with his the band.

Barbara Donald:               He plays the trumpet also.

Chris Strachwitz:               You learned to play the trumpet?

Barbara Donald:               Oh, yes. He’ll be recording in the next year.

Chris Strachwitz:               Have you recorded with Sonny Simmons? He has two Impulse records?

Barbara Donald:               No, I’ve done two on  with him on ESP.

Chris Strachwitz:               Two on ESP. Those are the only ones that have been issued under his own name, right?

Barbara Donald:               That is correct.

Chris Strachwitz:               What was that contemporary record issued under?

Barbara Donald:               That was under Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha’s.

Chris Strachwitz:               In what?

Barbara Donald:               It was under Sonny Simmons’s and Prince Lasha. Under both their names.

Chris Strachwitz:               Could I talk to your bass player a minute if we can him off the harpsichord?

Barbara Donald:               Juma?

Chris Strachwitz:               You think I could just ask you a couple of things about who you play with and what you like to play? You call yourself?

Juma Sultan:                      Juma.

Chris Strachwitz:               Juma. Would you mind telling us where you were born and raised?

Juma Sultan:                      No, I was born in Monrovia, California.

Chris Strachwitz:               In Monrovia, down near Los Angeles?

Juma Sultan:                      Right.

Chris Strachwitz:               What’s your birthday?

Juma Sultan:                      I was born in ’42.

Chris Strachwitz:               ’42.

Juma Sultan:                      April.

Chris Strachwitz:               April.

Juma Sultan:                      The 23rd.

Chris Strachwitz:               April 23rd. How did you happen to get into music? Do you remember?

Juma Sultan:                      I used to study art. I used to be a sculptor and painter and make jewelry. I studied at UCLA Art and I’ve been playing music almost all my life. I used to play the baritone horn which is similar to the trumpet and tuba and trumpet and guitar and singing.

Chris Strachwitz:               Singing too.

Juma Sultan:                      Right. Used to sing folk music.

Chris Strachwitz:               Oh, is that right?

Juma Sultan:                      A few years ago, it was through my teenage years.

Chris Strachwitz:               What kind of songs did you sing that you remember?

Juma Sultan:                      Mainly blues, things of that nature. Old blues.

Chris Strachwitz:               Did you ever make up any of your own?

Juma Sultan:                      At times, yeah.

Chris Strachwitz:               Do you ever feel like doing that again? Would you prefer to play ….

Juma Sultan:                      No, I’ve gotten more attached to drums and reed instruments and things of that nature. I still play a little guitar occasionally.

Chris Strachwitz:               You mentioned you have a group in the east that you work with from time to time.

Juma Sultan:                      We work with AMS, Aboriginal Music Society.

Chris Strachwitz:               The what?

Juma Sultan:                      Aboriginal Music Society.

Chris Strachwitz:               Aboriginal Music Society. Does it include any names of people we might know of?

Juma Sultan:                      Sonny Simmons has worked with –

Chris Strachwitz:               Oh, he’s played with it?

Juma Sultan:                      – with English horn and things of that nature.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see.

Juma Sultan:                      It’s primarily based around heavy poly rhythms with drums and chanters and voices.

Chris Strachwitz:               How long have you known Sonny Simmons?

Juma Sultan:                      I’ve known him for about 6 years. We’ve been playing together pretty extensively for about the last year and a half.

Chris Strachwitz:               Did you meet him out here on the coast too?

Juma Sultan:                      I met him on the cost. He’s originally from the coast also.

Chris Strachwitz:               He said he’s been out here since he was 10.

Juma Sultan:                      I met him here.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see. It’s a group out here that got to know each other.

Juma Sultan:                      Right, moving back east.

Chris Strachwitz:               Was there any comment that you have about the music that you feel?

Juma Sultan:                      No.

Chris Strachwitz:               It speaks for itself, I imagine.

Juma Sultan:                      Right.

Chris Strachwitz:               Could you tell me the names of the other people that were there? The other drummer?

Juma Sultan:                      At the recording session?

Chris Strachwitz:               Yeah.

Juma Sultan:                      Charles Shackleford, Shacky

Chris Strachwitz:               Shacky. He just plays drums around here?

Juma Sultan:                      He primarily plays flute and he plays drums also . He’s primarily a flute player. He’s one of the local musicians that very few people have heard about. He’s quite talented.

Chris Strachwitz:               The drummer, he told me he also plays rock sometimes.

Juma Sultan:                      Paul Smith. He plays locally with a couple of rock groups. I don’t know the particular names at the moment.

Chris Strachwitz:               How did he happen to know Sonny Simmons?

Juma Sultan:                      Paul and I, we worked together for about 2 years here in California. Then Sonny Simmons came from the east about a year and a half ago and we decided to go east with him. Paul and I both went and Paul came back just a couple of months ago.

Chris Strachwitz:               I see.

Juma Sultan:                      We just came back last week.

Chris Strachwitz:               This is really a new thing. I imagine it’s kind of hard to find work in this field since I know that the audiences are hard to come by.

Juma Sultan:                      Primarily, you have to deal with the colleges and things of that nature.

Chris Strachwitz:               Have you had any luck to get into some kind of a circuit or to get to know people who might book you?

Juma Sultan:                      Not extensively, no, we haven’t yet.

Chris Strachwitz:               I imagine your belief in your music keeps you going despite maybe lack of finances sometimes. What do you think keeps you going with it?

Juma Sultan:                      It’s just something you have to do, and that’s play.

Chris Strachwitz:               Have you ever been tempted to play more commercial music?

Juma Sultan:                      That’s no temptation, no.

Chris Strachwitz:               There’s no temptation.

Sonny Simmons:               I’ve tried it. I’ve tried it. There’s no temptation. Don’t worry there. We will not sell out. We’ll stick to our guns.  We know we going to emerge victorious in the end anyway. Right.

Chris Strachwitz:               I think that’s a very admirable thing, considering how few people are willing to really still do what they believe in.

Sonny Simmons:               Right, must do what you believe in.