By Philip Booth
Given the depth and breadth of Ira Sullivan's work in jazz, and the longevity of his career, the list of greats with whom the multi-instrumentalist has played could easily fill up a newspaper feature or two.
Suffice it to say that Sullivan, 78, was 12 when he led his first band, a trio with a drummer and an accordion player. He has worked with everyone from drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to saxophonist and bebop forefather Charlie Parker to electric bass giant Jaco Pastorius.
Sullivan, a five-time Grammy nominee, has shared stages or recording studios with "every major jazz musician in the world," he said recently from Miami, his home since the early '60s.
The saxophonist and trumpeter, who comes to Ybor City this Sunday for his 14th or so concert in partnership with the Tampa Jazz Club, was heard last year on pianist Bob Albanese's One Way/Detour, a widely distributed CD on the Zoho label.
But it has been nearly a decade since Sullivan released a CD under his own name. Why the wait?
"I never was interested in recording," he said. "I'm only interested in playing. The only time I record is when somebody nails me down. First off, I don't like to wear earphones. They take the feeling away from your palate and your jaw, the feeling of your instrument. To me the playing is where it's at."
Sullivan's aptitude for playing in front of audiences came young. At age 4, the Washington, D.C., native learned trumpet from his father. As a teenager growing up in Chicago, he took on tenor saxophone at the behest of his mother. The budding musician could always count on receptive crowds for his early performances, including the families of his father's 14 siblings.
While in his early 20s in Chicago, Sullivan fronted a group backing the likes of saxophonists Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt, trumpeter Nat Adderley and singer Johnny Hartman. In 1955, he spent a week playing trumpet with Parker, a bebop idol to the younger man.
"He was drunk the first night and it took six of us to lift him into the cab," Sullivan recounted. "After the second day, he said, 'Ira, I can't get drunk.' That was because the doctors had shot him with B-12. I had a beautiful, alert, wonderful Charlie Parker the rest of the week. He was healthy and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We had a wonderful week together. He treated me like the greatest trumpet player he had ever played with. A month later, he died."
Sullivan regularly switches between tenor sax and trumpet on most gigs. For Sunday's performance with pianist Michael Royal, bassist Richard Drexler and former Bill Evans Trio drummer Marty Morell, he's likely to also pick up alto sax, soprano sax, flute, flugelhorn and various percussion instruments.
"I think differently for each one," he says. "One has nothing to do with the other. I don't approach any of them as if it were the same instrument. It's like having five alter egos."