Ira Sullivan, Who Built a Legendary Jazz Career on Both Trumpet and Saxophone, Is Dead at 89

Sep 24, 2020

Ira Sullivan, who distinguished himself as both a trumpeter and a saxophonist during a modern jazz career spanning more than 65 years, leaving a durable legacy on the Chicago scene as well as the field of jazz education, died on Sept. 21 at his home in Miami, Fla. He was 89.

His wife, Charlene Sullivan, speaking to the Chicago Tribune, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Though he never enjoyed widespread name recognition as a solo artist, Sullivan was revered among musicians, and within the two localities lucky enough to claim him as their own. Having been forged by a thriving Chicago scene in his youth, he handsomely repaid the favor, contributing to the city’s jazz culture for decades after he left for a teaching job in Miami. And in that job, at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, he mentored generations of young musicians while becoming a prized eminence in the South Florida area.

Sullivan was self-taught as a musician, which lends an added dimension to his achievement in mastering the entirely different embouchures of brass and woodwinds. He played tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones, not just with fluency but with full personality — and the same was true of his trumpet playing, to the extent that it would be hard to say what his primary instrument really was.

It’s only fitting that one of his earliest recorded credits was Introducing Roland Kirk — a 1960 album by another, ultimately more famous musical multitasker, and an obvious kindred spirit. Sullivan had spent the previous several years becoming an onrushing young bebopper, working alongside trumpeter Red Rodney and, for one heady week in Chicago, with alto saxophonist and lodestar Charlie Parker.

He also put in a seven-month stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and made some strong early statements of his own. On the 1959 date Blue Stroll, he communes with some sharp fellow Chicagoans: Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone, Jody Christian on piano, Victor Sproles on bass and Wilbur Campbell on drums. The opening cut — “Wilbur’s Tune,” by Campbell ­— demonstrates Sullivan’s boppish proficiency on trumpet. (Elsewhere on the album he plays alto and baritone saxes as well as the alto horn, also known as a peck horn; hear him cycle through all four instruments on “Bluzinbee,” with Griffin tearing it up on alto and baritone.)

Sullivan’s next album was Bird Lives! — a Parker tribute recorded at the Birdhouse in Chicago in 1962, months before he left town for what he initially thought would be a limited teaching engagement. But he kept his ties to the Windy City, returning often for residencies. He was a fixture on the Chicago Jazz Festival and at the Jazz Showcase, whose esteemed founder, Joe Segal, died last month at 94.  

Ira Brevard Sullivan, Jr., was born not in Chicago but Washington, D.C., where he first picked up a trumpet at the tender age of 3. His family was full of spirited amateur musicians, so while his father taught him his first trumpet fundamentals, his mother got him up to speed on tenor saxophone as a teenager, so he could fill a vacant seat in concert band.

The Sullivans moved to Chicago when he was still a child, and he basked in the city’s vibrant scene, which comprised hometown heroes as well as luminaries passing through. His early trumpet influences included Harry James, the dashing bandleader, and Clyde McCoy, who had a hit with “Sugar Blues.”

Sullivan began making his own name as a teenager, playing with the likes of Rodney, trumpeter Conte Condoli and tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose. In 1956 he received his official benediction in the form of an album titled The Billy Taylor Trio Introduces Ira Sullivan.

The move to Miami in 1962 came at the invitation of Jerry Coker, a veteran big band player who had helped establish a jazz program there. At first Sullivan balked: “I’m a player, not an academician,” he recalled saying. But after being reassured that this was precisely what the program needed, he settled in and found his calling as an educator and mentor.

There was also stability in a faculty position, which not only suited Sullivan’s home life but also helped straighten out his system after he’d fallen prey to substance abuse. “It wasn’t a voice from on high,” he told Chicago critic Larry Kart in 1977, for a piece reprinted in the book Jazz in Search of Itself, “but you know the line ‘Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down’ — it was that kind of thing. The Creator came in and said, ‘It’s all over for you; you’re going to change.’ I didn’t have a special discipline, didn’t go through any program. It was a very painful way to do it — painful not only for me but also for my family. But it worked.”

In addition to his wife, Sullivan is survived by two sons, Brev and Brogan Sullivan, a daughter, Leslie, and two granddaughters.

Sullivan’s legacy also includes the countless musicians who learned from him, either in a classroom or on the bandstand. Some of these younger players, like pianist Jim Holman and vibraphonist Jim Cooper, ended up enlisting Sullivan as a featured sideman on their albums; here is the title track from Tough Town, Cooper’s 1991 Delmark debut.

Sullivan also appears as an honored elder on Stories and Negotiationsan acclaimed album by Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things, recorded at Millennium Park in 2008. Reed, a drummer and composer who has also become an archivist and historian of Chicago jazz, dedicated one piece on that album, “The And of 2,” to Sullivan. His solo, on tenor, is the picture of surefooted bluster, hard-swinging from nose to tail.