Chicago jazz great Ira Sullivan dies at 89

By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO - Sometimes it seemed as if Ira Sullivan could play anything that had a mouthpiece.

Tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, trumpet, fluegelhorn, flute, alto flute - the man applied his comprehensive virtuosity and pervasive musicianship to all of them, switching from one to the next with seeming effortlessness, often during a single set.

That he also was a bebop master who came of age in the era of Charlie Parker and shared a stage with him in 1955 added to Sullivan's mystique. And though Sullivan, who grew up in Chicago, moved to Florida at the end of 1962 and lived there ever since, he always considered himself a Chicago jazz man to the core, as did the music world.

Sullivan died in the early evening of Sept. 21 of metastatic pancreatic cancer in his Miami home at age 89, said his wife, Charlene Sullivan.

"He took Chicago with him when he came down here," she said.

A regular presence on the Chicago scene, Sullivan even late in life returned here annually around the time of the Chicago Jazz Festival, hosting sessions at the Jazz Showcase, with festival headliners dropping in for the privilege of riffing alongside him. The final time was last year.


"Ira as a musician was fearless, a natural," said flutist Marc Berner, who joined Sullivan in his Chicago residencies every year since 2008.

"A lot of people said (to Sullivan): How can you play trumpet and saxophones and flute?

"I don't think it's something that Ira really thought about much," added Berner. "His approach was so organic that when he switched from one instrument to another, he didn't have to be thinking about anything. He just adjusted his embouchure accordingly and had the ability and the gift to do that."

What came out of Sullivan's instruments could range from extraordinarily complex lines to disarmingly direct phrases. The musicality of Sullivan's work linked both.


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