Norman “Straight Ahead” Simmons: 2.2 + Billion Seconds in Jazz & Counting!
By Ron Eldridge
When a person has 2,272,100,544 + seconds of anything, it’s worthy of a mention in the Guinness World Book of Records! Here’s a glance at one of the world’s most prolific conductors, arrangers, composers, educators and musical accompaniments – Mr. Norman “Straight Ahead” Simmons.
Hailing from the Windy City of Chicago where Mr. Simmons established his indelible musical reputation, he played with the great jazz icon Charlie Bird Parker during his last gig in the Windy City. Mr. Simmons is the only surviving member of that gig.
The major change in music for him came after the demise of such greats as Joe Williams, Carmen McRea, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughn, Anita O’Day, Hellen Humes, Dakota Staton and a plethora of others for whom he has accompanied, composed and arranged. Here’s a fun fact: The popular song “Wade in the Water” that garnered Ramsey Lewis commercial fame in 1965 – it was Mr. Simmons’ arrangement for Johnny Griffin back in 1959 that was used, making Simmons’ behind-the-scene mark.
Currently Mr. Simmons is self-publishing his writings in several books. His latest are: “Jazz Vocals Icons Yesterday & Tomorrow,” “My Piano,” a book for beginners, and others that are in the works. He also continues to coach, tutor and educate students worldwide. As a former adjunct professor at William Patterson State in New Jersey, Mr. Simmons caught the attention of Winston-Salem’s own vocal stylist Diana Tuffin.
Mr. “Straight Ahead” continues to grace the stages at Jazz festivals and Hot Jazz venues worldwide. When asked what drives and excites a person who has accumulated 2.2+ billion seconds in Jazz, he replied, “Every program, project and show, no matter the size, excites me to this day!”
When I inquired as to who it was that sparked Mr. Simmons’ jazz palette, the name Duke Ellington came up. “Straight Ahead” was living on the third story of a flat and the guy on the second floor was a lover of jazz. All he did was blast Duke’s music, and that started it for Simmons. Later on in his musical journey, Mr. Simmons performed and recorded with the Edward Ellington Big Band (Duke’s Grandson).
There is so much wisdom and knowledge inside this man’s mind that it is amazing what flows through his thoughts. Mr. Simmons’ outlook about the piano keys that he has been stroking for over 2.2+ billion seconds is such: “The keys are like a jungle, and making sense of the keys is very therapeutic, not only for the listener, but for the artist alike.”
If you wish to learn more about Mr. Simmons, email him at email@example.com. He would be happy to hear from you!
Ron Big “E” Eldridge is a Winston-Salem resident and freelance writer who frequently pens a Music Corner column about the local jazz and music scene.