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Sonny Simmons performs on May 30th 1997 at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Frans Schellekens/Getty Images

Saxophonist Sonny Simmons left an indelible impression on fellow alto player Steve Lehman, who vividly remembers the first time he heard Simmons live: It was 1997, Lehman was assisting drummer Pheeroan akLaff – on the faculty at Wesleyan College at the time, where Lehman was a student – who had a gig with Simmons that Lehman attended. The impact was immediate.

"He was somebody who could bring people to their feet and make them shout, just with his sound," Lehman writes in an email. "You hear it right away and there's no faking it. That kind of clarity and vision for what you want your instrument to do. And to move people in that way — with just your sound and phrasing and the nuances of inflection — that's something I'm still striving for."

"... to move people in that way — with just your sound and phrasing and the nuances of inflection... "

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Simmons died last week at the age of 87. The cause of death remains unknown, but his life is cause for considerable celebration. Although jazz has established a place in academic and cultural institutions, it was and largely still is an outsider's music, and Simmons was an outsider's outsider. With two notable exceptions, his entire discography as a leader took place on small, independent labels that were often based overseas, yet he also played on Iron Man and Conversations two of Eric Dolphy's masterpieces.

As documented in Robert Brewster's 2003 film, In Modern Time, Simmons spent a decade homeless, sleeping in a box and playing on the streets of San Francisco. Yet he rebounded, catching the attention of executives at Qwest Reords and putting out his best-known recordings, Ancient Ritual in 1994 and American Jungle in 1997, which featured a stellar ensemble of pianist Travis Shook, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana. He also connected with saxophonist and composer Michael Marcus and formed the Cosmosamantics, which released nine albums from 2001-13.

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"I loved his connection to Bird, and his innovative 'new way' to phrase lines with a strong blues base, similar to Ornette Coleman's approach to improvisation," said Marcus. "Sonny's style is so true to the blues along with freedom, harmonic knowledge and an undeniable pure tone with beauty."

Sonny Simmons was born Aug. 4, 1933 in Sicily Island, La. His parents were forced at gunpoint to abandon their property when Sonny was six – in the documentary, he describes his father hiding him behind a tree to avoid possible gunfire. His family later moved to Oakland, California where Simmons took up music, first playing the English horn then turning to alto saxophone at 16, thanks to the aforementioned inspiration of Charlie Parker. Simmons began playing professionally shortly thereafter, but his career truly took off when he moved to New York. He did sideman dates with Prince Lasha and both men performed with Dolphy on his superb 1963 recordings, Iron Man and Conversations. He also joined drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison on Illumination in 1963.

Of Simmons work with Lasha, notably Firebirds, Lehman says, "It's sort of smack-dab in the middle between the sound of Ornette Coleman's small groups and Jackie McLean's small group recordings with Bobby Hutcherson."

Simmons later began recording as a leader, too. He released Staying on the Watch (ESP) in 1966 and Music from the Spheres (ESP) in 1968. Both were innovative musically and socially, as they featured his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, a rarity back then. Label Manager Steve Holtje said of the recordings, "They're tonal but pushing tonality to its limits, and using freer structures; they also have a soulfulness that, if not 'spiritual jazz,' is in the next neighborhood over."

Following his Qwest recordings, Simmons recorded regularly and gained some recognition as a crucial voice during one of jazz's most innovative times. Holtje said of Simmons lasting importance, "he could be held up as an example to anti-free naysayers. He clearly had a strong bebop background and could blow on changes when he wanted to. In that sense he extended the legacy of Eric Dolphy, with whom he played, of sounding free while also displaying solid standard techniques, and of playing at the edge of harmony in his improvisations."

Marcus added, "Sonny's contributions to the music are enormous. He lays in the pantheon with the great innovators and masters of the music," he said. "Sonny was more than just a musician, he was (and is) a messenger of universal sounds that always had a prayer included."

Live at Vision Festival, 2013.

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Why is 104.9 becoming an NPR station?

104.9 FM has been purchased by Northern California Public Media. The former KDHT is now KRCB FM. The frequency has been changed, by permission of the FCC, from a commercial station to a non-commercial station. NorCal Public Media wanted to acquire a larger, more powerful radio frequency, and Amaturo Sonoma Media Group was willing to sell 104.9 to NorCal Public Media.

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The former KRCB FM Radio 91 signal covers a very small area, and only a portion of Sonoma County. KRCB FM listeners have made it clear over the decades that what they wanted most from KRCB was to expand the geographic reach and signal strength of the public media news and music service. Over the course of two years, NorCal Public 

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KRCB 1049 radio logoBrowse around our site and you'll see a few ways you can join in the effort to make KRCB 104.9 a great community radio station for Sonoma County. You can record a message that we play on-air, give us some new ideas, and keep abreast of what we're doing. New ways to engage with us our coming soon.
 
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“Sonoma County Baby” began in 2013 as a way to connect new Sonoma County mothers with the history of the county. In cooperation with Sutter Health, a nice book was published that featured the stories of several dozen Sonoma County families, describing how they each came to Sonoma County. The book was given to new moms. The project’s website is here: http://sonomacountybaby.com/.
 
Now, we want to put stories like this on KRCB-FM, Sonoma County’s NPR station. How and when did your family come to Sonoma County? Does your story include some old Sonoma County landmarks that some of us might remember? What was interesting about it? Finding the interesting part is important! These recording are all short, less than a minute or under 100 words. That’s not enough time to tell the whole story—just the highlights. Here's a sample script that’s about the right length. Click "Read More" to hear what others have submitted.
 
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You can do a recording right from your computer or smartphone, but please use an external microphone (ear buds are good enough). Don't worry, you can try as many times you like until you get a "good take." We won’t hear any of the bad ones. After you finish, the page will give you a chance to listen and decide if you like it. Once you get a good one, you'll be asked for your name and email address. Then hit "Send.” (Click "reset" if you would rather try again.)
 
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Each week, Santa Rosa-based travel writer Dana Rebmann introduces us to great local spots to visit. Listen on-air for the latest. Or click here:
 
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Listen to the Sonoma County Birdwatch!

fullerThroughout the week, we play short segments about what birds are out in Sonoma County and what they sound like, from Harry Fuller. Harry spent his working career as a TV and Internet newsman in the Bay Area.  He’s been leading bird trips and writing about birds for thirty years.  He has written three natural history books: Freeway Birding, I-5 San Francisco to Seattle; San Francisco’s Natural History, Sand Dunes to Streetcars; Great Gray Owl in California, Oregon & Washington. He blogs regularly about birds: atowhee.blog.  And he frequently leads birding trips on the Pacific Coast. Check him out at http://www.towhee.net/.

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