Veteran Cleveland Jazz Great Buddy Sullivan Passes Away

photo of Roy King (drums) Marty Block (bass) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) Joe Hunter (piano) [Kathy Sullivan]
Roy King (drums) Marty Block (bass) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) Joe Hunter (piano) [Kathy Sullivan]
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Buddy Sullivan heard it more than once.

“You look more like an accountant than a jazz musician,” people would say to the slight, soft-spoken man with glasses. The saxophonist didn’t argue because he was in fact, both.

A veteran of the Cleveland jazz scene since the late 1960s, Sullivan died May 10 of natural causes. He was 97.

A native of Rochester, Minnesota, Sullivan grew up on a farm where he often said he played his saxophone for the cows who would listen to him over the fence. After high school, he toured with territory bands, which made their way around the Midwest. While Sullivan was a member of the Al Graham Orchestra, he met and married the band’s singer, Florence Hackett, whose stage name was Joan Roberts. In 1943, Sullivan went into the Army Air Corps, where he played USO shows.

photo of Buddy Sullivan in military uniform [Kathy Sullivan]

Buddy Sullivan [Kathy Sullivan]

After War World II ended, Sullivan joined Clevelander Alvino Ray’s Orchestra, which toured the Midwest. Ray wanted Sullivan to come with the band when it went to the West Coast, but Sullivan needed more money to support his growing family and he left the band. Sullivan returned to school and earned a degree in accounting from the University of Toledo.  Sullivan worked as a certified public accountant in Toledo during the day and led a jazz band at night. Visiting musicians often stopped to sit in with Sullivan, which offered him the opportunity to play with a number of jazz greats, including Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Frank Rosolino and Zoot Sims.

photo of Buddy Sullivan with saxophone [Kathy Sullivan]

[Kathy Sullivan]

In 1968, Sullivan and his family moved to Cleveland, where he quickly became part of the area jazz scene. Sullivan frequently backed national performers who came to the Front Row and Palace Theaters. In 1983, he and group of musicians began rehearsing big band charts together, first at Case Western Reserve University and later Lithuanian Hall. Those rehearsal sessions eventually led to the formation of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra in 1984, which featured Sullivan in the saxophone section.

Sullivan, whose playing reflected the influence of saxophonists Sims and Stan Getz, was known for his warm tone of his horn, his lyricism and an unerring sense of swing. Sullivan was a versatile player, able to adapt to nearly any jazz style. He was also generous in sharing his time and talent with younger musicians, including pianist Joe Hunter, who first played with Sullivan in the early 1980s as part of the Cleveland State University “Sundown Jazz” concert series.

photo of Martin Block (bass) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) Joe Hunter (piano) [Kathy Sullivan]

Martin Block (bass) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) Joe Hunter (piano) Peggy Sullivan (vocal) [Kathy Sullivan] 

“It was kind of a jazz epiphany for me, to be with somebody who was older than my parents. We talked about the music, and I realized that jazz is a continuum. You can have friends of all ages all sharing this common love of the music,”  Hunter said.

In the early 2000s, Hunter was leading a group with bass player Dallas Coffey that frequently performed at Nighttown. They often invited Sullivan to join them, which Hunter said proved to be an invaluable educational experience.

photo of Ki Allen (vocal) Bob Fraser (guitar) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) [Kathy Sullivan]

Ki Allen (vocal) Bob Fraser (guitar) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) [Kathy Sullivan]

“That was just a thrill, because we were exploring the Great American Songbook, and, of course, Buddy knew every song ever written.  He was one of those old school guys where you could ask him if he knew it. He said, ‘well, what's the first note?’ That was it,” Hunter said.

photo of cover of Buddy Sullivan's recording "Buddy Sullivan Celebrates Life and Love" [Kathy Sullivan]

[Kathy Sullivan]

In 2006, Sullivan recorded the disc “Buddy Sullivan Celebrates Life and Love” with Hunter, Coffey, bass player Martin Greenberg and drummers Paul Samuels and Roy King.  Sullivan remained an active player performing with Hunter, the TOPS Swing Band and Evelyn Wright’s “Jazz Alive” until he turned 92.

Hunter’s hope is that once clubs reopen, he and his fellow jazz musicians can come together to remember their friend.

“It's unfortunate we all can't get it together now and put on some sort of tribute show to him. Hopefully when things open up again, we'll be able to all gather at Nighttown or someplace like that and play some music and celebrate his spirit,” Hunter said.

photo of Bob Fraser (guitar) Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) [Kathy Sullivan]

Bob Fraser (guitar)  Buddy Sullivan (saxophone) [Kathy Sullivan]

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