Sid Simmons, jazz pianist and mentor, dies at 63

BACK IN THE DAY, the cats used to bop over to Ortlieb's Jazzhaus to give a listen to one of the most highly regarded jazz pianists in the city.

Sid Simmons was frequently called on to accompany other musicians, but he had a style all his own, much appreciated by fans and fellow musicians.

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Simmons

"He combined the class of Bill Evans with the soul and hard-hitting style of Oscar Peterson," a critic wrote.

And along with being a fine musician and a mentor to many other pianists, as well as an influence on other instrumentalists, Sid was a sweet man, soft-spoken and friendly.

After a gig, he would sit at the bar, sip a drink and puff on a cigar and chat about everything from music to the Eagles.

James "Sid" Simmons died Nov. 5 of cardiac arrest after surgery. He was 63.

"The tall gentlemanly Simmons was a ubiquitous presence on the Philadelphia jazz scene, performing regularly at venues such as TnT Monroe's, Ortlieb's, Zanzibar Blue and Chris' Cafe," wrote Lee Mergner in the Jazz Times. "Early in his career Simmons was a member of The Visitors, a group led by saxophonists Carl and Earl Grubbs.

"Later in just his 20s, he was a member of Locksmith, a band of Philadelphia jazz players, including Tyrone Brown, John Blake, Leonard "Doc" Gibbs and Millard "Pete" Vinson, who backed Grover Washington Jr., both live and on records, including on "Live at the Bijou" and "Reed Seed."

Sid also recorded with Valery Ponomarev ("Messenger," 'A Star For You," "Live in Denver," "Live at Varant"), John Swana ("Philly Gumbo, Volume 2") and Mike Boone ("Better Late than Never," "Yeah, I Said It!")

"Sid recorded sporadically as a leader, but was always a first-call musician for significant jazz shows in Philadelphia," Mergner wrote.

"His latest unit with Mike Boone on bass and Byron Landham was unofficially dubbed the 'Philly Rhythm Section.' "

Sid also performed frequently with Philly sax legend Bootsie Barnes, "for whom he was a de facto music director," Mergner wrote.

In the '80s, Sid was a member of the house band at TnT Monroe's, where they backed a virtual who's who of modern jazz.

"Sid was always a team player as a musician and person," said violinst John Blake, who performed with Sid off and on for 40 years.

"He helped so many young players, who he'd let sit in. He was nonjudgmental."

"Musically, he had his own vocabulary," said bassist Gerald Veasley.

"His lines as a pianist seemed more horn-like and very clear and melodic. I've heard him described as the quintessential sideman, but I see him as a pianist who made everyone else sound good.

"He was the kind of guy who wouldn't draw attention to himself. He accepted that role and realizing how critical that supportive role is.

"In a way, it's another kind of leadership, because you have to sublimate your own ego for the whole."

Sid was also a devoted family man. "He was a great dad," said John Blake.

"He didn't have a problem changing diapers or cooking."

He is survived by his mother, Vevlynn Simmons; a daughter, Asia Simmons-Chulan; two sons, Kairi and Ariel Simmons; and two grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. tomorrow at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 54th Street and Wynnefield Avenue.

Friends may call at 9 a.m.