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"Big Al Sears undoubtedly made the largest anonymous contribution to 20th Century America that can be easily referenced.
In 1951, Big Al Sears brought a copy of his composition "Castle Rock," recorded by Al as a member of the Johnny Hodges Orchestra,
to the DJ Alan Freed and this is when the jumpin' Blues became known as Rock 'n' Roll... Big Al Sears, an African American, was hugely involved in the Civil Rights Movement... Big Al was involved in a student action [at Harvard] that challenged 'de facto' segregation in the cafeterias, broke the color line in the upper echelon administration at major record companies, and made sure that ABC-Paramount artist Ray Charles was not cheated out of his royalties. And... did I mention that Big Al Sears was a star in the Duke Ellington Orchestra during Jazz's prime time: The Swing Era?"

Phil Schaap
Jazz Historian and DJ
WKCR-FM
New York City



"They called him Big Al Sears, and he was big in many ways: His sound on the tenor, his beat, his knowledge of music, and of the music business, and his heart. He had his own thing on that horn, with a special bounce and deep feeling. It wasn't easy to follow Ben Webster with Duke, but Al stepped right up to the plate, started swinging, and never stopped, until he took Johnny Hodges under his wing and made that Castle rock! It's good to know that his home town remembers this great musician."

Dan Morgenstern
Director
Institute of Jazz Studies
Rutgers University



"Al Sears was a renaissance musician and entrepreneur whose influence still resonates today. As a player, he spanned the period from the break through years of jazz in the 20s through the rise of rock and roll. His sax solos were a key ingredient in the quick rising prominence achieved by Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ who is widely credited with attaching the moniker of rock and roll to the emerging fast paced rhythm and blues of the early 1950s. Subsequently, his early recognition of the value of publishing rights and his position as one of the first African American executives on a major label made him a role model for all time."

Terry Stewart
President
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Cleveland, Ohio
 

A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF AL SEARS

Albert Omega Sears, who was born in Macomb, Illinois, on February 21st, 1910, had a remarkable career as a musician and businessman. While only in his mid-teens, he had a brief gig playing saxophone with Fats Waller in Harlem. Several years later, at the age of eighteen, he replaced Johnny Hodges in Chick Webb’s band and played in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. During that same year, 1928, he joined a road show entitled Keep Shufflin’, which was financed by Arnold Rothstein, a gangster who was reputed to have fixed the 1919 world series. Funding ran out while the show was in Chicago, but Sears soon found a job in 1929 with Zack Whyte’s Jazz Orchestra in Cincinnati.

During the early 1930s he played in various cities (Cincinnati, Buffalo, New York) and in various bands (including Elmer Snowden’s). Eventually he came to the notice of John Hammond, the illustrious promoter of jazz who is credited with discovering the likes of Benny Goodman, Billie Holliday, Count Bassie, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin, among others. By 1937, Hammond had become virtually a manager for Sears and obtained recording dates for him with Harry James. (Frank Sinatra recorded with the James band on one of those days.)

A job with the Vernon Andrade dance band gave him steady employment in New York City, where he played regularly during the late 1930s at Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom. At that stage of his career, he usually played alto sax in the dance band until midnight and then jammed on the tenor sax during the wee hours at a jazz club. From around 1941, he concentrated on the tenor sax, and played that instrument in Andy Kirk’s band, the “Twelve Clouds of Joy.”

During 1942 and 1943, soon after the U.S. entered World War II, Hammond helped arrange for Sears to lead a very talented band on a USO tour of military bases and camps. The favorable publicity from that tour helped Sears get two subsequent gigs, first with Lionel Hampton’s band and then with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Replacing Ben Webster, Sears was Ellington’s principal tenor saxophonist from mid-1944 until about the end of 1948. His solos on recordings made by that fabulous band in the mid-to-late 1940s are still greatly admired by jazz aficionados.

After leaving the Ellington Orchestra, Sears became a leading member of the Johnny Hodges Band, which enjoyed success in the early 1950s. Sears was the lead player on the hit recording of a jump tune that he composed entitled “Castle Rock.” In that stage of his career he was gravitating towards rhythm and blues, and he had a noteworthy influence on that genre as it gained popularity. After leaving the Hodges Band, he worked as a session player on many rhythm and blues records. Having business acumen, he also built up his own music publishing enterprise – Sylvia Music Company, named after his daughter.

During the mid-1950s, Sears went on to play a role in the emergence of rock-and-roll. When Alan Freed, the famous deejay and promoter, started staging big rock and roll shows, he featured Sears several times. Popularly known as Big Al Sears, he led the band that Freed formed for those shows, and he teamed up with his friend Jesse Stone to write one of Alan Freed’s theme songs: “Right Now, Right Now.” Those were prosperous years for Sears, but he soon faded from view as a performer when Freed’s career went into a steep decline in 1957. Freed’s Big Beat TV show was cancelled–in part because he refused to stop using black performers. (The ABC network wanted only white acts for national broadcasts that included the segregated South.)

After the end of his rock-and-roll heyday, Sears continued in the music publishing business. Indeed, he was an important executive in ABC Paramount and had noteworthy success in battling for fairer financial compensation for black recording artists such as Ray Charles.

Although Sears played less often, he continued to play very well. Moving back to jazz, he recorded a fine album of danceable music entitled “Swing’s the Thing” in 1960. That marked the end of his recording career, but he occasionally performed into the 1980s. Reacting to a performance at a jazz
club in 1985, a New York Times critic wrote: “His playing . . . was just as strong, full-toned and expressive as it was when he played in the Duke’s series of Carnegie Hall concerts in the 1940s.” That appearance in the mid-1980s was, incidentally, over 60 years after his youthful gig with Fats Waller.

Al Sears died in New York during 1990.
Sterling Kernek

     


The Al Sears Jazz Festival, MACC&DDC
P.O. Box 274
214 N. Lafayette Street • Macomb, IL 61455
Phone: 309-837-4855
info@searsjazzfestival.com




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