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Attired in a shredded black muscle T and tight leather pants, long blonde hair framing his face, guitarist Brev Sullivan joyfully digs in on 1980s rock hits by the likes of Starship, Journey and Guns N’ Roses. Holding court on the stage at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood in mid-October, Sullivan’s Skin City Angels are part of an established South Florida tribute band scene, one that has provided him steady income and a chance to play tunes that dominated the airwaves during his formative teen years.
Of course, Sullivan’s formative years were also spent in the company of his greatest influence, his father, the late multi-instrumental jazz legend Ira Sullivan. The younger Sullivan recently released Ira: The Tribute Album (Blue Road), a labor of love that allows him to pay homage to his father, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 89, and showcase his facility and taste in a variety of jazz settings. The repertoire, all tunes played or recorded by Ira, encompasses standards (snappy reads of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” and Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight”); a lovely, airy take on Ralph Towner’s “Icarus”; and a chugging rendition of Heitor Villa Lobos’ “Little Train of Caipira”; as well as Ira originals, one by Ira’s close friend and associate Simon Salz, a Brev original, and of course, “Amazing Grace,” the spiritual with which the elder Sullivan almost always ended his concerts.
When the opportunity to record the tribute album was presented to him, the guitarist leapt at the chance. “I had no choice,” says Sullivan, sitting in a booth at the Flashback Diner in Davie, not far from the Hard Rock’s monumental neon guitar, and a few miles from the Dania Beach home in which he spent childhood years before his dad relocated the family to Miami. “I mean, this is where it all comes into play. I had been in a very lucrative rock career — still am — but I was getting to the point where I was starting to get interested in what my dad was doing. And I wanted to spend more time with him.”
In 2015, Sullivan left his working rock group and dedicated himself to learning jazz at the side of a master. In addition to performing with him at jazz clubs throughout South Florida, Sullivan accompanied his dad to Chicago, where Ira had grown up and made his name. For years, Ira would return to his old stomping grounds and preside over jams at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, which would take place during the Chicago Jazz Festival and attract many of the event’s young players eager to share the stage with a bebop veteran. Unfailingly generous, Ira would warmly introduce each player, displaying a steel-trap memory when it came to names.
Sullivan was awed upon his first visit to the Showcase with his dad. After a gig one night, he walked around the club, studying the pictures of the jazz greats adorning the walls. “So I walked over and I see a picture of Ira,” he says, “and I walk a few feet and see another picture of Ira and another picture of Ira, and I’m just staring. And some lady comes over: ‘Are you OK?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, this is the first time I’ve been here and I’m just blown away.’ It’s like being a foreigner in a land and touring and you see how important a loved family member is to so many people. When my dad’s home, he’s just dad, but when he’s there, he’s ‘Ira Sullivan.’”
Ira Sullivan had already earned his jazz bona fides when he moved to South Florida in 1962. Equally gifted on saxophone, trumpet, flugelhorn and flute, he’d played with Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Roland Kirk and Eddie Harris. And while he may not have enjoyed the same name recognition as more famous peers, Ira was embraced as a favorite among South Florida jazz fans and as a treasured mentor to generations of area jazz artists, including Jaco Pastorius. (Brev prizes a bootleg recording of Ira and Jaco when they played at an area high school, combining jazz and rock sensibilities on tunes such as “Norwegian Wood.”) Raising a family was all important to him, and he didn’t want to miss watching his kids grow up because he was riding a tour bus.
For that reason, Brev, who was born in 1967, and his two siblings enjoyed a fairly normal childhood, even in the orbit of a well-known jazz figure. Brev recalls watching his dad perform at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Miami, experiencing the community feel, and enjoying the mango or peach pies his mom would bake for the occasion. He also has fond memories of trips to Disney World with his dad’s pal (and Charlie Parker acolyte) Red Rodney, whom he likens to Rodney Dangerfield. (“Adults who are bad influences,” he says with some amusement, “you never forget them.”) Sullivan attended Miami Christian High School for a couple of years, but transferred to Southwest because they had a jazz band and a marching band. He remembers his dad sitting in on one of his classes. “All the trumpet players and sax players, they kind of knew who he was,” he recalls. “And the first thing he did, he called out all the drummers. He didn’t even talk to the trumpet players and sax players. And he went over and picked up the brushes: ‘This is how you play.’”
While Brev had started on trumpet, the instrument never took hold of his soul like the guitar would. Certainly, guitar was central to the popular music of his teen years, and he gravitated to the more progressive sounds of bands such as Rush, Van Halen and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. At the same time, he had access to his dad’s floor-to-ceiling record collection, which was chock full of promotional jazz recordings sent to him from various labels. “So I had my share of jazz and Weather Report and Chick Corea,” he says. “I treasured this one promotional album because it had all those sounds on it from [Return to Forever’s] Musicmagic to some of the bebop stuff that [Corea] did with [Joe] Farrell. So that was all an influence for me.”
As were three particular teachers. Sullivan met jazz guitar maestro Joe Diorio through his dad, and was able to study and perform with him. When he was 16 or 17, Sullivan accompanied his dad to the Pennsylvania Jazz Festival in Harrisburg, where Ira was performing with Diorio. They called him on-stage for a version of Paco de Lucia’s “Entre Dos Aguas.” “I was still only playing acoustic guitar,” he says. “And Joe loved classical guitar, he loved Spanish guitar, flamenco. Joe dug in with that tune for me, and he didn’t treat me like a student. It was probably the last time I saw him.”
Ira’s friend and comrade Simon Salz was another important teacher for Brev. A nylon-string guitarist, Salz instilled in him the discipline of classical technique, although at the time, he just wanted to rock. Sullivan includes Salz’s bluesy, atmospheric jazz tune “Circumstantial,” a number he’d played with his dad, on the new tribute album, and it also serves as an homage to Salz, who died in 2005. (Salz and his wife, Sarah, also founded the Young Musicians Camp at the University of Miami, an institution at which both Brev and his father have taught.)
Attending Miami-Dade College, Sullivan studied with guitar instructor Dave Weisbrot, who encouraged him to transcribe rock solos or anything that excited him. He received an enormous boost when Weisbrot brought his class by the studio to hear a song Sullivan had recorded while the engineer was mixing it, instructing his students that they’d “better shut up and listen to this guy.” Sullivan was floored when the engineer reported Weisbrot’s comment to him. “My teacher would never give you a compliment,” he says. “Like my dad said, ‘Nobody would give you a compliment back in the days of Charlie Parker. You were a chump if you did.’ [Weisbrot] was happy with what I did, but he never said, ‘I like what you’re doing.’ But that was the biggest compliment ever.”
After his dad died, in September of 2020, Sullivan, his mother, Charlene, and sister, Sunny, appeared on Evenin’ Jazz, a weeknight jazz program on Miami’s public radio station WLRN-FM. Host Tracy Fields interviewed them remotely, allowing them to share stories about Ira, while playing music from throughout his career. Sullivan lamented that, because of COVID restrictions, none of the local musicians to whom Ira had meant so much could go out and play to celebrate his legacy.
Fortunately, Miriam Stone was listening. The guitarist and songwriter, who runs Blue Road Records Studio in Coral Gables, was determined to give Sullivan a chance to celebrate his dad with a tribute record. “I was like, mouth open,” Sullivan says of his reaction to the offer. “So there really was not a second to think or to mourn or anything. And it seemed like the right thing, too. Because you know my dad didn’t like [sentimentality]. He was gentle and loving but he was the gruff musician that everyone came to know and love, like in [the movie] Whiplash. ‘Did I tell you to stop playing?’ I’ve heard that. I’ve heard him yelling across the room: ‘Hey! You’re screwing up those changes!’”
Sullivan also conducted the sessions — which feature an accomplished group of Miami musicians, including the Venezuelan-born Leo Quintero and Stone herself, both of whom share guitar duties with the leader — in the manner of his dad. That meant rehearsing a tune once or twice, counting it off and just playing it.
The presence of Latin players — Quintero, bassist Javier Espinoza, keyboardist and saxophonist Yainer Horta and drummer-percussionist Kevin Abanto — lends a distinctively Miami flavor to the proceedings, particularly on Sullivan’s composition “Espresso Bueno.” He’s especially proud that the song made it into his dad’s repertoire, which really didn’t include any new material. “My father would perform that song whenever and wherever, and it was a crowd favorite,” he says. “And I never said it, but my family and friends told me, ‘Well, that’s you coming into your own.’ Even when I was a kid, he didn’t bring me up there and go, ‘My son’s gonna come up here and play all this music.’ He wouldn’t do that for anybody. He only [played the song] because he really liked it, and it really brought something to the show.”
The selections on the tribute album stand as testament to the breadth, scope and ambition of Ira’s music. Never one to suffer moldy figs who wanted him to sound the way he did in 1955, Ira played inside and outside the tradition, as albums such as Horizons and Strings Attached attest. Sullivan reprises “Nineveh,” his dad’s composition from the former 1967 release and one with a special resonance for him. The track allows him the opportunity to unleash the tones and textures that straddle the worlds of rock and jazz, and point to a direction he’d like to pursue.
“That tune defines my life,” he says. “When I listen to [Ira’s version], it’s hard to believe that was my father. Wow, the sound! That tune — because of the tension and the angst and the sound of the horn in that song — is so amazing. I feel like that’s something I could take and make a whole career out of, that one tune. I don’t sit there and listen to my dad’s music and pick it apart like you would pick apart say a Charlie Parker solo. But then I’m like, ‘Why not?’ And that would be the tune [with which] to do it. The journey is just beginning."