Al Sears, fondly referred to as “Big Al” due to his towering physical presence and equally immense contributions to the world of saxophone music, is an emblematic figure in the realm of tenor saxophonists and Big Band Jazz. He remains a notable name in the chronicles of music history due to his pioneering role in the R&B sound and his collaborations with music’s greatest icons.
Born in Macomb, Illinois in 1910, Sears developed an affinity for music at a young age. This passion led him to become a self-taught musician, learning to play various instruments, including the clarinet and alto saxophone. His real forte, however, was found when he switched to tenor saxophone. His deep, resonant sound and expressive style quickly garnered attention.
The illustrious journey of Sears in the music industry began in the early 1930s, when he started his professional career with Elmer Snowden’s band. Sears’ versatility and his unique saxophone style, which deftly combined the tonal richness of swing with the dynamism of R&B, allowed him to seamlessly adapt to the rapidly evolving jazz scene.
In 1941, Sears joined the prestigious band of Duke Ellington, becoming a key member and contributing significantly to the band’s repertoire. His tenor saxophone solo in the piece “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is one example of his illustrious contributions to the Ellington Band and is still celebrated today by saxophone enthusiasts and music historians alike.
After his tenure with Ellington, Sears embarked on a journey that saw him working with notable bandleaders like Johnny Hodges and Lionel Hampton. He also collaborated with boogie-woogie pianist Johnny Acea to form the band Acea-Sears All Stars in the 1950s.
However, Sears’ journey didn’t stop at performing. In the mid-1950s, Sears explored his entrepreneurial side and established his record label, Map Records. This venture allowed him to bring his signature R&B-infused Jazz to a wider audience.
Beyond his saxophone prowess and business acumen, Sears was also known for his composing skills. One of his most recognizable compositions, “Castle Rock,” recorded by Johnny Hodges, reached the top of the R&B charts in 1951.
Sears’ impact on music extends beyond his lifetime. His influence on tenor saxophone playing has shaped the styles of countless musicians who followed, and his pioneering role in the early R&B sound has left an indelible mark on the evolution of jazz and popular music.
Page last updated 7/5/2023.