SEATTLE — Barbara K. Simmons — known to jazz lovers around the world as Barbara Donald (her maiden name) — died March 23 in Olympia.
She was 70.
Described in the book “Trumpet Kings” as “one of the most powerful trumpeters in free jazz,” Mrs. Simmons had been living at Puget Sound Healthcare Center, in Olympia, since 1998, where she suffered a variety of ailments, including breast cancer, high blood pressure and depression.
She had not actively performed since the 1990s, when she had a series of strokes.
Born in Minneapolis and raised in Southern California, Mrs. Simmons moved to Olympia in the early 1980s and immediately became a prominent figure in the Northwest jazz scene.
“She was absolutely brilliant,” said Olympia percussionist Michael Olson. “I’ve heard a lot of trumpet players over the years — I’ve played with Arturo Sandoval, who has monstrous chops — but she had a statement that was so profound and so different from anybody else.”
Though she reported experiencing gender discrimination in the music business growing up, at 18 Mrs. Simmons was leading a big band of professional musicians. At 19, the young trumpeter shared the bandstand with Los Angeles tenor saxophone legend Dexter Gordon and studied informally with bebop trumpet player “Little” Benny Harris.
After a brief marriage to Norwegian pianist Ole Calmeyer, the young musician met fiery African-American alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons in 1964, and later married him. (Their interracial marriage was unusual for the time.) Simmons drew her into the explosive avant-garde sparked by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and others. The couple recorded a series of albums — among them, “Staying on the Watch,” “Burning Spirits,” “Manhattan Egos” and “Music From the Spheres,” which cemented her reputation. “Her tone was just beautiful,” said Olympia saxophonist Bert Wilson. “It touched her spirit in such a way that she became a reflection of the greatest trumpet players, but she would absorb them into herself.”
Before moving to Olympia, Mrs. Simmons separated from her second husband and started a band with her new partner, drummer Irvin Lovilette, with whom she recorded the album “The Past and Tomorrows.”
Sonny and Mrs. Simmons had two children, Zarak, a drummer, 47, whose whereabouts are unknown; and Raisha, who died two years ago.
Though Mrs. Simmons was known to suffer from dark depressions and to express feelings of persecution — some rooted in the reality of her interracial marriage — she was recalled by her granddaughter, Tanica Simmons, as “very outgoing,” even when she needed to use a wheelchair, starting in 2000.
“She had a big heart,” said Tanica Simmons. “If she had money, she always gave everybody her last dollar.”
Mrs. Simmons is survived by her husband, Sonny Simmons, 79, of New York; and five grandchildren: Anthony Simmons, 32, of California; Angela Simmons, 26; Zarak Jr., 24; Michelle Simmons, 24, of Olympia; and Damon Simmons, 18, of Las Vegas.