“I’m in Taylor, Mississippi, population 343, plus me,” Jack Sonni laughed when I asked him where he was living these days in a phone conversation last week. Sonni is a champion of chefs everywhere, writer, guitarist, dad, grandfather, and then some. But what many folks remember about him is that he played with Mark Knopfler in Dire Straits, touring in the mid-’80s with the band during the Brothers in Arms era, and he played Live Aid with them in 1985 (he’s the guitar player in the long red coat — better for everyone to see him, Sonni said).
Islanders might remember that he served as house manager at Noepe Center for Literary Arts, then based in Edgartown, before its transition to part of Featherstone Center for the Arts. Sonni first came to Martha’s Vineyard when Justen Ahren accepted his application for writer-in-residence at Noepe some years ago. He ended up staying on as the house manager and resident writer for a few years, helping Ahren grow Noepe and concentrating on his own writing.
“Aside from my professional relationship with Jack,” Ahren wrote The Times in an email, “he became a good friend, a trusted confidant, and partner in Noepe’s growth and success. I was happy for Jack’s help in creating a space where writers felt welcome, and in a community of peers, created exceptional work.” That’s pretty much how Sonni remembers it too.
“I was living in Brooklyn, and somehow I was looking for a chef’s knife and stumbled across this guy in Brooklyn making custom knives, Joel Bukiewicz at Cut Brooklyn,” Sonni says. “I discovered it on Instagram, scrolling through pictures of these knives with beautiful handles. He would make five or six of these a week, and if you got to him, you could buy them. Every time I saw the photos they were gone, so I sent him a message. I played the Dire Straits card, and dropped a few chefs’ names. He told me, ‘I post at 3 pm on Fridays,’ so I managed to get a knife from him. I told him I’d come over to the shop to pick it up.”
While he was hanging out at the shop, Sonni was introduced to the knifemaker’s wife, Julia Dahl, who happened to be working on a novel. They started talking, and Sonni told her that carving out time to write was problematic for him. She told him there was a place on Martha’s Vineyard where he could go to concentrate on writing, Noepe. Sonni applied — Ahren says on his own merits, without mentioning Dire Straits.
“I remember in his application he didn’t mention Dire Straits,” Ahren wrote. “He sent a story about a young musician landing in New York and trying to make it big. It was gritty, and captured New York in the late ’70s/early ’80s. I accepted him. It wasn’t until the welcome dinner, a Noepe tradition where incoming writers tell a bit about their work and lives over a prepared meal, that Jack said, ‘I was in a rock band.’ Inevitably, someone asked which [one], and when he said Dire Straits, the conversation turned.”
Sonni said being around writers all the time was an inspiration, and he eventually returned to the Island from California to help Ahren out with the business side of Noepe.
“I was at Noepe nine months out of the year,” Sonni remembered, “I felt like a local and was treated like one. The house Noepe was in had a fabulous kitchen, and Jeremy from Port Hunter or Ben deForest would come on their night off, and we’d have meals prepared. It was truly fantastic.”
Those were the days when you could also find Sonni hanging out at the Ritz, playing with whatever band might be there that night. The same passion he has for writing is also there for playing music, he says.
“I’ve had the great fortune to make connections. I got to the Vineyard, and it didn’t take me long,” Sonni says. “I’m good friends with Ben deForest, Ted and Patrick Courtney on the Vineyard. I love playing music. You’ll see the same enthusiasm when I play the Ritz. I played with the Mike Chandler Band there, Jon Zeeman, and a few others. I love playing at the Ritz. That’s where rock ’n’ roll should be, in a dive bar.”
Sonni said he last played among Island musician friends when the Ritz hosted a Zoom concert not long after the lockdown. Zoom events actually led Sonni to his latest endeavor, launching an internet radio station through Live 365 (you can listen to Jack Sonni Guitar Radio at bit.ly/3gOGZOu). The website describes the station: “Jack Sonni, known worldwide as ‘the Other Guitar Player in Dire Straits,’ hosts an artist-curated broadcast of music, interviews and specials.”
While guitars and big suits were part of his past life, his future is filled very much with writing these days. He has a novel he’s written, and is in the revising process right now. Sonni received the usual advice: “Write a rock ’n’ roll memoir,” but he shelved it when he realized he was doing what other people expected, not what he wanted.
“It’s in my third revision. I sent it out a year ago to four different agents, and got kind rejections for the most part,” Sonni said. “I got enough pointers from them, though, so I started to revise it. Because of so many things, it’s just been recently that I’ve cracked it back open.”
Sonni found the inspiration for the novel on one of his cross-country road trips. He stopped in coal mining country in Pennsylvania, where he was born and lived until he was a sophomore in high school.
“I was driving through and saw family I hadn’t seen in years,” Sonni said. “Both my grandfathers were coal miners. One Italian and one Polish, and one of them lost an arm in a mining accident. Somehow it spurred this whole thing about mines and trying to escape where you come from, but you can’t. I’ve led a nomadic life for decades. For all my world traveling, I’m a kid from Western Pa. When I was back, I got together with a cousin, and he told me stories that I didn’t know. One involved one of the family members and ‘the black hand,’ the early Mafia, and I thought, ‘Wow,’ and I started thinking about that on my way back to Mississippi.”
The novel takes place in the 1920s, and there’s a young guy accused of murder who decides to hightail it to New Orleans. (We’ll wait for the book to come out before we tell the rest of the story.)
Sonni says he prefers small-town Mississippi, where he loves the food and the company. He first stopped there to check out Southern chef John Currence’s restaurants — he had three of them going in Oxford then, Sonni said. He went to all of them during one of his road trips, and he has become friends with a literary bunch there, some of them professors at Ole Miss.
“I have coffee once a week with a journalist, Curtis Wilkie, one of the original boys on the bus,” Sonni says. “He lives here, and he’s a big music fan. We swap stories.”
Sonni even had dinner with Oak Bluffs seasonal resident and writer Jessica Harris, down South. “I have a wampum bracelet I was wearing, and she recognized it and said, ‘You’ve been on the Vineyard.’ I’ve managed to find these kinds of places, filled with kindred spirits and artistic people who enjoy life. There’s a mutual respect for these artists in these communities, a sense of community that the Vineyard has, that Oxford has, that Austin and those places don’t have. I’m not interested in those kinds of places. I really love small-town living.”
He still plays music with his band, Jack Sonni and the Leisure Class, a name he’s used since his first band was formed in 1977. Wherever he’s hung his hat, he’s played with that band — just made up of different members, depending on the zip code. Good music, good food, and good company — and family, that’s what it’s all about, Sonni said.