Beyond using the drum kit to generate swinging beats, Sonny was one of the first drummers to use other percussion instruments, such as gongs and cymbals and instruments from other cultures; creating the first jungle music.
With the Duke Ellington orchestra, Sonny formed one of the most powerful rhythm sections of all time with bass player Jimmy Blanton. Every jazz drummer and bass player has at one time or another referenced their music. From 1919 to 1927 Sonny was a part of the Duke Ellington Cotton Club band. He left Ellington in 1951 to join Johnny Hodges' band.