It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

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Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.

Yes.

Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.

Really.

When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.

Mmm-hmm.

Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…

Right.

…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!

ROLLINS:  [HEARTY LAUGH]

I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.

Right.

Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…

Intuitive.

It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.

Mmm-hmm.

It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.

Sure.

Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00):

Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.

Yes.

Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…

3 Comments

Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone

3 responses to “It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

  1. Fantastic! Thank you Ted, keep them coming, I read each one thoroughly.

  2. John Schott

    Oh man, thank you, thank you thank you. Thank you Ted, thank you Sonny, thank you you, and while I’m at it, thank you God, even if you don’t exist.

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