Sonny Rollins, who turns 85 today, hasn’t played in public for several years, and it’s unclear—though much wished for by his international cohort of admirers—that he will be able to do so again. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to write about him on a number of occasions since 2000. I’ve posted four of these pieces below. The first, for DownBeat, was a long overview, framed around the 2000 studio recording This is What I Do (this is a “directors’ cut”). https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/its-sonny-rollins-81st-birthday-two-interviews-from-2000/ In the second, done in 2005 for Jazziz, Rollins spoke about the death of his wife, Lucille, his up-close encounter with the events of 9/11/2001, and his decision to begin to release the first of the Road Shows series, documenting his personal creme de la creme choices from concerts on his own label. The third reports on his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes. The fourth is a piece for DownBeat‘s 75th anniversary issue in 2009, in which he responded to his quotes in DB articles about him from 1956 until 2005.
Sonny Rollins (Downbeat-2000):
It’s Saturday night, and Sonny Rollins is about to emerge for his second set at B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street. The joint is jumping. A rainbow coalition of hardcore fans, package-deal customers off the tour bus, critics in various states of rapture, and renowned saxmen looking to pick up a little inspiration pack the capacious theater basement, which offers good sightlines, a competent sound system, bordello-red wallpaper, a bar as long as a city block, and an admixture of straight tables and strategically placed semi-circular banquettes. Like the theme-park-like facades that line the sidewalk above, B.B. King’s oozes the unsettling aura of virtual reality; it’s a fresh-scrubbed replica of the inner city lounges around the country where the licensor and the evening’s featured act paid their dues as aspirants in the years following World War II.
A hip filmmaker might want to dress the customers in period attire and transform B.B. King’s into Club Baron, a spot on 135th Street where gangsters and glitterati mixed during the Harlem Renaissance, but whose glory days were long behind it in 1948, when Rollins — a teenage devotee of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — led a trio there opposite Thelonious Monk. “Monk heard me then,” recalls Rollins, “and saw something in me that he liked. Then he sort of took me under his wing. I began to go to his house and rehearse with his various bands. Guys would say, ‘Man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet’ and all this stuff, and then we’d end up playing it.”
Executing the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night — is the operative trope of Rollins’ astonishing career, and although he recently turned 70, his audience expects nothing less. Some already are familiar with his latest album, This Is What I Do [Milestone], a mellow, reflective recital on which the maestro places his singular voice — gruff, burnished, passionate — at the forefront throughout, soloing with transparent vigor on three new originals and three tunes from the ’30s Songbook. He seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.
None of these effusions mean much to Rollins, who cites Armstrong as his idol, and is acutely conscious of his reputation. “If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?” he had asked rhetorically over the phone from his Tribeca pied-a-terre several weeks before. “Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can’t be, ‘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. I don’t like to take money when I don’t earn it, and I don’t like people to be disappointed when they come to see me. In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.”
The reference is to the Williamsburg Bridge, a nondescript symbol of urban decay which connects Delancey Street in lower Manhattan to what presently is a wildly gentrified area of Brooklyn. Then a 29-year-old Loisida resident at the top of his game (several bootlegs of March 1959 performances in Europe affirm the assertion), Rollins appropriated a secret alcove there which for two-and-a-half years he used as a private rehearsal studio “to shore up some fundamental technical things on the saxophone.”
His sabbatical generated extraordinary consternation and speculation within the jazz community. Rollins already was a stylistic role model; had he never again picked up his horn, he would remain a major figure in jazz history. By his 25th birthday, the Harlem native had recorded and gigged as a peer with Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, composed still-enduring jazz originals like “Oleo,” “Airegin” and “Doxy,” and fought down a serious heroin addiction whose consequences led to incarcerations in 1950 and in 1952. In December 1955, Rollins left Chicago — where he worked as a factory janitor and lived in a room at the YMCA at 35th and Wabash while getting himself together — with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. He proceeded to record a succession of enduring masterpieces — including the aptly titled “Saxophone Colossus” — which showcased an immense, speechlike tone, elastic time sense, an unfailing penchant for melodic invention that revealed a romantic sensibility completely devoid of bathos, a sense of humor that some called sardonic, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of spontaneous composition.
“A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why I would stop playing,” says Rollins, whose imposing frame, larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belie the notion that demons of doubt could ever have gnawed at his innards. “But I know I learned something. I felt it was a necessary thing for me to do to have the kind of confidence I need in playing music like this. It was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve, because it was against the grain of public opinion. So outside of the musical benefits, it was also good for my soul.”
Between 1962 and 1964 Rollins released six divergent albums for RCA-Victor, which presented him with a $90,000 advance and unlimited studio access; in 1965-66 he cut three intermittently brilliant albums on Impulse. Picking up on procedures he’d implied on his pioneering trio recordings of the late ’50s (see Way Out West, Live At the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite), he documented his exhaustive investigations of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, and moved inexorably towards the principle of improvising from a tabula rasa. In listening to his flights of fancy from this period, it’s interesting to consider that Rollins, who like fellow saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter, was a gifted cartoonist and watercolorist in his youth, noted in a mid-’50s interview that he had only recently definitively decided that music would indeed be what did.
“I liked painting a lot,” he muses, “but of course there was no money in it. I was getting out of school, and in music I was able to play jobs and make some money; there was the promise that this might be a career. Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, I said, ‘Gee, I must be okay.'” Perhaps his roots in shaping imagery and design explain why — as guitarist Jim Hall, his 1961-62 quartet partner, once noted — Rollins began to deploy a sort of synesthetic mojo during the post-Bridge years, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos.
Rollins built his far-flung abstractions upon formidable bedrock. I convey to him alto saxophonist Gary Bartz’s description a few years back of hearing Rollins at the Village Vanguard during the mid-’60s. “What impressed and helped me,” Bartz recalled, “is that one night Sonny would play like Lester Young all night; he’d play songs like ‘Three Little Words’ that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note with Prez’ sound before going off into his own solo. The next night, he might do the same thing with Coleman Hawkins. Then the next night he would be Sonny. So I used to go every night, as you see!”
Rollins emits a hearty guffaw, and responds bemusedly: “I didn’t approach it that analytically. We were young and didn’t always get an opportunity to see our heroes in person, so we learned a lot by listening to the records and copying the solos. Well, I’d get as close to what they did as I could. I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. In trying to get the style of Prez or Coleman Hawkins, I would try to inhabit their soul, feel what they felt, interpret music the way they did.”
As band-members Stephen Scott and Bob Cranshaw note, Rollins continues to pay private homages to his idols during soundchecks, which certain obsessives in the crowd at B.B. King’s might prefer hearing him do to having sex; they might even sacrifice their left nut to hear him return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time ’50s-’60s style. But although Rollins is the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory which morph into stunning spur of the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, reenacting times past has never been on his agenda.
“Sometimes I think I would help myself if I listened to some of my old playing,” Rollins muses. “Every now and then, when I listen to something of my own, I hear things I used to do that I forgot about, and think, ‘Wow, I should do that again.’ But I shudder when I hear myself; I’m always saying, ‘Gee, I should have done that’ or ‘I don’t like my tone right there.’ I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to listen to myself objectively, and it probably would help me play better. But I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill. Certain things I don’t want to analyze too closely. I’d rather they just happen.”
That’s the procedure Rollins followed after emerging from a second lengthy hiatus during which he spent long stretches in Japan and India, explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. Following the lead of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he turned his attention to contemporary music, adopted a more pronounced vibrato, electrified his band sound and layered it with rhythmic texture, added to his arsenal tunes that featured heavy electric bass vamps and funk beats, addressed a repertoire that comprised more melodic, dance-driven content mixed with exquisite balladry. After releasing the majestic “Horn Culture”  with teen chum Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and the powerful live document “The Cutting Edge” , Rollins issued a frustratingly inconsistent succession of albums, proffering attenuated, self-conscious solos on attractive tunes whose authoritatively played heads barely hinted at the life force he imparted to them when performing before an audience.
“I’m often criticized about the ’70s and ’80s because I used a backbeat and guitars and all, but I don’t understand a lot of it,” Rollins says crisply. “Jazz has to be alive. This gets back to what I said about playing like somebody. If you can appreciate what someone is doing and try to get their essence, then it’s alive. If you copy them to a tee, it probably wouldn’t sound alive. In the ’70s I was trying to find different ways to make my music relevant. I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where I can’t play a calypso or a backbeat. 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. 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, I’ll get a glimpse, but I can’t get to It as often as I would like. Until I feel satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.”
Whatever one thinks aesthetically of Rollins’ populist, vernacular-oriented path between the mid-’70s and “Falling In Love With Jazz,” the 1989 album that marked his recorded return to hardcore jazz values, it’s of a continuum with his earliest experiences. “I like dancing and I like playing for dancers,” says Rollins, who remembers going to Calypso affairs as a small boy with his Virgin Islands-born mother. “In our teens we did a solitary dance called the Applejack where you’d just do moves to the music. It’s what Monk did when he’d get up from the piano to dance. I remember going to see Dizzy’s band a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom; Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. He would dance the Lindyhop with a chick, and they would really be going to town, with the people crowding around them in a circle.
“When I was coming up with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was one and the same thing. Mostly we played either a club with a dance floor or what we called a function, where everyone was dancing. Sometimes in Harlem we had to play Caribbean-type tunes for dancing only, but a certain musical element was foremost — that’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes. I always did my own variations, tried to change things around a bit. I play a style of calypso which is different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, and it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play think that I’m not really playing calypso. I never broke rhythms down in a methodical way. Anything that I wanted came to me intuitively. I’d say, ‘I can use that’ or ‘that sounds right to me,’ and I just did it. What I do is completely natural, basically off the top of my head; I’ve never had the skill of being able to play the same thing from night to night. Not that I’d want to. I respect the skill of people who can do that, but I think I prefer to be who I am.”
Playing Harlem dances with the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey, or sessions in late ’40s Chicago with drum legend Ike Day, undoubtedly honed Rollins’ preternatural rhythmic facility, which is one aspect of his magic that even he doesn’t soft-pedal. “I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues, “I remember playing with Art Blakey once at Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way; after he came off the stand he said, ‘Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it, didn’t bother you.’ That gave me more confidence.
“Sonny likes to have the time solid, so that he can juxtapose playing across or under or through it,” says Jack DeJohnette, who first recorded with Rollins in 1972 on “Next Album.” “He is complete; he hears the drums, bass and piano in him, and he plays by himself.” That’s why Rollins has employed bassist Bob Cranshaw off and on since 1959, and why the R&B influenced drummer Perry Wilson has lasted with him for three years. “Bob is a steady player, and as abstract as I often like to get, I’ve always liked to contrast abstraction against something steady,” Rollins states.” “I play a lot of different stuff — Caribbean things, straight-ahead, a little backbeat — and I need a drummer who has a little bit of range, who isn’t locked into one style of playing. 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. Perry has the range that’s needed to play with Sonny Rollins. I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout; I always have the song in mind regardless of what I do.”
In the manner of his role model Coleman Hawkins — and slightly lesser hero Gene Ammons, with whom he jousted on various visits to Chicago — Rollins is peerless at the operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to balladry. “I love ballads,” he says. “Growing up, I loved a lot of people singing, Of course, I like Nat Cole, the way he phrases and seems sincere and gets it over. Even when he did some things in his later years that were thought to be overly commercial, they didn’t turn me off because it was him. I liked the Ink Spots and I liked Bing Crosby, who I saw in a lot of movies, which might have reinforced my admiration for him as a performer. We had a windup victrola on which I heard some of those old RCA Victor Carusos. I remember as a kid going to the City Center in New York and hearing operettas; when I was really young, maybe 2 years old, I saw a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates Of Penzance” in Harlem, and later on in junior high school we had to go through “H.M.S Pinafore” and all this stuff. I was the youngest child, my oldest brother was a good violin player, and I’d hear him studying and playing all the time, and my sister played piano in church — so I imbibed a lot of music from them also.”
I ask Rollins to elaborate on his church background. He responds: “I was brought up in a sect called the Moravian church, where I went to Sunday School and got confirmed and so on. It was very straight-laced, with an organ playing hymns and Bach Cantatas. But my grandmother used to take me to a church run by a woman named Mother Horn right there on Lenox Avenue. It was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, and it made a big impression — I remember hearing a trumpet player who was really swinging.
“I went to Chicago for the first time in 1949 with a friend who played trumpet in a gospel group; he and his sister were in a sanctified church, and I used to go there every week, which I enjoyed because the music was so animated. Chicago was very exciting. It was earthier and more blues-oriented than New York, and they had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time there, and met and played with a lot of musicians. It was a very formative period in my life. When I lived there in 1955, trying to get straight and get my life together, an interesting thing happened. I got up early one morning to catch the bus at 35th and State Street to get to work, and I saw in the window of a little record store on the corner a record I had made with Monk, ‘Just The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I was on the cover. An interesting pull.”
“We’re here in the year 2000, so let’s forget the good old days,” says an avuncular Rollins, elegant in a black ensemble, horn-rimmed shades, and liberally salted beard, midway through the second set at B.B. King’s, reacting to exhortations from the happy throng after he executes a dramatic downward swoop with his horn to state the final note of his passionate cadenza to “Moon Of Manakora,” an Academy Award winner in 1937 written for the Dorothy Lamour movie “Hurricane” that is the final track on “This Is What I Do.” Then he kicks into “St. Thomas,” his variation on a melody that he first heard at one of the Calypso dances that he attended with his mother which has been a staple of his repertoire since he waxed it in 1956 on “Saxophone Colossus.” He then croons the theme of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Sonny Rollins + 3 (1996), before hurtling into a lengthy abstraction on which he plays endless games with the time over the surging rhythm section until there’s nothing left to say.
Rollins concludes with “Don’t Stop The Carnival” (“What’s New,” 1962), a Calypso-Highlife hybrid that he uses as a frequent concert-closer. He roars like a lion through a succession of choruses, fingers popping in a St. Vitus dance over the saxophone keys, firing out cascades of notes from the bottom of the horn. Occasionally, for emphasis, he splits the reed to jackhammer precisely calibrated low overtones that seem ready to blast through building’s substructure and onto the tracks of the subway line that runs below 42nd Street. On the final chorus, as his parting shot, Rollins quotes Denzil Best’s “Move” — parrying pianist Stephen Scott’s witty reference to the bop staple in the kickoff solo to “This Is My Lucky Day” 90 minutes before — before a final cadenza on which he states “There’s No Place Like Home.”
“Hardcore Jazz is political,” Rollins had said during our initial conversation. “It’s real art, and it’s got a lot to say about things that are really happening. Unfortunately, a lot of forces out here want to divert people, don’t want us to think about anything; everything is all right, don’t think about the environment, don’t think about any kind of social problems — just go along and consume and make money. That’s what Hardcore Jazz is up against.”
Rollins seems primed for the battle. This Is What I Do caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan has confronted his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history — the oceanic linearity of the ’50s, the expressionist timbre of the ’60s, and the groove-oriented populism of the ’70s and ’80s. Rollins lived what’s now called the tradition; he grew up immersed in it, he played no small part in creating it, his memories of it provide the narrative subtext for the vivid declamations he continues to spin. Significantly, he dedicates two originals — “Have You Seen Harold Vick?” and “Charles M” — to colleagues passed on.
“It’s good to honor and recognize fellow musicians,” Rollins declares. “Somebody needs to chronicle the guys that contributed to the whole nation’s musical history and never got heard of, who made life good for a lot of people but never get talked about. Harold Vick was a good player and was beloved by his colleagues. Why not talk about these guys? Why just let life rush on, rush on, rush on as if these things don’t matter?”
He proceeds to reminisce.
“Mingus and I were kindred spirits. We had a lot of problems dealing with the acceptance of the music and the way minorities are treated — the usual crap that people go through every day. He always wanted me to do some things with him, but they never panned out. I did play with him a couple of times. He would come by the RCA studios on 24th Street to play piano with me. And I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to the Five Spot on Eighth Street to play with Eric; in Mingus’ mind it was something like, ‘Man, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool.’ I never got around to recording any of his tunes, though I wanted to record one that Miles did called “Smooch,” which was reminiscent of a ballad called ‘Time’ that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.
“My relationship with Miles continued forever; we were always tight. Once Miles was playing with the group he had with Wayne Shorter at a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I went by and came in the club, and he didn’t see me. The guys said, ‘Sonny’s here, and Miles almost jumped out of his skin! It touched me, because I realized how much he thought of me. 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.
“When I was growing up, we went to high school with a fine trumpet player whose name was Lowell Lewis, who played with Jackie McLean and all of us. When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” in 1945, he heard it and he liked the way Miles played. I liked him, too, actually; he took such a poetic solo on one of those tunes. When Miles played with Bird, he took a different tack. Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything, and at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere. He was a god. But he was only four years older than I, which is why I think my relationship with him was more like one of a peer. Dizzy was much older. Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing. Of course, we know Bird 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.”
Rollins hasn’t stopped working since 1972; as he enters his eighth decade, a Buddhist practice as homegrown as his music helps him maintain focus. “I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism,” he notes. “Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me. I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied Yoga. What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I meditate. That’s the way I seek enlightenment during this lifetime, like the Buddha. And I’ve found out that to play my instrument, to concentrate and get inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things. I’m trying to get some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, to get beyond jealousies and hatreds and envies, all of these little things in life which are so stupid and inconsequential. 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.”
“You have to stay on it, you know,” he adds, referring to a clarion Tadd Dameron line that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with his big band in 1947. “Dizzy played a beautiful solo. It was very informative, and it taught me a lot about playing. Everything about it was very logical, and I like logical playing. It had all the other elements of great jazz playing, and it made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, the way he came in and the way he left space. It was just perfect.”
Which is what a good portion of the crowd must think of Rollins as they bask in the afterglow of the performance. Reality beckons as they file up the stairs and into a wee hours drizzle on 42nd Street, a mere ten blocks from the legendary 52nd Street clubs Rollins played when breaking in, and two stops on the A-train from 125th Street and the Apollo Theater, where a post-adolescent Rollins would go with “an astute bunch of young guys on my block who knew all about Ben Webster and the Ellington band.” He emphasizes, “We were all into jazz as opposed to guys that, say, were into rhythm-and-blues at that time. I mean, rhythm-and-blues was okay, but we knew the real stuff. I thought of Jazz as something which was extremely special. Yeah, that’s the word. It was special. Everything about it was great. There’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”
Sonny Rollins (Jazziz, 2005):
Last December, not long after the death of Lucille Rollins, his companion since 1959, his wife since 1965, and his business manager since 1971, Sonny Rollins decided to conclude his current contract with Fantasy Records by releasing Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert). It documents a Rollins concert at Boston’s Berklee Performing Arts Center in Boston on September 15, 2001, four days after Rollins, whose highrise Tribeca pied a terre was a few blocks due north of the World Trade Center, found himself in the middle of a disaster.
Rollins remembers that he was in no mood to do the job. “My legs were wobbly and I was mentally disjointed,” he says over the phone from his upstate New York home. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s cancel.’ But she convinced me that we should do it. Lucille was a very straight, Middle American-values person, and she hated to renege on a contract in any form. That might have been part of why she insisted. I’m sure there were more noble reasons. Some people suggested that my playing would help other people, which I don’t know if she thought of or not.”
Perhaps no one in the house benefitted more than Rollins, who, on the fateful morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was preparing to run some errands when he heard Flight 11 pass directly above his roof. “Then I heard a big POW!!!!” he recalls. His apartment looked north, up the Hudson River, and he thought a small plane had crashed along the waterfront. He turned on his black-and-white TV, just in time to see Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.
“Then I went downstairs,” he says. “The streets were bedlam, women running around screaming. When the South Tower came down, we started to run, because we thought it would take everybody if it fell over. Since it imploded on itself, that didn’t happen, but a tremendous amount of toxic dust filled the air.”
Downtown Manhattan was already sealed off, and, for lack of a better alternative, Rollins decided to take the elevator back up to his apartment. The phones were still working and he called his wife. Then he started practicing.
“I was definitely in shock,” he says. “Even when I heard the North Tower come down over my radio, it didn’t seem so bad, but even if it was, I was going to practice anyway. I didn’t think it was anything the government couldn’t handle in some manner or form.”
By now, the power was off, and Rollins, who had just turned 71, was marooned. The next morning, a National Guardsman climbed to the 39th floor, found Rollins and three other residents, and ordered them to evacuate. Rollins gathered what he could carry, not neglecting his tenor saxophone and a flashlight, and negotiated all the steps down the dark, narrow stairwell to the street.
“It was like a scene from a World War 2 movie about the London Blitzkrieg, where the place has been bombed, everybody’s out, and the sirens are going off,” Rollins recalls. “There were so many ambulances, firefighters going into Stuyvesant High School for oxygen and new guys coming out. Everybody had to put on masks, because the air was acrid with toxicity.” A CNN cameraman caught Rollins, gear in hand, walking to a bus, which took him to Washington Irving High School, near Union Square Park. There Rollins called his driver, who came in from the Bronx, picked up his charge, and took him home.
The Boston concert was imminent. Rollins arrived there on Friday afternoon, and convened his band at soundcheck the next day. “Everyone seemed more contemplative and thoughtful than usual,” he says of his band’s comportment. “I suppose they were shaken, and the fact everybody knew I was in the middle of it might have contributed. It seemed everything was much more serious and purposeful. Although I hate to think that any other time we play is not purposeful.”
In truth, nothing much happens on Without A Song until the 25th minute, during the final third of “Global Warming,” when Rollins responds to the beats of hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, his regular percussionist since this engagement, and channels the gods on a 6½ minute statement, transforming the lower depths of his instrument into—for lack of a better analogy—a swinging, melodic drum. He spins a three-minute classic on A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, developing and resolving several themes simultaneously, breaking the bar lines, accelerating and decelerating the tempo, veritably speaking through the instrument. He uncorks another amusing, cubist, high-velocity declamation on Why Was I Born, interpolating Stephen Foster quotes into the line. Similar pyrotechnics stamp his opening inventions on “Where or When,” before Rollins begins to lose his embouchure and concludes the proceedings.
Such transcendent moments are not uncommon in Rollins’ concert performances since 1972, the year he returned from a three-year hiatus spent primarily in India and Japan, and began to record for Milestone. But on studio recitals, as observers often remark, the saxophone colossus has resembled Atlas chained more than Prometheus unbound, projecting nowhere close to the creativity and life force he emanates in live performance.
“I think there’s a lot of credence to that,” Rollins comments on the concert-studio issue. “Something about the interaction of human being to human being creates a tension, and I get more involved, which probably changes what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of it. But once I’m out there, those forces obtain.”
Rollins channeled those forces admirably on a succession of masterpieces that established his legend between 1955 and 1966, and began to reestablish studio consistency on Sonny Rollins + 3, a well-wrought 1996 combo date with old pal Tommy Flanagan, and on This Is What I Do, a melody-drenched recital from 2000 that finds the maestro in poetic voice.
“For a long period, the studio was a big inhibiting factor,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve begun to bring that thing from live performance into a studio a little more easily. During my early career, I didn’t feel so inhibited playing on the records with Miles and Max and Monk. So I think it’s just a phase. I don’t know what brought it about. Perhaps it’s because I realized that technology had reached the point where you could overdub and change things, and it was easier to reach for a more ‘perfect’ solo and all this crap.”
That being said, nowhere on the aforementioned sessions does Rollins scale the Olympian heights he accesses on Without A Song, which is one of several hundred privately recorded Rollins concerts, primarily from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, that capture Rollins navigating the high wire. Carl Smith, a Maine-based archivist of this material, has given them to Rollins in hopes that he will approve their public release and thus clarify the scope of his achievement during the second half of his astonishing career.
“Lucille would have killed this guy,” Rollins says with a chuckle. “I am not quite as adamant as she was on that issue. I would have to listen to them, which is hard for me to do, but perhaps that’s another phase I can overcome, as I think I have about recording in the studio. I don’t want to compete with myself, but I’m not averse to releasing some of those in a judicious manner if I hear something really good.
“In fact, I’ve been taping my own performances. This was a point of contention between Lucille and myself. We were at loggerheads. I did it, but she didn’t want me to. Someone else was recording it anyway. I tried to explain that someone like Pat Metheny records all his performances, but we still couldn’t quite agree. I don’t understand exactly why she felt that way. That’s one of the things that she left me here to ponder alone.”
With his wife making the decisions, Rollins was allowed “to play my horn and read my books, and sort of live the leisurely life of a baron.” He pauses for several seconds, and sighs. “It’s all over now.”
Nearing 75, Rollins, in his words, is “just getting into the business aspect,” a tricky proposition for a man who doesn’t operate his fax machine, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have a cell phone. He gets help from his nephew, trombonist and band-member Clifton Anderson. Still, Rollins says, “I’m doing a lot of things I had never had to deal with before. I’m in a whirlwind right now. There are so many disparate things that I am obligated to do, and I’m trying to get them all done. It fills up 24 hours a day.”
Asked if there’s a therapeutic aspect to immersing himself in mundane details, he responds: “It may be a good thing that I’m able to interact on some things. I grieved for a long time. I’m still grieving, because it hasn’t been that long. After she left me here, I couldn’t play for a long time, man. I took my horn out and tried to play a little bit, a few minutes at a time. Gradually, as I began to accept engagements again, I got back to practicing a little more.”
The words burst forth. “I want to go through the rest of my travails on earth,” he says. “We lived together a long time. I’m laying on the bed my wife died in, and she was right next to me, and I was trying to do things for her, and I’m still here. I don’t need to leave that. Going out and playing is enough contact with people. I feel I’ve had a successful life, and I don’t need to get involved in any other phase of life.
“As long as I am able to play, I’ll be playing. I still have my challenges to surmount. I’m still practicing, I’m still studying, and I want to synthesize what I’ve learned in a way that might affect my playing. I still have the same attitude to music.”
Rollins has chronic dental problems, and whether he will be able to actualize that attitude to his satisfaction is an open question. “Physically, you need your teeth to play,” he explains. “It’s frustrating to want to do certain technical things, to have the physical strength, but not be able to. It’s an extra impediment on top of everything else. But look, man, life is frustration.”
This summer Rollins will undergo “procedures that my dentist assures me will enable me to practice when I want.” If the dentist is wrong, Rollins is well aware that he will face another crossroads in this time of tribulation and transition.
“I never want to get to the point where I’m doing nothing,” he says. “I’m trying my best to do something which I know I should be doing better. If I feel, ‘Gee, this is five concerts in a row where I sound like shit’—no. Then I would probably forget it and stay at home and practice in my studio, and just play for myself. Things have to end. Yeah, there’s nothing like getting to some musical point where you feel satisfied—reasonably satisfied—and having people appreciate it. Although you can’t go by that. People will smile in your face and say, ‘Oh, you sounded great,’ which I know is a lot of crap, because I know how I really sound.
“Probably nothing will fulfill me as much as trying to create music on the stage, with all that entails. But should I have to stop, I can’t be, ‘Oh, my life is over.’ I would go on and do whatever else there is to do. I don’t believe in suicide. I believe we’re put here for a reason, and the reason is to go through all these things we go through. You can’t cut it off by your own choice. So whatever happens, I’ll go through it like everybody else.”
Downbeat Readers Poll Feature, 2007:
“Let’s put Roy in the middle,” said Sonny Rollins, evoking his leader’s prerogative, as he, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride convened for a photo shoot near a piano, not in use during their afternoon rehearsal at Avatar Studios for a Carnegie Hall concert on the next evening.
“Why?” Haynes responded. “Because I’m the littlest one?”
“Little in the middle,” Rollins said, and Haynes acquiesced. “That looks better!” Rollins said.
“Damn,” said McBride. “The mob!”
“Sugar Hill, man,” Haynes chimed in, referring to the Harlem enclave where Rollins, 77, spent his formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and where Haynes, now 82, settled when he moved to New York sixty years ago. “Me and Sonny Rollins, from Sugar Hill. Shit.”
“The Hill!” said Rollins. “You dig?”
“I’m not from there,” said McBride, 36, a Philadelphia native. “But I lived there for a minute. That can count, right? I lived on Edgecombe.”
“Is that right?” asked Rollins, who as a youngster lived on Edgecombe Avenue, down the block from the old Polo Grounds.
“Sonnymoon for Three,” Haynes quipped.
Photographer John Abbott machine-gunned the camera for a minute or so.
“You got the gig, John,” McBride said.
“That’s what Prez told me, man, after I played two tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom,” Haynes recalled. “He said, ‘You got the gig. But I won’t tell you the words, because they may put it in print.’”
“Are you going to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?” McBride inquired, referring to the ballad on the trio’s program.
“‘You got your slave,’ right,” Rollins replied, reciting the lyric.
“‘If you got eyes, that slave is yours,’” Haynes shot back. “You can only say that if you know what you’re saying, though.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Rollins agreed.
Rollins planned to sandwich “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song from South Pacific that he had never recorded, with two long-standing hits: Kurt Weill’s “Moritat,” known popularly as “Mack The Knife,” from his 1956 breakthrough record, “Saxophone Colossus,” and “Sonnymoon For Two,” a discursive Rollins blues signifying on his first marriage that he most famously recorded on a November 1957 gig with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones that produced Live at the Village Vanguard. Several weeks after that 1957 date, Rollins played those tunes at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert—his first appearance on the hallowed stage—with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis, sharing the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie with Austin Cromer on vocals, Ray Charles, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. Carnegie Hall recorded the proceedings, and the Library of Congress unearthed them in 2004, yielding the Blue Note’s big-seller, Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. That release coincided with the death of Rollins’ wife and manager, Lucille, and briefly preceded Concord’s purchase of Fantasy Records, the corporate owner of Milestone, his label since 1972. Concurrently, Rollins launched his own label, Doxy, under the imprimatur of Oleo Productions, both entities named after original compositions that Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954. Now an entrepreneur, Rollins decided to throw a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the event, and to release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a single CD, following Sonny, Please, his first Doxy title.
At the time of the 1957 concert, Rollins was already a stylistic role model—Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver had named him the “Greatest Ever” tenor saxophonist in a poll conducted the previous year by Leonard Feather. But although his immense, voice-like tone, elastic time sense,.penchant for melodic invention, seemingly intuitive sense of structure, and relentless swing thrilled his devotees, Rollins was looking for a [context]. Increasingly, he was finding it by eschewing the support of a chordal instrument.
“Trio playing has been a big part of my musical life for a long, long time,” Rollins had related a few days before the rehearsal during an extended interview on WKCR. “As a matter of fact, in the late ‘40s, Miles Davis heard me playing with a trio to open for a group of all-stars at the 845 Club in the Bronx, and asked me to join his band. I always can get into myself just playing solo, and when I was a kid, just starting, I’d practice in my room for hours and hours, and I’d be in my paradise. ‘Sonny, come on, time to eat.’ I’d be in my reverie. So the idea that I needed other people to fulfill my musical ambitions came reluctantly. So playing by myself or with as few musicians as possible—with trio—was a normal and natural thing.”
Such tunnel vision perhaps explains why, over the next dozen years, Rollins played so much extraordinary music with trios and two-horn quartets (in addition to the aforementioned, personnels on albums and bootlegs during the period included Ray Brown and Shelley Manne; Max Roach with Oscar Pettiford or Jymie Merritt; Paul Chambers and Haynes; Henry Grimes and Pete LaRoca, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris, or Billy Higgins; Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; Gilbert Rovere and Arthur Taylor; even Ruud Jacobs and Han Bennink on a confrontational 1967 performance). Freed from chordal constraints, he explored motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, coloring phrases with vivid splashes of timbre even at the hottest tempos. It may also explain why it was complex for [Rollins] to retain personnel.
“I’m not like that any more,” he said on WKCR, responding to an observation that he has been famously particular about drummers, to the point of firing individuals, themselves no slouches, a day or two into a week-long gig. Indeed, Rollins now is sufficiently solicitous that, before committing to play publicly with McBride and Haynes, he asked the permission of his working band.
“Whether people appreciate it or not, I am deeply involved with my own group and in trying to get a certain thing happening,” Rollins said. “That is my primary focus.”
Rollins has worked hard to realize this aspiration since he began taking a more populist direction in 1972, after a long hiatus during which he explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. When they’re available, he works consistently with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, the versatile trapsetter Steve Jordan, hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, and— returning to the tenor-trombone front-line format he experienced frequently during his early career with J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green—trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew, who works closely with his uncle on business matters.
“Clifton’s role has evolved,” Rollins said. “He’s got a big, beautiful sound, and he knows what to play and where to play it, which I never told him how to do. He just knew how to support me, and what notes to play that would complement my saxophone lines.”
“There are times when I can hear a piano, and other times when I can relate better to a guitar, which is a little less invasive,” he continued. “Bobby is an excellent accompanist for me, because he plays together with the rhythm section and I don’t hear it. If I did hear it, he’d be doing something which would be jarring to me. When I’m soloing, I don’t want to hear anybody. I just want to hear the beat, the groove, the pocket, or whatever way they describe it these days. That’s why I’ve always used Bob Cranshaw on bass, because of his strong foundational beat. With that steady pulse, I’m free to manipulate the time or do abstract improvisations, or anything else I want to do.”
“Playing with Sonny today, I can’t describe the feeling,” Haynes said at Avatar. “We’re talking to each other musically, and I’m feeling this, feeling that, and he’s listening, I’m sure. The idea that we were together earlier in our lives, and we can do that now is precious.”
“There’s very few people from our era who know what that whole thing is about,” Rollins chimed in. “I’ve played with Roy from the beginning of my career. We speak the same language. We understand each other.”
“Mmm,” Haynes agreed. “That is really something. We’re talking, man, and even when it’s silent, there is some shit going on.”
“Oh, yeah,” Rollins said emphatically. “I’m listening CLOSELY.”
“I could feel that,” Haynes said, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s something spiritual that comes from here.”
The veterans first played together in 1948, on a Capitol recording by bop vocalist Babs Gonzalez; the following year with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro on the Blue Note date that produced “Dance of the Infidels,” “Wail” and “Bouncing With Bud”; and on a 1951 Prestige session led by Miles Davis, with John Lewis and Percy Heath.
“I was hearing a lot about Sonny Rollins up on the Hill,” Haynes said. “I didn’t realize that this was the guy who had come by my house with another friend of ours.”
“Lenny Martinez,” Rollins interjected.
“During that period I was either with Luis Russell or Lester Young,” Haynes said.
“You were with Prez when I was coming by your house,” Rollins said. “I saw Roy play at the Apollo with Luis Russell’s band. I asked him a lot about the singer.”
“Lee Richardson,” Haynes states.
“I’ll always remember he made a tremendous impression on me, because he really had a good voice, good pipes.”
“I didn’t know that Sonny was playing an instrument until one night shortly after that visit, when I saw him with an alto at a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue where we used to eat after gigs on Saturday night,” Haynes said. “I said, ‘You play saxophone?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a little gig.’ There was another guy who played tenor, who walked slew-foot, bandylegs, and didn’t make it. All the time when people said ‘Sonny Rollins,’ I thought this other guy was him.”
“Will the real Sonny Rollins stand up?” joked Rollins. “Right.”
“Right! You stood. I do remember one gig in the late ‘40s where I hired Sonny. It was the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X got finished. They used to have Sunday afternoon gigs there, two o’clock high and all that stuff.”
“People could dance in the back.”
“That’s what was so great about those days.”
“People would be doing the Applejack in there,” said Rollins, referring to the steps that Thelonious Monk, his early mentor, used to do after his own solos.
“Oh, that’s right,” Haynes said. “Especially at Minton’s sometimes, they’d come up when anybody was soloing, and sometimes when a drummer was playing a solo, people could dance to it. Today, man, they’d be crying the blues, complaining.”
Asked if he’d seen Haynes play with Monk, Rollins responded, “I don’t think so.”
“We played together with Monk for a minute at the Five Spot,” Haynes corrected. “I remember one night Monk said to me, ‘Roy Haynes. You play better when you wear that suit. You agreed with him, too. I had a black suit with stripes on.”
Rollins guffawed. “Well, that sounds like Monk. One of Monk’s pronouncements. Monk got the best people he could. But it wasn’t just getting the best. There were only a few people that could cut the gig. Just like today, there’s only a few musicians that can really do the music as it should be done, so these people are at a premium. I mean, there’s only one Roy Haynes.”
He pointed at McBride, seated quietly at the piano, taking in every word. “This gentleman here is a young chap, I’ve just met him, but he’s on his way to becoming a legend and a ‘one-of’ guy. This is the way it is. It’s not like the old days, man, when Roy and I would get on a gig at the 845 Club, and it would be Lucky Thompson and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson. Things began changing. In a sense, for the better.”
Until September 11, 2001, when he had to give up his pied a terre four blocks from Ground Zero, and decided to live full time in the house in Columbia County in upstate New York that he purchased in the early ‘70s to ensure that he would not have to climb a bridge or enter a park to practice at his leisure, Rollins rehearsed his bands incessantly.
“The type of music that I play, guys need to be able to complement where I’m going, and I do best with that kind of intimacy,” he said. “Now, I’m not Count Basie’s orchestra, who would be making precise hits and like that. We try to get inside the music in a much less industrial way. Everybody has a beat center, and I want to hear where that is for Christian and Roy.”
Towards that end, Rollins had called McBride to work through the tunes 48 hours earlier at a Chelsea rehearsal studio, and the bassist was still on cloud nine.
“I’m sure I’ll create a lot of enemies, people knowing I got to play a whole day of duets with Sonny Rollins,” McBride joked before the photo session. “He was practicing on some sheet music when I walked into the studio, and when I asked what it was, he said, ‘These are just some little patterns and scales that I worked out.’ This is the greatest living improviser, and it’s amazing that he’s never rested on his improvisational genius, that he’s practicing with the same fervor that he did forty and fifty years ago. With any giant or icon, if you jump on the end of the train, you can miss the path that got the person to that level of greatness. For example Sonny does these rhythmic things that are far beyond what seems to be happening with the bass or the drums. There’s playing free, and then there’s playing without any sense of the rhythm or the feel of the tune. A lot of tenor players do THAT. Whereas when Sonny Rollins does that, it comes from a place that’s so grounded and rooted. He sounds way different than he did on Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard or East Broadway Rundown. Imagine all those years of growth on top of that, and practicing at this still mega-level of intensity.”
As for Rollins, practice time is less a burden than a lifestyle. “I can’t practice maybe 16 hours, like I used to, but I do whatever I can,” he said. “It’s fun. If I don’t practice for more than three or four days, I begin to get physically ill. I think, ‘Gee, what’s wrong?’ If I practice, bang, I’m back in the stream. It’s my form of meditation, my form of prayer—it’s the whole thing. But playing is something else. You can learn more in two minutes on the stage than from practicing maybe five weeks; in a subliminal way, all these things happen, and you really learn.”
He was also learning that entering the brave new world of self-production carries extra-musical challenges. “I’ve played with Roy from day one, Christian has played with Roy, and we got together easily because we’re trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The challenges have been taking care of the business aspects—worrying about tickets and logistics, and also doing a lot of media. I’ll try to change that if something like this happens again, because it occupies a lot of space in your mind, and takes away from the music part.
“But I’m expecting it to be very exhilarating and rewarding. These people are of a high caliber, and I’m looking forward to hearing some things that I haven’t heard before, and being in the middle of the jazz experience, which is what it’s all about. This is the instant creation. It’s like food to me. This is why jazz is the music of today, tomorrow, and forever, because things are happening right then.”
A rainbow coalition comprising hordes of hardcore fans and more eminent musicians than you could count as the paying customers—as well as an assortment of freeloading critics—turned out for the rare opportunity to hear Rollins return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time style of the ’50s and ’60s. They got exactly what they came for.
From the very beginning of “Sonnymoon For Two,” Rollins developed and resolved several themes simultaneously, breaking the grid, accelerating and decelerating the tempo with sleek lines as long as a rambling freight train, punctuating them with multiphonic honks and long held notes, downloading deeply embedded fragments of musical memory at Pentium speed and interpolating them into the flow. Playing the room magnificently, Haynes tap danced complementary rhythms with his sticks. Facing Haynes directly, with McBride centering the action with impeccable taste and requisite force, Rollins engaged him in a series of exchanges that further developed the themes they had both stated, and provoked more dialogue for another ten minutes or so, until he concluded the journey with one last harmonic abstraction.
With Haynes now wielding mallets, Rollins addressed “Some Enchanted Spring” in the key of A, and bellowed the gorgeous melody like a tenor singer in an operetta, floating gruffly over Haynes’ [richly textured], not quite rubato beats. Upon conclusion, they launched directly into “Moritat,” immediately embarked on improvised dialogue, and sustained the postulations and responses at the highest level for 15 minutes or so; it seemed like they could have gone on all night, but Rollins, aware that [he had another set to play with his band], arbitrarily halted this exemplary demonstration of what an equilateral triangle might sound like in musical form.
That set was another story. While giving his men much rope, Rollins generated sparks on the melody statement of the set-opener, “Sonny, Please,” but blew only perfunctorily on the remaining tunes, “Nu-Nile,” “Biji,” and even “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” on which a mighty dialogue by Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu could not generate further heroics from the leader. Carnegie Hall’s notoriously indifferent jazzcoustics sound didn’t help It was a disappointing, anticlimactic conclusion.
“I was trying, in the back of my mind, to keep track of the time, but had there been no time constrictions I would like to have gone on a little bit with Christian and Roy,” Rollins said a week later, after playing concerts in Portland and Monterrey. “That wouldn’t have happened in a nightclub, which is why people prefer nightclubs to concerts. In the concert we played at Monterrey, I myself played more. We closed out with one of these festive numbers, and the people went crazy, with the girls standing up twirling their torsos around. At Carnegie Hall, with the time factor, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to play.”
Rollins’ commitment to his group might discourage him from booking further explorations with the extraordinary trio. But he’s certainly thinking about it.
“I might have to go in a different direction, which would open up some interesting musical vistas, shall we say,” he said. “Things happen with musicians of that caliber. With the drum and the bass, the primacy of the beat didn’t play as big a part. Velocity and volume level is different, and this dictates that the music go in other directions. I have a different role to play.
“When Christian and I played together on the first rehearsal without Roy. I said, ‘Wow, we should do something with just you and I,’ because we were interacting in another way. That is also a possibility sometime in the future, because I heard something with just him and I playing together where we began feeding off of each other. It was very interesting, and portended things to come.”
A fortnight before this conversation, towards the end of his three hours at WKCR, Rollins, who had earlier asked that the monitors be turned down while his music was going over the airwaves, smiled and swayed his shoulders as he and Max Roach threw melodies and rhythms at each other on “Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward song that appears on the B-Side of his classic album, The Freedom Suite, recorded within five weeks of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert.
“I liked that!” he exclaimed, before realizing he was on mike. He recovered quickly. “This is supposed to be secret. I’m not supposed to enjoy myself, and I usually don’t. I don’t want to give the false impression that I enjoy my own work. The guys that I played with are like redwood trees. I have a high standard to keep up with the people that I’ve been associated with. So I hear my shortcomings when I listen back to myself. Hopefully, too many other people don’t hear them! But I hear them. It’s okay, though. I’m still playing, so there’s still a chance for me to [reach] perfection. As long as I’m still practicing, I have a chance to get closer to my own nirvana, so that’s cool.”
Sonny Rollins DownBeat 75th Anniversary Article (#1):
Several hours into retrospecting on a half-century of Downbeat’s copious coverage of his career, Sonny Rollins paused. “I hope you understand that it’s emotionally jarring to go over your life,” he said.
That qualifier aside, Rollins treated the process with customary thoughtfulness and good-humor, offering blunt self-assessments and keen observations on the changing scene described within the seven articles in question. His comportment brought to mind Joe Goldberg’s remark (“The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins,” August 26, 1965): “It is almost impossible to talk superficially to Rollins. He examines whatever is under discussion in much the way he examines a short phrase in one of his solos: over and over, inside out and upside down, until he has explored all possibilities.”
Rollins will observe his 79th birthday in September. Even in his Old Master years, a life stage when artists of parallel stature—filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman come to mind—pare down to essences, he continues his efflorescent ways, applying his singular mojo towards imperatives of (as I wrote in Downbeat in 2000) “shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night.” In his maturity, as documented on his most recent studio CD, Sonny, Please [Doxy] and the 2006 concert performance documented on the DVD Vienne [Doxy], it seems, as I wrote in 2000, that Rollins has “reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.”
“It’s like Lionel Hampton,” Rollins joked over the phone. “You’d bring him in the wheelchair, help him up on the bandstand, and BANG, he’s a 20-year-old kid again,. To some degree, it’s like that. Once I start playing, I lose track of the time.”
Over the years, Rollins’ larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belied the notion that self-doubt could ever impede his forward motion. But much of the Downbeat narrative describes a character around whom Bergman might have framed a film—a gifted artist less than fully confident that his abundant talent suffices to satisfy his aspirations, engaging in a continual process of introspection and self-criticism, and, furthermore, possessing the courage to act upon his convictions by removing himself from the public eye during three extended sabbaticals. In short, as Downbeat’s reportage makes clear, the progression of Rollins’ musical production is inseparable from the development of his spiritual life.
How consistently Rollins hewed to his path is clear from a comment that Nat Hentoff places at the end of his 1956 cover story, “Sonny Rollins,” which appeared a mere 11 months after Rollins, already dubbed “saxophone colossus” at 26, had left Chicago, his home during his first self-imposed hiatus. “I was thrown into records without the kind of background I should have had,” he told Hentoff, expressing a concern that his career was developing too fast.. “I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to do it.”
This theme would recur in different variations over the next quarter century, as would several others expressed in Dom Cerulli’s 1958 followup. By then Rollins had already investigated the possibilities of the pianoless tenor trio on Way Out West, Live at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite, each an enduring classic. He explained this direction as a response to his difficulty in finding band personnel who could fulfill his vision, noting a particular ambivalence about playing with pianists who were not Bud Powell. He also elaborated on the pros and cons of nightclub performance vis-a-vis the concert stage, expressing concern about “setting aside enough time to keep up to his horn” and his “hang-up” with “finding time to rehearse,”
Certainly, Rollins circa 2009 connected to concerns expressed a half-century ago. “Everything here seems like I could write it today.” he stated. Not least is his remark to me in 2000 that “there’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”
Nat Hentoff, Sonny Rollins – Nov. 28, 1956
“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene until I’m completely finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything…”
Dom Cerulli, Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes he Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has To Date – July 10, 1958
“Right now, I feel like I want to get away for a while… I need time to study and finish some things that I started long ago. I never seem to have time to work, practice, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night.”
“I’m vindicated. I always claimed that my motive for going on the bridge was as I stated, but people said, no, Sonny’s just going on the bridge because of the ferment in the music world, the competition from new people coming to the front, like Ornette and Coltrane. Everything I said in 1956 and 1958, I still speak about. I still practice every day. I still have a vision which I haven’t yet achieved in my improvisations. I mentioned that I always wanted formal music training, which my brother and sister had. I didn’t. I was always trying to catch up on my education.
“This shows my conscience about the clubs, as well. They were great, and I played in them until I was able to realize my ambition. But they were problematical because of the lifestyle—and also I thought that doing concerts would elevate the public perception of jazz.”
BILL COSS, The Return of Sonny Rollins – January 4, 1962:
“A few weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returned to the public jazz world from which he had voluntarily retired two years ago. On his opening night at New York’s Jazz Gallery, the large audience had an unabashed air of expectancy more familiar to a football stadium than a night club… When he…moves toward the bandstand, there is a ripple of sound and movement preceding him, shouted hellos and exhortations. It is reminiscent of a championship fight, as Sonny is reminiscent of a championship fighter… Nowadays he even sounds like ex-heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, advocating clean living, study, lots of exercise. ‘I’ve stopped smoking,’ he says, ‘and cut down on the drinking, and I lift barbells every day.’ Then he begins to play, and he wins every round.”
“In order not to disturb others, he looked long and hard for a deserted enough place to practice while he was retired. ‘Then I discovered the Williamsburg Bridge,’ he said. ‘It’s right near where I live. It’s amazing. Very few people walk along it. Probably most people don’t even know there’s a sidewalk on it. But the ones who did walk there paid very little attention to me. You’re just suspended out there. You feel as if you’re on top of everything, and you can see so far and so much, and so much of it is beautiful. I can blow as hard as I want there and be impressed. It gave me a kind of perspective about music, people, everything, really, that I never had before. Everything began to jell afer that. When I quit, I suppose I had the intention of changing myself drastically, my whole approach to the horn. I realized after awhile that that wasn’t what was needed or what was bothering me. So instead, I began to study what I had been doing, and explored all the possibilities of that. I knew I was beginning to control my horn.”
“In 1956, I moved to 400 Grand Street, between Clinton and Norfolk, a block below Delancey Street. I was walking on Delancey Street (do you remember the film Crossing Delancey?), shopping in that area, and I looked up and saw the steps leading up to the bridge, and sort of thought about it, ‘Gee, where does that go?’ I walked up there and said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ There was my place to practice.”
“I didn’t do any performances during those years, although I did go out a couple of times to clubs. I went to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery. Steve Lacy had a loft on the Bowery, and I might have gone there. I heard Ornette at the Five Spot when they first came to town. I met Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins when I went to California for the first time, in March 1957, at the time I did Way Out West. I hadn’t known them before. They all came out, and we got tight and practiced together. After I began to want to change the Bridge group, I remembered their playing and called Don and Billy.”
“Opening night was rough. There was so much hoopla, so much press buildup that I was doomed to fail. But I had to do it. Like Bill wrote, I was fighting like I always do—trying to get something happening.”
Joe Goldberg: The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins –August 26, 1965
“Rollins showed up to take me to his home. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, was smoking a cigar and driving an Impala. He negotiated the heavy traffic with the ease of the cabdriver he once was. He lives in a Brooklyn apartment near Pratt Institute with his wife, Lucille, and two German shepherds named Major and Minor. The decor consists of paintings by the Detroit painter known as Prophet and souvenirs from overseas trips. The music on the phonograph ranged from old Basie records with Lester Young through Indian and Japanese music to operatic arias.”
“‘The average Joe,’ he said, ‘knows just as much as I do—he knows more than I do. I’m the average Joe, and I think people recognize that.”
“I never actually drove a cab. That might have been a little exaggeration. A job was offered to me, but I never did consummate the act, if I can put it that way.
“I really had it together. My wife Lucille, and two German Shepherds named Major and Minor. A Chevy Impala. Nice paintings on the wall. It was a nice, big apartment. I didn’t look like I was suffering any.”
“ I think ‘average Joe’ is an exalted term. To me, it’s really Everyman. What I meant is that the audience is pretty savvy and not to be downplayed. They know what’s happening. The audience pays their money, and it’s up to me to give them what they paid for. If I have a night when I am more or less satisfied with my work at any particular concert performance, the audience is satisfied. Now, there are some nights when I am not satisfied, but the audience may still be satisfied to some degree. That’s ok, because I am always my worst critic.
“Rollins said he never particularly wanted to be a leader, that he would have been content to remain a sideman with none of the non-musical worries and responsibilities that go along with leading and stardom. ‘You’d be surprised how many very famous people told me not to become a leader, you’d be surprised if I called their names.’”
“I’d give a yes and no to that remark. In the kind of music we play, where everybody is extemporizing and has their platform, you have an advantage over the leader. A sideman can play great or not so great, without responsibility. A leader has to play great all the time. On the other hand, everybody has enough ego to want their name in lights. Furthermore, the fact that you devote your life to creating this music and want acceptance for creating something personal is also a big ego trip—hopefully in a less negative sense. I believe some of my religious teachings that we have to be very careful about the ego, so I try to be careful of THAT. See, I don’t want to be just be playing for vanity. That would be a worthless life. I’m trying to get to somewhere musically, and create some music that I think I hear every now and then. I’m trying to get to that place.”
IRA GITLER, Sonny Rollins: Music is an Open Sky – May 29, 1969
“Rollins had played a very short set, and then emphatically gestured that the curtains be closed. The audience, stunned for a moment, instigated a concerted clamor, and after a few minutes Rollins reappeared, saxophone in hand. His fans, eager to showcase affection on him and listen to more of his music, began calling out their favorite selections. Sonny, at odds with himself and his adulators, responded with halting words of explanation and then played snatches of various standards and an abortive calypso. It must be said that he made an effort, but a lot of disgruntled people left Town Hall that night.”
“…after the concert…at the Village Vanguard, he exhibited that staggering brand of gigantic tenor that makes you feel as if you are the instrument being played. The music does more than surround you with grandeur; it gets into your circulatory system and courses through your body.”
“This is what makes Sonny Rollins’ career so…well, interesting or so different. Once I got a name, everything I did wasn’t a success. I had a lot of unsuccessful concerts, like this one, which was a big venue, Town Hall. I had to regroup and come back. Most people, once they’ve made it, then it’s all staying on that level, or going uphill. But Sonny Rollins was, ‘Oh yeah, Sonny Rollins, terrible concert; gee, how can he recover?’ Then ‘oh yeah, good concert.’ I can create a scenario of what happened on the concerts that were not successful. Technical matters probably played a big part—preparation time, interaction with certain other members. But in exceptional times, I can overcome a lot of things.”
“Constant shifts in personnel has become the expected pattern within Rollins’ groups. Players come and go like guests in a hotel for transients… ‘There are a lot of guys I can work with, and who can work with me,’ he said, ‘but until I get a steady itinerary and offer steady work…’ Why doesn’t a major figure like Rollins work more frequently? In the past, he has chosen to take sabbaticals of varying length, for reasons ranging from dissatisfaction with himself to disenchantment with the jazz scene. One factor these days is salary. Rollins has spent many years to reach his high plateau of artistry, and feels that this entitles him to a certain basic compensation…”
“The saxophonist began studying yoga on a formal basis when he went to Japan in 1963. During the next five years he maintained contact with his teacher, Master Oki, and with the Yoga Institute of Japan. When he returned at the beginning of 1968, he visited temples and shrines and spent time at his teacher’s school in Mishima, near Mt. Fuji. ‘The atmosphere creates an attitude for meditation,’ Rollins said. ‘There is a feeling of peace. Some of the students were jazz fans.’ The Japanese experience led him to India and an ashram—“a religious colony of Hindu monks and women, yoginis”—on Powaii Lake, about an hour’s travel from Bombay… He meditated and took courses in Vedanta philosophy.”
“Business problems certainly would be part of my Sonny Rollins story. I felt always that jazz musicians not only should be appreciated more, they should be paid better. I certainly expressed that, and maybe Ira was right that I was pricing myself out—he might have been close to some of these club-owners, so they may have confided that to him. I consider myself an open sky, and I am open to all kinds of stuff; I’m not a moldy fig, so I felt a fairly substantial amount of interest in everything that was going on, especially Miles—I’d played with Miles. The business was fracturing around that time. A lot of other influences were coming in, and mainstream jazz (if I can put myself in that category) was not getting accepted. Well, it was never accepted, which meant things were even worse for jazz musicians. Everybody knows how the music business is.
“When I first came out on my own, I worked for Joe Glaser, from Associated Booking, and he had an agent handling me who had also worked for boxers in the fight game. He told me, ‘Sonny, I’ve been an agent in the fight game, I’ve been an agent in the music game. The music business is worse.’ So those were the conditions that we had to work under, and I was getting disillusioned with it. Somebody else might feel, ‘This is just the way jazz is.’ Well, I might take it a little more seriously than other people, and want to fight back. I felt that my name would give me the wherewithal to do something. Also, I was getting more and more deeply into my spiritual quests. So that was a perfect time for me to get to India. I’d been there already, because I had been studying a lot of yoga books, and I wanted to see if I could get involved with the schools of some the people I was reading about. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, really touched me (I still have an original copy in my library), but he had passed on. But there were other people. Spirituality and music are very close together, and it’s sort of looking for more of a meaning out of life.
Gordon Kopulos: Needed Now: Sonny Rollins – June 24, 1971
“With just two or three other living tenor players, Rollins shares the distinction of having an original tone. It is deep, strong and full-throated, even in the upper register. In the lower ranges, it is reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins, and occasionally in the middle octave he calls Ben Webster to mind. His tone is certainly not without its influences, but the way he twists or bends about every third note sets him apart from everyone else in the known universe. His tone is breathy at times, too, particularly on ballads… Though the full tone isn’t exactly popular, traces of the Rollins approach are discernible in some contemporary saxophonists: Archie Shepp, for instance. Pharaoh Sanders, too, has recently displayed a tone much fuller than the one he was using with Coltrane… [Rollins’] contribution consists of much more than just this, though. Rhythmic innovators in jazz can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. Rollins is one of those who must be counted… His use of space is possibly the greatest imaginable object-lesson in how to make the absence of sound create rhythmic and melodic tension… Even if Rollins decided to hereafter play only straight melody, he would still be a creative jazz musician. Because by the time a melody has undergone his singular treatment of singing tone and organismic rhythm, it is infused with a vitality that renders it a new thing… Rollins’ experiments in harmony helped to clear the trees for the present harmonic daring of the avant-garde.”
“So far, I like this one the best. Some of the things he’s saying in there are not conventional wisdom. I think he’s very prescient and right-on.
“My sense of time is probably unique to me. The things he says about my tone could have been written any time; I’ve been working on my sound all the time. I really got into harmonics through studying Sigurd Raschèr’s book, Top Tones For Saxophone. He’d demonstrate with a saxophone that had no keys, and would play all these notes to demonstrate the way the harmonics fell in. I wasn’t working so much with multiphonics, which is a term used more by guys who created fingerings that allow them to play two tones at one time. That was a worthy technique, except you couldn’t really control the volume. But I was working on breathing and embouchure to play the natural harmonics, playing two notes at once, to increase the vocabulary of the instrument, and enhance my own expressiveness.
“There is something avant-gardish about my playing, even though people might think of me in terms of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, or more conventional playing terms like bop, hardbop, and so on. Ornette put out a record on tenor, and everyone said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Sonny Rollins.’ People look back and say, ‘Well, he played like this in 1948, and then he played like this in 1953, and he played like this in 1965.’ Well, I have to accept the fact of my history in music. It’s on record…if you’ll excuse the pun. Somebody might hear me today, and say, ‘Oh, Sonny’s gone back and he’s playing tunes again.’ Which is ok. Yes, I was playing tunes at that time. But I’m not going to play the way I did in 1948 or 1965. I don’t like to be caged. I might feel like playing tunes, but then at another moment I might not.. There’s a lot of things on my mind. I need to learn and increase my arsenal of things to do. Performance is when you get a chance to go through the attic, and I can’t perform as much as I’d require to really stretch out and do all the different things I want to do.”
Tam Fiofori, “Reentry: The New Orbit of Sonny Rollins,” October 24, 1971
Q: What were the influences responsible for your playing tunes like St. Thomas and Brownskin Girl?
SR: My mother is from the Virgin Islands, and when I was fairly small I remember going to dances with her and listening to some of this type of music—Brownskin Girl, St. Thomas and calypso things. Of course, when I got into playing jazz they were not thought of as being jazz music, and a lot of people would even try to make a big separation, and I did, too. I didn’t actually begin my jazz career playing those types of songs. I just began to really incorporate that at a later stage. But the fact that I had heard a lot of them as a child made it so that I was able to play them particularly well. Then I felt that it was good if I could play them and people liked them, and it was something I could do in a natural way and it proved to be a sort of a trademark. Then again I’ve heard some African music which is I think somewhat similar to calypso in a way…some of the music they call Highlife… I think a lot of [calypso] and [Bossa Nova] and [rock] rhythms are being used a great deal more, which is good.
“I would say that it’s unfortunate for Sonny Rollins that I made such a searing impression when I came out on the scene, like that was me. Because that’s not me. I’m a very eclectic player. I’m open to a lot of things. Music is an open sky—back to that again. My first guy that I liked when I started playing was Louis Jordan, a real rhythm-and-blues man. I’m a little like Dizzy. I’m serious, but my music is… Dizzy did a lot of things like, “Who Stole My Wife, You Horse-Thief” and so on. I tend to go that way sometimes, and I don’t feel that it diminishes anything else I did, just like it didn’t diminish when Dizzy was playing ‘Groovin’ High.’ So in the period after that article, I might have gone that way, but that was part of me. I didn’t decide to do anything that was antithetical to what I believed in. I’m not a good enough musician to do that. My playing is too natural. If I play some kind of way, it’s got to be that I have a deep feeling about it.
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s I was talking about needing to get away from music for different reasons. Well, during the ‘70s I moved out of the city. I got the place where I live now, where I could practice more or less whenever I wanted to, away from the madding crowd. So I was able to stay ‘active’ and still have the chance to meditate and do the things that I needed to do, but couldn’t do in the ‘60s because I was right in the middle of everything, and had a lot of pressures and so forth. Lucille and I made it so that we didn’t overwork. The booking agency used to call my wife ‘Mrs. No.’ We wouldn’t work that much. We’d only take things that we thought were really good in many respects. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to take sabbaticals away from the music scene.
Q: Do you think that the music has by now severed most of its ties with Western music other than environmental ones?
SR: “There’s nothing Western about the way I play in the least. The only Western thing is that I play some Western songs.”
“Of course today these guys can probably write down what I do. But the point is well-taken. I’d say the same thing now.
“I think I’m like a diamond in the rough. That’s what George Avakian used to call me. I’m a very rough player. I’m not a polished player, although I’m trying to be—but I’m not. That’s why Fiofori probably had an affinity to what I was doing, because he’s from a Third World African country, and he heard something in my playing, besides some of these calypsos, which probably was reminiscent of that way of playing.”
Bob Blumenthal, Sonny Rollins Interview – May 1982
BB: I hear you’re producing your next album.
SR: I have been thinking about producing for a long time. I was listening to Roberta Flack talk one night, and what she described was similar to me. She was actually producing her own albums; she was selecting the material, picking the people. What I haven’t been doing is talk to the people on the date about money and various arrangements. The rest is something I think I should be doing—it just means more control over what you do. It’s a logical conclusion to end up producing your own things. It’s more responsibility that I should be handling myself.
“I began to trust my wife’s judgment, which helped me move more or less seamlessly into that side of the business. I was able to listen to her a little bit, and, ‘ok, I won’t get angry if you pick out what you think is the best of what you’ve heard.’ I’d listen at the end, and if it wasn’t intolerable, we’d let it go.”
BB: It has become a cliche that Rollins albums don’t capture the spark of Rollins in live performance. Does this mean anything to you as a player-producer?
SR: I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve got to concentrate more on making a studio date have a certain pizzazz, a zing to it that performances would have by virtue of the people and I interacting. That’s something I’ll deal with this time. It’s also a psychological thing on my part, about going into a studio and playing as much like I usually play as possible.
“I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first started recording in the ‘40s, I’d go into the studio, say, with J.J. Johnson and do two takes. There wasn’t any chance to do it over. As time progressed and the possibility of overdubbing arose, I began to think, ‘Gee, maybe it can come out better.’ That had a big influence on why it became more difficult as the years went on. I’ve gotten past that self-doubt; I don’t feel I have to overdub everything. I’m more confident that what I play is the best that I can do at that time, and I won’t feel the need to do one take after another. Of course, live, you don’t have to worry about doing take after take; hence, my live stuff always gets more acclaim.”
Bob Belden, Sonny Rollins: The Man – August 1997
“…when I found out about Coleman Hawkins, I was attracted, I think, to his sound, and then it just seemed like he knew so much music. Just his mental thing and intellectual approach really got to me. Coleman had harmony down to a high art… Hawkins is the one that gave me the sense that this is something beyond even the feel-goodness of music. Not that there’s anything wrong with the feeling-good aspect of music.”
“Music is so fluid. I practiced today, and things came to me that didn’t come to me yesterday. But I am deeply embedded in my roots. Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Lester Young, all these people that I’ve heard. People I’ve played with. Coltrane. Bird, of course. So yeah, I think I’m close to those people. Sometimes, in soundchecks, I’ll play like Don Byas. This is rudimentary for me to get my chops up. Everything I do is involved in what I’m doing now, and I’m not trying to play like Coleman Hawkins. I don’t consciously think too much about these people unless I’m listening to something by them. But I’m sure the fact that I knew Coleman Hawkins and have tried to play like him, is involved in everything I do. I did a seminar with Gary Giddins last year, and a young guy asked me what I think about the jazz of today. I remarked that…which I thought about later; it wasn’t a complete enough answer…but it may have been… I said that as long as whoever is playing this music thinks about Lester Young in what they’re doing, I would give it my seal of approval.”
John McDonough, September 2005
“Sonny Rollins finds himself on yet another bridge these days. On September 7th he turns 75, and within the last year his wife, Lucille, died. The two had been married for about 40 years.”
“‘I’ve been suffering from an overload,” Rollins says in a husky, hoarse voice, apologizing for being late for this interview. “I lost my wife, and she did most of these things. I’ve been completely swamped with interviews, appointments, taxes. I don’t like to operate like that. When a time is set, it’s not my usual method of operation to be late.”
“I’ve always been a guy who’s stood out, who’s pretty much been my own man. At this age, it’s better for me to keep everything more compartmentalized, and reduce the things that I have to do so I can just concentrate on my music. I can only practice about two hours a day now. I have a group of people that I feel fairly comfortable working with; it’s somewhat of a loose family, and it makes life a little bit easier. But I still have to oversee everything. I can’t not be involved, like I was when my wife was with me and I could live like a baron and just go out to the studio and play all day.
“You never want to get too accustomed to any other person. We’re born alone and we have to leave the planet alone. So it’s a matter of adjusting to life’s different knocks. I’m able to deal with things a lot easier now than four years ago. I never feel that the burden is too heavy. Obviously, I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t live like a baron now. But I’m making my own statements and doing what I want to do.”