Sonny Rollins: Still Seeking the Lost Chord
“ Jazz is life. It's what happens every minute of every day. It's fresh and new. Creative, just like life itself. ”
The Saxophone Colossus. The greatest living improvising musician. A musical god. Sonny Rollins has been called all these things at one time or another by fans across the globe, as well as by those involved in the pursuit of music criticism and jazz history. There's no question he is the greatest remaining icon to come out of the golden age of jazz, the be-bop period begun in the 1940s that created "mainstream" jazz as it is known today, even though it was new and rebellious at the time. In that time, and for many ensuing years, legendsMiles, Monk, Mingus, Trane, Diz, Duke, Max, Brownie, Fats, Oscar, Dexter, Bird, Bud, names too numerous to mentionwalked the Earth. Most of them are gone.
Rollins remains and believe it, he is no relic. At age 78, he is touring, performing, playing with enough might and majesty that he is still winning awards from magazines and groups like the Jazz Journalists Association. Like almost no other of that epic period of jazz, Rollins is still creating influential sounds, breathing life through his tenor saxophone, speaking with power, telling stories of consequence and substance through that assembly of metal and spring-loaded keys.
"I'm now a legend, whether I want to be or not," he says good naturedly. He is aware of what is written and said about him, but is humbled by the bigger picture of life itself. He is relatively soft spoken, but open, honest and gracious. Affable and kind.
He's not a saxophonist emeritus. He says he's still searching, trying to find new music inside him and bring it out to the world.
- Life Music
- New Product
- Dealing with Difficulties
- Doxy Records
- Friends and the Golden Age
- On Hiatus
- Jazz and the Future
Seeing Rollins perform these days is still extraordinary. He walks more gingerly onto the stage, but once he counts off the music and puts horn to his lips, the years strip away. His sound, which has influenced countless sax players and other musicians for decades, is ageless. He maintains a regal presence. People stop what they're doing and listen. In a loose, flowing shirt, with hair and beard now silver in hue, he has a distinctive aura. It befits his status and stature in the music world, for in jazz music, he stands very near the source.
Rollins doesn't raise his horn above his head these days, blaring to the heavens as he did as a younger man. He can't pull off what he did more than two decades ago at the Opus 40 Festival, near Saugerties, NY, when he jumped down off a stage about four feet high, broke his heel, andunfazedcontinued to play while lying on his back, his band mates in as much awe as the audience (captured in the Robert Mugge-produced film, "Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus," Winstar, 1986). But he brings the power. Like at Newport in August of 2008 when he blew "Global Warming" mightily into the harbor that eventually leads to the mighty Atlantic. Like at the Litchfield Jazz festival in 2001, when his sound from beneath the festival tent cut through a summer storm; where it felt almost as though his gleaming sound both brought and then controlled the thunder and lightning during the deluge. Like Zeus, tossing lightning bolts, but by design, not whim.
Rollins is a picture of concentration as he performs, rocking gently, transferring weight from one leg to the other, sometimes walking in place. Sometimes slowly traversing the stage. Always in time; a swaying motion to his gait. Summoning his muse. It's also apparent he's having fun. He's home.
Mark Soskin played piano with Rollins for some 14 years. He not only accompanied the master on stage, but heard countless moments of solo Sonny as he practiced in the dressing room before gigs, he recounts in a 2007 All About Jazz interview. That strengthened his own playing.
"There is a certain feeling of looseness and freedom in Sonny Rollins' playing that is unique," says Soskin in December. "Of course the technique is there, but it's not about that. It's way beyond that. I loved how when we performed, anything could happen and it often did. Sometimes there were endless trades with the drums, stopping tunes to go into other ones, abrupt key changes and more. The band was always on their toes and if you weren't , you were gone. The Sonny Rollins experience is a perfect example of jazz at it's most spontaneous."
Rollins still likes to play standards. And usually has at least one calypso-influenced number in his repertoire. His explorations include streaks of multi-note bursts in and around the chords. Then he may halt for a moment, not for breath, but for the next burst of inspiration, an idea pursued, branches cleared away and a path found that might go around a boulder and under a tree branch. A path that few would see, much less decided to follow. Sometimes phrases are repeated, becoming part of the composition's rhythmic appeal. His sound takes over.
Bah-bah bahhh, bah-bah bahhh ...
But all the while a phrase is repeated, Rollins is thinking. Or rather trying to erase in his mind what is rote and find spontaneity. On a good night, he's devoid of preconceived distraction. Then he's off on an excursion; running down chords with a burnished flurry of notes; up and down the horn. The deep tones can raise hair on ones arms. Other jaunts are serpentine. Then he's back to blasting out a repeated theme in a distinct form. Commanding form.
Sonny Rollins form.
The tension and release in his playing puts listeners on edge, waiting for the next explosion, the next exhilarating sounds from the curved bronze beast that Rollins has trained so adroitly to do his bidding. Even though, like all great artists, there are times Rollins feels the beast has gotten the better; that he didn't quite get it right on a particular night; goals not quite met. It's that quest for unique art that makes it so worth sitting at the feet of the great ones, hoping to catch a special moment and enjoy the journey; touch the hem of the garment, as it were.
Says Soskin, "Sonny also has a unique relationship with the audience. He always knew how to lure them into his deeper thoughts and stream of consciousness playing. The calypsos were as much apart of the show as the rest and here is where you could hear his sheer joy of the music. It doesn't matter if it's one honking low note or a torrid, fast flurry of them. He always got his point across and very clearly. Also, the knowledge of standard repertoire is phenomenal."
The sound of Sonny Rollins is one of vitality, consistently over the decades. As a youngster on Miles Davis' Dig (Prestige, 1951) more than half a century ago, he's confident and strong, following examples set by Charlie Parker. His own early recordings with fine musicians of that era are equally impressive, as are albums with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, or his expansion into the pianoless trios at the Village Vanguard, or his own bands in the 1980s and 1990s. It's an aural documentation of a distinctive style that continued to mature, and was followed by so many. There's joy. Humor (expect quotes from other tunes that fit into a song's natural cadence as Sonny has re-drawn it). Sonny still stands at the pinnacle of saxophone players and improvisers. Playing jazz.
"The art of improvisation and reaching people with spontaneous musicwhich is what jazz is all aboutit's always going to be here, because that's really life," says Rollins from his upstate New York home in November, not long before embarking on a tour of five German cities, plus Zurich, Switzerland. "Somebody said to me, 'Gee. Some guys don't like to call it jazz.' So I said: then call it life music, instead of jazz. Because that's what it is. It's life. It's alive. It's like nature. It's sunny, it's raining, it's snowing. It's whatever. It's spring time. Jazz is life. It's what happens every minute of every day. It's fresh and new. Creative, just like life itself."
Joe Lovano, one of the finest tenor saxophonists of his generation, also refers to "life" and music when he speaks of one of his influences and idols in a video on Rollins superb website. Lovano says Rollins "gives you the highest standard to reach for in your music and your life...his execution, his ideas, his free-flowing streams of consciousness and life has just given me so much to reach for as a player, as a composer."
In 2008, more product surfaced for people to hear and see. Rollins latest CD release is a compilation recording from live concerts. Road Shows, Vol. 1 has selections going back as far as 1980, running up to a selection from the highly-touted concert at Carnegie Hall in 2007, that was hailed as the 50th anniversary of Rollins first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1957. That night he performed with his own band, and then a set with two of the best in the business, drummer Roy Haynes (another from the golden era who is still fantastically vital) and bassist Christian McBride.
Also out in 2008 was a concert DVD, Live in Vienne, (EmMarcy, 2008), from a show in the French city recorded in 2006. It's visually outstanding in high-def, and the concert is dazzling on its own accord. The set list is typical of Rollins these days and it's a great documentation of Rollins' band these days.
Also in 2008, the Jazz Icon Series of DVDs featuring historic musicians released Sonny Rollins: Live in '65 & '68. Both are concerts in Denmark, showing Rollins young and strong. Fearless.
Rollins selected the music for Road Shows, a superb disc because live Rollins is always remarkable. He was also the one that decided the ballyhooed Carnegie Hall concert in 2007 would not be released in its entirety, contrary to the original plan.
"I didn't really like my playing on that," says Rollins of the Carnegie Hall show. "It was a big undertaking that night, to put on that concert. We did that ourselves. The concert wasn't produced by somebody else. That was produced by myself and my consortium. It was quite a big undertaking. Unfortunately, I didn't get everything together musically like I wanted to. But I was happy that the event took place.
"It was a big success for a Tuesday night in New York. A lot of people, standing room only. People outside. It was very successful that way. We wanted to prove that musicians can produce their own work, their own concerts. That's what we accomplished with that concert. Musically, I had a little problem because there were some things, inadvertently, that didn't happen. I think the reason was, I was busy trying to make sure that we pulled off this unprecedented event. That's why I didn't put that out (on CD)."
"Some Enchanted Evening," from that evening with McBride and Haynes, is on Road Shows.
The new products illustrate the consistent high quality of Rollins' career, as they cover a wide range of years. They show his touch with a ballad, which is maybe underrated, but is great. They put on view that one of the more striking things about Sonny's playing is his rhythmic force and sensibility. Whether that comes from his Caribbean ancestry, "in the genes," as he likes to say about certain things, or his own intuitionor bothit is strongly evident.
"That's one of my strong points, so they tell me," says Rollins with a chuckle. "It's also a talent, gift that I had. I don't really know how I developed that. When I was starting out, I practice a lot by myself. I would go in the room and practice, practice, practice all day long. I played all by myself ... stream of consciousness play. I ultimately found it was something natural for me to do. In a sense, I'm still doing that."
He adds, "When I'm on the stage performing, I have no thoughts going through my head. That's the culmination of what I'm doing. I practice my work when I'm at home. I still practice regularly, every day. I practice my rudiments and all of these things when I'm home. When I get on the stage, I don't think. I sort of let the subconscious take over. That's what it's all about ... I surprise myself, occasionally, with something that might come out that is striking. I don't really think about whatever else is happening. It just happens."
Rollins may surprise himself occasionally, but for listeners, surprises are abundant.
His mythic status in the jazz world comes from his talent, but is bolstered by a life that has had its share of things that make for legend. His hiatus from the scene in 1959 when he was already considered a titan on his instrument, practicing for hours on end on the Williamsburg Bridge to hone his craft even more, is talked about. Who does such a thing? Another disappearance in the late 60s to study Zen in Japan and then study in a monastery in India, not emerging until the early 1970s, was another curious twist. They appear almost eccentric, which leads people to wonder. He returned both times to slay more people with his playing. That kind of stuff will contribute to a legendary reputation.
But for Rollins, there was no premeditation of these things. No pretense. They were part of a conviction that he needed to do more. Convention be damned. A need to stay in the public eye was not a consideration. He reached a pinnacle in the 1950s as the baddest tenor on the planet. (He "scared the shit out of Trane," at that time, said Miles Davis in his autobiography [Miles; The Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1989]meaning that he opened John Coltrane's eyes to how much more music could be played on the instrument). But leaving the scene was something he felt he needed for his life and he was firm about doing it, despite what must have been advice to the contrary.
He's also had trials and tribulations, including being among those who fell in with heroin addiction in the early 1950s. He kicked it and emerged stronger on the other side. In 2001, he was at extremely close to the World Trade Center on September 11 when it was bombed by terrorists. In 2004, he lost his wife of 47 years, Lucille, who was not only his spouse, but friend, confidant and business partner. "I'm a little further along with having to do whatever I can do," he says now, "but of course, there's still a void."
The tragic attack in New York City was traumatic for the entire nation. For Rollins, it was a first-hand experience, as he happened to be in an apartment he kept in the city, away from his upstate home.
"I lived about six blocks north of the World Trade Center. I was right there. I was down there when the planes came in," recalls Rollins. He was preparing to leave his 39th floor apartment when "I heard a plane ... I thought the plane was flying a bit low. It sounded like a big plane. I didn't look out the window or anything. My view faced north, it didn't face the World Trade Center. After a while I heard this: Pow! It was sort of down by the river. I knew something had happened, so I figured maybe it was a small plane that was down by one of the piers there. I had the radio on when they began reporting it. Then I dragged out our old black-and-white TV and turned it on. Then I saw the other plane go into the other tower. I went downstairs and it was complete bedlam. Women were screaming and running down the streets. It was really quite an experience.
"The first tower came down. We were going to run because we thought if (the second one) came down and fell over, we would have been goners. So we actually started to run when they said it's coming down ... It was just bedlam. (Eventually) I came back upstairs to my apartment. Actually, there was no place else to go. You couldn't leave the area. The immediate area was cordoned off for some blocks. So I went back upstairs. Later all of the utilities were cut, telephone and everything. The next day they evacuated us ... I was kind of shaken."
A concert was to take place four days later at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. "I was so shaken up that I wanted to cancel it, to tell you the truth. My wife insisted that we do it. I was so weak. For one thing, my legs were wobbly because I had to walk down the stairwell with my horn and a couple of belongings, 40 flights. Getting down there and waiting for a bus to come. That was scene the next day when we were evacuated. It was getting dark and all of the ambulances and vehicles and firemen were around. It was a scene out of those old World War II movies in London where they'd have a blitz. That's the only thing I can think of that reminded me of it."
From a school on 16th street where evacuees were taken, Rollins was able to get a ride to his upstate home. "But I was very shaky. I wasn't really in shape to play," says Rollins. "I guess I'm always in shape to play. Once I started playing it was OK, as far as that goes. But I was sort of physically shaken up and emotionally shaken up."
The result is captured on Without A Song; The 9/11 Concert (Milestone, 2005), which is an inspired disc, the band sounding in good form despite things, and Rollins playing is vigorous.
Lucille's death a few years later was more trauma. Rollins admits he didn't touch his horn much while she was ill and failing. He had no motivation to practice. Then there was her eventual passing. She had taken care of all the personal and career business, and to deal with those issues, along with losing his companion, took a strong effort. It even took a while for the saxophonist to walk to his studio about 60 feet behind his house. "At night, Lucille would always turn on the porch light and I could see that from my studio. Whenever I came in, the light would be on. It took me a long time to really spend as much time as I usually spend out there. Just related to the memories and everything."
But things have moved on for Rollins, and he is as focused on music as ever, still lighting it up when he steps on stage. He tours regularly and has established his own record label, Doxy Records.
"I'm picking my spots, touring as much as I want to. I think I worked a little more (in 2008), maybe. It's going to end up being about 28 concerts I did. That's about my limit. Physically, I don't think I can do more than that."
He wants to do another studio recording, probably in the early part of 2009. He's not sure if it will involve his regular band. "I'm working out that aspect of it, but I do want to put something down on tape." Recording is not something Rollins has always been compelled to do on a schedule. He waits until he feels the time is right.
On Doxy, Rollins is pretty much the only artist, except for a recent release from his longtime band mate, trombonist Clifton Anderson, who also helped produce Road Shows and is Rollins' nephew. The release is Decade.
"I'm not going to record other people," says Rollins. "I got that label just to release my own stuff on there. My nephew, of course, I can't turn down, right? He's going to record on there. A lot of other musicians are already asking me, can they record on this label. I tell them I'm not really recording anybody. I'm not a record company. Because then you get into a lot of stuff, like paperwork, books and record-keeping and all of this stuff. I'm not a record company. This is just to put out my own stuff."
Musicians having their own labels is commonplace now, with major record labels in decline, some say on their way to obsolescence. It's a far cry from when Rollins started recording as a sideman some 60 years ago with Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell.
"I didn't really have any connection with the formal part of the business aspect of it back in those days. I think my first record (under his own name) was around the turn of the decade, 1951 or so. (Sonny Rollins Quartet, Prestige, 1951) ... Generally speaking, I didn't know much about the business aspect of it. I got a chance to record. The record companies took all of the music publishing and all that. If you had tunes, they took half of your tunes. That's the way things were done in those days. We were ignorant about it. It was an opportunity to play and record.
He adds, "A lot of those things still stand up... it gives a little more merit to what I'm doing now, because those records are still viable."
Rollins' playing is a delight going back to the earliest of days. He got the chance to develop with giants of the day in his native New York City. In Harlem, where he was born, Theodore Walter Rollins alto was his first sax choice. He switched to tenor as a teenager and idolized Coleman Hawkins. He was also hearing the new music that was to be called be-bop.
"I was very lucky, because I was around in sort of the golden age. When I was coming into the music, the guys from the swing era were still around and popping. Roy Eldridge and all of those guys. Even the guys a little older. Benny Goodman. I knew Benny. I met him back then. A lot of guys from the swing era, then coming right up into the be-bop era. Coleman Hawkins was my personal saxophone idol. A lot of guys that were all playing around the same time in the '50s. You had all these different generations producing. So that was the golden age and I'm certainly fortunate that I came up right around that time," says Rollins.
"I played with Coleman (Hawkins). I recorded with him. I like the great Lester Young, who was the father of the cool sound, they call it. A lot of those guys. The great Art Tatum. I heard Art Tatum play and had millions of his records. All of those guys. They're all gone now. I played opposite Errol Garner several times. I knew Stan Getz well. All coming in with the bebop period. Of course Charlie Parker. I was lucky enough to play and record with him and Miles Davis, and of course John Coltrane. I played and recorded with Coltrane. So I covered a lot of people. Thelonious Monk. I was fortunate enough to get with Monk when I was very young. I played with him for a while. He took me under his wing, so to speak. So I was really fortunate. I'm really lucky that I got that kind of exposure with these great people."
He moved to Chicago for a while in the early 1950s, after his rebound from drugs, and returned to New York, joining the outstanding Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. He was blowing as strong as ever, and his own recording career was blooming in tandem with his appearances with the legendary trumpeter Brown and drumming icon Roach. His recordings included the experimentation with just bass and drums behind him. He was turning show tunes and trite tunes ("I'm an Old Cowhand") into legitimate vehicles for improvisation. His reputation grew.
Says the esoteric musician David Amram in his autobiographic Vibrations: A Memoir, (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1968) about playing with Rollins in the 1950s, "I was completely overwhelmed by Sonny. I'd never heard anything like this in my life... He was able to make one theme and develop it almost symphonically, making the saxophone the entire orchestra playing and answering itself... I realized without his explaining it that a large part of his phenomenal mastery of playing came from the fact that he knew every single note of each chord and all their substitutions."
He also forged strong relationships with Miles, Monk and Coltrane.
Miles, who was rapidly establishing himself as a force, said in his autobiography that Rollins "had a big reputation among a lot of the younger musicians in Harlem. People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thinghe was close. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas. I loved him back then as a player and he could also write his ass off."
"We were pretty tight," says Rollins of Davis. "Miles was sort of my senior, as we were coming up. He was playing with Charlie Parker, so we looked up to Miles as being part of that group. He was important. When he asked me to join his group, it was a nice recognition that I'm on the right track and a good opportunity to play with one of my idols.
"My relationship with Miles was very important for me. I always liked his wig. I always thought he was just a little bit different from the other great trumpet of that time, Fats Navarro. Miles always had a little different approach, sort of Lester Youngish approach in a way of speaking. He was a little bit more thoughtful, a little bit more nuanced. I always liked that about him. He heard me play one time. I was playing opposite an all-star group that he was in and he offered me a job playing with him. Of course that was a big thing for me because I was playing with one of my idols. We were really good, good friends. Hung out a lot. I got to know him pretty well."
With Monk, not much was said about the music, but Rollins learned a lot from the influential pianist.
"Miles was like that too. Miles wouldn't really tell you a lot of things. I'm like that too. I don't like to tell people. In other words, you're supposed to know, by the time you're playing with Monk or playing with Miles, or Trane a little later... you should know what you're doing. Of course, you're learning, but you have to know certain things when you join the band. So that Miles wouldn't tell you anything and Monk didn't. If you were there playing with them, then you're supposed to know what's happening and what to do... This is a music that is highly non-formalized."
Rollins became a sort of rival, among listeners at least, with the great Coltrane. While they pushed each other, due to their respective excellence, it wasn't a contest. "I loved Coltrane," Rollins says. "The first time I heard him, the first time we played together was with Miles, back in 1949, I guess it was. That's when I first met him. We were good friends and rivals, in a sense, more from our fans. We were good friends. Hanging out. Coltrane used to come by my house a lot. We were good, good personal friends. In fact, Coltrane and Monk, I think, were my closest friends, personal friends, off the bandstand. Just as friends that I had in the music business."
Rollins is among the last of those titans from that very special age. But he doesn't look back with melancholy. "I don't miss it. It's just, that was the way it was. It was sort of the golden age. I was very fortunate to be alive in the golden age of music.
"If you look at that picture, the Art Kane jazz picture (taken in August 1958, immortalized as "A Great Day in Harlem"). In that picture, with the exception of Miles and Coltrane (not present), most of the guys that were there were really playing. They were all happening at the same time. They all had active careers. Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Freeman, Charlie Mingus. Art Blakey, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins. All of the guys in that picture were active and performing, so that really was a golden age, through the 50s. I was really very privileged to have been a part of it.
"I don't think about it in a negative way, because those people produced so much music and that music is still here, even though the person might have left. The music is still around and we still hear it all the time, carried on by other people. So I don't really think of those guys as really being gone. In a personal sense, the scene is different than it was. In the old days there used to be a lot more personal association with each other, which is not the case now. It's not so much being around together and hanging out together and all that. I don't miss them in that sense. The music is still there. The music is lasting. Every time you think of music you have to think about these various people."
There was a time, in 1956, when Rollins did have a tough time letting go of a friend, he says. Clifford Brown died in an automobile accident at the age of 26. He was less than two months younger than Rollins.
"That was really a shocking thing and for a long time after he passed away I used to sort of channel him when I was playing. I would get to some kind of musical thing. I was getting so used to having him there, I would channel him and sort of invoke his spirit, if you will. That went on for a while and I was successful in doing that. It made me feel better to have his spirit around me for a while after the accident. But then after a while I felt it was time to let him go on and let his soul do what he had to do. I got out of that part of it and I was able to get strong enough myself to not need to channel him. I was able to let him go.
"You let him get out of this atmosphere, whatever it iswho knows what it isbut let him go on. But I did channel him and he helped me and everything like that. After a while, I got what I needed and he was able to go ahead, to fulfill the rest of whatever he had to do in his soul. His soul journey."
He adds," People who believe like I do feel that he's going on to a better reward and a different realm. So it's not the worst thing in the world. It's bad for us here that are left behind, but that's the way of our life. But I don't think about the guys in that sense: of them being gone. For me, they're still really here."
He's self-effacing about walking shoulder-to shoulder, not behind, those great musicians.
"I know I have some talent. I know I was given a certain talent, but outside of that I was really there to develop it and I'm so fortunate. I know that more than anything that I was just lucky to be there, you know what I mean?" he says through a soft laugh. "Just great memories. If I never play, I'll always have that great life playing with some of those people. It was just out of this world."
It was during his association with many of the jazz legends that he decided he needed to regroup. Perhaps a bit overwhelmed, he questioned his rapid rise and felt he had to do more to stay at that level and continue to earn that kind of respect. Disappearing abruptly can be dangerous in itself, In the eyes of a fickle public, out of sight can mean out of business. But Rollins followed his convictions. He lived on the lower east side of New York at the time, in a neighborhood where he and Lucille were comfortable. He wanted to woodshed, but didn't want to bother his neighbors.
On a walk one day through the neighborhood, his meandering took him to the Williamsburg Bridge that crossed the East River into Brooklyn. There were boats, the subway, cars. Constant noise. It was a place where the sounds of a tenor sax wouldn't raise any fuss. He says there were times he was there 15 hours a day, any time of the year.
"I had always been interested, at least from the mid-1950s, I began becoming interested in philosophy and esoteric groups like the Rosicrucians and all these things. I got into yoga, eventually Buddhism. All of those things. I began seriously studying those disciplines in the mid-50s. So I went on the bridge. That was something I pursued all of my life. Now it's part of who I am. I had a nice time when I studied Zen in Japan, studying yoga in India for a while."
The study in Japan and India was about a decade after the bridge and again took Rollins away. But he busted back with more recording and new bands. His playing was strong and he didn't loose a step. His fans eagerly awaited his recordings and he was still a master. A long association with the Milestone/Fantasy record company ensued. He won Grammys on the label for This Is What I Do (2000) as best jazz album, and for best jazz instrumental solo on "Why Was I Born" off 2005's Without a Song; The 9/11 Concert. (He also has the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences).
Maybe his study of yoga, religion and eastern philosophy helped keep the tenor man vibrant enough to pursue his musical goals into his late 70s. But, "Maybe it's also genetics," he admits. "In the mid-50s, I began to get a consciousness about trying to keep my body healthy. I got into exercise. Eating right. Eating health foods. Stopping smoking and all of these other detrimental habits, which were part of what everybody did and I was one of the people that did them. I've gotten over all of those things and it probably had some positive effect on me. It could be just that I have good genes, that I'm able to still play. But I am definitely a person who was aware a long time ago of trying to eat correctly, exercise correctly."
Looking back at his long career, accolades don't go to Rollins' head. He's appreciative, but his own standard for what constitutes good or great playing is differenthigherthan his audiences or critics. In his artistic core, in his specially creative mind, he's pushing for something more. Probably, like all artists on that high level, something that may not even be attainable.
"I'm one of these people that's never satisfied with what I do. I'm always trying to get a better cut, a better sound," says Rollins. "However, I realize now that I probably don't have enough time to get to a point where I can be completely satisfied. I'll never be that. But even a modicum of satisfaction, I don't think I'll ever get there. So it's just a matter of trying to find something interesting enough to keep me relevant and keep me able to have something current to say when I'm playing."
There are some songs that Rollins wrote, more current ones, that are still in the band's book. But classics like "St. Thomas," "Airegin," or "Oleo" aren't things he's apt to look back on. "Artistically, I get kind of bored with some of the stuff I've played. I've played a lot of songs, of course, in my life... I always try to keep current.
"If you're going to play life, if you're going to mirror some aspect of life, as you should do in a creative art, then I don't want to always play something I played 30 years ago. Even though it might be good and people might like it and it might fit in with the times in some way. I might have an oldies-but-goodies club coming to see some things. But in my case, I'm not that type of player. Jazz is not that type of music, that I play. I play more of a contemporary, improvisatory thing where it's always changing. I'm not a guy that plays one song that you can play forever, you know what I mean?
"I try to find something that, in my mind, in my creation, is more reflective of modern times, as terrible as they are. For me, I'll always be trying to do something different. Although, as I said, I know I'm never going to get to the satisfaction that I wanted. But that's OK, as long as I keep trying to be creative. That's what I'm trying to be. To keep being able to do something which is not repetitious. If I get to that point, then I know I'll stop.
"But I don't think I will, because I'm the kind of guy that likes to practice every day and I love playing."
Improvising new music on the spot, that pursuit of an interesting and inspired creation, is still a quarry that Rollins is keen to hunt. How he negotiates that process, its triumphs and, possibly, failures that are gallant for the mere audacity of the attempt, is what sparkles at the essence. At that point, the things he's learned are so innate that he tries to erase them from his immediate thought progression and allow that which is unlearned, unplanned, perhaps even unknown, to come in.
"That's the ultimate experience. When I'm really playing, and everything is right, and I'm really playing good and the band is with me and all that stuff, yeah, you do forget everything. In fact, people used to ask me, 'Do you think of the chord progressions when you play.' And I would tell them: No, I don't think about anything. When I'm really playing, you don't have time to think, because the music is coming too fast to think about it. There's no time to think You just are there. And the sum of your experience provides whatever comes out. There's no time to think and contemplate, 'Well I'll play this here. Or I'll play that there.' It's very difficult to do that.
"When you're really on, things are just happening and those are really great times. You're not thinking about anything. You're really transported. It's really... you go into another state. It's sort of like a spiritual state, a state you'd get into if you were intoxicated. Any kind of a euphoric state would be similar to it. But this is better, because it's so grounded in reality. You don't have to use peyote or something to get there. You know what I mean? You get there without having to do that. It's alright if people want to do that, but it's great if you can get to that stage without having to do anything, you know?"
What constitutes a "good night" is different for Rollins than it is for audiences. He is self-critical. He's also acutely aware of the process and the particulars, so he knows when he's not hitting right, even if it's acceptable to listeners. "The people say: Oh, that's great. When I say that to myself, when I feel I had a good night, you can rest assured that everybody knew I had a good night. I'm a professional. So I have to give the people something. I'm not in the business of having bad nights for my audiences. I wouldn't be able to be in business long. I wouldn't be asked to perform... We all have our ideal of what it could be. But as professionals we have to reach a certain level that is acceptable to the audience. Hopefully we have a higher standard. An artist should have a higher standard of what he wants."
Says Rollins, "You know the old story: If I don't practice one day, I know it. If I don't practice two days, the band knows it. If I don't practice three days, the audience knows it. Something like that."
Rollins' intention to stay current doesn't involve trying to catch on with the latest craze. Some (not all) albums jazz musicians made in the 70s to with pop sensibilities are abysmal. Rollins will use beats and rhythms from different cultureshe usually carries percussionist Kimati Dinizulu in his bandbut don't expect him to lay down sax tracks over hip-hop or rap. That doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate some of the genre, especially in its more raw state.
"I think the hip-hop stuff is probably sort of on the raw edge of jazz. It has a lot of the spontaneous elements in a lot of what they're doing... They're not playing a lot of instruments, which is different from what we're doing. I tend to look on it in a positive light. I think it's OK. I don't think there's anything antithetical about it to jazz. I think Charlie Parker could probably play with those guys. It's just a matter of... the medium is the message, so it's not that a great saxophonist couldn't play with them. It's that a great saxophonist would be not part of what they're doing. So even though it would fit, it probably wouldn't be done or wouldn't be allowed to be done. People would think it doesn't fit... Some of the stuff those guys are doing amounts to riffing, in a way. Vocal riffing, which is not that far from some sort of jazz."
Musicians he does appreciate today include saxophonists James Carter, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, David S. Ware, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. But Rollins doesn't hang out in New York on the scene anymore. "People send me CDs, but I don't get to listen to all of them. If the question is: Are there people up and coming that I think are good, the answer is definitely yes. I think jazz is an art form that's always going to appeal to people. The only problem is whether the society makes it viable for young people to get into jazz, offers enough opportunities. But as far as people coming up that can play jazz, sure."
When he listens to other musicians, "I listen for everything. Sound is very important... In the sax, sound is the first thing you hear. There are a lot of guys playing a lot of stuff, but if they don't have a prominent enough sound, what you're playing is diminished... But I listen for everything when I hear a guy. Sound. Concept. Ideas. Everything. There are good people. It's my contention that there are good people and that jazz is sort of in the genes of this country, but the problem is that it's not really given enough exposure, enough promotion and so on, so that guys just don't go into it."
"All over the world, as you know, they still love it and everything," says Rollins of jazz music. "Here in America, it's still not pushed enough. So a lot of the guys that would be playing might be great guys, but they never get a chance to play or see where they could make it, become a star and all that stuff. So they don't go into it.
"So sure, jazz will never die. But jazz as a commodity, or the way they might try to codify jazz, who knows? Jazz is a music played with a pianist in a nightclub with people drinking alcohol and talking. That's jazz, some people think. But you and I know that's not jazz. That's a way that that type of music has been presented. It doesn't have anything to do with the music itself, you know what I mean?"
Its music heard in the best places, and sometimes in the worst. But always magical when done right, in goods times and bad.
Rollins, always worldly-wise and politically astute has lived through much in this country, good and bad. Like most of us, he's discouraged by the state of affairs in the United States, but not given to despair. "They're scaring the heck out of everybody with these dire predictions about the future. But, I'm a child of the Depression. I was a child. I had a happy childhood, but still I knew there was a Depression going on. I guess I survived it then, I can survive it now. Cut back on a lot of unnecessary junk that people have been doing anyway. Get down to basics. Nothing wrong with that. It's the spirit that counts."
That line could be applied to Rollins music, all through the years: It's the spirit that counts. The spirit flows through his heart, soul, mind and out of his golden horn.
That's not going to stop. Retirement?
"Not unless I get some kind of physical infirmity," says Rollins. "Other than that, no. I'm not interested in retiring yet because I'm still trying to get to my lost chord. I'm still hearing music that I can hear, but I'm not always able to produce it. So I'm still involved actively in trying to get that music out.
"I'm still involved in trying to create something that I think is attainable."
Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1, (Emarcy/Doxy, 2008)
Sonny Rollins, Sonny Please, (Emarcy/Doxy, 2006)
Sonny Rollins, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, (Milestone , 2005)
Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do, (Milestone, 2000)
Sonny Rollins, Global Warming, (Milestone, 1998)
Sonny Rollins, The Solo Album, (Milestone, 1985)
Sonny Rollins, Don't Stop the Carnival, (Milestone, 1978)
Sonny Rollins, Nucleus, (Milestone, 1975)
Sonny Rollins, East Broadway Rundown, (Impulse, 1966)
Sonny Rollins, Alfie, (Impulse, 1966)
Sonny Rollins, Sonny Meets Hawk, (RCA, 1963)
Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, (Bluebird, 1962)
Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard, (Blue Note, 1957)
Sonny Rollins, Way Out West, (Contemporary Records, 1957)
Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, (Riverside, 1957)
Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness, (Prestige, 1956)
Clifford Brown and Max Roach, At Basin Street, (Polygram, 1956)
Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, (Prestige, 1956)
Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins, (Prestige, 1954)
Miles Davis, Bags Groove, (Prestige, 1954)
Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins Quartet, (Prestige, 1951)
Miles Davis, Dig, (Prestige, 1951)
Bud Powell, The Amazing Bud Powell, (Blue Note, 1949)
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