Sonny Rollins: Still Seeking the Lost Chord
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."