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Interviews

Sonny Rollins: Mark of Greatness

By Published: February 7, 2012
Back to "normal" for Rollins is a different plateau—one that other horn players aspire to reach. Rollins doesn't feel it that way. He's on his own journey, and the search is what drives him. "Because there's more there, I'm searching not as a chaotic adventure. There's more there; this is what's important. There's more to be done in music. I'm a very fortunate person because I didn't start out at the top of my game. I started out as a youngster playing with a lot of guys who were much my senior and had a lot more experience than me. I was sort of a prodigy with all those guys I began playing with: people like Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
and Miles and Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
and all these guys. They were older than me and had much more experience. In a sense, I was lucky because my craft wasn't formed then. So I've been crafting my art form ever since. And I'm still doing that. It's a continuous thing; I'm still in that. I'm still kind of learning different things, musically. By playing with great guys, I realize how much music there is that I can do, that I'm not doing yet. It's a real thing to me. It's something that I have to do. I realize that it's part of the task of my life to try to get this thing right."



This is all done in an atmosphere that has changed drastically since the bebop and big-band years. In the United States, jazz took a back seat to rock-and-roll music, and pop music was influenced by that, rather than jazz. Pursuing any of the arts in the U.S. can be precarious. Rollins feels that jazz—beloved around the globe—needs more of a boost from the government in the country where it was born.

"When you're a musician, they don't want to pay you and all this stuff because they think you're having fun doing stuff. In a sense, that's right, but you've got to eat, too," he says. "Musicians and painters—they're human beings, too. They have to have a life and support families, et cetera. You have to have governmental intervention in order to preserve these things which are of such immense cultural value to the nation, to a populace. We need government to be involved. I'm sorry, Tea Party, but we need the government sometimes."

On his two visits to the White House, Rollins came away with the impression that the President "is a brilliant guy," but as far as the music, he's more impressed with First Lady Michelle Obama. He learned that "her father and grandfather were both jazz fans. They had jazz playing all day. So Michelle knows all about it. I told her, 'That's great. It didn't impede you in any way, did it?'"

The Kennedy Center Honor for Rollins stands as one avenue of bringing the art form into the public eye. On the CBS broadcast—as Rollins sat in the balcony, looking resplendent with the other honorees—Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
b.1952
saxophone
, Ravi Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane
b.1965
sax, tenor
, Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
b.1926
sax, tenor
and others got to perform, albeit briefly. But jazz got some bright moments, and perhaps some Americans got enlightened.

In the latter part of 2011, Rollins' band did a European tour. "We were in Budapest, in Istanbul, in France, Germany. There are people there that love music, that love jazz," he says, explaining that jazz has support all over the globe. "Things change. We have to admit that. But is jazz still relevant? Yes. It still has its audience. We need to support it. Classical music—that's supported by this government. People don't go out and buy classical music like they would buy some kind of pop music. ... Classical music has to be supported by the government. They have to subsidize some of these concert halls and things. They're subsidizing this music because they realize it's a cultural necessity to have this music. It's important [that] people have something like this—the same for jazz. I think [for] jazz, maybe a little more ... it's getting to be more like classical in that it needs more help from the government."

Every once in a while, the word "jazz" comes up for some debate in its own community. Some still feel it is a debasing term, at worst—a limiting term. But all music has labels, and most jazz musicians feel that it works: that it's a necessary label, if nothing else. Rollins can see both sides. "I don't necessarily see that it might be the best definition of the music. But it's there." He adds with a faint laugh, "Maybe it would make people think about it more if there was a big campaign to change it from 'jazz.'

"Mingus used to be a big guy that was against the use of the word 'jazz.' Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef
1920 - 2013
reeds
hated that word, 'jazz.' I did see why, because it really didn't mean anything, but it sort of ... There are so many other battles to fight. I think I would agree if you could wave a magic wand and we could change it into American music, or something like that, overnight with a wand. Yeah. But how could that happen? So I accepted it. But I believe that it's not the best word."


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