A Fireside Chat with Sonny Rollins (2001)
“ I have recorded a lot of music, so any album I make, I try to do something, which is to some extent fresh in approach and has something different to say. ”
All that has been written and all that has been said about Sonny Rollins certainly has more wealth than anything I could scribe. I am only a fan of Rollins and on most days, I need not be more. His albums are a part of the lore of jazz and his legacy historical and he has won more awards than I have fingers and toes.
This is the latest of many sittings I have been privileged enough to have with Rollins. He spoke at length about just that legacy and it was my honor to be graced with his time. As always, I bring it to you in its entirety, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Sonny Rollins: I think I was musically inclined. I grew up in a musical household with older brothers and sisters that were into music. I heard a lot of music around the house. I grew up in Harlem. There was a lot of music around where we grew up. I heard a lot of guys, Fats Waller, all these people. So I was born at the right time, in the right place, really.
FJ: It was the golden age of jazz.
SR: Oh, yeah, Fred. I think so. There were a lot of great jazz musicians playing at that time and I quickly chose the saxophone. I had the people I liked like Coleman Hawkins and all those guys who I was able to follow and listen to their records. They lived, actually lived close by me in the community in those days. So I think I was really fortunate to be interested in music and to be born and to grow up in that sort of atmosphere.
There was so much jazz music around me and so much culture that was happening in that part of the city, in that community uptown we used to call Sugar Hill. It was great. I knew I wanted to play soon when I was about six, seven years old. I liked the way the saxophone looked and I was beginning to recognize guys that played. Everything just sort of came in together just at the right time.
FJ: For those not fortunate enough to have heard your playing, how would you describe the sound of your tenor saxophone?
SR: I think it's a very humanistic sound. It's sort of the sound of a person, probably very masculine, male sound. It has so many expressions. So many different artists can sound different on the same instrument. As you know, Fred, we have Coleman Hawkins. We have... everybody that's anybody had their own sound, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Don Byas. All of these people had, all great musicians had different sounds so that you could recognize them as soon as you heard them.
So even though it's an instrument which does have a certain characteristic, as I said, it's a very humanistic, expressive instrument. I think it sounds like a man. It still can't be played in a manner that allows individual characteristics to come out. I don't know if I am explaining it well enough, Fred. But it allows for individuality even though it's an instrument which has a very distinctive sound and you know a tenor saxophone when you hear it. But still, you can hear different people when they pick it up. Each person is able to express himself through the instrument.
FJ: I can name Sonny Rollins in four notes.
SR: Well, that took a while because as a youngster starting out I tried to emulate people that I looked up to and I tried to play, there was one song, “Body and Soul,” by Coleman Hawkins, I always had to play. It's one of his best records. It's one of his most popular records I should say. And all the saxophonists tried to play that, so I tried to play that. You try to copy the people that you look up to, these icons of the music. Invariably, if you have anything to offer at all, your own style will come through.
So it's not a good idea to copy, to try to copy too closely, anyone because if you'll excuse the current expression, Fred, you're just a clone. We don't want to be clones. You find out that you gravitate to a sound that ends up being yourself. Now everybody, you have to have a certain talent. You have to be, a lot of kids come to me and ask me about jazz and playing jazz and playing music and I'm not going to lie about it. You have to have a certain talent. Music is wonderful. Jazz is wonderful. It's wonderful to listen to if you want to play it just for your enjoyment, OK. But if you really have aspirations to get into the business, you have to be blessed with a certain talent and there's not much that's going to move you from that spot.
Of course, you can be a good musician that just plays in an orchestra, but if you have aspirations of being an individualist and being well known and so on, that's going to be circumscribed by the amount of natural talent, God given talent, that you happen to be born with. There's no way around that, so this is what I tell people. Sure you can play. You can enjoy it and all that stuff, but you want to be like some of your idols, you're going to have to be born with a certain talent. Then comes the work of course. You're born with the talent, but then comes the blood, sweat, and tears. You at least have to have that gift.