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A Fireside Chat with Sonny Rollins (2001)

By Published: October 27, 2003

That is true to a point. I didn't want to go to that point. Not only that, but I began seeing that if I had to depend on some kind of substance outside of myself to play my instrument, then there is something wrong with that. I didn't want to be there. I'm not putting down anybody else who feels differently, but I didn't want to be that type of, live that type of a life. I have to be more in control of myself. And a lot of times, if you get high, you get drunk and even if you're a great musician, you lose control of yourself. You lose control of your life in other ways. I didn't want anything to have control of my life.

I wanted to know what I was doing. I wanted to really be able to engage by being in good mental and physical condition.

FJ: In memory of Billy Higgins, any lasting impressions of the late drummer whom you played with?

SR: Well, Billy was a great musician. He was a really fine musician. As a matter of fact, Fred, I hadn't seen Billy for many, many years and I happened to see him, I played out at Royce Auditorium out at UCLA, a little more than a year ago. Anyway, it was the first time I had seen Billy in many years. It was great to see him. It turned out to be the last time that I saw him in the flesh. But, he was a fine musician and a real natural drummer. He had a real natural feeling. If you play the drums, you have to have a good beat. You have to have good rhythm and Billy had that. He had a good beat and a good rhythmic concept. He was one of the premier jazz drummers that we had. So it was fun playing with him and I loved him.

FJ: One “golden age” of jazz has come and gone. Will there be another?

SR: I don't see any reason why not. One of my famous sayings is “music is an open sky.” Plus, music is a gift of our makers. Music doesn't belong to any one person, any one group, any one anything. It's a gift to everybody. So there will always be people coming up, contributing to music in ways that we probably can't envision at this time.

But I certainly feel that sure, I lived through a golden age in music, which was very nice. I'm quite happy that I was able to be, as a mentioned before, alive in the time I was. But there is no reason why there shouldn't be other great periods in music.

The music is going to be there, but if our world, that is we as people are able to make some kind of human breakthrough so that we're able to maintain the planet in some way, that we're all still alive on this planet. That's the question, not whether there's any new musical innovations. I'm sure there will be.

What I'm not so sure about is whether mankind will be able to find ways to resist things like greed and selfishness. These are things which are within everybody. Every groups has these traits. It is basically a spiritual problem and this is what we have to work on. We have to get together and find some way to protect our planet and be better people and get rid of bloodlust and the greed. That's what we have to concern ourselves with. Musically, no, I have no, I'm sure there will always be great people coming up playing music.

Music is a gift to mankind like pets and animals. If you don't like pets and animals, maybe you don't think they are gifts, but if you like flowers, if you like the forest and the beautiful trees. That's the kind of thing music is. As long as we have somewhere to enjoy these things, yeah, these things will be there.

FJ: Having been the social conscious for jazz, is it disheartening that the current generation revels in a bling-bling mentality?

SR: Well, I believe that technology, there is one thing that is bad about technology, if I can borrow a phrase from a great writer, he made a statement which rang true to me. He said, “Technology enables man to go backwards faster.” I think that's true.

It's not so much that the rappers and these people that live ostentatiously are any different than the people that lived in Eighteenth Century or Sixteenth Century, it is that we have developed technology now. We have developed the technology, which makes it easier to have lots of automobiles and to have lots of homes, which be the way are destructive to our natural environment. As you know, Fred, automobiles, they destroy the ozone layer. They cause pollution and a whole myriad of things, which flow from driving automobiles. I don't have to tell you that. Everybody knows that. Basically, it is not a good thing to do.

Sure, we have to do it. We have to drive, but we have to try to realize that we should try to keep it to a minimum and that we should think more about the planet and what we'll be leaving for our children. Sure these guys are big movie stars. It's like the other day, today, my wife was showing me something in the paper about this actor, Alec Baldwin. He's an actor and he lives on the East Coast and he's supposed to be a very, so called liberal and he drives an SUV. This tells you that he's not so enlightened. He got into a road rage situation with someone else on the road and it mentioned that he was driving an SUV.

Now a person of his... who is supposed to support all these so called Democrat and liberal and environmental causes, to see a person like that driving an SUV shows you what's wrong with society. SUVs are one of the most harmful automobiles that we can ever have. They're very bad. They burn a lot of gas, fossil fuels. It's just, it just shows how ignorant people are and how much they're effected by television commercials and all this.

There is just a lack of awareness, to get back to your basic question, Fred. There will be many musical innovations if we people get our act together and that we realize that everything isn't here for us to use and abuse. There's a limit to how much garbage we can dump in the ocean. There's a limit to how much fossil fuel we can burn with our wonderful SUVs riding around the shopping mall. So we have to think about what we're doing.

These are basic, basic things that, unfortunately, not enough people think about. I think about these things. Since you mentioned my social conscious, yeah, I think about these things and I'm glad I do because I don't want to be one of these people that goes into the gas chamber smiling and laughing. If I go into the gas chamber of life after the neutron bomb or the hydrogen bomb or whatever, I want to know.

I have a feeling about the meaning of life and things beyond this particular world. So I want to know what's happening. I'm happy that I had this social conscious as you put it, Fred, so I know what's going on. No, it is awful, terrible, some of these things, but I'd rather know about them than not know about them.

FJ: There is a growing segment of society that believes global warming is a he cried wolf phenomenon.

SR: It is not frustrating to me. I'll tell you why, Fred. I'm not interested in the results of what happened. I just want to know and understand what's going on. As far as partisan politics and what the Republicans think and what Dick Chaney thinks and what Hillary Clinton does, all that stuff is way down on the totem pole.

What's important is that we individually try to do something ourselves. If people feel that global warming is just a plot by some people that want to make us feel bad that we have so much money and we have so much goods, more than any other country in the world and the richest nation in the world, so don't worry about global warming. Don't worry about the environment. It's all a lot of crock to make you feel bad. Let's see, who's the enemy these days? It's the communists or is it the Arabs? Who is it today? Whoever it is, some people think that it is just those people trying to make us feel bad about having fun.

OK, if people feel that way, it's OK. So what I'm saying is that no, I don't care because there is only so much an individual can do. We can do things individuals. If everybody did unto others as you'd have done to you, it would take care of all that stuff about global warming and things to do with the environment. Unfortunately, the people that don't believe in the golden rule are also the people that tell you that it is OK to buy an SUV and it is OK to buy a huge home. It's OK to use up a lot of electricity. It's OK to buy a lot of consumer goods with a lot of packaging that has to be disposed of and dumped some place. It's the same mentality.

So what I'm saying is that mentality is here and it doesn't make me feel terrible to know that. I know that these people are here. Believe me, Fred. I've seen it all my life. I don't think any things have shifted. Things are no better really. It is the same human condition. I've finally got to the point now where I can say what I'm saying to you now. It's part of life and it's part of what each individual has to go through. It's not a big deal. It doesn't distract me in other words.

Yes, I wish we could have a more perfect world. I wish people would do things to make it a better world and all that. But I'm not surprised. I think it's an individual thing. So it's not a matter of my being depressed. If I was depressed about this, I would be in a constant state of depression. I wouldn't say just Americans, the rest of the world because the world wants to be like Americans. Most people want to be able to have stuff and throw it away and to race cars and drive fast and have materials.

I'm not dumping on America here. It's unfortunately a worldwide problem. I feel bad up to a point. This war is being lost anyway because there are too many people that don't care about doing unto others as they would have others do unto them.

FJ: What is the golden rule?

SR: The golden rule is do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That means that, well, it means just what it says, but it implies to everything you do everyday you wake up in life. That's it. It's very simple.

FJ: I would hate to break it to you, Sonny, but you are a superstar.

SR: You mean in like my own mind.

FJ: In everyone's.

SR: Well, if it means what it's supposed to mean, I would be too afraid to walk out of the house.

FJ: You seem at peace with it all.

SR: Well, as much as a person can be. I'm still trying to improve my work. I'm still trying to be a better human being. I'm trying to be a better, responsible person on the planet. I'm still trying to live the golden rule.

Photo Credit
Sonny Rollins “Walking” by Jimmy Katz
Sonny Rollins “Close Up” by Jacques Lowe

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