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Saxophone Colossus: The Life And Music Of Sonny Rollins

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Saxophone Colossus: The Life And Music Of Sonny Rollins
Aidan Levy
784 Pages
ISBN: 978-0306902796
Hachette Books
2023

A colossal book for a colossal musician. Aidan Levy's biography of Sonny Rollins runs to over 700 pages, not including the no less remarkable notes, available as a separate 416-page download. That the original manuscript was trimmed down from twice the length indicates just how ambitious and comprehensive this portrait is, and how astutely the editing team guided Levy, for nothing of weight in Rollins' six-decade career has been omitted. Every single gig, it seems, is chronicled in a tome as revealing as it is absorbing.

The book's foundations are strong. Over the course of seven years, Levy interviewed hundreds of people, camped out in research institutions and, importantly, established a relationship with Rollins. There was doubtless a little soul-searching along the way, the same of which could be said of Rollins's musical journey, for if one character trait emerges most prominently in these pages, it is Rollins' constant quest for perfection and his inevitable dissatisfaction with the fruits of his labors. For Levy, Rollins is "a neurotic perfectionist... chasing a fugitive sound."

Rollins' 1930s childhood in Harlem is evocatively recounted, the family, friends and neighborhood that nurtured and shaped him. Levy conveys the rich cultural milieu of the era well—the dance, music, art, theatre, literature and politics of the Harlem Renaissance—and how it impacted Rollins.

This is an important part of the book, as to understand Rollins' formative years is to gain insight into his playing. From a young age, Rollins was exposed to his Caribbean-born family's love of calypso, the music of cinema and the Sanctified church, and especially the joyous rhythm 'n' blues of Louis Jordan. From the radio, the young Rollins lapped up show tunes and program themes. All these musical tributaries would flow into his marathon improvisations. Then there was the comic duo Bob and Ray: "That informs my playing, I think," Rollins reveals.

Embracing his first saxophone aged 8, a used alto, Rollins recalls playing for nine or ten hours "in a stream-of-consciousness way" in a closet, so as not to disturb the neighbors. This tireless dedication to his art, often to an obsessive degree, emerges as a central tenet throughout Rollins' life.

Without a doubt, the most famous example of Rollins' steely, unfaltering resolve to improve his playing was his two-year sabbatical on the Williamsburg Bridge. Levy's detailed account filters out the myth—for starters, there were other saxophonists on the bridge with Rollins—and leaves the reader with a sense that part of Rollins was always happier away from the limelight and the madding crowds. Rollins' insecurity surrounding his playing—he was rarely satisfied with a performance—was brought on, it seems, by praise.

The Williamsburg Bridge episode would not be Rollins' only retreat. His pursuit of musical improvement went hand in hand with a quest for spiritual enlightenment— another constant thread in Rollins' story. For Rollins, both realms were forms of meditation and devotion.

In Levy's rounded portrait Rollins does not come across as particularly outspoken, nor a rallying figure for black rights. His protests were personal—he refused to stand for the national anthem during the 1960 World Series. Jim Crow, clearly, affected him deeply, particularly when his father, Walter Rollins Sr.—a career navy man who ran an officer's club—was discharged and imprisoned on trumped up charges of fraternizing with white women at an official party. As Levy notes, "the slow violence of witnessing the military's failure to uphold justice communicated unequivocally to sixteen-year-old Sonny what it meant to be black in America."

The school kid who aspired to be the next Paul Robeson ("my super-hero") nearly always let his music do the talking. When racial prejudice prevented Rollins from renting an apartment in 1957, his response was Freedom Suite (Riverside, 1958), which Levy describes as "the first prominent civil rights-themed album of the modern jazz era." Certainly, the album proved to be a catalyst, with Max Roach for one acknowledging its influence in pushing him to record We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960), one of a raft of civil rights albums that appeared in those turbulent years.

Rollins junior would also spend time in jail. Heroin and guns were not a good combination. Rollins' first serious girlfriend turned to prostitution to feed her own drug habit, while he would steal other musicians' horns and pickpocketed "some poor old woman" to feed his. It makes for sobering reading to think how easily Rollins could have thrown away his young life.

Levy traces Rollins' musical trajectory in detail—his influences, the formative apprenticeships and the journey towards his own sound on the saxophone. At almost every stage of his career Rollins went through a remarkable number of sidemen, which is perhaps no surprise given his perfectionist character. "I used to be pretty ruthless. I didn't spare anyone's feelings," he admits. Albert Tootie Heath put it more colorfully: "Sonny would change musicians like he changed clothes."

Dental problems would plague Rollins for decades, but typically he played through the pain and discomfort until his gums bled. Little wonder, when you consider he could play one song for an hour, or give concerts that lasted three, four and even five hours. Rollins' stamina was legendary.

Even when the critics were not always unanimously enthusiastic about his later albums, Rollins on stage would remain a major draw his entire career.

A major draw and a figure of major fascination. At a Rollins press conference in Japan prior to a 1963 tour, some 450 journalists turned up. The Rolling Stones pursued Rollins to record (he did) and tour (he declined) with them. Lou Reed was a major Rollins fan, slipping away from the Velvet Underground's release party for Live MCMX-CIII (Warner Bros., 1993) to attend Rollins' Carnegie Hall concert. In perhaps the ultimate tribute to his cultural status, Rollins has appeared as himself in the long- running cartoon show The Simpsons.

From the melting pot that was pre-war Harlem to the post 9/11 world; from Charlie Parker soundalike to the unrivaled improviser; from Rollins' tenure in the brilliant but short-lived Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet to the series of classic albums in the 1950s and 1960s that made his name; from junkie to health fanatic; from road dog to retirement; Levy's exhaustive Saxophone Colossus... is an illuminating and humanizing portrait of a jazz legend. A definitive work.

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