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Sonny Rollins: A Diamond in the Rough

Bob Kenselaar By

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I’m a musician who’s constantly searching. I’m more or less a diamond in the rough, rather than a polished diamond. That’s the way I look at myself.
[Sonny Rollins was finishing up an extended tour at the time of this 1978 interview. Milestone Records had brought him together with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster to form a group called the Milestone Jazzstars that played 20 shows that year and recorded a live album. He talked about other tours, his work in film, and his continuing musical development.]

Sonny Rollins doesn't get at all excited about being called the world's greatest tenor saxophonist.

"Naturally you feel satisfied up to a point," he says. "But I have enough common sense, and I've been around long enough to know that there's no such animal in the first place, really. And also, so what if someone says that? What does it mean? Somebody will say 'he's a bum' in the Washington Post tomorrow, and the next day somebody will say 'he's great' in the New York Daily News. What difference does it make?"

Actually, to call Sonny Rollins today's greatest tenor saxophonist isn't just meaningless; it misses the point of Rollins' contribution to jazz. He merits a lot more consideration than a mere ranking on his instrument. He's among the most outstanding improvisational stylists in all of modern jazz. The trademarks of his approach are many: a sardonic sense of humor, an extraordinary harmonic imagination, remarkable structural ingenuity, and an exacting, incisive, authoritative way of playing.

Martin Williams, in The Jazz Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1970), refers to Rollins' improvisational technique as "spontaneous orchestration." Says Williams, "[His] performance builds from one phrase to the next, yet that structure is so logical and so comprehensive, with its details so subtly in place, that it as if Rollins had not made it up as he went along, but had conceived it whole from the beginning."

Born on September 7, 1930, Theodore Walter Rollins developed into a competent saxophonist so quickly that he had to change the date on his birth certificate in order to work in clubs. While still a young man, he worked with Miles Davis, Bud Powell, J.J. Johnson, Thelonious Monk, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was a member of the important Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet in 1956, and in 1957, with recordings like Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, and Brilliant Corners with Monk, the critics recognized him as a new giant of the tenor sax. In 1959 he astounded jazz circles by announcing his temporary retirement. He left the scene for another sabbatical in 1968, when he took off to visit Japan and India and studied yoga, zen, and the theories of the Ghita.

Rollins' most recent splash in the jazz world has been his highly successful cross-country tour with a group dubbed the Milestone Jazzstars, where he's joined by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster. For the group's October 21 [1978] concert at the Beacon Theater in New York, one of the brightest moments was Rollins' unaccompanied solo sax workout, which began and ended with "Violets for your Furs," but included within it quotes from well over a dozen other tunes. Dressed in a dark suit and sneakers ("it's gotten to the point where I just have to wear them"), Rollins bobbed his head, seemed to stroll around the stage even when he was standing in place, and lifted his saxophone in the air with a triumphant flourish. He treated the audience to his thick, charged sound, his flow of line and feeling, his genius of rhythmic contrast, and everything else he's known for.

Rollins has recorded two live albums in 1978 in two different settings. Don't Stop the Carnival (Milestone), features his own group, including pianist Mark Soskin, guitarist Aurell Ray, bassist Jerome Harris, and drummer Tony Williams, along with a guest appearance by [trumpeter] Donald Byrd. Another two-record live set under the Milestone Jazzstars name is scheduled for release early in 1979.

Jazz in the Aquarian Age: In the early 1970s, you were approached by a Japanese agent who had some contact with Chou En-lai about doing a concert with Art Blakey in China. You reportedly hesitated because you didn't want to go on an all-star ticket. That's a little ironic in light of the Milestone Jazzstars tour, isn't it?

Sonny Rollins: Well, we were just holding out for the possibility of taking my own group out there. A Japanese promoter that I knew—a fellow I had originally gone to Japan for back in the late '50s or early '60s—was married to a Chinese woman who was friends with Chou En-lai and the Chinese government. They tried to put it together, and it was supposed to happen, but unfortunately, ultimately as it was, the woman passed away at the time that we were talking about it, so it never got beyond that stage.



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