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Sonny Rollins and David S. Ware: Sonny Meets David


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Music has saved my life in many ways...without music life would not have too much meaning to me.
—Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins and David S. Ware, two of today's most important jazz musicians, are friends. For the first time, they speak together to the press about their music and spirituality.

This interview has been published, in part, in France (Jazz Magazine), Germany (Jazz Thing), Portugal (Jazz.pt), Denmark (Jazzznytt) and Spain (Cuadernos de Jazz). The entire text appears here for the first time.

Sonny Rollins: My first meeting with David that I recall was, I think David's parents took him down to see me in the Village...

David S. Ware: At the Village Vanguard.

SR: Was it at the Village Vanguard ?

DSW: Yeah, you know, man, in the 60s, around 1966. I had two saxophone bodies and we would come down on week ends. The first time I saw you in a club was at the Five Spot in 1964.

SR: That's what I was thinking about.

DSW: And I was there with a friend but I don't think I actually met you there. I don't recall. I think I wanted to but I was talking to Roy McCurdy (Sonny Rollins' drummer at that time) a lot.

SR: I remember that so maybe I might have met you. Did you come there with your parents ?

DSW: Well, let me see, yeah, that was at the Village Vanguard. We did come down there one time, I think, you know...

SR: You know, I'm getting old, I don't remember so well.

DSW: That's alright man, that's cool. I know I encountered you a lot at the Village Vanguard. Do you remember in 1969, man, Marc (Marc Edwards, the drummer) and I met you on the corner, late one night, on the corner of 8th street and 6th avenue, you were shopping there and you had like two bags full of fruits, man, and I asked you at that time, I said I want to play for you and then shortly after that I came over to your apartment and I played for you. Do you remember ?

SR: Vaguely, not completely...

DSW: That was the beginning, you know, when we started to practise together.

SR: Yeah.

DSW: I was just telling Franck the story, man, the night that you taught me circular breathing, you took us home after he concert at the Vanguard and you showed us how to circular breathe. I was 16 years old, man, you know, that was a big deal for me.

SR: Well, that's a very profound technique. There are a lot of spiritual ramifications.

DSW: Yeah, I know it's used quite extensively in India, Tibet, Nepal and so forth and so on.

SR: Right, and the indian snake charmers, they employ that.

DSW: Aborigines I think too...

SR: Yeah, aboriginal art.

DSW: Do you find that you've been using it, I mean, in the later years, that technique?

SR: Yes, I still use it. I use it now, not so much when I am sort of, well, I use it more now a certain way, as an actual, sort of at the end of songs that we are maying as to extend the last notes, but in different period of time. And at this time, at the end of a song is usually at a higher level. So that if you extend the ending note tone of a song, if you extend that at this particular time, you hatch everybody at a higher point. And plus sometimes if the drummer is not expecting it, you make them really... I don't want to be mean but sometimes I get the feeling they don't respond enough... At any rate I use it like that occasionally for a special effect, see, and as far as I am playing I use it in practising, I practise that. When I practise I keep doing that.

DSW: You see that's just the opposite of what I do. I don't practise it. I used to when I first learnt it from you. You see the way I use it now, that's just like pure inspiration in a performance. I play if it comes then it comes and I just go with it you know...

SR: You are actually extemporizing while using it.

DSW: Yeah, you know, I am very fond at times of the upper register, the false, the harmonics up there and usually I will hold it up there. Usually I will do it up there, but very rarely I will do it in the normal register of the saxophone.

SR: OK, now, I know one of your secrets... [laughs]

Franck Médioni: With tenor saxophones, there is this idea of a transmission, a memory and an oral tradition. For example, I think about the 1963 RCA recording with Coleman Hawkins, Sonny meets Hawk.

SR: Oh yes, are you referring to the way that Mr Hawkins seems to play in a way that is speech-like?

DSW: I think that more what he says relates to the tenor saxophone tradition, the line that runs through the tenor saxophones. I mean there is like a line, like a transmission where the cats are able to carry on the tradition. I mean it is nothing that happens like formally or anything like that. But there are certain cats that are able to... like somehow a younger cat will catch something about how to express and and how to project, you know? That's carried on from one generation to the next.

I think that first of all you are born with it. For example, with you, man, there was something about you or your aura and your projection that wanted to... that made me want to follow what you were doing, and more or less try to carry it on, just like carry it on and develop it...

SR: I am glad, that's great, sure!... But as you said it is something you have to be born with it. There was a lot of cats I grew up with that wanted to play, a lot of people in my circle of friends. We all like jazz and all of us would have liked to be jazz musicians, but not all of us would have that particular talent. You have to be born with and that's how it is. Yet you have the talent but you have to have something to express and people that influence you and so on... But in saying that I would like to add that everybody has a talent of some kind, everybody is born with something to contribute to the enlightenment and upliftment of mankind whatever it is... What I am saying does not imply that only musicians have some. We talk about music so we go on with that. My friends had something to contribute they have everything to contribute if they find what they have to do.

DSW: Everybody has his own destiny.

SR: Of course.

DSW: It does not matter what field it is, man, because all subjects lead to God and, you know, that's one thing that is missing in the way they are teaching in the modern days, how they teach people, everything is divided and nothing has a relationship to each other. In the vedic teaching, they teach that all subjects are related and at least they teach that all subjects come from God. Therefore all subjects have a relationship and you see, of course you were a big catalyst in me getting interested into yoga and meditation...

SR: I did not know that....

DSW: Yeah, man, you had a lot to do with that because I know you were interested in it...

SR: Right...

DSW: By the time I was twelve years old, I was looking up about what does that mean, what is this about....

SR: Maybe I led you wrong!... [laughs]

DSW: No you didn't lead me wrong man, that's the center of my life. Meditation is the center of my life, I did this for over thirty years ! For me, music and spirituality have always been parallels to one another, they run together for me.

SR: Right...

DSW: I have never ever thought just music, just jazz. No for me the two have always been together. I must have both. And that's what I heard in your music. So much you know... using that saxophone as a pathway to God. You know you've always been a special influence like that.

SR: I'm glad to hear that, you know... That's, well, it's not music, it's spirituality. They are both part of the same thing. You can't have one without the other.

DSW: That's it. I mean, see, I did see that you were interested very much into self realisation and that's what hooked me. First record of you I bought was The Bridge. You know this 62, I am like twelve years old, and I am standing in a store in the record section. I only got enough money for one record. I am looking at The Bridge, I think it just came out and then there is Africa/Brass by Coltrane. Which one of these am I going to get? I only got money for one record and then I am looking at your picture. What it's projecting to me made me buy that album.

SR: That's very interesting because when I was in India studying yoga in 1957. I was living with a group in what they call an Ashram, this is like spiritual..... People found at that I was a musician and everything. They did not really know anything about jazz but what happened: the guy who found out I was there was a jazz fan. He had a book there, with a picture of Charlie Parker, a headshot of Charlie and this guy was a yogi student like myself. He was looking at the book and he was looking at the picture and it is like the vibe came through from this picture. So what you say is not unusual, these things happen...

FM: Sonny, you said once in an interview: the saxophone is an open sky...

SR: Yes that's true. But you know Franck, I think that what I meant was "music is an open sky. I think that the real, well expressed thought from me could be interpreted as the saxophone is an open sky; that would not be far from the mark...

DSW: I remember that article...

SR: Oh yeah? OK.

DSW: I was just telling this workshop's musicians today that music is a spiritual language. That's really what music is a spiritual language; for those who can connect with it, for those who can connect at that level. And it has to do with the deep connection that human beings, each and everyone of us has with the universe, or the cosmos. This cosmos is like interdimensional, interdimensional world, interdimensional life. We are connected with everything else and music is like a vehicle to take us within ourselves and within to like ... give life to our relationship to the universe and all the beings that exist in all the universe. This is part of the yoga teachings, sounds, these mantras will take you into other ways of being, other realities and you can bring back the wisdom of those plans, you bring it down with you. This is something I got from you, I got a lot from you. Musically to go so deep that you touch upon those universal forces. You touch upon it. And you are... That saxophone that we play is a tool, a beautiful tool, but it is empty. If you are spiritually involved, if you can use it in such a way, then we can bring some beautiful forces...

SR: Then, we can realize some beautiful things, we can make things celestial. If you look around in this world, nature, even a beautiful city like Paris which is the most beautiful city of the world, it is just concrete, so you need, it's so much more to it. And music sort of, is definitely a bridge to other things, if you can use it. Music is also providing people in another way, which is very good, people enjoy music when they are going to work, music helps them at that level just. But going to more profound levels, so it can also, like you said, depending on where your mind is and under, and music, what it can bend to, it is more than just a pleasant way to live in this world. Much more than that...

FM: Sonny, you said once: "music saved my life.

SR: I certainly could say that. I don't know exactly when I said that or under what circumstances. You see when I was a child, music was taught to me when I was a child. Music has always been there for me. I was having a conversation for an article the other day and the guy was asking about my favourite recordings so I was telling him about what I was listening to on channel four. It was Fats Waller, he was a great pianist, he was also a great entertainer, he was everything.

But anyway, I used to hear one of his records when I was very young. It used to be at home. That was one of the first record of this music I used to hear so. Music has saved my life in many ways, but just by being able to have music because as I tried to express before, without music life would not have too much meaning to me. And I remember Thelonious Monk told me that one time. And when he said that, I agreed completely, yeah, man, without music, nothing is happening.

So music, sure, music has saved my life and I can't imagine being in this incarnation without music. Fortunately I have been projected to this incarnation into a world which has music and so I am happy about that.

DSW: It's trying always, always tribulations and things... It is great to be a musician, to be in a life time when you deal with music. Music is such a direct path to salvation, if one is ready for that, is ready to deal with. Music is such a great blessing. If you can see it in that light, man if we can see it in that light, yes man it is so wonderful. It is just a gift from the Creator.

SR: No doubt about it, no doubt about it...

Of course, music it is also travel, trains, hotel, and it is not so easy...

DSW: Let me start of by some comments about that. I come to a point, it is very difficult to travel. Travelling for me gets harder and harder... and I came to a point where I gave it over to a force of Nature called Ganesh. I gave it to God in other words a form of God called Ganesh. I gave it to him. My attitude about it is that I am trying less and less to do this for myself, for my own gain.

For me it is silly now to do things to advance my own individuality or my own ego even though it may appear like that to others. This giving over, this offering for me at this point is essential. It's the only way, it makes it easier for me to go through the actions of having to be on the road and all the problems that go with that. It's just like I am taking off a level of more or less servitude to a force of Nature that is very much about arts.

Ganesh is very much about arts and science and wisdom and knowledge than other divinities. And also a god of music and a lord of obstacles that both of us have encountered and had to go through. There is always something to overcome. Basically this is my direction now : to give it all over. It is not about me. It is about the force that I serve.

SR: You explain it very well!.. That is the essence of true yogic philosophy. You know you do nothing. Now when I go out play at this stage of my life I am very much concerned that I am able to give to people and people get something out of it. It is not that I want to be successful in my career, I don't do that for that reason. But i want to make sure that I am serving a purpose and serving for the people to get something out of it because I don't need anything for me. So I am very careful these days when I am playing to try to make sure that's it's... I want looking carefully to see the other people are getting something out of it. Rather than me, of course, when I am playing I am always getting for myself of course. It's about serving a greater purpose.

DSW: That's what makes great music, great art, great anything when you have that sense. I mentioned to you that one time, that concert you did in 99 at the Lincoln Center. There was something, I don't know how you felt that night, but I've heard you play a whole lot of times from the '60s and this night... there was a sense about that night... I already told you man, it's like you were playing for the angels. You were playing for higher beings. I told the workshop today they are always there and they have great appreciation for things of higher spiritual nature that human beings are trying to do. You don't always sense these things....

SR: Well no, because, you know, I can always look back on my career and say well I had certain good nights, some were better than others. That's part of what we are trying to do and not only in music, it is part of anything on this earth plane, everything is not going to be on the highest level all the time. We are down there on earth, so there's time when we get to certain heights... Now I might have gotten there that night and.... you know...

DSW: This is interesting because I realize over the years that when we are playing we can't always be objective about what it is that we play. It is not until you listen back, then we say "OK, it's clear, but while you are playing....

SR: While you play there is not time to look back, to be objective, because you are doing it. It's just like people ask me: "what are you thinking of when you are playing?" I don't think about anything. I leave my mind free so it can do the playing. No you can't be objective. Now, right, when you listen back you say... But you know I feel that you are always trying to and this is where your motive is important , you have to have the proper motive about what you're playing, why you play, what you are doing. If you have that then you are always going to be trying to play the right thing and try to get there. And then, after you do that, then some nights you're gone get there and some nights you are not. As long as you go into it with the idea.

DSW: Let me ask you this man : Are there certain moments that you know that something very special happens?

SR: Well I have had certain...

DSW: You are aware of the music, the music totally transcends itself. As four or five or six musicians playing on the stage, it all comes together when music transcends the time and space. And then, when you listen back, you can hear it.

SR: Yeah....

DSW: You know, it comes together in a way that goes beyond music....

SR: Oh sure, oh yeah, I know there are such things, I know such things occur of course. And that's always our goal as long as we have proper initiative to play then that's the goal, that's what we experience when things get beyond, outside of this realm to the celestial place.

FM: About the improvisation: is it sometimes like an inner partition?

SR: The answer I usually have is that I try to practise certain rudiments and scales like I said to David before, circular breathing, I can refer to all of those things as rudiments, practise, I try then to make sure I have a certain amount of that. I do a certain amount of that and after doing that, when I go to perform, then I try to forget that because as I was just explaining to David, there is no time to think about that. It's time to think about it when you're practising, when I'm performing it's time just to go for the thing and there is no time to do anything else. I want my mind empty. I don't want to be thinking about anything, so that I can receive the vibrations and direction, I should say. And what helps me to do it is the fact that I try to make sure my rudiments and so far are done at home and so on. That's exactly what we mean by that.

DSW: You know my direction on that is that basically, that improvisation is a very very sacred phenomenon ; And actually the Creator is the master improviser of the Cosmos. The creator is an improviser, so all creativity is actually a mirror of the Creator. And so that's why it is such a sacred thing. Because the creator has improvised this drama that we find ourselves in and that's the connection. The connection is with the master of the life, the whole entire life and everybody and everything that exists.

SR: Right, when you look at nature, nature is improvising. I am sitting here right now and I have the empty TV screen in front of me and that's got the reflection of the window outside and I can see the sky and the colours of the sky. Now every minute it's changing to something different since we started this talk. God is always improvising. This is happening constantly. That's what we are doing while we are improvising, we are trying to do, try to glorify our Creator and of course it is a very sacred thing and not just jump around, it is something serious.

DSW: As I was telling to the group. It's not just a note, it's not just a piece of music, it's more than that. You got to make that inner connection in each and every note, to project that into the music. You know through the instrument, project that connection, that deep connection into the music. And that's what make music great.

FM: The force, the beauty, the utopia of this music is to be yourself in being together.

SR: It's a thing about ensemble playing I think, if people have thought about improvisation, they might say, well you are improvising, you are standing up and you...

DSW: What I caught from the question is just the dynamics of playing with others, what that involves and what are the possibilities of that, what it contains. Where can that take you. Just the dynamic. What needs to be done to make music dynamic, what makes a good band, you know, what do you feel makes a good band...

SR: As far as I am concerned a good band starts with yourself. It's starts with me getting my stuff together and then trying to project what I want to out of the people. Now in an ensemble where there is also a lot of... the great swing bands used to improvise, like Count Basie's band, they used to improvise with, the guys in the section that play together they could catch what the first alto is doing and so they would be sort of... in a way they would be improvising as an ensemble. So it is possible to improvise with an ensemble and it's also, the possibilities of an ensemble would be a little different than a small group, but it can also be very rewarding. There are different ways to praise the creator, that also can be invigorating.

DSW: What I've been doing these past weeks, I am rehearsing my music with string players. I am just conducting, I am not playing. What I told them yesterday, it's about intuitive, there is an intuitive factor to this, when you play with others. You should try to develop that, sometimes I conduct, sometimes I don't so it's up to them to decide where to enter, which dynamics for example to play behind a soloist. The soloist has to decide how long he or she is going to play and then they are all coming on the next line. But there is an intuitive factor. I think that it's missing a lot in a lot of music man, because it's too formulated.

SR: Specially in ensemble music...

DSW: It's too much formula about it. Even in so called jazz, it is too much formulas. It's not enough intuition. I told them the first day, the music is not on the paper. The music is within you. Now if you come together with a bunch of people, you have to, in playing, dealing with my music, you're gone have to be intuitive in order to keep that freshness about it.

For example, suppose that ensemble went on the road where you are playing a bunch of pieces every night, some night you're gone want to play them like this, another night you're gone want to play like that. You got to be in tune, you got to listen, you got to intuit one another. A lot of this comes through time. One part of it just comes from cats staying together, and that's one of the main reasons I only play with my band at this point for the past fifteen years, because that's what works for me and that's how I feel that music can develop more like that when cats get to know one another and stay together and get close spiritually and instinctively. Intuitively when the cats are playing you know what they are going to play before they play just about...

All that is good, this intuitive part of it that has to be, lot of western musicians have to get on that and try to get more intuitive. My music is not necessarily structured in four bars, eight bars like that, there's a lot of 5 bars, so you just got to be like open, because average, so many, so much music is structured certain ways, for example even measure... so when you present something else, it's like, it opens up something else and musicians just have to be willing to want to deal with that.

Another thing I told them was it has also to deal with your will and your desire to do something, to be involved in something. You can will it, you can will music to happen, to a certain extent you can will it. We are coming together, we're going to make this thing work.

SR: Yeah, sure, that's the real bottom line if you are trying to get to something beyond the ordinary stuff. You have to be able to think about things like being able to feel the other guys, intuition where guys are going to go. I sort of know and I can understand where it should go because we all sort of understand. I used to study out of a book by this saxophonist Sigurd Rascher, he was...

DSW: Yes, I got books from him too...

SR: So Sigurd Rascher told me one time he was sort of starting this saxophone symposium, it was about twenty five years ago, I said, "oh this is good because it's a good spiritual instrument"... all that stuff and gee it will be good to get together, get these people to talk about spiritual things. He was a spiritual guy so we often talked on that level too. So he told me, "no, it's not, he said, well unfortunately a lot of these people are just playing the saxophone. They don't take it any further than that."

So to really take music far, further than that and get deeper into it, you have to come to the realm of spirituality. And together, if you really want to do it, you can't go outside and kick no lady then play beautiful music. And intuition in a way is part of that, you know. And trying to really get in a group of people and then sort of have the same goals in life, search of goals, then the music has a chance of happening.

DSW: That's the basics for what I picked a group. Because I got to have it. When I met Matthew, at the time I was playing with Marc and William Parker, it was only a trio fifteen years ago. And we added Matthew, you know. The playing aspect, the musical fit was there and I felt also that the spiritual harmony was there.

And you know a lot of the cats drink and smoke and carry on that bullshit, so that really has always been a basis for me and that's also a reason why I don't freelance, I've never been into free lance because cats are into this, this cat is into this, this cat is into that and I'm very sensitive as to who I make music with.

I don't just make music with anybody. I'm very sensitive about that. And I guess maybe a lot of people may wonder about that but basically I've always been like that.

SR: Well, it's like not wanting to play your horn in a night club where they are souping and drinking. It's a parallel, in other words, if you want your music, you are trying to get to certain places and if people are not thinking in the place of the musician, the musician has to be thinking this way. That's an exact example of because people in the corporation, but I am saying that, as a way of saying that you've got two forces working, you can't have negative things going and then trying to reach a certain place.

So you know a lot of guys don't like to play in clubs, not not a lot of guys, but in your case it's essential for what you're doing that you have people because that's the kind of music you're trying to get to. That's where you want to go, you got to have guys that are thinking that way. And maybe that's what you should teach these people, if they want to play and make a contribution and get closer to playing your music then you have to kind of make sure that their life is cool.

DSW: Yeah that's it, that's it, that's it, yeah I tell you man, the truth is a wonderful thing! [laughs] The truth is just so beautiful.

FM: About the utopia in this music, that art to be together, Max Roach said one time that when the group is really good, this a the real democracy.

SR: Now what do you mean with "the real democracy"?

FM: There is no hierarchy and the power, the politics in the group are over.

SR: But what do you mean? Do you mean like George Bush's democracy? [laughs]

DSW: This is what I get man, from the question, you know, democracy as it relate to music, is like when everybody has a chance give the band a direction, you know, this would be my idea. I mean like for example if we're playing, if I'm playing with the quartet and Matthew sets up something you know, that is spontaneous, if he sets it up then we'll go with it. I'll go with it, you know, or if if I point my finger to William, he can take it, he can play as long as he want. The only thing that I say as far as length of solos to try not to loose the form of the piece.

SR: I don't believe that the word "democracy" is the best word to use. I agree with you, you know. You don't want everybody doing what they particularly feel like doing, I can do that when I'm playing solo OK? But if I'm playing with a group and let's assume as your group or my group, if I'm playing with my group and you're playing with your group, you have to be the person that has the overall responsibility of keeping the focus on whatever you want that piece of music to go to. In that sense, democracy, I'm afraid of that word in that sense, democracy is good because everybody has an opportunity to play with you if they want to, then that's the democracy but once they become part of your group then they have to give up their selves for the good, the greater good of the music, you see what I mean?

DSW: You see what I mean ?

DSW: Yeah, yeah.

FM: Sonny, and what about the George Bush's democracy ?

SR: Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah.... [laughs] David, tell Franck I have a toothache and I don't want to laugh, right ?

DSW: He says he got a toothache and he doesn't want to laugh too much right now... Yeah, that's a laughing matter, yeah man...

FM: What is really important when you are a saxophonist, this is your sound, your voice, your identity? Did you change a lot into your musical career, did you change your sound?

SR: Yeah, being you know, we're born on this planet and we're born as human animals. In other words, we have bodies and our bodies are our bodies are meant to survive a certain amount of time and space. So you have to—in my case, I won't speak for other people—but I have changed my sound over the years but lot of it has got to do with the fact that I'm operating out of a physical body. It's not iron and steel, it's flesh and bones so flesh and bone do not go on forever. And you know so over the many years that I've been playing, my physical sound has changed. And one of the reasons for why it has changed—there're other reasons, but one of the reasons is that human beings are flesh and bones and blood.

So your body changes, our bodies are not meant to be here for three hundred years, they are just here a few years on the planet. So as your question, sure, my sound has changed over the years and a lot of it has to do with the fact that as you grow older your body changes and you play a physical instrument like a horn, you have to adapt to the different ..... which that bring about...

DSW: You mention that we are flesh and bone and blood, and we are spiritual beings that occupies physical bodies.

SR: Right.

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