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.


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