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Sonny Rollins: Hardy Perennial

Victor L. Schermer By

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Some people have asked me, 'Sonny, what do you think about when you
Sonny RollinsLegendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins is a "household word, an innovator, and a "hardy perennial in the jazz world. He came up, performed, and recorded with the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. His musical evolution never stopped, and at 76, he continues to offer a hefty schedule of concerts worldwide.

Recently, he came out with a new CD, Sonny, Please (Doxy, 2006), which is generating great interest among critics and fans alike. The record release and his December 1st, 2006 concert date at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia provided the occasions for this interview. On November 11th, I called Rollins at his home in upstate New York. On account of his high perch in modern jazz and because he was touted as a "saxophone colossus in an early landmark recording, I approached the interview with a certain sense of going to the mountaintop for an audience with the high priest. However, my anxiety was quickly alleviated when I found him to be one of the most accessible and kindly individuals I've ever come across. Not only that, he has an impish sense of humor, which sometimes appears in his music as well. In addition, he was quite open to talking about himself, his life, and his views in a candid and lucid way.

Life has been a wonderful journey for him, but it hasn't always been easy. In the last few years, Rollins was startled in has apartment a short distance away from the World Trade Center when it was attacked, and he later lost his beloved wife, Lucille, after forty amazing years together. The grace with which he has accepted and transcended these difficult experiences is heartwarming and inspirational. I hope you enjoy the following conversation with Rollins as he reminisces, reflects, and offers his candid thoughts about the music, musicians, events, and what it all adds up to for him.

Chapter Index

Coming of Age in Harlem
Encounters with Greatness and the "Lightness of Being"
September 11, 2001
Sonny, Please
Into the Future
His Wife Lucille
A Note to Aspiring Musicians

All About Jazz: It's an honor to speak with you today.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, thank you very much.

AAJ: It reminds me of when I interviewed J.J. Johnson a few years ago. He was a very wonderful person with whom I know you recorded and performed. And I'm also looking forward to seeing and hearing you at the Kimmel concert in Philadelphia.

SR: Oh, that's great. I just wrote a song commemorating J.J.

AAJ: Fantastic. Are you going to play it at the concert?

SR: Yes, I intend to play it. J.J. was my mentor.

AAJ: I was just listening to the Blue Note recordings you did with him many years ago—with J.J., Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and company. OK, let's get going with a warm-up, the desert island question. Which recordings would you take with you to that perennial desert island?

SR: That's a tough question. Well, you know, I'd probably take Coleman Hawkins' version of "Body and Soul. I'd take Billie Holiday's "Lover Man, I'd take "Another Hairdo by Charlie Parker.

AAJ: I never heard of that one! [laughter]

SR: Yeah, that's a great one. And I'd probably take "Unforgettable, by Nat King Cole. And I'd maybe take something by Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

AAJ: Did you play piano at any point?

SR: Well, actually my parents started me on piano when I was pretty young.

Coming of Age in Harlem

AAJ: You grew up in Harlem.

SR: I was born in Harlem, yes.

AAJ: And was it during the time when jazz clubs were thriving there?

SR: Yes, a lot of clubs, a lot of places to play music.

AAJ: So there were guys like Art Taylor, Jackie McLean, and Kenny Drew in your high school class, and you formed a group.

SR: Right, exactly.

AAJ: So tell us a bit about what it was like hanging out with those guys and playing with them.

SR: Well, we were all young kids who had the same love of bebop and music, so we were going to all the clubs. As time went by, some of our idols, the stars, started to hire us because they were beginning to recognize that these young kids can play. I think Kenny Drew was the first guy to get jobs accompanying top notch people, and we all did eventually. I went with Miles and Hawk and so on. So we just seamlessly came into the scene. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Encounters with Greatness and the "Lightness of Being

AAJ: It must have been daunting to be suddenly in that company.

SR: It was very daunting. J.J. was one of the guys who got me on my way. One of my early records was with J.J., and he also used one of my compositions. It was a big honor, but it also reinforced my confidence. When you're young, you tend to be a little cocky. I guess I was self-assured but I was quite aware that I was in the presence of some of these big stars; but I loved playing, and I was just glad to be there playing, and so that sort of smoothed everything over.

AAJ: At what point would you say you became aware of your own unique way of playing? Was there a moment? Or was it a developing sense that you were doing something original and new?

SR: I remember one moment that I had when I was playing with some of my friends. There was a trumpet player named Lowell Lewis, who was with Jackie, Kenny, and myself, and Andy Kirk, Jr. Lowell was a very good player who unfortunately dropped out of the business. Anyway, I was rehearsing with him one day and was taking a solo in which I was able to manipulate the time in a way that drew his attention. He made a remark about it, and then I realized, oh, I must really have something. Later on, when I was playing with Miles Davis, Miles used to look at me when I was playing in a way that said, "Boy, this guy is really doing something.

AAJ: Miles was very inspiring to musicians in his groups. He brought a lot out of the people who played for him.

SR: Yeah, Miles was very straightforward about music. I mean, he loved music, and he didn't fool around about it. If you could play, then you had his respect, and he'd give you confidence.

AAJ: J.J. said Miles used to lend him his sports car. And in Miles' autobiography, he tells this story about how you got the nickname, "Newk. Do you recall that?

SR: [laughter.] A cab driver mistook me for the Dodgers' pitcher, Don Newcombe, and then Miles sort of played along with him. That's how I got the nickname "Newk.

AAJ: Do you have a similar sense of humor to Miles?

SR: I have a big sense of humor. When I was a kid, they used to call me "Jester. [laughter]

AAJ: Now, you made these recordings with Horace Silver and others in the 1950s and 1960s that were incredible. You did two Village Vanguard recordings with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones, where you didn't use a piano in the rhythm section. Somehow, the music was evolving, and those recordings were landmarks. What sparked the creativity?

SR: There was a change going on. There were a lot of guys coming up—Coltrane, Miles. Bird was still there of course. There were revolutions taking place within music. But I myself always liked playing with a sparse rhythm section. And often when we would play with Miles, he called it a "stroll, and that meant for the pianist to lay out completely. It added impetus to the whole feeling of what I would do when we were playing. I had always enjoyed playing with minimal accompaniment. In fact, when Miles first heard me, I think I had a piano and drums. But there was something missing in the rhythm section when Miles first heard me play and offered me a job in his band. So I've always liked that sort of thing and had a chance to make several records in that situation.

AAJ: I'd like to pick your brains about a couple of major jazz musicians of the last century. First of all, there was Thelonious Monk. Now, Monk was a genius, but seemed to be very much an individualist and idiosyncratic, yet all of you guys wanted to perform and study with him. What drew others to play with Monk and learn from him?

SR: Well, you know, my idol was Coleman Hawkins, and the first time I heard Monk was on a record with Coleman Hawkins—Hawk in Flight (RCA, 1947)—and that's when I became aware of Monk and began to appreciate his playing. In my case, it was very gratifying that Monk liked my playing a lot, and he took me under his wings. When I was still in high school, I used to go to practice at Monk's house with some other musicians. When Lowell Lewis and I were in high school together, he got in with Monk first, and then brought me in the band. Monk liked my playing—and if Monk liked you, he started calling you all the time. So I consider Monk in many ways to be my musical guru. Later in life I became interested in Eastern religion, and I traveled to India to study yoga. There, I realized that in many ways Monk was my musical guru.

Sonny RollinsAAJ: He was a very spiritual man.

SR: Yes, very much so. Monk was thirteen years my senior, and so there was so much to learn from him. I was very fortunate to be in that position—to go over to his house, and get involved in all that music with him.

AAJ: Did he talk and coach a lot when he was rehearsing his group?

SR: You know, I remember going to one rehearsal, and Monk had the guys look at the charts, and they'd say, "Well, Monk, we can't play this music! Look at these big skips and jumps for the horns to play. It's impossible! But sure enough, by the end of the rehearsal, everybody got it!

AAJ: So let's talk about Ornette Coleman, who I believe was a big influence on you. Now, frankly, a lot of listeners don't understand Ornette's music, can't relate to it.

SR: Well, first of all, Ornette didn't just influence me—I was a big influence on him as well. It was mutual. Ornette definitely came up with some revolutionary ideas, but I was on the scene before Ornette. I met Ornette on the West Coast. We used to go out and practice together. Then, when he came to New York, he caused a sensation with his group, with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins and all those guys. Ornette put out a record on Atlantic on tenor saxophone, and everyone who heard that record said, "Hey, man, that sounds like Sonny Rollins!

AAJ: That's really true—I heard that recording.

SR: Of course that would go against conventional wisdom and might be considered heresy. Ornette is supposed to be completely original, but he was actually influenced by guys like me. But, that being said, I certainly have a great deal of respect for Ornette's playing.

AAJ: Ornette, it seems to me, eventually took the music into a whole other dimension with his "free jazz improvisation. He seemed to remove all of the musical structure—the chords, the time measures, and so on. A while back, he performed at the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia, and about half the audience dug him, while the rest didn't understand what he was doing, and some even walked out. So, could you say something about what folks should listen for in "free jazz ?

SR: Well, I think Ornette did something a lot of musicians resented, because a lot of musicians resist any kind of change, which they may not be able to do. This is so, I guess in anybody's life. Some guy changes your job, and you resent it. So a lot of musicians resented Ornette, but I wasn't one of them. As I said, we practiced together, the same with Don Cherry.

I may sound a little resentful with Ornette because he said in a big newspaper interview that I was one of the guys who was anti-Ornette. But that was untrue. But there were musicians who were straight ahead players and so on who were antagonistic to him on account of his different approach. But I wasn't one of them. I was kind of mad at Ornette for saying that at the time. What Ornette did I think was to play more in phrases and not use so much of the chord structures, which a lot of guys depended upon. So if you're playing a standard like "Night and Day, Ornette wouldn't use those chord structures that were the basis of what most guys were doing. And he also didn't play standards, but mostly his own material, which was based more on phrases than on actual harmonic structures that had been used up to that point.

AAJ: He changed the whole face of jazz.

SR: I think he changed things to a great degree. Let's say this. He was certainly able to link himself to do something different in a medium that had its own rules and regulations. He was able to become a leader and a bright light in a jazz medium which had already been established. I'd go that far. Everybody doesn't play like Ornette, and some listeners like him and some don't, but that's just the way it goes. What he does is respected. It has merit. But not everyone went in that direction. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis weren't doing what Ornette did. He did what he did, and it was valid, and it was different.

AAJ: Let's talk about John Coltrane. There have been some inevitable comparisons between the two of you, who were considered the two great saxophone players of that period. And then you made the recording together called Tenor Madness (Prestige, 1956). What are your recollections of Trane? Did you spend time with him? Did you interact musically or personally?

SR: Well, you know I first met Coltrane when I was playing with Miles Davis. Miles had a job in New York, and he had two saxophonists, myself and Coltrane. And that's the first time I met Trane. He was a very unusual player—he was born on the cusp between Virgo and Libra, a special person who was born right at the time. You could hear it in his approach to music, which was completely original. Plus, he was such a beautiful human being. A very spiritual person. He was very serious, almost like a minister.

AAJ: He was a genuine seeker.

SR: You know, music is something very spiritual to begin with, and if you are a deep thinking person and you really want to use music as a vehicle of expression of your religion or whatever it is, this is what John Coltrane was. He wanted to use his music to get up closer to his God. Music was his life. I was privileged to know him—he came to my home a number of times, we hung out together, the whole thing.

AAJ: You yourself have pursued meditation practices.

SR: Yeah, I'm into that stuff too.

AAJ: You studied with a spiritual teacher in Asia.

SR: I studied Zen in Japan, and then I went to India and studied yoga. And actually Coltrane and myself used to talk about these things, exchange books, and so on.

AAJ: I wish we had those conversations on record.

SR: We were interested in the real things of life and trying to think higher things, higher values. I certainly believed that the way musicians lived was not the ultimate. We had spiritual beliefs. Not everyone has to have that, but John and I felt that way.

AAJ: Do you still meditate?

SR: Well, when I went to India, my teacher told me, "Sonny, when you play your horn, that in itself is meditation. I'm very glad he explained all of that to me because I had the idea that I had to sit down in a cross-legged pose and still my mind. This is very difficult for some people to do. That's hard to do in this part of the world that we live in. So, my teacher explained to me that my karma yoga is to play my instrument, and he said, that is meditation. And that's quite right, because when I'm practicing and playing, it is a deep form of meditation. Sometimes you have to travel a long way to find out something simple!

AAJ: You went to the other end of the world, and you found what was right in front of you. The hard part of meditation for someone like me is to take the experience and use it in real life. Jazz musicians seem to meditate while they're playing. We have a very wonderful saxophonist in Philadelphia named Ben Schachter. I asked him what I should ask you for the interview. He said that when he listens to you playing, he hears something other than the music, and that I should ask you what it is—something spiritual perhaps.

SR: I'd like to thank him for that, because I take that as a very high compliment. Some people have asked me, "Sonny, what do you think about when you're improvising? I tell them, "I don't think about anything. My mind is blank when I'm improvising. You can't think and play at the same time. What I do, is I learn my material, but when I go out to perform, I forget it, because it's still there, of course I'm still playing it, but I don't concentrate on it. I let my mind go wherever it has to go. That's beyond what I can do as a human being. That's what your friend, Ben, said. I'm very happy that he hears something else, because that something else is what I do. It's not really me doing it—it's something else doing it.

Sonny RollinsAAJ: Ben will be thrilled to hear your response to his question.

SR: I'm sure he must be a very good musician, to be able to discern such things.

AAJ: On a perhaps lighter note, you've had periods in your life where you either took a break from music, or didn't get work, or whatever. Once, you were living on the lower East Side of Manhattan, and you practiced on the Williamsburg Bridge. Eventually, it led to a recording entitled The Bridge (Bluebird/RCA, 1962). What on earth were you doing practicing on a bridge?

SR: Well, horn players who live in cities always have these problems playing too loud and disturbing the neighbors. I became very aware that I was making a racket. So I was walking down the street one day, and I came up to these steps leading up to the bridge, right near my house. And I walked up the steps of the bridge that led to Brooklyn. And I started walking over there, partly to get some exercise, and when I got up part way, I thought, wow, this would be a great place to practice. With all the traffic, and the boats going up and down the river, there was a lot of external noise, so you wouldn't hear me playing the horn. Plus, there was a spot on the bridge where I could not be seen by any trains, cars, or boats. I had a perfect place of privacy to play my horn. And a light bulb came on in my head, and it was just what I was looking for.

AAJ: So you'd just take your sax there in the morning.

SR: All day long, even at night. In those days, New York wasn't a dangerous place. So it was OK, and in the '50s, people would ignore me there, or if they saw me, they would even maybe think it was very sophisticated.

AAJ: Did anyone ever walk by and say, "Hey, that's Sonny Rollins!

SR: Well, there was a guy who was a jazz writer. And he stopped and was listening to me. He introduced himself, and it turned out he was Ralph Berton, who was one of the old time Dixieland jazz buffs. And he realized who I was, and he wrote a story in a magazine because nobody knew what had happened to me—I had just dropped out of the business. At any rate, the whole experience was great for me because I was able to practice and accomplish what I wanted to do.

AAJ: Were you working on something musically?

SR: Well, I was, sort of, working on a lot of things. I've always been a voracious practicer. I practice every day. I'm like a work in progress—I've got a lot more to do. It's just my attitude.

AAJ: They say Coltrane practiced constantly.

SR: There you go—that's another thing where Coltrane and I were similar types. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


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