Sonny Rollins: Mark of Greatness

R.J. DeLuke By

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Making two trips to the White House within a calendar year, to receive two of the nation's most prestigious awards bestowed upon artists, is more than fairly momentous. Those are significant feathers in the ol' cap—surely reasons to crow or, at the very least, feel pretty satisfied about oneself.

So it had to be a hell of a year for Sonny Rollins—had to be. But, with the ever level-headed, realistic and humble Rollins, one wouldn't really notice it. He doesn't classify 2011 as that special. Rollins sees it as a year when he continued to develop his music and—at times—reached satisfactory levels. That's not bad for the reigning king of jazz improvisation, who is notoriously hard on himself.

In December of 2011, Rollins was among five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, awarded annually for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts. In March of 2011, Rollins was in Washington, D.C. to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. Rollins, at 81, continues to play his horn with such passion, intensity and creativity that he also garners the highest praises in the jazz community. He regularly tops annual magazine polls. He was Musician of the Year and Tenor Saxophonist of the Year in 2011, as voted by the Jazz Journalists Association. Rollins' recording Road Shows, Vol. 2 (Doxy, 2011) is up for two Grammy awards in February, 2012.

The Kennedy Center Honors medal went to the jazz titan and four other honorees—Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond and Barbara Cook—at a State Department dinner on December 3, 2011. There, Rollins was introduced by former President Bill Clinton and lauded by President Obama. The next day, there was a gala ceremony at the Kennedy Center, celebrating the winners. (It was televised a few weeks later on CBS television.)

But for Rollins, ever the vital artist, those were pleasantries. He is grateful for them, but he's living in today's moments. He's focused on right now, on trying to be the best person possible and to navigate through a changing and often caustic world. He's focused on his art—making meaningful music with that curved contraption of metal from which he coaxes warm, exotic, emotional, delectable sounds. Rollins has always graciously accepted the accolades that have come his way, and he knows his stature as jazz royalty. But he doesn't flaunt it—there is a huge dose of humility involved.

"Fun?" a bemused Rollins reflects, a few days after the prestigious Kennedy Center events. "Well, that wasn't exactly my style."

What's exciting him these days, as he rests while his 2012 tour schedule takes shape, is how his band sounds and its pursuit of something special: reaching for something extraordinary, something for today. And it's nothing mystical; it's out there and attainable. It's so much within reach that Rollins wants to make his first studio recording since Sonny Please (Doxy Records), in 2006. He feels that "something revelatory" can be captured—something much better than his Grammy-nominated album that doesn't really impress him.

"It's describable," says Rollins about the musical place he's trying to reach. On his 2011 tour—Road Shows Vol. 2 is 2010 music—the band was making progress toward that objective. "It's not that I'll know it when I hear it; I know what it is now. We just haven't been able to produce it. But it is producible, because we produced it in this last year, at certain times." That band was Peter Bernstein on guitar, Kobe Watkins on drums, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Sammy Figueroa on percussion.

"That's why I'm very interested in doing a studio album, if I can get it done before we go back on tour. ... The beautiful thing about this music and improvisation and jazz music that we try to play is that: OK, what I want to do, I know I can do—but when we do that, it leads to something else. It's not that I know what it is, and we'll do it, and that's the end. No. That's going to lead to another door opening, which is fine. But I haven't opened this door yet. That, I think we can do now in the studio. I haven't made a studio album in a while, either. I'd like to do one."

Rollins has been making revelatory music since his emergence on the New York City scene in the 1940s. He and John Coltrane are the most influential saxophonists in the post-Charlie Parker era. But his life has been more than that—it's been an example of perseverance and strength of character. His approach to life, as well as art, is exemplary. Every conversation with Rollins is valuable; that's rare.


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