By Bill Beuttler (Written on assignment for GQ, fall 1993)
It’s winter break time now, and Sonny Rollins is back home doing what makes him happiest: practicing the tenor saxophone. November’s sold-out Carnegie Hall showdown with young trumpeter Terence Blanchard and the simultaneous release of the album Old Flames were nice as those things go, of course. The New York Times’s carping review of the former lauded Rollins’s improvisational genius even while bashing his electronic accompaniment, and Old Flames—six standards and an original blues on which Rollins is joined by pianist Tommy Flanagan and, on two tracks, a “brass choir” arranged and conducted by fellow saxophonist Jimmy Heath—is among his better recordings of recent years, selling steadily if not quite cracking Billboard’s jazz charts, and earning a mention in Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins’s year-end listing of 1993’s most memorable albums.
But Rollins rarely finds his own performances and record dates satisfying, no matter how much they please his audiences. Jazz’s saxophone colossus has always preferred the solitude of the woodshed. You might think it strange that Rollins, at age 63, would want to spend a minimum of three hours each afternoon playing his horn in his backyard studio in Germantown, New York. Three hours’ practice is a very full day for most jazz musicians between gigs. Tonight Show bandleader Branford Marsalis, one of today’s better young tenor players, admits he considers himself lucky to maintain an hour-a-day practice spurt for a month or two, after which he may skip a couple of months entirely. Marsalis, mind you, is just a pinch more than half Rollins’s age. Older masters generally practice less than the young guys, conserving their limited energy for the bandstand.
Rollins is no ordinary elder statesman, however. Three to five hours’ practice is in his case a concession to age; he used to go more like eight or 12 hours a day, and says he would still if he had the stamina. Which explains why he has accomplished more than anyone else on his instrument.
Sonny Rollins borrowed elements from three saxophone heroes—the huge, slightly harsh tone of Coleman Hawkins, the lyricism of Lester Young, and the dazzlingly quick improvisational brilliance of Charlie “Bird” Parker—added his own quirky cerebralism and humor, and by the late 1950s was already considered by many the greatest tenor saxophonist in jazz history. But that wasn’t enough to suit Rollins, and beginning in 1959 he quit performing publicly for two years to study music theory and work on further perfecting his technique. His late-night practice sessions from this period, conducted high above New York’s East River on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamstown Bridge, constitute one of jazz’s most enduring legends.
Today, having outlived such recently departed fellow titans as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Rollins stands alone as the world’s greatest living jazz musician. With all due respect to Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, and a handful of other surviving greats, few critics or musicians would dispute Rollins’s supremacy. Francis Davis, for example, in his essay collection In the Moment acknowledged that jazz has seen better composers, band leaders, and stylistic innovators. “Yet,” he concluded, “when conjuring up an image of the quintessential jazzman—heroic, inspired, mystical, obsessed—as often as not, it is Rollins we picture, because no other jazz instrumentalist better epitomizes the lonely tightrope walk between spontaneity and organization implicit in taking an improvised solo. ... Rollins is the greatest living jazz musician (no arguments please), and if we redefine virtuosity to include improvisational cunning as well as instrumental finesses (as we probably should when discussing jazz), he may be the greatest virtuoso that jazz has ever produced.”
Fellow musicians are no less reverential. “Sonny’s always been kind of a hero,” says Tommy Flanagan, who played on the landmark 1956 album Saxophone Colossus, perhaps the best in a long line of outstanding Rollins albums. “He’s kept the tradition of the great tenor saxophones from the past, like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. I might think of him as Dizzy was, like a link between the current generation and Louis Armstrong. That’s what Sonny is to today’s saxophonists and those heroes of the past. He’s that important to the tradition of the tenor saxophone.”
“He’s pretty hard to categorize,” comments guitarist Jim Hall, who worked in Rollins’s first band after the bridge sabbatical, “because I feel like he’s still searching for stuff and still growing. He’s almost like an element or something. He’s one of the great players of all time. I mean, Lester Young kind of codified his playing when he was quite young, and then I guess it deteriorated. Coleman Hawkins kept it going for quite a bit longer, but he started to fade out too—got kind of old and in bad health. But Sonny just keeps on going.”
“Sonny Rollins is the cat,” Branford Marsalis says simply, then ticks off a few of the master’s attributes: “Unbelievably spontaneous innovation. Unbelievably large sound. Phenomenal saxophone technique.” Brother Wynton Marsalis, whose trumpet virtuosity and tireless advocacy of jazz as an art form have spearheaded the music’s increased popularity in recent years, has a similar list ready when asked where he places Rollins in the jazz pantheon: “Where everybody else puts him. He’s great, a genius. He added new things to the vocabulary of his instrument. He possesses the very highest level of technique on his instrument. He swings, with authority. He can handle the most difficult material with ease.”
Even rock ’n’ rollers recognize Rollins’s genius. Dick Fontaine, a British filmmaker who had done a Rollins documentary in the mid-1960s, brought Mick Jagger to New York’s Bottom Line to hear Rollins in 1981. Jagger wound up asking Sonny to overdub a couple of tracks on the Rolling Stones’s Tattoo You album. And, speaking of tattoos, Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, tapped Rollins’s seven-CD box-set retrospective The Complete Prestige Recordings as one of his ten favorite albums of 1992 in Rolling Stone, summarizing his selection thus: “Deep, heavy swinging that teaches me something new every time I hear it. The truest human expression. Best sex music on earth.”
Everyone digs Rollins, you might say, except the American general public. He’s a hero in Europe and Japan (Saxophone Colossus is the best-selling jazz album ever in Japan), but must hire a driver whenever he visits Manhattan, because cabbies don’t stop for black men they don’t recognize. Even with jazz’s recent bubble of popularity in the States—“I think the world has sort of shamed America into accepting jazz,” says Rollins—there are plenty of newer listeners who have barely heard of Rollins. How else to explain that when Bill Clinton wrote a fellow saxophonist that he was “looking forward to our first jam session in the White House,” the new president was addressing not Rollins but that prince of chart-topping mediocrity Kenny G?
Rollins is one of the few surviving links to the creation of bebop in the 1940s, and he remains modern jazz’s most powerful presence. But his story is more than that. It takes him from growing up in Harlem toward the end of its famous renaissance to his present nine-acre farm in the Hudson Valley, from down-and-out junkie to teetotaling fitness buff, from a pair of prison terms on Rikers Island to studying yoga and eastern religions in India and Japan. It’s quite an American story, especially for an age so obsessed with notions like “growth” and “self-improvement.”
For there is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.
Jose Ortega y Gasset
Theodore Walter Rollins was born in Harlem on September 7, 1930, the third child of an immigrant couple from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Reference-book profiles of Rollins tend to begin with his given name and birthdate, but the year of birth is usually wrong. “I was trying to get working papers when I was a kid,” recalls Rollins these many years later, “and you had to be a little older. So I put ’29 down.”
Rollins’s peripatetic life has led to all sorts of other “facts” about him conflicting from one account to the next. So now he’s patiently clearing up the confusion as best he can, seated in his studio and sucking on a throat lozenge. It’s Labor Day weekend, the Carnegie Hall performance is a few weeks off, and Sonny and Lucille (his wife, business manager, and co-producer) have just kenneled their German shepherds for that week’s trip to Berkeley, California, where they would put the finishing touches on Old Flames.
In his studio, Rollins seems noticeably slighter than he appears onstage. Partly it’s his casual attire: black sweatshirt with hot pink JazzTimes logo across the chest, dark gray canvas pants, rubber-bottomed walking shoes with Velcro fastenings, white towel around the neck beneath which hangs an empty saxophone strap, looking like an extraordinarily functional string tie. The studio’s own homeliness also helps shrink him: A sofa, a couple of chairs and throw rugs, a music stand, and an old electric piano are fanned out around the dark red carpet, photographs and concert posters adorn the walls, and Sonny’s tenor saxophone rests resplendently in its velvet-lined opened case on a shelf near the door. Two tall bookcases are stuffed with works ranging all over in subject matter: James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Ronnie Dugger’s On Reagan, James Mills’s The Underground Empire, The Media Elite, Masahiro Oki’s Meditation Yoga, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the ’70s, biographies of Charles Mingus, Earl Hines, and Sonny Rollins. (The Rollins bios include the scholarly Sonny Rollins: The Journey of a Jazzman, by musicologist Charles Blancq of the University of New Orleans, and a second book in German, title and author TK.) A little-used alto sax sits atop one bookshelf; some sort of enormous decorative alpine horn on the other.
Mostly, though, it’s the man himself who seems smaller, almost frail compared to his dominating stage presence. Rollins still stands a bit more than six feet tall. He is fit, trim, and solidly built, and his moustache is still quite dark. But his beard and the hair on his head have gone mostly white, and when he walks he moves gingerly, perhaps the lingering effect of some prostate trouble a while back. His fitness regimen is now almost entirely yoga; the weights and exercise machines are gone or disused.
Because he is allergic to bee stings, and because bees tend to hover near the narrow lap pool outside the studio door, Rollins unself-consciously tugs on an olive-drab beekeeper’s mask for the short walk to his farmhouse during a break in the interview. He looks a little absurd in the getup, of course, but also surprisingly vulnerable. Walking beside him, you can’t help thinking about how Rollins will be gone one day, too.
You also can’t help feeling more comfortable talking to a life-sized human being rather than some forbiddingly tight-lipped colossus. As Francis Davis has written, Rollins “has a reputation as an unapproachable loner, an image he has done little to cultivate and nothing to dispel.” Some have ascribed it to shyness, but his friends say that really isn’t it. “He doesn’t chitchat on a conventional level,” explains Tommy Flanagan’s wife, Diana, “and many people are puzzled by that. But he’s very thoughtful and very intelligent. And he’s kind, too, but”—she chuckles softly—“he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
In any case, Rollins this afternoon is open and affable. He laughs easily and often, and answers questions about most anything—including his embarrassing six-year bout with heroin—with unusual forthrightness. Unlike his old friend Miles Davis, whose recent autobiography was liberally sprinkled with Miles’s favorite all-purpose twelve-letter profanity, the gentlemanly Rollins utters nothing bluer in five-plus hours of conversation than a single “I’ll be darned.”
The good manners may have been put there by his parents. His father, Walter Rollins, was a career Navy man who attained the rank of chief petty officer, and would likely have risen higher were it not for the period’s discriminatory policies against blacks. As evidence, Sonny mentions his father’s several high-ranking white officer cronies from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where the elder Rollins ran an officer’s club. One of them, Admiral Arthur William Radford, was friend enough to have brought his wife to visit the family in Harlem several times in the 1930s. Radford would later serve a pair of two-year appointments as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President Eisenhower.
Because Walter Rollins’s Navy postings kept him away from home for long stretches, the Rollins children were raised mostly by their mother, Valborg Rollins. Mrs. Rollins worked as a domestic—Sonny recalls being brought along on Park Avenue cleaning jobs a couple of times when no sitters were available to watch him—but she went out of her way to broaden her children’s cultural horizons with things like family train trips to Montreal. Because both parents loved music (Walter was an amateur clarinetist), the children were encouraged to study piano.
In the cases of brother Valdemar and sister Gloria (five and two years Sonny’s senior, respectively), the efforts paid off. Both were model students, and graduates of the city’s prestigious Music & Arts high school. Val was recruited to play violin with the Pittsburgh Symphony, but instead went into medicine and became a Bronx-based physician. (Gloria got married and began a family; a son, Clifton Anderson, has been playing trombone in Sonny’s bands for more than a decade.) Young Sonny was another story. His semi-obligatory piano lessons “didn’t keep,” he says. “I wanted to play and hang out with the kids and everything, so my mother let me off the hook.”
A couple of years later, however, “a whole convergence of incidents combined to interest him in the saxophone. An uncle’s girlfriend had a bunch of blues and early rhythm & blues records by musicians like Big Boy Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, and Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, which the couple played for Sonny while taking care of him for his mother. Then Sonny spotted Jordan’s publicity pictures in the window of a local Elks club on his walk home from grade school at PS 89.
“They had this nice eight-by-ten glossy of him in the window, with his saxophone and tails—really sharp—and this nice, shiny horn,” says Rollins. “So that sort of put the image together for me. I said, ‘Wow, this is what I’m gonna do.’
“I guess I started to bug my mother pretty soon after that to get me a horn. Strangely enough, I had some relatives who played saxophone—older people—so my mother was able to go to one of them and get me a used alto. Then there was another—I don’t know if he was related, but he was a close family friend and he played tenor—I remember going to his house one time, and he went under the bed and brought out this saxophone and opened the case, and there was this beautiful golden horn, inside the red velvet. Wow, what a beautiful-looking thing. All of these things were conspiring, as it were, to lead me in my direction. So pretty early I realized I wanted to play the saxophone.”
Some accounts of Rollins’s life have claimed he didn’t begin playing saxophone until entering Benjamin Franklin High School (his mediocre grades and lack of classical training kept him from following his siblings to Music & Arts), but Rollins is certain he began earlier. “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” he insists. “Remember, I recorded when I was 18, so in my early teens I had already been playing. And I remember I was playing when I moved up on the Hill, which was in 1939. No way. I was playing much before I was in my early teens.”
“The Hill” is Sugar Hill, then the nicest neighborhood in Harlem and hence about the nicest place a black family could hope to live at the time. Duke Ellington lived on the same street as the Rollinses, and Coleman Hawkins recorded his hit version of “Body and Soul” the same year the family moved just up the block from him. By the time he moved there, Rollins was beginning to demonstrate a lifelong obsession with the saxophone.
“When I lived up on Sugar Hill,” he says, “the only place I could go to kind of keep the sound of the horn down was in the closet. So I’d go in the closet and shut the door, and I’d be in there playing. Hours and hours. The only thing that’s beginning to diminish that in me now is age. You know, physical things. It’s harder to keep that up. But if I could I’d probably be playing eight hours a day and enjoying it.
“The point is, I like playing, and it’s something which is very normal to me. It’s more than normal: It’s something which exhilarates me, gives me life, so that playing a lot is something which comes naturally. Years later, when I used to play at Birdland, I played these long, long sets, and guys would think it was something unusual. But it’s something that came very natural to me. I’ve always liked to practice. In fact, I like the actual just playing. That gives me my release and makes me feel good about life.”
Life wasn’t entirely jazz for the teenaged Rollins—he liked playing practical jokes so much that his buddies nicknamed him Jester, and high school bandmate Arthur Taylor still recalls Sonny being an awesome power hitter in stickball—but there was plenty of it. The big bands of people like Duke Ellington and Count Basie would be double-billed with westerns and other Grade B movies at the Apollo Theatre each week, and Sonny made frequent trips to a Times Square music store to buy photographs of his favorite stars. He even screwed up the nerve to get tenor idol Coleman Hawkins to autograph one. (Sonny so idolized Hawkins by then that he had jerryrigged his alto so that he could play it with a tenor reed until he could get a tenor of his own.)
“I recall getting a lot of nice eight-by-tens of Don Byas playing,” says Rollins, “really nice shots, and I had all these in my scrapbook. But for Coleman, I went to his house trying to get his autograph on one. I was standing on his step waiting for him to come home.
“I’m sure he probably felt good about it,” Rollins elaborates. “And then I knew his drummer, a fellow by the name of Denzil Best. A very fine drummer. He played with a lot of people. He was a trumpet player at one time, and then stopped—he had a lung problem. But he wrote one of the jazz standards at the time, a song called ‘Oui.’” Rollins pauses a moment and sings the song’s intricate melody, searching his visitor’s eyes for a sign of recognition. “That was recorded by Fats Navarro,” he explains, “and a lot of guys played it at the time.”
The time was the mid-1940s, when trumpeters Navarro and Miles Davis, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach were helping Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker revolutionize jazz at a Harlem club called Minton’s. Their music was called bebop, and soon Sonny was playing it in bands with fellow Sugar Hill teenagers including future jazz stalwarts Art Taylor, Kenny Drew, and Jackie McLean. He also began dropping by regularly for rehearsals at the homes of Powell and Monk, and by the time he graduated high school in January 1949, Rollins had already played on 52nd Street in a quintet fronted by Miles Davis.
From graduation on, life moved rapidly. Rollins played on his first record with Babs Gonzales in early 1949, then traveled with the singer to several gigs in Montreal. Former Ellington trumpeter Louis Metcalf was based in the city at the time, and Metcalf’s bassist, Al King, offered young Rollins a ride to Chicago in his new Mercury. Rollins jumped at the chance to see Chicago, and wound up spending several weeks there performing with the legendary but unrecorded drummer Ike Day.
More records followed when Rollins returned to New York: a classic 1949 session with Powell and Navarro (The Amazing Bud Powell), another that year with trombonist J.J. Johnson, two 1951 sessions with Davis (one of which also involved Sonny’s first cut as a leader, with Miles playing piano), and late that same year, Rollins’s own first full-fledged recording date.
But Rollins also picked up a bad heroin habit. He showed up at that first session as a leader looking badly disheveled, reportedly using a coathanger and a piece of rope to replace his missing neck strap. This after having spent 10 months of 1950 serving a one- to three-year sentence at Rikers Island. A fellow junkie had had a plan about how they could get some drug money downtown, but it involved the 19-year-old Rollins carrying a gun.
“We got apprehended on the way to whatever this guy had in mind,” says Rollins, who says he’s glad to have forgotten most of the caper’s embarrassing details. “It made no sense at all. Even though it wasn’t my idea, I was stupid enough to have the gun, so I was the one that ended up having to go to the penitentiary. Fortunately, in Rikers Island at the time there were a lot of musicians.” Rollins laughs an ironic laugh. “Elmo Hope was there. There were a lot of guys who were there, so I was able to get in with some musicians and get involved with the music in the protestant chapel. The musicians there would arrange the hymns for the Sunday services. But I was able to get with those guys, which saved me, the fact that I was with musicians.”
Nonetheless, when he got out of prison Rollins went back on the needle. The subject is not one he’s proud of. He furrows his brow more than usual and laughs self-consciously from time to time. “When I think back on it,” he says, his voice trailing off as he shakes his head. “the other day somebody asked me, ‘How did you survive?’ And I said, ‘Just good luck, serendipity.’”
He came away from his addiction with some frightening war stories. “I remember a case when Bud Powell came out of the institution one time, and he wanted to get high. Those days we used to go up in a hallway somewhere, anyplace that’s private. So I took my shot, and he took his shot, and then he passed out.” Powell’s time away from drugs in the mental institution decreased his tolerance for heroin and made the shot a shock to his system, theorizes Rollins, who was terrified when he couldn’t revive his friend.
“By the grace of God, he came to. But for a while there, while he was completely out, it was a rough scene. Even though I was on drugs, I think I’m a sensitive enough person that something like that would have affected my life. I don’t know how I could have lived with being involved with something like that.”
Heroin addiction was rampant among jazz musicians at the time, of course, but Rollins got into more trouble with it than most, sinking at his worst to things like stealing from his own family. Max Roach used to tell young musicians arriving in New York to stay away from Charlie Parker ...
“... and Sonny Rollins,” recites Rollins, completing the often repeated story. “A trumpet player from Chicago told me about that. I was really bad, man. In a way, I probably felt proud of that—that I could be associated with Charlie Parker. Because he was a god, so in some kind of perverse way I probably felt good that my name was mentioned with him.”
Ironically, it was Bird himself who prodded Rollins to get off heroin. It happened at a Miles Davis recording session on January 30, 1953, on which Parker played tenor sax rather than his customary alto. Rollins had recently finished a three-month return to Rikers Island (his parole officer had noticed track marks on his arms), and Parker, unhappy that so many younger players had imitated his drug abuse in addition to his music, was pleased when Rollins told him he was staying clean. But then Bird mentioned it to someone else at the session and found out otherwise.
“Somebody else that I had been getting high with at that record date told him, ‘No man, Sonny was with us.’ So then I felt doubly bad, because I had lied to him also.” Parker let his protégé know he was disappointed, and told him he had a chance to be a great musician if he would stay off drugs. “It wasn’t a long lecture,” says Rollins. “I mean, we were at a record session. But it was stern enough, and I got his message.”
Still, it would take another two full years to kick his habit. In the meantime, Rollins cut another record under his own name (backed by the original members of the newly formed Modern Jazz Quartet) and one apiece with Art Farmer, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. The Davis session, recorded in the summer of 1954, became half of the classic album Bags’ Groove and included three Rollins-penned jazz standards, “Airegin,” “Oleo,” and “Doxy.”
Rollins was barely 24 years old and getting ready to leave New York when he went into the studio one last time late that October, with a quartet that included bassist Tommy Potter and boyhood pal Arthur Taylor on drums. Monk filled in on piano as a last-minute replacement for Elmo Hope, and the group played remarkable versions of three standards: “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I Want to Be Happy,” and “More Than You Know.”
It was clearly the best record Rollins had made as a leader to date, but that didn’t prevent him from leaving town soon afterward. It was time to turn his personal life around. “I had burned myself out in New York,” he says. “I had probably taken advantage of every person that I knew. New York was over.” So Rollins went to Chicago, where he figured it would be a little easier to support himself and kick his habit. He arrived broke, and hooked up with a fellow-junkie trumpet player named Little Diz, who showed him how to survive a Chicago winter without money.
“I was in bad shape,” Rollins says. “Sleeping in used car lots, riding the subway all night. I used to ride the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] all the way out to the end of the line and back, this kind of stuff. In those days we called it ‘carrying the stick.’ That was our euphemism for not having any place to stay, and that came from the old days—they used to have the cartoons of a bum.”
Rollins and Little Diz spent a couple of months carrying the stick together before deciding enough was enough. In January, they enrolled together in a new federal methadone-treatment program in Lexington, Kentucky. The program lasted four and a half months, and when Rollins came out that May he was free of heroin for good. Unfortunately, he never got to tell Charlie Parker as much: Bird’s own drug and alcohol abuse had finally killed him two months earlier, while Sonny was still in Lexington.
Rollins returned to Chicago after his release from Lexington, figuring to avoid his New York pusher contacts. He moved into a YMCA at 35th Street and Wabash Avenue, and worked a couple of menial jobs to support himself: first as a janitor, and later unloading trucks for a restaurant supply company around the city and nearby Indiana towns like Gary and Hammond. He remembers “a funny thing” happening a block over from the YMCA on State Street one morning. On his way to work, he passed a tiny neighborhood record store and spotted his and Monk’s just-released record “The Way You Look Tonight” in the window. “I think I went in there and told the cat, ‘That’s me, I’m Sonny Rollins,’” he says. “I kind of recall I couldn’t resist doing that.”
Rollins spent all of the summer and most of the fall of 1955 working those day jobs and getting his strength back. At night, he’d practice his saxophone in the basement of the Y, sometimes joined by young trumpeter Booker Little, who was then studying music at the Chicago Conservatory. If he was going to return to music, however, Rollins knew he would eventually have to risk dealing with the club scene. So one night he dropped by The Beehive, then a popular West Side club, and, just as he had feared, was buttonholed by a friendly pusher.
“The guy said, ‘Come on man, let’s get high.’ I mean, the typical thing you see in the movies, when a guy comes back and there’s a guy trying to tempt him. Typical scene, but in real life. Now this is a guy that was selling drugs, and I knew I would have a hard time getting drugs from him if I wanted them, but he was trying to get me hooked again, to be a customer. He’d never give it to me if I needed it.”
Rollins pauses a beat. “I remember that was a really difficult night, man. That was really struggling with the devil. I mean, we tussled. That night was the night. When I walked out of that club and went back to where I was staying, and I hadn’t done it, I sort of crossed the plateau. I would be tempted again, but after that first time it wasn’t as bad.”
Miles Davis passed through town about this time, and offered Rollins the tenor spot in the band he was then forming. Rollins didn’t feel quite ready to come back, so John Coltrane was hired instead for what became the first of Davis’s two legendary quintets. By November, however, when Clifford Brown and Max Roach brought their year-old quintet to town for an engagement at The Beehive, Rollins was feeling stronger. The Brown-Roach tenor man, Harold Land, was moving back to California to be with his pregnant wife, so Rollins was asked to fill in. When the Beehive gig was over and the band returned to New York, Rollins went with it as a permanent member.
He also began freelancing on the side. Rollins was hustled into a recording studio almost the moment he got back. On December 2, 1955, Rollins, Roach, pianist Ray Bryant, and bassist George Morrow recorded the album Work Time, which kicked off with Sonny’s spectacular cover of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”—an amusing choice given how Rollins had spent the past year, even though he says he picked it more for its musical structure than its ironic title.
Work Time also kicked off the most amazingly prolific period of Rollins’s career: a 1990 Rolling Stone profile says that Rollins recorded on 37 albums over the next four years. The quality of these records was sometimes uneven, but a dozen or so of them are considered classics. Most were recorded under his own name, but there were others with Roach and Brown, Davis, Monk, and the MJQ. Sessions piled up so thickly in December 1956 that Rollins cut three important records—Monk’s Brilliant Corner, his own Tour de Force, and his Blue Note debut Sonny Rollins Volume One—in a week and a half. According to longtime Rollins producer Orrin Keepnews, things got so crazy that Rollins and Roach recorded the song “Bemsha Swing” for the Monk album until half-past noon on December 7, then jumped into a car, drove to Prestige’s New Jersey studio, and recorded Tour de Force that same afternoon.
Three records from 1956 were particular standouts. Sonny Rollins Plus Four featured the Rollins standards “Pent-Up House” and “Valse Hot,” the latter being the first jazz waltz of the post-bebop era. Though recorded under Rollins’s name, it was also the final—and best—recording of the intact Brown-Roach quintet. Tenor Madness followed two months later, with Rollins backed by the rhythm section of that first famous Miles Davis quintet, and joined by the combo’s regular tenor player, John Coltrane, on the album’s title cut. It was Rollins’s only recorded performance with Coltrane, who by then was beginning to rival him as jazz’s premier saxophonist.
Saxophone Colossus followed Tenor Madness by a month, on June 22, and remains Rollins’s most perfectly realized album. It was one of those magical sessions, like Miles Davis’s subsequent Kind of Blue, at which everyone involved—in this case Rollins, Roach, pianist Tommy Flanagan, and bassist Doug Watkins—performed their most brilliantly, individually and collectively, and did so their first time through the music. Flanagan still calls it “one of the fastest recording dates that I’ve been a part of.”
Each of the album’s five cuts was first-rate. “St. Thomas”—a song Rollins had been introduced to by his mother as a boy—was the first and best-known of several traditional calypsos he would perform throughout his career. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is an imaginative, sometimes sardonic interpretation of a ballad. “Strode Rode” was Rollins’s tribute to the late trumpeter Freddie Webster, recently killed by a shot of tainted heroin at Chicago’s Strode Hotel. “Moritat” was the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht theme from The Three Penny Opera, more popularly known as “Mack the Knife.” “Blue 7” became the exemplary masterpiece of what jazz historian Gunther Schuller termed “thematic improvisation.” The Smithsonian Institution’s renowned jazz specialist Martin Williams also singled out “Blue 7” for special praise, calling it “one of those rare performances which almost anyone can appreciate immediately ... from the novice who wants to know where the melody is, to the symphonic classicist who can appreciate how highly developed the jazzman’s art has become.”
Just four days after Rollins recorded his masterpiece, tragedy: Clifford Brown, pianist Richie Powell (Bud’s brother), and Powell’s wife, Nancy, died in a car wreck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The spectacular Brown-Roach quintet was lost in its infancy, jazz’s most promising trumpeter gone forever at 25. Rollins took Brown’s loss particularly hard, the daily example of the clean-living Brown having done much to reinforce Rollins’s dawning belief that jazzmen didn’t need booze or drugs to perform effectively.
Roach reassembled a quintet with solid fill-ins on trumpet and piano, and Rollins remained with the group another 11 months, through May 1957, before striking off on his own with a pianoless trio. Before leaving, however, Rollins made his first trip to the West Coast with the Roach band in early 1957. He accomplished three other things while out there: he married (a spur of the moment deal that didn’t last), he met soon-to-be jazz revolutionaries Ornette Coleman and Don Cheery (and frequently practiced with them in a park overlooking the Pacific), and he recorded Way Out West.
Way Out West was an oddball paean to those old cowboy movies Rollins had grown up liking, and its album jacket featured a photo of Rollins-as-gunslinger, complete with ten-gallon hat and (empty) holster (Sonny’s tenor evidently taking the place of a six-shooter). In the hands of anyone else, the pop tunes “Wagon Wheels” and “I’m an Old Cowhand” would surely have been as corny as the picture, but Rollins, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Shelly Manne—in a single all-night session called to accommodate the two sidemen’s busy studio schedules—somehow transformed hokey into hip, making Way Out West one of Rollins’s finest albums.
A year later, in February and March 1958, Rollins recorded another landmark album in New York, and this time the theme was a good deal more serious. The album Freedom Suite contained four relatively standard jazz tunes on one side, and Rollins’s extended composition “The Freedom Suite” on the other. Musically, the suite was significant for its length—the trio of Rollins, Roach, and bassist Oscar Pettiford somehow keeping the piece interesting and cohesive for its full 19-plus minutes.
Freedom Suite also broke new ground with its social significance. Other jazz protest music had appeared previously—most famously Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching lament “Strange Fruit” in 1939—but Rollins’s was the first of several recordings linked directly to the then-nascent civil rights movement. (Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” was recorded on the album Ah Um in 1959, and Max Roach’s more emphatically titled We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite in 1960.)
To put the times in a little context, 1954 had seen both the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown vs. Board and the brutal murder of visiting Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her bus seat the very day before Rollins recorded his comeback album Work Time, sparking the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. The next year brought the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as well as Governor Orval Faubus’s infamous September showdown with the 101st Airborne over school desegregation in Little Rock.
All these events were playing in Rollins’s mind when he sat down to compose his suite. His upbringing had gotten him interested in politics and social issues ever since he was a child. But there was also a personal impetus behind ‘The Freedom Suite.’”
“There was a perception at the time that a lot of these problems were regional-based,” he explains, “so that these things were happening in the South as opposed to the North.” Rollins learned otherwise while apartment-hunting in Manhattan. “I was getting a lot of publicity, so in my naïve way thought, ‘OK, I can move where I want.’ I didn’t try to move to Sutton Place or anything like that, but the places I did try to move to—I realized I wasn’t allowed to move there. I had the money and wanted to move to a certain part of town, and I couldn’t do that. That was the immediate catalyst for “The Freedom Suite.”
Freedom Suite’s album jacket included a statement from Rollins notable for its calm yet forceful indignation: “America,” he wrote, “is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as its own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”
In late 1958, Rollins’s trio toured nationally with the singing group the Four Freshmen and the bands of Dave Brubeck and Maynard Ferguson in the era’s Lollapalooza-like annual concert series “Jazz for Moderns.” But despite his increasing popularity, by the next summer Rollins was becoming seriously dissatisfied with his playing. He remembers telling Bob Cranshaw, who sat in on bass with him at the 1959 Playboy Jazz Festival at Chicago Stadium about that time, that he was going to go away for a while, but wanted Cranshaw to join his band when he came back. That August, Rollins sat in with his old friend Thelonious Monk for two weeks at New York’s Five Spot. Then he abruptly disappeared.
Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. Hence he does not look upon the necessity of serving as a oppression. When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself. This is life lived as discipline: the noble life.
Oretega y Gasset
Speculation was rife in the jazz world as to where Rollins had gone and why. He’d been freaked out, some said, by Gunther Schuller’s excessively detailed explication of “Blue 7” in that year’s inaugural issue of the magazine Jazz Review. (Not so, says Rollins, though the article had left him wondering whether he had really done all that Schuller had claimed.) Others claimed Rollins was scared and jealous of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, who were now seriously challenging him as the era’s most exciting saxophonist. (Also not so, says Rollins, noting that both men were friends who sometimes visited him during his sabbatical.)
The real explanation, says Rollins, was slightly more prosaic. “People have been telling me so much about that I’m beginning to wonder, ‘Well gee, why did I go on the bridge?’ But the reason why I went on the bridge was just to kind of get myself more study and more ammunition, as it were. My goal was to be able to have complete freedom to play whatever I wanted to play, and not be hindered by the fact that there was something that I didn’t know about.”
For all Schuller’s gushing about his improvisational brilliance, Rollins felt insecurity over having been essentially self-taught. There were things he wanted to work on, a desire that became especially acute after a subpar performance with Elvin Jones and a fill-in bassist. That night had festered in his mind for months before the sabbatical began, and Rollins still recalls it vividly.
“I remember I played one night in Baltimore,” he begins, “and the expectations were high. The people really loved jazz and they really came out to see me. And Sonny Rollins: I had a big name at the time. I had made records with everybody and everything. And just the name—‘Sonny Rollins’—it just sounds like a jazz name. In a way it’s bigger than you can really be, you know what I mean?
“Anyway, when we played this gig the music didn’t come out right. I just wasn’t playing well, and the disappointment—I saw the disappointment in some people there. That really affected me, because I still remember certain people—I remember one girl in particular—I mean, they’re so high on me when I got there, and then ... .”
He isn’t sure exactly what went wrong that night, but knows he didn’t like it and that he was responsible for it. “I was Sonny Rollins. I disappointed those people. So I said, ‘OK man, this is a drag. I’m going to really get off the scene for a while and practice this, practice that’—there were certain things that I wanted to practice: get this kind of sound, improve this, do this and that. ‘That’s what I’m going to do, so that this is never going to happen again. I’m not going to disappoint people again.’
“So that was the catalyst behind my going on the bridge,” Rollins concludes with finality. “That’s it. And then that’s when I got involved studying with Sigurd Rascher.”
Rascher was an important classical saxophonist (now in his mid-80s and retired to upstate New York, says Rollins, who remains in touch) whose etudes remain advanced training materials in many music programs. Rollins had been studying one of Rascher’s books, and wound up going to some of his concerts and befriending him.
Rollins and his new second wife, Lucille, lived in a two-room, Lower East Side apartment at 400 Grand Street, an address he remembers because of a Francois Truffaut film that came out that same year, The 400 Blows. (“I always thought about 400 and me blowing the horn,” he explains, “a little play on events there.”) They were married a month into the sabbatical, and survived on his record royalties and her salary as an office administrator at New York University. Not wanting to bother a pregnant neighbor with his constant practicing, Rollins went searching for an alternative place to play and found it a couple of blocks away above the Williamsburg Bridge. The wooden walkway offered an inspiring view and almost complete privacy for hours each day, whatever the weather. Often he was joined by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, whom he’d recently been introduced to by their mutual friend Thelonious Monk.
Practicing wasn’t all that Rollins was doing. He quit smoking and curtailed his drinking (boilermakers anyway), and embarked on a self-designed fitness program that included jogging and pull-ups out on the bridge, and weightlifting and yoga back in the apartment. “I anticipated it [America’s subsequent fitness craze],” Rollins notes, “which is good—it probably helped me a little bit in later life.” He laughs, thinking back on the incline board and other gear that used to clutter the apartment. “I remember Monk used to come down and say, ‘Oh man, what’s all this stuff?’” (Rollins got so into exercise, that in 1963 he was asked to be a member of President Kennedy’s Physical Fitness Committee, according to author Joe Goldberg in Jazz Masters of the 50s.)
Rollins was dabbling in Rosicrucianism and eastern religions at the time. Given his frequent claim to having no interests outside music, it’s funny how many still dribble out of him in conversation. Rollins likes baseball, boxing, and movies, preferring comedies among the latter for the same reason he dislikes badly refereed boxing: he hates watching violence. Get him started talking about Bill McKibben’s book The Age of Missing Information, a particular Rollins favorite of late, and you will hear thoughtful reflections on corporate America, the NAFTA (he opposed it), and the plight of New York’s homeless.
Music, however, then as now, dominated all else. By the time he was ready to make his comeback in the fall of 1961, at a Jazz Gallery benefit concert for his old YMCA practice partner Booker Little (who had died of uremia that October), Rollins was playing better than ever. “His playing, edged with even more wit and sarcasm, has become almost unbearably personal” wrote New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett, reviewing a second concert a few weeks later. “Rollins isn’t merely back; he is looming.”
The freakish nature of the sabbatical drew other press attention from such unlikely sources as The New Republic and Newsweek, briefly earning Rollins his greatest public renown. It also didn’t hurt that Rollins’s new quartet, featuring guitarist Jim Hall, began experimenting with bossa nova just as it was becoming popular. But Rollins soon pressed on to other things, and after two records with his Hall quartet moved on to more abstract, experimental music with former Ornette Coleman sidemen Don Cheery and Billy Higgins.
Such music filled out much of the ’60s for Rollins, with a couple of important exceptions: In 1963 he played the Newport Jazz Festival with his idol Coleman Hawkins, and went on to record the album Sonny Meets Hawk with him later that summer. And at a 1965 club date at Ronnie Scott’s in London, Rollins was asked to write the score for Alfie, the film starring Michael Caine and Shelley Winters. Rollins sat up all night composing the score in the basement of the club, recorded it to a click track with a group of British musicians for the film itself, then returned stateside and re-recorded the music with arrangements by Oliver Nelson. The resulting record is still possibly Rollins’s most accessible, and it earned him his first Grammy nomination.
As the decade neared its end, Rollins was again feeling in need of time off. He spent five months living at an ashram in India, delving deeper into yoga and eastern music, then returned to the States and realized he was fed up with the music business. He wound up taking another two-year sabbatical, beginning in 1969.
It was a good time for a break, as the jazz-rock fusion music of Miles Davis and others was then drying up what little was left of the jazz scene. When Rollins returned to performing in 1972, he began experimenting with rock-like rhythmic backing and electric instruments himself, which earned him the same type of scolding that Davis was getting from jazz purists. Critics for the most part thought his ’70s albums disappointingly simplistic, made all the more galling, they complained, when compared to his often breathtaking concert performances.
The same sort of criticism continued into the ’80s and ’90s, though abated significantly by the excellent and more mainstream-sounding albums Falling in Love With Jazz, Here’s to the People, and Old Flames. Now the griping mostly concerns Rollins’s accompaniment—critics would like to see him hire a more challenging supporting cast and dump the electronic instruments altogether.
“The whole thing is a mystery to me,” says Rollins, who insists that his movement away from hard bop stemmed from a desire to try other, fresher approaches to improvisation, not from some calculated sell-out. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, to some extent even Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach—all of them stepped away from bop and post-bop at least occasionally, and it is likely Bird himself would have done so had he lived long enough.
Rollins traces his own desire to move beyond hard bop to his bridge period, specifically a night in 1959, when he wandered between an ordinary bebop band that was playing at the Jazz Gallery, and Ornette Coleman’s electrifying new group at the nearby Five Spot. The Five Spot “was really jumping,” recalls Rollins. “I mean, they weren’t playing the standard sort of rhythm. I went around the corner to the Gallery, and there was a band playing standard stuff, things like ‘It’s You and No One for Me.’”
The difference in the energy levels at the two clubs was unforgettable. Rollins acknowledges that his own approach to the standard could have made it more interesting than it sounded at the Gallery that night. “But beyond that, I felt there was something lacking in the rhythmic approach. Billy Higgins and those guys had it with Ornette.”
He pauses. “OK, rhythm equals energy equals rhythm: that’s Sonny Rollins’s axiom. In a way, that’s what I was looking for. I was looking for guys with energy. I didn’t want what I heard at the Gallery, because it was just dead-sounding.”
He says the same desire for energy applies to the bands he hires today. “I wanted fresh, young blood, like Dracula,” he sums up. “I don’t think that impugns my integrity. Maybe to [critics] it does, but I have a feeling that guys who resent me would always resent me. I’m a player who has been able to kind of turn down things, and I take what I want to take. I’m not always available for what they want me to do. So there are a lot of reasons for why guys would like to put me down if they could.
“But,” he continues, “I must say this to you: For many years, whenever I’ve been playing at different places, people have come up to me and said, ‘I don’t like jazz as a rule, but I like you.’ Now, I’ve heard that a lot of times over the years, OK? People say, ‘I don’t like jazz but I like you.’ Nothing has made me feel better than to hear that. In a way, I know what they mean: Jazz is a very closed type of musical form, and I’m a part of it—no doubt about it. But it’s always good to feel you can transcend that. I don’t know what it is they hear in my playing, but whatever it is I’m happy about it.”
The topic steers inevitably to his old friend Miles Davis, who strayed farther from jazz than Rollins and took harder whacks from the critics for it.
“They say Miles tried to sell out,” says Rollins. “I don’t think so. Making music is too hard. Miles was a guy that liked to experiment and change anyway. So that’s a given. He was always trying new stuff. I mean, he had sort of a Peter Pan complex—he wanted to stay young forever, personally as well as musically. But I think he did genuinely have a desire to expand the palette of the music. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Davis also tends to come up when other musicians side with Rollins against his critics. “I felt kind of the same way about Miles Davis,” says Jim Hall. “I just admired him so much. I didn’t care if he played with pop bottles in his band. I just loved his brain, his way of organizing things. That’s the same way I feel about Sonny.”
Hall recalls being irritated not too long ago at seeing a couple of critics, guys he knows and generally admires, badmouthing Miles’s funk-laced final albums on Charlie Rose’s late-night talk show. “People are a lot more generous toward painters or writers than they seem to be toward musicians,” he remembers thinking. “If somebody went on television and said, ‘Well, I loved Picasso’s blue period but I hated when he bent the faces,’ you know you’d say, [dismissively], ‘OK, next ... .’”
Meanwhile, Miles’s harshest musician-critic says it’s not his place to second-guess Rollins‚s electronic backing or choice of musicians. “I would rather hear Sonny Rollins swing, personally,” says Wynton Marsalis. “But he’s still the greatest. Whenever he decides that he wants to play, anybody who’s up on the bandstand with him will still get their head cut. That wasn’t the case with Miles Davis. Sonny Rollins will still serve notice to whoever wants to have it served to him. His skills as a musician have not diminished at all, and anyone who stood up there next to him would tell you that. So he and Miles Davis are very, very different, because Sonny Rollins has never lost his seriousness about playing his horn.”
Anyone who doubts Rollins’s commitment to jazz should have seen his response to a question about whether jazz—meaning the hard-bop style that Rollins and others popularized in the ’50s, and which young musicians like the Marsalises are still mostly playing today—would continue to survive. Rollins gently points out that jazz didn’t begin with bebop, and walks to a framed photograph above the studio mantel to prove his point.
“We must remember that jazz was happening in the ’20s also,” he begins. “Right? I mean, Louis Armstrong was playing in the ’20s, and then you had the whole period of the ’30s, which had some great bands. So you can’t just say the bebop era, because there was a lot happening prior to the bebop era.”
Rollins motions toward the photograph, a famous shot taken around 1957 of three or four dozen well-known jazz musicians fanned out across the steps of a Manhattan brownstone. Nearly every era of jazz development until that time is represented.
“There’s Monk,” Rollins says, pointing. “There’s this guy here, see this little guy there? He’s a great pianist called Lucky Roberts. He was one of the great stride pianists, and there was also—who was supposed to be there but walked out of the picture—a guy called Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. You’ve heard of him. He was also there. So there’s stride piano guys there, a lot of people. Basie, Lester Young, Dizzy, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Mary Lou Williams, Lawrence Brown, Mary McPartland, Oscar Pettiford, Coleman Hawkins, Stuff Smith ... .
“Anyway,” he sums up, returning to his chair, “I was saying that to make the point that those guys represented a lot of the different periods throughout jazz. The stride guys—that was a great period of jazz development, stride piano. So will jazz survive? People could have asked the same question then. Jazz will go on a long time. As long as people give it a chance to be heard and guys want to play it, it will happen.”
As one advances in life, one realises more and more that the majority of men—and of women—are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. And for that reason, the few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated, monumentalised, so to speak, in our experience.
Ortega y Gasset
It will happen, and at its best people will line up to see it. Scalpers were already beginning to work the gathering crowd a good two hours before last fall’s Rollins performance at Carnegie Hall. Similar performances—at which Rollins was joined in 1983 by Wynton Marsalis, in 1989 by Branford Marsalis, and in 1991 by rising trumpet star Roy Hargrove and veteran guitarist Jim Hall—have taken on semi-legendary status, making it one of jazz’s hottest tickets of the year.
The November show again featured two big-name guests: Tommy Flanagan, who had gone on from Saxophone Colossus to record Giant Steps with John Coltrane, spend a decade as Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist, and eventually become known as one of jazz’s finest pianists while leading trios of his own; and Terence Blanchard, the young trumpeter who had replaced Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and now leads his own combos and writes movie scores, so far most notably for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
What people were lining up to see, though, was the anticipated showdown between Rollins and Blanchard. Friendly cutting contests had become the rule at these concerts, with Rollins demonstrating to each year’s youngblood why he was still the man to beat. Wynton and Roy Hargrove put up good fights before going down, ran the history going into the Blanchard showdown, but Branford had been thoroughly clobbered. In fact, Branford readily admits as much—but adds that it doesn’t matter.
“I got beat by the champ, man,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not like I got beat by some schmuck. I didn’t care. I learned so much from being up there. See, the disadvantage of learning music from records is like something I learned from football—that you can look in somebody’s eyes and see the story. You can see whether they’re gonna kick your ass, whether they think they can kick your ass, whether they’re afraid of you.
“One thing that we never had the opportunity to do is get a chance to see our heroes perform live, so we never had a chance to see what they were thinking. You can guess what they were thinking, and you can approximate it and come pretty close, intellectually. But standing on the stage and watching Sonny’s eyes, I started to understand how he thought, and it changed my playing overnight.”
(Brother Wynton’s main memory from his night beside Rollins occurred backstage. “I remember he asked me to tell him which mouthpiece sounded better,” says Wynton Marsalis, still sounding incredulous about it more than 10 years later. “I thought to myself, ‘This is Sonny Rollins. He’s still working on his sound.’ Man, to me that’s the type of humility that makes great people great. He asked me what I thought about how he sounded on two different mouthpieces.” Rarely opinionless where music is concerned, Marsalis admits the mouthpiece question nearly stumped him. “I really couldn’t tell the difference,” he says. “They both sounded great. It was the biggest sound I had heard on any kind of mouthpiece. I said, ‘Maybe the second one.’”)
The anticipation was heavy, then, when Rollins led his regular working band onstage for the Rodgers and Hart standard “Falling in Love with Love.” Did someone say Rollins looked fragile in the studio back home? Onstage at Carnegie Hall, he appeared as colossal as ever, decked out in dark pants, some sort of red tunic, and a bright red bandana around his head. He roared through the opening number, earning shouts of encouragement from his friend Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of several top-flight musicians scattered in the crowd.
Then Rollins sat out two numbers, introducing first Flanagan for a trio version of “I’m Old Fashioned” (Bob Cranshaw switching from electric to upright bass), and then Blanchard, who joined Flanagan in playing “I Cover the Waterfront.” Unlike most of the rest of the night, on these two pieces Flanagan’s piano wasn’t drowned out by any electric instruments—making them highlights despite Rollins’s absence.
Next came what everyone was waiting for: the Rollins-Blanchard blowing session. Rollins blew a quick phrase, then stopped suddenly and seemed to smile, the horn still in his mouth, amused apparently at everyone’s tense expectation. He stepped around the piano to center stage, and this time launched into his minor blues “Keep Hold of Yourself” full-throttle, working up to his best solo of the night. Blanchard followed with something more tentative, then trombonist Clifton Anderson and Flanagan had their turns, before Rollins and Blanchard returned for an extended session of trading fours.
Here is where jazzmen can really challenge one another, and Rollins as expected came out the victor. Blanchard gained confidence early on, but as the ideas kept flowing from Rollins—and Blanchard’s lip began fading—he seemed to be looking for relief. He bravely hung on, though, and when the number finally ended the crowd rose to its feet for the first of two standing ovations.
What followed the intermission, though nice enough in itself, was almost anti-climactic in comparison. Jimmy Heath led a special brass choir in accompanying Rollins on the standards “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Darn That Dream,” followed by Rollins’s nightly calypso (this time “Duke of Iron”) with his regular band. Blanchard and Flanagan were brought out to join Rollins on “Pent-Up House,” as requested by Blanchard in honor of Clifford Brown.
As the final notes sounded on the night’s concluding number (“I’ll be Happy”), rocker Lou Reed leapt up from his seat behind Percy Heath and scurried for the exit, looking terrified of being recognized. Everyone else in the house stood for another ovation, calling into some question the Times’s subesequent appraisal of Rollins as being “unable, or unwilling, to present himself in a context that would give dignity to his great ability” and “a man bent on misspending the capital of genius.” Flanagan’s piano was indeed too often inaudible, and maybe the choir should have rehearsed more (as the Times review suggested) but all in all it was a fine night of music.
What did the principals themselves think of the show? Blanchard refers back to Rollins’s somewhat startling way of first suggesting their playing together. “‘Terence,’ he said, ‘let’s go ahead and make some history, because life is too short and we don’t have that much time, so we have to work as quickly as possible.’
“Damn, OK.” Blanchard laughs, recalling his response. “I’m thinking, ‘Whew, you want me to come over now?’
“I equate playing with Sonny Rollins with if I got a chance to play with Bird or Pops or Clifford Brown or someone like that,” he elaborates, “because those are the pioneers. See, the thing about Sonny Rollins that to me is amazing is the wealth of knowledge that he has. You try to grab hold conceptually to what he’s doing, and as soon as you think you’ve got an inkling to what it is that he builds his sound around, he starts to play in a totally different way. He kept me off guard that way the whole night.
“I’m telling you, he really makes you feel inadequate. First of all, the command that he has of his instrument is very apparent. Then when you get into the subtleties of what he does, the way he controls the horn. And just conceptually, for him to even think about doing little things like turning melodies within phrases that he’s playing—it’s just amazing.”
Two weeks after the concert, Blanchard was still gushing about Rollins to musician friends. “I was telling them about the rehearsal, how Tommy Flanagan asked Sonny a question about a chord, and Sonny played something through his horn and figured out what it was. I said, ‘This guy has studied and practiced so much that everything is just second-nature to him.’ I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be at that level. And this is a guy who, let’s face it, is 63 years old—who’s playing his butt off.”
Blanchard’s euphoria was by no means shared by Rollins himself. “No, the concert could have been better,” he sums up via telephone a few weeks afterward, ensconced once again in his studio for the winter. “There’s no doubt about it. Actually there were a lot of problems, but I don’t like to dwell on these things in print. Because, see, a lot of my fans that were there actually liked it. So if I say, ‘This was wrong and that was wrong,’ it sort of puts them in a funny way—it makes them look foolish or something.”
Nothing very surprising there, given Rollins’s notorious perfectionism. But then he lets drop a bombshell. “I had just come back from Europe, in fact a few days before the concert, and I had had some of the best concerts I’ve ever had in my life. I had about 10 concerts over there, and I would say about eight were exceptional, that were really great, and maybe nine out of the 10. One I didn’t like too much—the first one that we did wasn’t too good. But other than that it was like the best playing I’ve ever done, so I was really feeling good.”
Rollins actually happy with the way he played? “Yeah,” he says, “that’s rare. And so you know that it must have been OK for me to say that.” He hems and haws a little bit, then lets slip that he played as well as he did in Europe because something had upset him. “Well, I really don’t want to say what happened over there that got me mad about something, OK? And sometimes when you get mad”—he laughs self-consciously”—you play, you know? So that’s what happened, and I just really did some great playing over there. It lasted the whole tour.”
Which prompts a suggestion. With a new spring concert season about to get underway, perhaps Rollins should consider hiring some special sort of provocateur, someone whose job it would be to torment him to just the right level of anger before all important performances ... for the sake of the music, you understand.
“I know,” Rollins replies, laughing a moment before switching back to his rarely satisfied self. “But anyway, that was what happened over there. After that, I wanted to come into Carnegie Hall and be really on it like I was over there. But as it went, everything just could have been better.”
The Carnegie Hall letdown did give Rollins something to work on
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