January 1, 1970It was a big week for Sonny Rollins writeups. I crossed the Globe's boundaries by writing about him both for the Thursday Calendar section and interviewing him for the Friday "Jazz Notes" column. And Stanley Crouch wrote a long profile of him for this week's New Yorker.
I was at the 9-15-01 concert that is being turned into a live CD, but the seat next to mine was empty. My then-girlfriend, now-wife missed the concert, having lost a first cousin in one of the World Trade Center towers a few days earlier.
She'll miss tonight's performance for a far more mundane reason: no available babysitter.
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Despite loss, Rollins is rolling
Emotional moments sharpen sax great's focus
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | May 6, 2005
Sometimes adversity off the bandstand leads to a musician reaching greater heights on it. That certainly was the case with Sonny Rollins's two-hour-long marathon at Berklee Performance Center Sept. 15, 2001. Seventy-plus minutes of highlights from that show are being prepared for a CD release in late August, a few weeks before the legendary tenor saxophonist's 75th birthday.
Rollins, who returns to the Berklee stage tomorrow night, had witnessed the World Trade Center disaster four days earlier from his Manhattan apartment, a mere six blocks from Ground Zero.
That morning, he was getting ready to run some errands in advance of the Boston show when he heard what sounded like a plane "flying awfully low." He couldn't see what was happening because his 40th floor windows faced north — away from the WTC towers.
Rollins turned on a television in time to see the second jetliner crash into the second tower. Then he headed downstairs and joined the panic in the street. That's where he was when the tower nearest his building collapsed.
"We started to run," he says, "because if it fell over it would have definitely gotten everybody there. But it imploded into itself. So people that were in the street there were safe."
Rollins was shaken enough to consider canceling the Boston performance, but his longtime manager and wife, Lucille Rollins, argued against it.
"As far as I was concerned, I was still in a state of shock, really," Rollins says by phone from his upstate New York home. "I mean, I'm sure probably everybody was still in a state of shock, but myself probably a little more so, because I was so close to the incident. I just felt unsteady, emotionally as well as physically. But Lucille said, 'No, we should do it.' So we did it."
Rollins can only speculate why his late wife, who died Dec. 1 of last year, insisted they go on with the show.
"Lucille was one of these people who's really a strait-laced type of person, who came up with the sort of Calvinistic work ethic," he explains, "and so I'm sure there was some of that in her feeling that we should do it. As well as maybe she figured that it would be helpful to other people."
Helpful it was. The mood at the Berklee Performance Center that night was one of heightened anticipation, as if people were wondering whether it was OK to enjoy art and music.
To Rollins, the answer was obvious. A few words delivered as he finished introducing the band that night explicitly encouraged the audience to grab onto music and hold tight. "We must remember that music is one of the beautiful things of life," Rollins tells the crowd, "so we have to try to keep the music alive some way. And maybe music can help. I don't know. But we have to try something these days, right?"
The music proved cathartic. Rollins played an exceptionally strong concert, even by his standards, the events of earlier that week causing him to dig deeper inside himself and sharpen his focus. It was not the first time Rollins played better when something was bothering him, he acknowledges, nor the last.
"Emotional things that happen to you, momentous things that happen in your life — which seemingly would be unrelated to you musically — affect the way you play, the way you sound," he says. "I remember Charlie Parker once told an interviewer something like, 'What I play is what I went through that day. Whatever happened to me that day was what came out of my horn.'"
More recently, the loss of his wife, to whom he was married 47 years, has influenced Rollins's playing.
Normally his own harshest critic, Rollins says he has played unusually well in his first few concerts since Lucille's death. He's not alone. Longtime Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, in a rave review of Rollins's performance two weeks ago, called it "as spontaneous and mercurial a set as he has given Chicago in years."
"The last couple of concerts that we did, in LA and in Chicago, seemed to have been very well-received," Rollins says. "So, going back to our premise about catastrophes making you find something musically there, maybe I'm reaping whatever benefits I can get out of my own loss."
Music to their ears:
Bass great Ron Carter will deliver the commencement address to 700 Berklee graduates and 4,000 invited guests at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Northeastern University's Matthews Arena (238 St. Botolph St.), where he, singer Anita Baker, and Tonight Show bandleader/ guitarist Kevin Eubanks will be awarded honorary doctorates. (Rollins, incidentally, holds an honorary doctorate from Berklee as well, receiving his in 2003.)
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. 617-876-7777. www.concertix.com. 8 p.m. $32.50-$40.
Sonny Rollins is arguably the greatest living jazz musician, mostly on the strength of his brilliance as an improviser. He has performed on classic albums led by greats like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, toured with a short-lived, much-missed quintet co-led by Max Roach and Clifford Brown, and a half-century ago began cranking out a series of masterpieces of his own: "Work Time," "Sonny Rollins Plus Four," "Saxophone Colossus," "Way Out West," "Freedom Suite," and "The Bridge" among them. His tenor sax battle with John Coltrane on "Tenor Madness" is the best-known such showdown on record, a staple of jazz radio wherever jazz radio still exists. These days, Rollins, 74, tours with less stellar sidemen, solid pros on hand primarily to provide backing for the leader's spectacular solo flights. With improvisation, what you get from night to night can vary widely in quality. But even on ordinary nights, Rollins's lengthy excursions on semi-obscure standards and originals (inevitably including a calypso or two) can be breathtaking. On the nights he is hitting on all cylinders, he's still as good as jazz gets.
Sat 5-7 Cyrus Chestnut A prodigiously talented jazz pianist who's not afraid of being accessible, Chestnut played the Count Basie-inspired character in Robert Altman's "Kansas City." He'll be joined Saturday by trio mates Michael Hawkins (upright bass) and Neal Smith (drums). Regattabar, Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-661-5000. www.regattabarjazz.com. 7:30 & 10 p.m. $22.50.