Arts - Winter 2007

The Edgy Optimist

At 76, saxist Sonny Rollins is still on top of his game

By Gene Santoro | December 1, 2006

“I’ve got to remember I’m on the wrong side of 40,” 76-year-old Sonny Rollins says ruefully. He’s in bed on his 120-acre farm in upstate New York. Two years after his wife Lucille’s death and five years after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center trapped him in his Battery Park City apartment, one of jazz’s last legends can’t shake the flu he’s had for months. He’s canceled concerts, which he doesn’t like and Lucille would have hated. He’s taking a second round of antibiotics, which he doesn’t like either. So he’s feeling kind of blue.

Theodore Walter Rollins has been called jazz’s greatest living improviser so many times it’s become his Homeric epithet. In 1959, musicologist Gunther Schuller wrote an essay using “Blue 7” from Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus album to explicate the saxophonist’s thematic way of worrying at melodies to unfold variations, a subtle attack that recalls his idols Lester Young and Billie Holiday. “It’s like holding the melody up to the light and rotating it, like a jeweler, to create new melodies,” Rollins explains. “There’s no limit to what you can do that way.” That is, if you’re Sonny Rollins. Ask any significant contemporary saxist—from Joshua Redman to Joe Lovano to Branford Marsalis—about influences; Rol­lins’s name is at or near the top of the list.

In concert—the only way to experience Rollins at his best—he stalks the stage wielding his tenor like it’s a toy, twisting and turning down the corridors of his restless imagination with such fluency that he seems less a purely musical, and more a natural, phenomenon. His fluid tone shifts as he ransacks his memory for fragments of tunes to weave through his solos. His love of pop culture, from cowboy movies to dancing, led him to annex calypso to jazz in “St. Thomas” and to rework Tin Pan Alley schmaltz like “Toot Toot Tootsie.” Few jazz artists aside from Miles Davis, Rollins’s most frequent bandmate in the early 1950s, could touch that sort of material without going soft. The integration of Rollins’s personality and his musical voice is what makes him so formidable as a player and as a person. He is a jazz existentialist.

“All this business is making me sick,” he drawls. For decades Lucille dealt with the nitty-gritty of record labels and lawyers, booking agents and tour logistics. Before her death, Rollins’s longtime label was absorbed in one of the endless music-industry consolidations, so she and Sonny decided to start their own label, Doxy. But with her gone, Rollins had to handle negotiations for distribution in Europe, Japan, the United States, and Canada. They were tortuous, and torturous for him. “It’s one reason I’m still feeling flu-ish,” he says. “I don’t always know who I can trust, Gene.”

So his new album Sonny, Please makes him a recording label head, I say. We laugh at the irony. This is the man who once told me, “Career is a funny word. I don’t have a career. People know me because I’ve been around a long time, okay? And fortunately, I’m a survivor. But I’m not rich, and I’m not trying to get rich. Trying to get rich playing music is an oxymoron; there’s something wrong with that. The society’s different now, though, so maybe that will change too.”

With a Sonny Rollins Web site offering a Signature Collection (“the kind of stuff people sell at my concerts,” he says, embarrassed) and his new CD, Rollins has entered the world of business only as far as he needs to: “This feels like a natural progression. I’ve always maintained control over my music and produced my records anyway. This way I own them.” He laughs. “I promise to do honest business and maintain integrity. Of course, I’m the only artist on Doxy.”

Rollins’s mother was born in the Virgin Islands. He grew up in Harlem with other jazz wannabes like Jackie McLean. His older brother and sister studied and became classical musicians, but Sonny was drawn to Swing Era jazz and pop. As an adolescent he met his bebop idols: Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell. Like McLean he rehearsed with Monk: “He used to sneak me into bars after school.”

The film documentary Straight No Chaser (1989) captures Monk, the highly eccentric anchorman at the 1940s uptown sessions where Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, and Kenny Clarke hammered out the complex language for what the press would dub bebop. Monk’s piano was as laced with idiosyncrasies as his personality was. He was radical (in his jagged melodies, rhythms, and percussive attack) and conservative (in his roots: gospel, pop, blues, and stride).

In 1953, 23-year-old Rollins joined Monk, Roach, and bassist Oscar Pettiford to record Brilliant Corners, an album of Monk’s original, gnarled tunes. The title track previews things to come: Rollins elbows the phrasing of his solo into odd shapes and looming, leaping intervals, while Roach’s playing limns percussive melody.

“Monk had a very different style, something like Duke Ellington but more extreme,” Rollins says. “His rhythmic and harmonic conceptions were unique. He was a catalyst, a definite hero. He energized Coltrane and myself to do our own thing. Part of it was that he was so dedicated to the music. It’s all he cared about.”

In late 1955, Rollins joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. This launched a period of intense creativity. The taut, high-energy outfit spiked difficult arrangements with flaring horns and hairpin-curve tempo shifts. Roach’s kinetic drums underlined and partnered Brown’s slashing trumpet. Tracks like “Pari­sian Thoroughfare” suggest a marriage of musique concrète and jazz like those being framed by bassist and composer Charles Mingus, a good friend of both Roach and Rol­lins. On Brownie Lives! a live recording made shortly before Brown’s death in an auto accident, Roach reroutes the band by recalibrating rhythms or suggesting—on the drums—changes in melodic direction. Rollins isn’t as polished as Brown, but he bubbles with ideas: his opening on “Gertrude’s Bounce” is startling, fiery, a clarion call.

And all the more inspiring because he had just recovered from heroin addiction. “You know the story, Gene: I wanted to show Charlie Parker that I was straight, so I went away to Chicago and got straight, and then he died before I could show him.” Parker, the guiding genius of bebop, died at 34. Rollins worked at menial jobs while he cleaned up, tested himself by hanging around nightclubs where he was offered heroin, and when he passed the test decided he was fit to come back.

“When I joined the band in Chicago,” he recalls, “I found that Brownie was the type of personality who exemplified everything that I felt jazz musicians should be. He wasn’t destroying himself. He was playing great, he looked great, he was a plain-living guy, very humble, beautiful individual. That was a revelation to me. I was on the right track, but that band helped me stay there. Brownie was an anomaly: to be hip then, you had to shoot up. He was an angel.”

The sociology of postwar heroin can still be a third-rail topic in jazz circles. Rollins explains, “Black people fought and died in the war, and were tired of waiting to get on the front of the bus. Same old crap. Bebop, the new music, was linked up with that. This was one reason a lot of people liked Charlie Parker. He had a certain dignity: he’d always be very erect, talk in a very erudite manner. So as young people coming up, we saw this as the next wave and looked up to him. We weren’t going to be buffoons or clowns anymore. This is great music and you must accept it, and we are people and you must accept us as people. It all ran together. That was one of the great things about Charlie Parker people haven’t talked too much about.

“So a lot of it [heroin use] was imitation of Bird, guys wanting to imitate whatever he did to be able to play more like him—and that included shooting up. That was the bane of Bird’s existence. He tried to stop us but he couldn’t stop himself; that was his downfall. But see, it wasn’t so much the drugs themselves as much as the fact that black musicians couldn’t use drugs and get away with it. Billie Holiday was a drug addict, but so was Judy Garland, except she was white and could get away with it. Black musicians felt that this was yet another set of double standards. Remember, this was the first generation that wouldn’t go quietly to the separate hotel, the back of the bus, the separate food counter; they got into fights about it.” He mentions Miles Davis beaten by a cop outside Birdland, Sarah Vaughan beaten at Café Society. “That’s what I mean by the social aspect of the drug abuse. It was a self-destructive form of rebellion that gave us a sense of community against a hostile world.”

At this time, Rollins and Coltrane, who struggled with his own drug problem, met in the studio for Tenor Madness, where the contrasts are revealing. Rollins digs deep into bluesy roots while Coltrane creates sheets of arcing sound. But at the close there’s a coming together.

In 1956, Rollins made his debut as a leader with Saxophone Colossus. He synthesizes what he’d learned from Monk in “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” scrambling time, warping tonality, moving through unusual intervals. And there’s “St. Thomas,” with its undulating rhythms and complex personal penumbra: Rollins’s friend Harry Belafonte, who popularized Caribbean folk music in America, marched in Selma with Max Roach, Pete Seeger, and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1958, Rollins cut “Freedom Suite,” nearly 20 minutes with a pianoless trio—the format Ornette Coleman had just begun to explore. And Rollins’s reliance on melody rather than “running changes” as the wellspring for his improvisations grew stronger with Night at the Village Vanguard, the remarkable Way Out West, and Stockholm 1959. He had reached his first peak.

“I was playing ideas,” he says. Think of each track as a mini-essay. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Toot Toot Tootsie” were radio hits during Rollins’s youth. Way Out West nods to the cowboy movies he loved. “I like to play pop songs and intersperse them into things that I’m doing. Fitting the melodies onto other changes takes discipline. You can’t take ‘Sunbonnet Sue’ and put it into anything anywhere. The chords have to match, and the feeling has to match. Ella Fitzgerald had it down. It’s one of the tools of jazz improvisation. The beautiful thing about jazz is that it can absorb everything else and still be jazz.”

At this pinnacle, jazz’s leading lone wolf took his first of two so-called retirements. In 1959 the goal was to reformulate his music; his nightly practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge prompted a now-famed short story called “The Bridge” in the July 1961 issue of Metronome magazine. (Author Ralph Berton shifted the location to the Brooklyn Bridge, sowing confusion ever since.) In the late 1960s, Rollins traveled to Asia to study Eastern philosophies. It’s impossible to imagine any jazz musician of any stature today treating a “career” in this fashion.

“When I went away in ’59,” he explains, “I felt I wasn’t playing as much as I should be playing. I had a lot of people—the press, fans—who built me up to the point where I couldn’t deal with that without really feeling that I could deliver. So I had a strong motivation. I wanted to break some bad habits, like smoking. I’m a person that appreciates solitude anyway.” He pauses. “Gene, the music we’re involved in is very serious. And the people I’ve been fortunate enough to be around . . . well, it’s something you don’t want to defile.”

The Bridge ended his exile. He added guitarist Jim Hall to his trio for this LP containing a mix of standards, like Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and “Without a Song,” and originals with saw-toothed melodies. It was an instant classic. The empathetic interaction between the guitarist, whose chords shimmer with the impressionistic beauty pianists like Ellington and Bill Evans brought to jazz, and the saxist, whose lyricism winds through the densest harmonic thickets without losing ebullience, produces some of jazz’s most luminous moments.

There have been high points in Rollins’s work since, especially on stage, and there have been lackluster recordings. On the Outside documents his interest in the 1960s avant-garde with mixed if provocative results. Also uneven is All the Things You Are, where Rollins faces off with Coleman Hawkins using free-jazz overblowing and chordless soloing, while Hawkins remains magisterially aloof. In 1966, he scored Alfie, orchestrated by Oliver Nelson for a 10-piece band. In the 1970s and 1980s, his albums suffered: trying on funky fusion, he lost his mercurial edge within formulaic jazz-rock backing. (One exception is Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” an extended romp equal to anything Rollins ever cut.) He soloed on “Waiting on a Friend” for the Rolling Stones’s Tattoo You because Mick Jagger heard him at the Bottom Line and called him up. Rollins first heard the finished track at a market near his farm: “I thought, Gee, there’s something strange about that guy playing saxophone, and finally I realized, Wait, that’s me! I wasn’t credited on the record and didn’t want to be; I was doing it as a lark, a challenge to see if I could relate to it.”

Live, Rollins remains a creative cauldron, a saxophone Bach able to overcome mediocre concepts and flagging bands with his fugues. But even he has off nights. In 1985, in his concert at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which was recorded as The Solo Album, the music sounded as if he had relied too much on intuition and had stumbled uncharacteristically into solipsism: quotes, scales, and finger exercises untouched by his usual alchemy.

In the 1990s he performed with younger musicians like Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. The press called them duels. He laughs and shakes his head: “Duels?! Aieee! Do they ever refer to Pavarotti and Placido Domingo singing together as a duel? I wonder. No. They give those people more respect. ‘Duel’ is derogative. The whole attitude is demeaning to jazz, because jazz shouldn’t be looked at like a boxing match. Jazz is a conversation between people who maybe haven’t had a chance to discuss certain ideas before. We push each other in different directions, but the music is what benefits. And it should be entertaining at the same time, because people are seeing something real happening.

“Music is just a language. But it has a spiritual aspect, spiritual, mystical, whatever you want to call it, that needs to be communicated to people. Jazz at its best is the perfect picture of democracy. We’re all playing on this different level; we’re not down here on this material plane. So of course you transcend race and all that stuff.

“It really is American music; it fits so much of what the country is about. And this is the place it’s most ignored, treated like a second-class citizen, like blacks. The official culture can’t recognize it for what it is. Now everybody talks about jazz being America’s classical music, but it’s mostly an empty phrase. Even the way the big jazz festivals are put on shows that. [They are] sponsored by big corporations who want to use the music as an ad, which diminishes the music. It’s a tricky subject.”

On September 11, 2001, Rollins was staying at his pied-à-terre across from the World Trade Center and was trapped for a day and a night. “When I was evacuated,” he says, “I had to walk down 40 flights of steep stairs. The stairwells are really narrow, right? And I had my horn, which made it difficult to turn the corners with all the people too. Then when I finally got to the bottom it was like a scene from a World War II movie. Sirens. Lights. My legs were like rubber. So I waited a minute. There were people looking at me askance, you know, big black man with a big expensive looking case. But this one cop says, ‘Oh, you’re Sonny Rollins,’ and he helped me, pointed me to the right place, where the buses were evacuating people. I got there, ‘Full up,’ the guy said. Now Gene, I haven’t told anybody this before, but being black, you just automatically think, well . . . ”

I say, “There’s no room on this bus, boy.”

He laughs. “Well, exactly. I think I’ve heard this before. Anyway, there were these three old Italian ladies, dressed all in black, sitting on a wall there waiting so calmly in the midst of all this hysteria. Lucille used to love people from that generation; they dressed so properly and behaved so gracefully. I watched them and they calmed me down. That saved me from myself.”

After Rollins was taken to Washington Irving High School, north of the “frozen” zone, Lucille sent their longtime driver to fetch him to the farm. “I was out of it, Gene; I couldn’t focus on anything.” But she convinced him to perform in Boston, as planned, on September 15. “I don’t know whether she also had a deeper understanding of what that moment could mean. But for a person like her, once she said she’d do something she did it. That was it. Midwestern values. She was their quintessential representative.”

“There was something different in the air that night [of the Boston concert]. The audience was hungry for something. The musicians acted a little different and played a little differently. Some other element was in there. I don’t know how to describe it and I don’t know what it was. But it was palpable. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.” The recorded results, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, one of his best in years, wasn’t issued until 2005.

Now, fighting the flu, he spends more time watching his favorite programs, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. He says things like, “Our current administration is constantly playing the fear card.” Or “Bill O’Reilly is an evil venal man, because he knows he’s lying to people. Colbert really nails him.” He abhors virtual reality as the inhuman harbinger of a new Dark Ages. His current favorite book, in fact, is Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America.

And yet, and yet. “When I’m off the bandstand, I become very pessimistic,” he says, then smiles. “But once I’m playing, the music kicks in, and I play optimistically.” And that is as good as it gets.

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