Sonny Rollins in Conversation

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Thanks to nother for pitching this show.

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Sonny Rollins on New Haven Green, 1999 [M. Reynard / Flickr]

Sonny Rollins blew us away as jazz-eared tykes with his Saxophone Colossus album in 1956: it introduced the big virile Coleman Hawkins sound of his horn, also his story-telling authenticity with a marvelous Caribbean folk tune like “St. Thomas” (which he was said to have learned on his mother’s knee), and the fine-tuned intimacy of his duets with other colossi — in this case Max Roach on drums and Tommy Flanagan on piano.

To this day, a half century later, Sonny Rollins keeps blowing us away not only with his records but with the amazing way he has modeled a humble life of self-improvement. Almost as famous as Rollins himself is his long spell of self-exile from 1959 to 1962 on New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge, where he played his way into new understanding and mastery of his music, and conceived among many other things The Bridge.

“To me it’s always been a learning thing,” Sonny Rollins still says. Though he made mature recordings, like Time on My Hands in his early twenties, Sonny Rollins has long thought of himself as one whose dedication to music came a little late, not least because he’d so enjoyed himself as a cartoonist and painter in high school. Exposed early to the genius generation of Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell, he has said: “I didn’t have a lot of confidence that I was good enough to make it.”

And here he is in his mid-Seventies, exceeding his studio sessions with unbearably exciting live performances on tour (stopping at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Friday), and deigning to be interviewed, live, Thursday afternoon on Open Source. Help me out, friends. Sonny Rollins is a man to go beyond the last solo, or the last interview. Where do we want to go with this wonderful man?

Extra Credit Reading

Ben Ratliff, Listening to CDs with Sonny Rollins; Free Spirit Steeped In Legends, The New York Times, September 30, 2005: “Yet he says he has an aversion to listening to himself play. He had to force himself to listen closely to the tape of the Boston concert, a process that he described as ‘like Abu Ghraib.'”

Jack Pendarvis, Sonny Rollins, The Place Where Jack Pendarvis has a “Blog”, January 26, 2007: “He reminds me of Moses. He is Moses! Is that gnomic? Cryptic? Well, listen to Sonny Rollins and find out! Who knows which Sonny Rollins you’ll get? There are more Sonny Rollinses than there are Bob Dylans. Acquaint yourself with any one of them! Okay! Sonny Rollins!”

Carl Abernathy, Sonny Rollins’ Podcasts are a Model for Journalists, Cahl’s Juke Joint: A rock, blues and jazz blog, March 2, 2007: “I think Rollins’ discussions about music, which are interspersed with performances, are a perfect model for journalists. The podcasts are informative, entertaining and surprising.”

Meeting Sonny – The Sonny Rollins Podcast

Paulie, Serendipity and pedantry, Never Trust a Hippy, February 20, 2007: “The stand-out track, for me, was Rollins’ lovely drawling take on Mack The Knife. It remains one of my favourite pieces of music and I’ve been desperate to get my hands on it again.”

Rod, Coleman Hawkins… Sonny Rollins… Muntu… Lee Konitz/Gerry Mulligan… Earl Hines… Sam Rivers…, WordsAndMusic, February 9, 2007: “One of my favourite standards ‘Where or when,’ played at the post-9/11 concert in Boston by Sonny Rollins. Stretching the melody as the trombone of Clifton Anderson weaves round him – to take the foreground as Rollins drops back and eventually out.”

Trombonology, Alfie And The Strange Comfort Of Cynicism, Relative Esoterica, March 19, 2007: “I am pleased to recall that I was smitten then, even in my pre-jazz years, with the atmospheric Sonny Rollins soundtrack. It seems, today, so characteristic for me to have been captivated by those opening shots: streets shiny with rain, darkness so intense as to suggest noir’s monochrome.”

Mark Saleski, Music Review: Sonny Rollins – Plus Four: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters Series, The Mondo Project, February 7, 2007: “The same goes for Sonny Rollins. If you study records like The Bridge (with guitarist Jim Hall) or the iconic Saxophone Colossus, you’ll hear saxophone lines that are…how do I put this?…are as they were meant to be.”

Big Geez, REVIEW: Sonny Rollins – Plus 4, Geezer Music Club, February 7, 2007: ” Rollins went on to make many, many albums through the years as the leader of various groups, occasionally reinventing himself in the process, but the circumstances do make this particular album a little more special.”

Sonny Rollins, Buddhist

Lumiere, in a comment to Open Source, April 3, 2007: “I have been waiting to ask Sonny this for a long time. In terms of aesthetics, what would be Sonny’s signature song. I’m going to leave the definition of aesthetics open to interpretation, but say that it is NOT technical proficiency.”

Avecfrites, in a comment to Open Source, April 5, 2007: “I’ve read that Sonny used to dig Louis Jordan and Johnny Hodges, both Alto players. So why the Tenor? Is it because after Charlie Parker nobody could play Alto anymore?”

Pryoung, in a comment to Open Source, April 5, 2007: “Other jazz artists I revere like John Coltrane and Abdullah Ibrahim were deeply spiritual in their approach to music too, and I would love to hear Sonny Rollins talk not only about his own experience of that, but also how matters of spirit have influenced the tradition more generally.”

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  • Potter

    We had the good fortune to see and hear and experience Sonny Rollins at Mechanics Hall out here in Worcester MA and I will tell you that was a wonderful evening that he is a very special person. I look forward to the show. Thank you Nother!

  • All that jazz! Keep it coming…and keep those soothing ideas flowing Nother. Otanoshimini

  • Lumière

    I have been waiting to ask Sonny this for a long time.

    In terms of aesthetics, what would be Sonny’s signature song.

    I’m going to leave the definition of aesthetics open to interpretation, but say that it is NOT technical proficiency.

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  • loki

    I loved his “Tai Chi!”

  • enhabit

    the best growl in all of jazz!

  • jpfxgood

    Sometimes Sonny solos for quite an extended period of time, they always seem very coherent to me. The question is, what is he thinking or feeling while he’s doing that, is he telling a story, expressing a complex emotion, free associating ?

  • zeke

    Learning piano I struggled through classical composer Edward MacDowell’s small piece To a Wild Rose. I was surprised (and delighted) to find it turn up on a Sonny Rollins album. I’d like to ask how he notices and selects a piece like this for jazz treatment.

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  • nother

    As my self-reflective consciousness kicked back in, I realized I was far out – of my seat…with my upper body bent forward on the balls of my feet. Somehow I was keeping balance as my arms stretched up and away…grasping for an acknowledgement of my solidarity. We were a congregation that night, lost in praise for a wordless sermon…ephemeral shrills and high-pitched hoots were our response – to his call.

    The particular call we were responding to was an improvised solo at the end of the song, “Why was I born.” The date was significant, September 15, 2001. Sonny Rollins stood before us looking both delicate and sturdy…as his solo climaxed with a succession of short ebullient bursts of sounds…defiant sounds…sounds that grabbed you by the collar in a paternal way and said snap out of it and start living again! A shared cathartic hysteria ensued.

    Four days earlier, Sonny had been startled in his apartment as he heard the first plane crash into the World Trade Center, just blocks away. The power in his place went out and the police rescued Sonny (and his sax!) live on CNN.

    So it be…Lucille, his wife of 48 years, and obviously a perceptive soul, convinced Sonny that the show must go on. He could still feel the dust in his lungs.

    To share a Sonny solo is to share in a tour de force. For me they unfold like a contemplative walk through a familiar neighborhood…a journey that evokes a variety of impressions; from childhood memories induced by some old swingset, to larger questions about society brought on by the homeless. Even on this meaningful night (maybe because of this meaningful night) Sonny’s solos referenced lighthearted melodies such as “Oh Susanna” and the “Jeopardy” theme.

    Sonny’s sax is not as much an instrument as it is an extension – of the man himself. The man himself is serene…he has nothing left to prove, and so much more to give. At some point years ago, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins decided to jam with the better angles of his nature…and he’s been blowing hard ever since. Blow baby blow!

  • I’ve read that Sonny used to dig Louis Jordan and Johnny Hodges, both Alto players. So why the Tenor? Is it because after Charlie Parker nobody could play Alto anymore?

    Also, as an Alto amateur I wonder how Sonny got started with improvisation. By ear, or starting with mastering scales, or starting with chords, or what?

  • katemcshane

    Generally I love musicians. I didn’t know that until, maybe, five years ago. I just knew I loved music. Obviously, there are exceptions, but I’ve felt that their souls are in balance…even more so for jazz musicians. I’ve read and listened to interviews with Sonny, in which he talks about the way he lives. I know he’s a vegetarian. I know he’s a spiritual person. In this interview, I hope that he talks about these things — not that his music is separate from that, as “nother” so beautifully articulated. I think that the interviews I’ve heard with jazz musicians have taught me more about the lives of artists — I’ve been heartened by them and I need that.

  • pryoung

    So great that you’re having this show, and here’s hoping for even more shows dedicated to music and the arts on ROS. I love how Chris manages to balance probing and wonderment in these kinds of exchanges, and look forward to hearing him talk with one of my heroes tonight.

    Like katemcshane, I would love to hear a bit more on “jazz spiritualism”, maybe because the long and luminous exchange from the Camille Paglia thread is still fresh in my (and I suspect others’) heads. Other jazz artists I revere like John Coltrane and Abdullah Ibrahim were deeply spiritual in their approach to music too, and I would love to hear Sonny Rollins talk not only about his own experience of that, but also how matters of spirit have influenced the tradition more generally.

  • Thanks nother, great post and appreciated introduction, and yes pryoung, with Camille Paglia still zipping around in my head a bit of the jazz spirit would go well right now. Looking forward to this show

  • katemcshane

    Thank you, thank you, thank you SO MUCH for this interview!!

    “Jazz is the real music…That’s where it’s at — the whole thing is in the soul of the person. It’s not about outside.” This was SUCH A THRILL. I feel so excited to know I’ll hear him tomorrow night, for the first time in person!!

    When he talked about 9/11 — “Everybody was so kind and gentle to each other.

    I think we had a chance. I think everybody, in a political sense, everybody…was an American, like we’re all Berliners…the moment was lost, because of…fallible men…I can’t blame anybody…but it could have been a much different place…”

    This is a man who can say, “I can’t blame anybody,” (“because we’re all fallible”, I think he said.) This is what I love about jazz. I can be up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and even afraid, and listen to music from someone like Sonny Rollins, and feel hope for my life and for all of our lives. For me, there is no other art that means as much to me.

  • creckling

    Awesome show! I was floored (and thrilled) when I heard it on my way home from work. Musicians often have a hard time explaining what they do/how they do it – as he said, “I can’t think AND play” at the same time. That is so true! Good job getting him comfortable during the interview – Sonny did warm up over time. I got the same smile on my face during the Sonny Stitt tune, too.

    thanks for a great show, although an hour was not enough with this man.

    Chris

  • Potter

    Chris was very good last night- allowing the silences. I sensed that Sonny Rollins mood was low- I think he said he was going through something- which I can only imagine, because he brought her up towards the end, the passing of his wife. I think the interview really cheered him- and reading/sending the love in the quotes from this thread ….

  • bmp1975

    Great show!! Thanks so much for another little jazz perspective. This is the best way to learn. Don’t hesitate to put together more shows like this. Thanks!

  • Excellent interview. I liked the way you managed to draw Sonny out and to get him laughing a bit toward the end. Interviews, like studio recordings, are not Sonny’s favorite activity.

    I’m the guy you and Sonny spoke about in the interview who has collected almost 400 privately made recordings of Sonny’s live performances from 1948 to the present time. My own secretly made recording from the second row center at Berklee Performance Center on 9/15/01 was ultimately released as “Without a Song:The 9/11 Concert” which led to a Grammy for Sonny. His former label told a white lie in the liner notes when they said I had his permission. In fact, as Sonny said in your interview, his late wife and manager would have wanted to “kill” me if she had known what I was doing. Of course, I never intended to profit from any private recordings of Sonny, all of which are being held for his use in the future.

    I’ve spent time with Sonny and can attest to the fact that he is a kind and generous person who lives modestly and devotes his entire life to his music. As a result of this devotion, Sonny is understandably reluctant to take time away from his busy performing schedule to deal with the many wonderful recordings in my collection. As he said in your interview, he hates to look back and finds listening to his own work a painful experience. His focus is always on how to improve his playing and to explore new musical possibilities.

    When Sonny does decide that the time has come to release some of the recordings from my collection, much of the jazz world will be surprised at how great Sonny has been in his live performances throughout his career as compared to his studio recordings, as good as many of the studio recordings are. Stanley Crouch has referred to the best of these live performances as “staggering . . . a reevaluation of what we consider musical creativity.” Gary Giddins recently wrote that when he plays some of them for friends “their jaws drop to the floor.”

    But for now we can be grateful that the last of the giants of jazz is still with us and still playing great music. For any of his fans who are not aware of his website, I strongly recommend visiting http://www.sonnyrollins.com. I would also like to put in a plug for my own website, http://www.budpowell.com. Bud Powell, who in 1949 invited the 18 year old Sonny Rollins to play on one of Bud’s classic Blue Note recordings, is another of my favorite jazz musicians. It’s nothing less than astounding that the tenor sax player who played so well on this 1949 recording is still going strong in 2007!

  • hurley

    Great show. St Thomas a tune I grew up hearing played on a steel drum, among other instruments. I’ve spent time with many of the late greats, and Sonny Rollins’ demeanor reminded me of the best of them — Art Blakey, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gilespie. I drank beer (Heineken) backstage at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy; had a long chat with Blakey on a bus in Italy; brought my Walkman and Bach tapes to Benny Carter when he was in hospital, which he, being the consumate gentleman, accepted gratefully and without demur, imparting a lesson I’m still trying to learn. The only one of the greats I ever crossed paths with who was less than gracious was Miles Davis, but I’ll save that story for another time. Thanks again for the show.

  • Rick York

    I keep wondering why so many literate people feel they have to get “explanations” from artists and musicians as to how and why they do things. If these artists wanted to express their ideas in words, they would do so. It is up to viewers and listeners, sometimes with commentary help from others, to interpret their music. Many of the questions submitted to Sonny Rollins from regulars seem to require him to give verbal explanations for musical thinking.

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  • Myrtle

    Chris, another unbelievable interview. Thank you. It was magical to see Sonny Rollins transformation from tentative and uncomfortable at the start of the interview to that gleeful laugh at the end as he listened to the excerpt of his playing with Sonny Stitt.

    Chris, your informed comments and genuine enthusiasm, and your incredible agility to move on to another topic was masterful. Thank you!

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