April 7, 2007

Sonny Rollins: the Post-Game

Sonny Rollins: the Post-Game

Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall last night made me think of Walt Whitman more than Coleman Hawkins. “He’s America,” I said to nother who took Kate McShane and me to this ecstatic evening.

When Sonny Rollins soloes, we “hear America singing, the varied carols” we hear.

We hear his all-inclusive musical memory — fragments of cowboy songs, upbeat blues, “O Susannah” by Stephen Foster, leftover radio commercials and movie themes… And then we hear sustained lyrical invention of a sheer buoyancy and beauty that left us all giddy. Last night featured gorgeous extensions of Jerome Kern’s “Why Was I Born?” and of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Then a Rollins original, “Nice Lady,” and Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.”

In a mood of transport at the end of the night, I said to nother and kate, “I think I’m entering my Sonny Rollins period.”

Our radio conversation on Thursday afternoon was for me an Open Source high that will linger a long time. The great Emerson knew the feeling: “We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had… with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.”

I was astonished and thrilled at how many people in Symphony Hall came forward to say they had heard us on WGBH and had been moved by Sonny’s straight-ahead eloquence. People kept quoting back to me things Sonny had said on the air:

Jazz is to me really the music of forever because the freedom, the changing improvisation, is what the world is… It sounds trite to say it, but I’ll say it anyway: every sunset is different, and jazz is different like that. Everything that happens in nature is different, and this is what jazz represents to me… Jazz is the music because it has those qualities of freedom.

Life, as we know, is all from the inside. It’s not about outside. We have to search ourselves. That’s where the battle is — the battle is not against the guy next door, but to make ourselves better people. That’s what it’s about: the whole thing is inside the soul of the person. It took me a long time to find that out… and now I just have to act on it.

Sonny Rollins on Open Source, April 5, 2007

On the matter of 9.11 and a concert he gave in Boston four nights after he was evacuated from his own apartment in Lower Manhattan:

It was a strange time, a very interesting period. The thing I remember about that period is that everybody was so kind and gentle to each other. It was a wonderful period. It was the way the world should be. Of course, it didn’t last… The moment was lost because of, you know, fallible men. We all are fallible, so it’s not about blame. But it could have been a much different place.

Sonny Rollins on Open Source, April 5, 2007

On listening to his recordings and thinking of the legacy of his era:

Those men… when I look back on my career, I don’t believe it: that I played with Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins (the father of the tenor sax), Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell… In a sense it’s what life is all about, because it’s more than we can take out of it. It’s something else happening. That’s how it is. I listen to it. I did all those things. It was then, yet it’s now because you can still hear it.

Sonny Rollins on Open Source, April 5, 2007

Backstage after the concert, Sonny Rollins gave me a beautiful bearhug. “I call you The Voice,” he said.

I said: “You touched me, Sonny Rollins. So many people have spoken to me tonight about hearing us on the radio. You’re so generous, and you gave us all so much!”

He turned to nother and asked, “Is he serious?” nother vouched: “Yes, he’s serious.”

In sum, we stopped this night with Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall and possessed, as Walt Whitman told us we would, the original of all poems and all music:

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look

through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself,

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  • Daniel_Warner

    Wow. An inspiring juxtaposition and just what I needed to get some creative blood pumping.

    Sonny Rollins will be my soundtrack today… tomorrow I revisit Emerson at dawn.

    Thanks for this.

  • …I meant Whitman

  • babu

    The Lydon-Rollins Thursday duet happened to reach me in the depths of a family crisis, iluminating – drenching – a black time with pure love and briliiant sanity.

    Every time Sonny Rollins said ‘Christopher’ in that tone he reserved for you only, I knew we ALL just might be loved by someone somewhere somehow all the time it’s there….

  • nother

    Beautiful babu…you get it!

  • nother

    “Every sunset is different… jazz is different like that.”

    -Sonny Rollins on ROS

    On a raw April evening, the sun set majestically

    Behind a supporting array of tight-nit clouds,

    Breaking through along the way, with piercing rays of prowess!

    The glorious Sun…

    Descending into a crescendo of convergence with the horizon…there it goes, hurry, snap a picture…it’s gone!

    A thousand eyes fixated on the warm glow left behind.

  • babu

    Knowing it returns in perfect time.

  • nother

    Hours after the show, I walked with slow steps along the streets of Cambridge, heading reluctantly home; I guess I was fighting the end of the night. I could feel the tempo of the evening slow down like Sonny’s Diminuendo playing during “In a Sentimental Mood.” Something profound had changed in me this night, and I wanted to savor the high. It wasn’t my intellect that had grown; it was a realization that for maybe the first time,

    I was feeling – my own spirit.

    But hold on; let me back up for a second. The primer for my magical evening was being in the company of righteous people, in a sacred building, and sitting within “spittle distance” (as Chris put it) of a true artist.

    The final coat though of this special night happened after the show, backstage. Chris and I were the last people to greet Sonny, and when he saw Chris his eyes lit up with energy, he stepped forward and they embraced like long lost friends.

    Chris introduced me as the guy who wrote about the 9.11 concert and my mind was blank. But moments earlier I had heard Chris say the word “generous” to Sonny and that word made so much sense to me in a way I could not understand at the time. So I thanked Sonny for being so generous…and as he went from shaking my hand to holding it, he replied

    “that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

    My eyes burn now as I write this but since this whole adventure, I’ve felt a light sensation in my upper body, a general lightness like some clutter had been brushed away.

    Sonny disarms you with the transparency of his being, and in doing so he generously reflects a light off your own sprit. At least he did for me.

    We all had the pleasure of witnessing a friendship bloom as Sonny gradually opened up to Chris on the radio; I had the good fortune of witnessing that friendship blossom the next night, as Sonny took in Chris’s own generous nature. I take it that Chris referenced that Emerson quote above as a way to describe what the interview with Sonny meant to him. But from my vantage point, Sonny could use that same quote in reference to being interviewed by Chris. Chris’s generosity was to praise Sonny, not with platitudes, but with a spiritual exuberance, in a way that reflected Sonny back to himself. Sonny Rollins is a humble man, and he hears praise all day every day, but Chris Lydon’s sincerity made him blush. Two titans of generosity going head to head — it was beautiful indeed.

    So thank you Sonny Rollins wherever you are, and thank you Kate McShane for your oh so sweet soul, and thank you Christopher Lydon. I may not have felt this lightness of my being if not for Chris convincing those people to let me backstage with him. And when I was backstage waiting and only thinking about myself and the saintly vision of Sonny in front of me, Chris was busy chatting up the two teenage musicians next to us…telling them how great they were going to be in the years to come and introducing them to important people around us. Neither Chris nor I had ever met or heard these two young musicians, but Chris had even me confident that they were the future of jazz. The future of jazz, the future of jazz.

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  • nother

    revision to my ending above – The future of jazz…the future of jazz, ahhh…the future of jazz!

  • RobertPeel

    Sonny is the Man! Jazz is the american song!

  • From the marvelous Trobador, our Open Source guest on the music of Andalusia Joel Cohen, in an email today:

    On your Rollins show Sonny talked about his admiration for Bud Powell. Personal souvenir here: I remember when I was 12 or 13 my father took me to Birdland — the only way a kid like me could get in — and Rollins was playing his set. Except that there was this piano player sitting in, who played chorus after chorus. Afterwards the piano player left the stand, somewhat furtively as I recall, and Rollins announced, “Thank you Bud Powell. You scare me, you are so good”. That was the only time I heard Powell play live.

    This was a point in Powell’s career when his emotional/mental problems were taking a toll on everything, including his playing. Sonny at the microphone was publicly building his colleague up, attempting to boost his sense of self worth. Another sign of this artist’s great humanity. Rollins mentioned on your show that Bird was jealous, but not that he himself reached out to help this genius in trouble.



  • From Monseiur Le Jazz Hot, the very French-accented Alain Pacowski, in an email today:

    Cher Chris,

    Waow! With your Sonny interview you are getting one step closer from God! I can only hope now that in my after life I get to hear you interview Bird and John Coltrane. That would justify eternity!

    So thank you for both links. What a treat to hear the great Sonny in all his wisdom and depth. I am so glad that you enjoyed the concert and I am sorry at the same time that I missed it. Thank god, I saw several of his live performances, including the famous Boston concert just after 9/11.

    Seeing Sonny live is indeed an incredible experience. Beside the fact that he also is part of the select club of those who “don’t really play with the Band” (and he ends up literally creating his most amazing lines in his long acapella moments), it is truly amazing to witness his remarkable integrity in his quest for new inspiration. In the truest spirit of what Jazz should be, he is constantly searching and taking risks during his live performances, sometime even struggling with his own frustration, in order (as Sartre said) to break, inside his brain, the hard stone of sterile crystallized thoughts. And this heroic combat to recreate his musical self happens of course on the humble popular material made of standards, pop tunes, and calypsos. And man, can he swing!

    I would humbly like to feed your new passion for him with 3 other albums in addition to those you already have: Live at Basin Street (with Clifford Brown), Rollins Plays For Bird (with Kenny Dorham) and On Impulse.

    Of course in the end all his Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse sessions are great gems.

    A tres bientot.


  • katemcshane

    I wish I could write something as beautiful as “nother” did about seeing and hearing Sonny Rollins last week, but I don’t think I can. I love jazz. I love it in a way that will become greater and greater for as long as I live. I love jazz musicians in the same way. When I was 21, I was right out of a convent, and I went into a record store on Market Street in Philadelphia. It was 1969 and in the window there was a poster of a man with his head up his ass, The caption read, “Your problem is obvious.” The sixties.

    In this store, each album was $3.33. I was a secretary in an anti-poverty program and it was great to know that I could afford as many albums as I wanted on a miniscule salary. Unlike today. I knew nothing about jazz, but I was the only white person at my job and I didn’t really like rock music that much. Before the convent, I had listened to Motown, R&B. I walked around this record store and looked at hundreds of albums before I bought “Kinda Blue” and “In a Silent Way” by Miles Davis, “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane and “Swiss Movement/Montreaux 30th” by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. I knew nothing about these musicians. I think someone must have been watching out for me. When people at work saw what I bought, they were a little surprised. Then, they told me about Cannonball Adderly, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, John Lewis, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Billy Strayhorn, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ahmad Jamal, for whom someone had just named her baby, and people I can’t even think about right now. I have been deeply grateful ever since.

    I didn’t get to hear most of those musicians live. Some of them were dead already. I saw Nina Simone at Symphony Hall around 1985, but otherwise, I’m usually listening to them on a walkman in my room or in a cafe while working on poems. I’ve been a loner for most of my adult life, so the artists I’ve loved (musicians, writers, painters, etc.) I’ve loved on my own. All my life, I’ve been surrounded by people who have no interest in anything that interests me. This started with my family. It means that even if I can afford to see them, (usually) I have to go by myself.

    I first heard that Sonny Rollins was coming to Symphony Hall when “nother” wrote about it here. I wanted to buy a ticket, but each week I had to spend the money on groceries, rent, the Verizon bill for internet service, a T pass. Finally, I did what I always do when I can’t afford something luxurious — I convinced myself I didn’t have to see him.

    Due to — a miracle, really — I went to Symphony Hall last Friday on a ticket paid for by “nother.” It was my fourth time at Symphony Hall in over 30 years. I could hardly relax enough to just be in my body while I listened to him, because I felt nervous being there, and when I looked around, people seemed to be sitting still in their seats. I thought about “the blonde” who got up and started to dance when Duke Ellington and his band played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Sonny looked like his hip might have been bothering him, but he looked beautiful, just the same. I loved his clothes, loose black pants and a loose black shirt. I loved the way his hair was brushed back and gathered in a small pony tail. I loved how he moved on the stage. I loved his voice. I loved the way he made a pitch for supporting unions. I felt so honored to see him. When Chris interviewed Sonny, he talked about how he, his daughter, and her daughter had to get up and move when they listened to him. If we hadn’t been in Symphony Hall, at least some of us might have been dancing in the aisles.

    Thanks to Garrett, Chris, and Fran (Garrett’s friend) for your great company. Thanks to Garrett for the ticket. I’m still amazed that I was there!!

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