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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