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Colossus Among Us 

Last Updated: 08/07/2013 4:27 pm
May 13, 2011. Sonny Rollins is about to step onto the stage of Newark’s immense, New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The air in the packed hall crackles with electricity. The jazz icon doesn’t play out as much these days, and everybody knows it’s going to be a great night for music. The creator of some of the most innovative, beautiful, and life-affirming sounds ever etched onto the canvas we call the universe, the titanic tenor saxophonist and composer of such jazz standards as “St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” “Doxy,” and “Airegin” is also, at 81, one of the last-standing figures of the original bebop and hard bop eras.

When the maestro at last appears it’s to the thunderous love of the audience, and he’s every inch the legend. Somewhat bent with time and carrying his horn as he ambles out, Rollins wears shades, a loose, white, smock-like shirt, and a wonderfully tousled head of pure white hair. As he arranges the band’s charts onto their music stands, the effect is that of a cool Albert Einstein handing out worksheets to his students.

But the professorial image soon evaporates when he puts the reed to his lips and kicks things off with an impossibly buoyant bounce through the calypso-tinged “Nice Lady.” As he propels the band, which tonight includes ace guitarist Peter Bernstein and longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw, through a nearly 20-minute version of the tune, as the leader dances around the stage, pumps the air with a fist, and blows one golden solo line after another. Then, with barely a pause, it’s straight into another long, up-tempo number, a goose bump-inducing “They Say That Falling in Love is Wonderful.” And, with a few heart-stopping ballads along the way, that’s pretty much how the show goes—and goes and goes. It closes with a reprise of “Nice Lady” that gets the audience out of its chairs and pressed against the lip of the bandstand as Rollins steps right up front to honk and wail above their bobbing heads. All of this from a man who reportedly said he’d planned to retire six years ago.

“Did I say that? I must’ve been having a bad day,” quips Rollins a few months later, adding that, despite the fact that the Newark concert ran nearly two hours, “At my age, I can’t play as long as I’d like to. The ideas in my mind might be flying, but my embochure [the lip technique of wind instrument players] might be giving me trouble on a certain day. But I’m still always trying to play something new. I’m still a student myself.”

“Sonny Rollins is arguably the greatest long-form improviser in the history of jazz,” says WKCR’s Phil Schaap, the “Dean of New York jazz radio” for over four decades and a Grammy-winning producer and archivist. “His influence is incalculable. There’s so much Sonny in other saxophonists’ sounds that they don’t even realize how much is in there themselves. [Rollins] is the primary reason many players have become improvisers. He’s truly one of the chosen few. And he represents the jazz story as well as any living person.”

Rollins’s parents emigrated from the Virgin Islands to Harlem, where he was born in 1930. Inside the household his mother would sing her native calypsos—a vein he’d later famously mine for “St. Thomas” and other compositions—and, outside, the Sugar Hill neighborhood was at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance that nurtured so much great art. “I used to listen to Fats Waller on the radio, he’s what first pulled my coat to the beauty of jazz, you might say,” recalls Rollins, who at a young age briefly took lessons on the family’s player piano. “Later on, my friends and I would go the Apollo Theater, which was very close by, to see all of the big bands: Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine when Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon were with him.” When he wasn’t watching bands Rollins was often in movie houses, where, via the big-production musicals of the day, he began to cultivate his legendarily voluminous repertoire of Great American Songbook classics.

At age 13 Rollins started on alto saxophone, in emulation of proto-R&B/jump jazz king Louis Jordan. It was a decisive period. “As soon as I started playing,” he remembers, “I knew that this was what my life was going to be.” He soon switched to tenor after falling under the spells of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, especially the latter. It was while playing in a high school band with fellow future legends altoist Jackie MacLean, pianist Kenny Drew, and drummer Art Taylor that Rollins began to cultivate his style, a sound that, while evincing the bold, advanced harmonic technique of Hawkins and the fleet, supple phrasing of Young, somehow also transcends both.

In the 1940s bebop was emerging in New York and Rollins was right there with it. “I heard [saxphonist] Don Byas’s record of ‘Ko-Ko,’ a Charlie Parker tune,” says Rollins. “I didn’t know anything about Charlie Parker then, but I loved the tune. So from there my friends and I started to get onto what he and Dizzy Gillespie were doing, and we started to follow their gigs and meet other musicians.” Rollins’s first recording session was in 1948 with vocalist and Beat poet Babs Gonzales; dates with Parker, drummer Art Blakey, trumpeter Fats Navarro, pianist Bud Powell, and others soon followed.

In 1951 he joined Miles Davis’s band, with whom he recorded several key LPs for the Prestige label. “I remember I’d just gotten into Miles’s band, and we were in the studio,” Rollins says. “Miles didn’t really give a lot of direction. If you were in his band it was because he saw something simpatico in you, that was why you were there. He had this habit where if you did something he liked he’d focus his attention on it, to let you know. So we were recording, and something I played made Miles look over at me. And he smiled in admiration. I realized I’d arrived, I’d really achieved something.”

It was an intoxicating time in the jazz world, with Rollins and his peers taking the music from the breakneck athletics of bebop into the earthier, soulful realm of hard bop. But, unfortunately, due to the encroachment of hard drugs for many musicians the period was also intoxicating for much darker reasons. Rollins was among them, and was even briefly imprisoned on related charges. But in 1953, after kicking his habit, he came back like a fiery hurricane. He signed on with another giant, Thelonious Monk (“He saw something embryonic in me that I didn’t quite know I had yet”), and collaborated with the Modern Jazz Quartet. By 1956 he was in the top-flight Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet while concurrently leading his own trio through the albums that cemented his legend: Tenor Madness, featuring John Coltrane, and Saxophone Colossus (both Prestige Records). Writing about the latter’s “Blue 7,” composer and essayist Gunther Schuller praised the piece for displaying a new method of “thematic improvisation,” in which the soloist reworks motifs based on the theme. This approach would become an influential door-opener for a new generation of players.

“I was first saw Mr. Rollins at [New York club] Birdland in 1963,” recalls Poughkeepsiean multi-reedist Joe McPhee. “The impact on me, personally, was immeasurable on many levels. As a result of that experience, when I got the opportunity I recorded a version of “Oleo,” which is arguably one of my best efforts.” Rollins’s surprising arrangements of the cowboy pop songs “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grand)” and “Wagon Wheels” on 1957’s top-selling Way Out West (Contemporary Records) remade them from “corny” show tunes into hip jazz standards, while 1958’s cathartic Freedom Suite (Riverside Records) heatedly voiced the discontent of the civil rights movement. As the ’60s approached Rollins was soaring, winning one Down Beat poll after another and mounting in international popularity. But then he did something that would become almost as much of a career trademark as his music itself: He walked away.

Over the course of his nearly 70 years behind the horn, Rollins has become known for taking lengthy sabbaticals to reassess his music and reflect on his life path. The first and most notable of these breaks came in 1959, when, unhappy with both the music business and his own playing, Rollins retreated for two years. So as not to disturb a pregnant neighbor, he began practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge—unintentionally creating the now archetypal image of a lone saxophonist blowing soulfully in the urban night. When he re-emerged it was with the tellingly named The Bridge (1962, RCA Victor Records), one of his biggest-selling LPs. “I wouldn’t want to say that [taking career breaks] is the right thing for everyone, but it has been for me,” says Rollins.

During the 1960s he enjoyed a fruitful period with trumpeter Don Cherry and made more revelatory recordings, including one with his hero Coleman Hawkins, 1963’s Sonny Meets Hawk (RCA). His sublime soundtrack work for the 1966 movie Alfie connected him with an even bigger audience, before he entered another time-off period to study yoga, meditation, and Eastern religion in Japan and India. He resumed playing in the early ’70s with a run of successful records combining contemporary and fusion jazz, and later played, uncredited, on “Waiting on a Friend” and two other tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You (1981, Virgin Records).

Rollins and his late wife, Lucille, bought a house in 1972 in Germantown. Until the events of 9/11, they had an apartment in Lower Manhattan. “We lived six blocks away from the World Trade Center,” he recalls. “When we heard the explosions, I grabbed my horn and we ran out. We were very lucky to have someplace else to go.” In 2004 he was awarded his second Grammy for Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Four Star Records), a powerfully profound set taped four days after the attacks (his first Grammy was for 2000’s This Is What I Do on Universal Distribution). While international recognition still floods in—Sweden’s Polar Music Prize in 2007, Austria’s Cross of Honor in 2009—Rollins continues to cherish his local community, and earlier this year played at Hudson’s Club Helsinki to benefit Columbia Memorial Hospital.

Rollins’s newest offering is Road Shows, vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy Records), which co-stars guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and fellow saxophone behemoth Ornette Coleman on awe-inspiring performances from an 80th birthday concert in New York and two shows in Japan. It’s an album every bit as searching and affecting as his vanguard records.

Before launching into the final tune of the Newark concert, Rollins, seemingly sensing the unease of the dark and uncertain world outside, tells the audience, “There’s nothing to worry about. You have nothing to fear. If you can look the man in the mirror in the face, then everything’s going to be okay. I’m not afraid of anything.”

When asked about it later, he chuckles. “Sometimes at the end of my concerts I feel  like I want to connect more with the audience,” he explains. “I meant that you have to be able to face your creator, whatever that means to you. To have a clear conscience. It’s easy to lose sight of that. To be able to separate your body from your soul while you’re still here, it’s really a big leap of faith.”

And as an artist whose art and life is defined by one leap of faith after another, does Rollins have anything he’d like to add to those show-closing words?

“Not really,” he says. “I think I’m just gonna go clean my horn and practice.”

Road Shows, vol. 2 will be released September 15 on Doxy/Emarcy Records.
Photo by Fionn Reilly.
  • Photo by Fionn Reilly.
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