Sonny Rollins At Sixty-Eight - 99.07

Reformed, redeemed, and ready for reincarnation
(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

ON a summer day in 1960 I lugged my tenor sax up a flight of wooden stairs in an old building in midtown Manhattan where a stubby little man named Jake Koven rented out practice rooms to musicians. Jake was a nice guy with a democratic attitude toward his clientele. For a few bucks a guitar-toting teenager with no ear for music could strum away the afternoon in a room sandwiched between a flutist from the New York Philharmonic and a songwriter tinkering with the finale of a Broadway show. I was playing the minor-sixth intervals of Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso," thinking I sounded cool, even a little intimidating, when the first four notes of the 1930s hit "Three Little Words" came through the wall like shots from a nail gun.
The saxophonist in the other room began splintering the notes into partials, and then constructed arpeggios that swirled up from the bottom of his horn, spiraling out beyond the legitimate range of the instrument and into the stratosphere of the piccolo. He restated the notes, played them bel canto, made them waltz, turned them upside down and inside out, and ran them up-tempo in 4/4 time, taking outlandish liberties with meter and intonation. It was pure passion, power, and precision. It was pure Sonny Rollins.

I put down my horn and considered my prospects for jazz greatness, which lay at my feet like a granite slab. Sonny Rollins was my hero, in so many ways everything I wanted to be. In January of 1959 Esquire had published the now famous Art Kane photograph of fifty-seven musicians in front of a Harlem brownstone, an astonishing congregation that covered the depth and breadth of American jazz as its golden age was coming to a close. Rollins was the youngest star in the picture, too young to have been so bad. Having begun his career in seven-league boots, he'd cut his teeth in the company of the legends Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk before finishing high school. His improvisational genius had earned the respect of Babs Gonzales, Fats Navarro, J. J. Johnson, Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman "Bean" Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, and Max Roach even before his career had begun.

The power and the complexity of his solos -- improvisation as composition, like the ordered madness of a Jackson Pollock canvas -- were at the core of his appeal for me. But there was also the man himself: Mr. Cool. The shades, the Pharaonic bush on the chin, the walk, the talk, the imperviousness to everything uncool. For many black men of my generation, coming of age in the late 1950s, before the new breed of race men like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael came to the fore, the young lions of jazz were our cultural revolutionaries -- rebellious, angry, but always cool. The music we called "our thing" was steeped in ethnicity. Playing it with authority meant you were at home in your own skin. Cool was defiance with dignity in the days when white cops could beat Powell and Monk for minor offenses with impunity. Miles Davis was clubbed with a nightstick outside Birdland after one of his sets. He was photographed leaving jail the next day with a bandaged head wound and a blood-splattered jacket. He was the essence of cool, and we were in awe. The lurid stories of his and others' drug use enhanced the gritty existential mystique that actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando were projecting for white America in the movies. Brando and Ava Gardner studied Davis at Birdland the way Norman Mailer and Jean-Paul Sartre absorbed the noir atmospherics of exotic expatriates like Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon when they performed at the Blue Note and Club Saint-Germain, in Paris.

By the time of my encounter with Rollins in 1960, "our thing" was all over the city, but when Rollins was coming of age, there was 52nd Street, the cluster of clubs that thrived in the Forties, and Harlem. If "The Street" was the jewelry showcase, Harlem was the mine that supplied it.

"Harlem was my conservatory," Rollins told me one day not long ago as we sat in his music studio, miles and light-years from all that, in the farm country of Germantown, New York, near Rhinebeck, where he has lived for twenty-six years. Rollins's hair is thinning and turning snowy, like his beard, but his eyes are clear and their gaze is penetrating. With broad shoulders and stone-cut features, he is a muscular six foot two, thicker in the trunk and just as imposing as he was forty-three years ago, when a critic called him the Colossus of the saxophone. He has the bearing and gravitas of a Cushite king, even if the tunic, woolen scarf, and cap (it was a chilly afternoon) added a touch of mujahideen. I was struck by his gentility though I sensed he was not a man to be trifled with.

"Music, our music, was everywhere," he said in a voice of raspy sonority. "You could hear it from the best players of every style. Kenny Drew and I used to go down to the Apollo to see Tiny Bradshaw and Louis Jordan. Duke Ellington lived around the corner from me." So did the singer and actress Ethel Waters; Ellington's principal composer, Billy Strayhorn; the pianist Teddy Wilson; and the Renaissance poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. So did the premier jazz tenorist of all time, Coleman Hawkins. His definitive recording of "Body and Soul" was (and still is) the cross that every jazz saxophonist has sooner or later to take up. If he was not Rollins's first hero, he probably had more to do with shaping the young Rollins than anybody else.

Rollins's mother, Valborg Rollins, a domestic who came to New York from St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, bought him his first saxophone when he was thirteen. (His father, Walter William, came from St. Croix, and was a career Navy sailor who helped to support his family but was rarely at home.)

In the Rollins household learning an instrument was one thing, playing jazz was another. Many middle-class blacks were fearful of what they saw as the social stigma of the music. "All West Indian parents wanted children who could entertain by playing something at teatime on Sundays," Gloria Anderson, Rollins's older sister, says, "but no one wanted them to think of becoming a jazz musician." Rollins's older brother, Val, was studying classical violin, but on his way to medical school. Once it was clear where Sonny was headed, he became, in Anderson's words, "the black sheep of the family." (Anderson wasn't overjoyed when, years later, her own son, Clifton, decided to follow in Uncle Sonny's rather than Uncle Val's footsteps. Clifton has played the trombone with his uncle for fourteen years.) Still, his mother paid for the twenty-five-cent lessons at the New York Academy of Music. Rollins was grateful, but says, "Twenty-five cents didn't get very much. I consider myself largely self-taught, but not well enough." A nagging sense of deficiency, Rollins says, is one of the things that drive him even now. "I've always tried to push myself to make up for it."

His first band was composed of kids from the environs of Sugar Hill -- in Rollins's time the city's most prestigious black enclave, which overlooked the Polo Grounds and the central plain of Harlem. There was a wealth of talent to draw on. Andy Kirk Jr., the son of the bandleader and a promising saxophonist who would die young, was already making a name for himself. Jackie McLean, the founder of the Hartford Artists Collective, is a passionate altoist famous for an exquisitely dissonant pitch and a raw tone and gusto reminiscent of Charlie Parker's. He was one of the band's early members, and takes credit for introducing Rollins to the airy nonchalance of the tenor legend Lester Young.

Other alums include the pianists Kenny Drew and Walter Davis Jr., the drummer Art Taylor, and the bassist Percy Heath, a onetime Air Force fighter pilot who became the rhythmic mainstay of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The periodic presence of the piano wizard Bud Powell, who also lived in the neighborhood, set a standard for polish and authority. Davis and the percussionists Max Roach and Art Blakey would come up to hang out and also played with the band in local clubs -- the 845 Club, Bowman's Lounge, the Celebrity Club, the Audubon, the Savoy, and Minton's Playhouse, Harlem's always-happening hot spot whose manager, the saxophonist and ex-bandleader Teddy Hill, presented a bottle of whiskey whenever Billie Holiday, Lester Young, or other notables took a table.

"They called them the Sugar Hill Gang," says Johnny "Little Dynamo" Griffin, the hard-driving Chicago-born saxophonist, who lives abroad but still tours the States. "They all had a respect for the masters, and they were -- how can we say it for print?" He pauses and then whispers, "Bad motherfuckers! They could all play." They were the progeny of the passing bebop era, the young vanguard of what would be called the modern-jazz movement. With a prizefighter's swagger in his sound, Rollins commanded attention. One of the most important musicians to take note was Monk, who quickly cultivated a collaboration.

Rollins says Monk was his guru. Musically they were soul mates. According to Steve Lacy, the Paris-based soprano player, Monk once said that Rollins was the best interpreter of his music. If the New York of the 1950s were to have a title track, my choice would be "Pannonica," Monk's tribute to his patron the Baroness "Nica" de Koenigswarter, on Brilliant Corners (1956), with the big, lush tone of Rollins's horn set off against the spare crystal tinkling of Monk's celesta.

Since the days at Jake Koven's I had wanted to ask Rollins what he learned from Monk. He answered me in a word: "Everything." What was it that Monk taught him? "Nothing." And so it was with Bud, Fats, Bird, Miles, and Dizzy. Rollins explained: "You were asked to come back or you weren't. If you were playing a gig and weren't cutting it, they might leave you alone on the bandstand."

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