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.