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."

"That's the way things went in those days," Percy Heath says, remembering the Darwinian rigors that only the fittest survived. "When the 'demon' [a guy who couldn't play] showed up, they raised the pitch a half step, and usually that was that. He'd get the message and move on."

Rollins's old friend Jackie McLean remembers musical encounters with Rollins that were sometimes brutal. "He and Miles gave me many a cruel lesson on the bandstand," he says. "In those days it was all about predators and their prey. And Sonny was the biggest predator of them all." Gil Coggins, a once-promising pianist who recorded with Rollins and Davis, used to warn other players about going up against Rollins: "If he doesn't blow you away in the first few bars, it's just the wolf talkin' to you before he eats you up."

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

ROLLINS has no memory of having been competitive. He remembers instead moments of insecurity and having at times felt as if he were the prey.

"Sometimes when I played with Miles and Coltrane, John would be taking a solo and Miles would sidle up to me and whisper something into my ear about how good I was. A little later, when I was playing, I would notice Miles whispering in Trane's ear." The memory ignited a thundering laugh that filled the room.

What Rollins didn't laugh about was the unflattering comparisons some fans drew between him and Coltrane after Coltrane's ascendancy.

"John and I had been so close, musically and personally. What happened was that as the guys began to praise Trane, they put me down. I went through a period where I resented Trane. For a minute. I was later very ashamed of myself for that. I would have been more ashamed had I thought Trane knew it. I had to work on myself to get past the fickleness in those people and in myself. There I was, acting like an ordinary human being. I finally got around to facing these things. We were never competitors in the way prizefighters are. We had too much respect for the music for that kind of thing. To be ranked in such a way was demeaning, reducing us to a spectacle when we were both striving to reach higher levels. We inspired each other when we played together. The excitement of playing together was focused on making better music, not trumping each other. In those days we were fighting against the established tenor style, a style that was heavily white-boy. We were still the rebels in those days, the outsiders."

To me, the difference in their sounds matched the difference in their backgrounds. Rollins was a big-city hipster. Coltrane was raised in High Point, North Carolina. He was a gentle man offstage, soft-spoken when he spoke at all, as if he saved himself for the bandstand. You could hear the rural black South in his sound, echoes of a world-weary soul crying out in the night. But in other ways they were kindred spirits. Unlike their idol Charlie Parker, whose poetic brilliance burst forth full-blown, Coltrane and Rollins acquired their mastery through exhaustive practice regimens that were obsessive if not fanatical. Coltrane's boundless researches took him into Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. At the time of our encounter at Jake Koven's, Rollins told me about grappling with the high-register studies of Sigurd Rascher, the great classical saxophonist and the architect of Rollins's stairway into the stratosphere.

Rollins and Coltrane were unmatched in their worship of Parker, which led them nearly to self-destruction as they fell into some of the excesses of Parker's personal life.

"We used to get high on grass in a little park we called Goof Square," Rollins remembers. Soon they were experimenting with heroin. A former sideman and longtime friend says, "After the war the streets of Harlem were flooded with heroin. Musicians believed that the government gave the Mafia carte blanche to distribute narcotics in Harlem as a favor for Sicily's help against the Nazis. But the pressure to use came from the older guys we played with -- though not Hawk [Coleman Hawkins] or others of his generation. They preferred booze."

"I thought at first that it helped me focus on music," Rollins says, "but then I realized it was a trick bag. Soon I didn't even own a saxophone anymore. Guys I knew were crossing the street when they saw me coming. I was even stealing from my mother."

Rollins says the worst night of his life was one he spent in jail for carrying a handgun, something he was "too stupid" to refuse to do when he and some fellow addicts trekked downtown to steal or rob so that they could afford drugs. They were desperate and looked it. "The police stopped us as soon as we got off the subway. They found the gun and took me off to jail. Going through withdrawal I wigged out and they threw me into a straitjacket."

It was not his only trip to jail, and he was rarely without the company of fellow musicians. During one stint on Rikers Island he was commissioned by officials of the Protestant chapel to write music, and produced "Oleo," "Airegin," and "Doxy," jazz standards that wouldn't have been commissioned on the outside in those days.

The bottom for Rollins was 1955. He was "carrying the stick" -- homeless -- and living in the Chicago subway system. Somehow he managed to make his way to Kentucky, where he checked into the Public Service Hospital in Lexington. Four months later he was back in Chicago, clean, working as a janitor, and practicing again. Like Coltrane, Rollins became a penitent of sorts, incorporating the artist's solitary confrontation with self and complete immersion in music as if they were both the ends and the means of a devotional calling.

BOB Cranshaw, the veteran bassist, lived in Evanston, Illinois, in those days. He says, "Musicians knew who [Rollins] was and where he lived, and we would go by and listen to him practicing from the street." (Cranshaw would later meet up with Rollins in New York and join his band, which he has stayed with for the past forty years.) Max Roach knew Rollins from the Sugar Hill days, and asked him to sit in with him and the fabled trumpeter Clifford Brown. By the time they came to New York, the band had jelled into what was one of the hottest and hardest-swinging jazz quintets of the era. All were powerhouse players, and they were soon drawing crowds at New York's Basin Street, the album title for one of their great recordings.

Rollins had a special affinity for "Brownie," because he was clean, gifted, and humble. It was a devastating blow to him, and to Max Roach, when Brown was killed in 1956 in an automobile accident. Brown was twenty-five, two months younger than Rollins. After the shock of it passed, Rollins would begin one of his most productive periods, when he made some of his most important recordings. Dizzy Gillespie With Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, the second of two albums the three made for Verve in 1957, is a feat of blistering pyrotechnics. Jazz in 3/4 Time, also from 1957, and Freedom Suite, from a year later, both with Max Roach, have some of Rollins's best playing. Night at the Village Vanguard (1957) is a live recording of bare-bones instrumentation featuring different drum-and-bass combinations, the best of which, to my ears, was Elvin Jones and Wilbur Ware. Rollins helped out a troubled Coltrane around this time by inviting him to play on Tenor Madness, a definitive study of their contrasting styles.

Rollins was also having success performing and recording on the West Coast. On Way Out West (1957), the first of two records he made in California, he showed off his talent for making more from less by using the simplest tunes as foils for displaying his creativity and technical brilliance. "Wagon Wheels" and "I'm an Old Cowhand" were heretofore unheard of in the cool-jazz idiom. It was Rollins's idea to put himself on the album cover stone-faced in a ten-gallon hat, posed in a cactus-studded desert.

Steve Lacy, who used to live in New York and play with Monk, loved this side of Rollins. "He was a very funny character," Lacy says. "He went through many different phases and was always very critical of himself. He kept trying to change his sound, his image, even his haircut. He went into the cowboy thing and then he started a thing about the Native Americans, and that got divided into cowboys and Indians at the same time. He had a Mohawk haircut under the cowboy hat and he had everybody cracking up. But when he got up to play, nobody was laughing."

By 1958 Rollins was at the peak of his powers and reaping the rewards. He had an apartment on the Lower East Side, a new Cadillac (just like Coleman Hawkins), and, briefly, a wife, the actress and model Dawn Finney. But if the year began in triumph, it ended in sorrow. That November his mother died, sending him into an emotional tailspin. A year later, following his first European tour, he stopped performing. He was out of the public eye for almost two years, but the musicians knew where he was and what he was up to -- woodshedding. Coltrane would come by, and so would Jackie McLean. Monk would arrive, and, sometimes without exchanging a word, he and Rollins would start to play.

Rollins also took his practicing outside. Steve Lacy remembers marathon sessions on the pedestrian walk of the Williamsburg Bridge. "Sonny was my idol and the idol of most jazz players everywhere," Lacy says, "and I tried to follow in his footsteps until I realized that what he did on the tenor was too strong for me to emulate. On the bridge there was this din, a really high level of sound from boats and cars and subways and helicopters and airplanes. Sonny played into it. I couldn't hear myself but I could hear Sonny."

In 1961 Rollins came back to a music scene that was about to be turned on its head. Between rock-and-roll and television, nightclub jazz would all but dry up. "Our thing" was becoming the "new thing," also called free jazz. Coltrane, the altoist Ornette Coleman, the pianist Cecil Taylor, and the woodwind player Eric Dolphy were playing outside the harmonic structure, outside the rhythm, outside everything. Typical of him, Rollins took on avant-garde figures like Coleman's sideman the trumpeter Don Cherry. He made a fine but "out" recording of duets with Coleman Hawkins and the pianist Paul Bley, Sonny Meets Hawk (1963). Unlike Hawkins, many of the old guard who couldn't make the change were dropping from view.

Toward the end of the decade Rollins was exploring new spiritual territory. Coltrane, before his death, in 1967, had become drug-free and was exploring Christianity and Islam. Rollins was drawn to Eastern philosophical teachings. In 1968 he traveled to Japan to perform, and later studied Zen Buddhism. Then, taking his horn and little else, he spent four months in the Powaii Ashram in the Bombay suburbs, meditating on his life's mission and practicing hatha yoga. He came back to greet the seventies with floppy hats and a friendly smile, for many of us his most startling reinvention to date. His music was a lot more accessible too, taking on a new pop flavor that won him legions of young fans who had never heard of Bud Powell, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, or Thelonious Monk. His work for the next two decades left much of his original following behind and failed to draw the critical acclaim of his earlier years.

AS the nineties come to a close, however, Rollins seems to be pulling it all together. The last two times I heard him, last year in Boston, where he packed Jordan Hall with mostly college kids, and in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he drew older and younger fans, he seemed to be weaving together disparate threads of his long career. In Boston he delivered a volcanic outpouring of standards and originals, doubling and quadrupling meters during his solos, tossing up quotations from other songs in other keys like so many sparks. He gave an old-style crooner's treatment to "Skylark," bending the notes, making little motifs, and then exploding them in a vintage-Rollins torrent of cadenzas.

Unlike the bigger, rounder, unamplified sound of years gone by, Rollins's sound has a gruff, grainy texture, and the bell of his horn is miked, a common practice among musicians nowadays. He's using a softer reed than the stiff No. 4s that he used to prefer and that require intense pressure from the muscles in the lips and the jaw.

In part the new sound may be age-related, but it's also artistic exploration. "There are people who want to hear the way I sounded on Saxophone Colossus," he says, referring to a 1956 album that drew widespread critical acclaim. "You don't go back over the same ground and stay creative. What I want is a sound that's more earthy, more un-saxophonely. I don't want to sound like a sax."

His appearance at the Berkshire Performing Arts Theatre at the National Music Center, in Lenox, was a powerhouse "show" (his word) with a peppering of Caribbean themes which ended with kids dancing in the aisles. The context was a crossover, accessible, international sound, but Rollins's solos at its heart were pure jazz, high-octane and straight-ahead, recalling the golden age as few are left to do.

Today Rollins is once again the most highly regarded saxophonist in jazz. The Down Beat critics' poll for 1997 named him jazz artist of the year and tenor saxophonist of the year. He works only when he wants to, and only when the travel arrangements and accommodations are up to snuff. He seems to be at peace as much as Sonny Rollins can be at peace.

His privacy is protected by his personal manager, the former Lucille Pearson, to whom he's been married for more than thirty years. She is a genial woman with a lovely smile that belies a flinty eye for business. "I've heard that some music-industry people call me Mrs. No," she told me as she drove us on a circuitous route to their house which I couldn't have remembered had I attempted it on my own. The bed of gravel in the horseshoe driveway was thick and fresh-laid. The teal-blue paint on their small farmhouse looked new, and so did their cars. But there was nothing that spoke of great wealth or ostentation. There is a swimming pool, but Rollins has never been in it, according to Lucille.

"I've come to appreciate my solitude," Rollins said as we talked beside a fireplace made of stones the size of bread loaves. Without a fire it radiates a chill, a reminder of the spartan regimens on which Rollins thrives. "I still love the city, though more from a distance. I'm up around six A.M. and rarely on my feet after nine P.M. They're the same hours I used to keep, except they're reversed. I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't have hobbies, because music is everything for the remaining time I have on this earth."

"When I'm right and the band is right and the music is right," Rollins said, "I feel myself getting closer to the place where the sound is less polished and more aboriginal. That's what I'm striving for. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge once told a guy he could only reach a divine state in performance four or five times a year. That sounds about right for me.

"In India I renewed my commitment to music as my path. Protest is part of this. You can't have jazz without protest. Protest may be too narrow a word to apply to men like Basie, Ellington, and Hawkins. But by carrying themselves with pride, just by acting like men, the older musicians influenced younger guys like me. So did the Pullman porters, fighting for their dignity. We looked up to those guys and, when we were old enough, went a step further. It was a generational thing. The world was changing."

Even before his male role models there was Miriam Solomon, his grandmother, who took care of him while his mother worked. An activist in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, a back-to-Africa movement that swept Harlem in the 1920s, Grandmother Solomon took Sonny to the Abyssinian Baptist Church to hear the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell and his son the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The younger Powell would become a U.S. congressman, but both were fiery champions of militant civil-rights campaigns long before the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. Grandmother Solomon took Sonny to marches protesting hiring bias against black clerks in Harlem department stores. She took him to demonstrations against Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, on behalf of the Scottsboro boys, and in support of Paul Robeson, the baritone and social activist harassed and beleaguered during the anti-Communist fervor that began in the late 1930s. Years later Rollins's Freedom Suite, recorded in 1958, was inspired by the sit-ins in the South, just as Global Warming (Milestone), his most recent CD, is, in Rollins's words, "about how we're trashing the world."

"As for my spiritualism," he says, "it's more an amalgamation of my religious convictions, including my belief in reincarnation. I am trying to clean up my karma so that I can come back with the blessings of the Great Spirit."