m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

J U L Y  1 9 9 9

(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.

From the arhives:

"What Coltrane Wanted," by Edward Strickland (December 1987)
The legendary saxophonist forsook lyricism for the quest for ecstasy.

"Bird on Film," by Francis Davis (November 1988)
Charlie Parker gets lost in a fan's new movie.

Related link:

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
A site devoted to Coltrane's life and work, including a biography, a discography, recommended books and recordings, related links, and more.

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.

From the arhives:

"Melodic Trumpet," by Michael Ullman (December, 1985)
"Sometime in 1954, when he was twenty-four years old, the trumpeter Clifford Brown became one of the greatest jazz soloists." Tragically, two years later, Brown, the "clean-living, soft-spoken family man," was dead.

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."

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

George W. Goodman is a former reporter for The New York Times and a former assistant editor of Look and Ebony. He is at work on a book about jazz.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Sonny Rollins at Sixty-eight - 99.07 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 1; page 82-88.