Q&A: With Sonny Rollins, Living Legend Of Jazz


https://i0.wp.com/www.phawker.com/wp-content/uploads/BuskirkByline_REV.jpg?w=790BY DAN BUSKIRK It seems slightly improbable that Sonny Rollins would be around making music in the year of 2009.  Not that there aren’t other musicians around at the age of 79, it’s just that all of the jazz men of Rollins’ elevated stature have long ago passed away, most of them decades ago.  Rollins exploded on the New York jazz scene straight out of high school and by the early fifties his dazzling intelligence and sheer athleticism on the tenor sax left many to dub him as “The New Bird” in tribute to bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

Rollins played with all the giants of his time, Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus and more and has maintained his festival headliner status for fifties years now. His recordings come out sporadically these days (his latest, ROAD SHOWS VOL. ONE captured last years’ DownBeat award for “Jazz Album of the Year”) but Rollins has always been a creature of the stage, where his husky, wailing tone continues to leave audiences shaking their heads in disbelief.

The jazz world isn’t always kind to players whose energies are on the wane, so it is a testament to Rollins’ stamina that he still commands the big rooms like the Kimmel Center, where Sonny will dislodge the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring his seven-piece group (featuring his long-time bassist Bob Cranshaw) to the stagetonight. I talked to Rollins in mid-September.  Expecting his personality to be as cocky and confident as his sax playing, I was caught off-guard by what a gentle and endlessly humble conversationalist he was.  He discussed growing up in Harlem, playing music with giants, practicing on theWilliamsburg Bridge and working with those “punkers” The Rolling Stones.

PHAWKER: Were your parents musicians?

SONNY ROLLINS: No, not really.  My father told me he played clarinet at one time but it must have been a long, long time ago and probably not for too long. They encouraged music in my family though; my older brother studied classical violin and my sister sang and played piano in the church so there was a musical atmosphere always around the house.

PHAWKER: And you did grow up in one of the artistic centers of the twentieth century, you grew up in Harlem right in New York City.

https://i0.wp.com/www.ricoreeds.com/upload/artists_sonny_rollins_10058.jpg?w=790SONNY ROLLINS: Exactly, I was born in Harlem and there was a lot of music there.  Ever since I was a baby in the crib I was listening and enjoying Fats Waller; he’s one of the first people I remember.  And we had one of these player pianos in the house, with the rolls, you’d put the rolls in the piano and you’d play this ragtime piano music and so I was right in the center, you know.  I sort of gleaned a lot of things just by being around Harlem, it was sort of the black capitol of the United States at that time and all of the artists, all of the great jazz people came through Harlem and I heard all of them. We used to go to the Apollo Theater every week, a new band would come in and we’d be there and hear them at least once, and if we liked them we’d be back more often. An so I consider myself very fortunate to be born right in the epicenter.

PHAWKER: There’s always been a sub-current of spiritual and political elements that have been underneath what you play and I’d heard your grandmother was an important part of your life, I wonder if you could tell us a little about her.

SONNY ROLLINS: Well my grandmother was an activist, she was part of the Marcus Garvey movement and she used to carry me with her.  She’d have me with her when we’d be marching up and down Lennox Ave for civil rights, for the right to sit at a lunch counter and all those things.  Even in New York, this was a problem.

PHAWKER: This must have been early on.

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, this was in the thirties, in the mid-thirties.

PHAWKER: I heard you were a follower of Paul Robeson as well; what affected you about him?

SONNY ROLLINS: Paul Robeson was my hero. I thought he just had such a tremendous charisma, and his great https://i0.wp.com/blacktown.net/Marcus_Garvey.gif?w=790voice.  I loved his singing. My sister was very much interested in singing, she used to have these Paul Robeson records; “Ballad For Americans”, “The House We Live In” and all these great musical and political songs.  Paul Robeson was an ambassador, he went to all over Europe and everybody loved him, so he was something to be admired, as something like myself. I go around the world and I’m received very well by people of all colors and backgrounds and everything and I saw Paul doing that in his career. I remember one time he was in Ireland, singing for some of the Irish coal workers who were being mistreated; you know, the same old, I sort of took him as one of my real heroes   He was a strong personality.

Of course at the end of his life he got involved with the Communist party, I think out of disillusionment over what was happening here in his native country. And then we all found out that the Russians were no better than some of the people that had been oppressing him over here. But this is life; at any rate he was a great role model for growing up, a very well-respected, respectable person at that time.

PHAWKER:You started the saxophone at age eleven?

SONNY ROLLINS: It was earlier, I think it was around seven. Alto, alto sax.

PHAWKER: Was it something that you knew immediately you had a connection with?

SONNY ROLLINS: As I said, I heard people like Fats Waller who turned me on to the greatness of jazz music, you know, what a tremendous force jazz music was, and sort of a joyful thing. My uncle’s girlfriend was from Georgia, she had a lot of blues records, these old blues singers with guitar: Lonnie Johnson, Arthur Crudup and Tommy McLennan. And she also had these records from Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five, and when I heard that I said, “Wow, that’s it”. At the same time I heard that (this is around seven) I was going to elementary school and right across the street was a nightclub called The Elks Rendezvous and Louis Jordan was playing there. So I used to see Louis Jordan’s picture in the front of the club there, and boy, then that did it: I wanted to be him.   He was sharp, he had a cutaway tuxedo, a gleaming King alto saxophone. Then I was listening to all his records, “Outskirts of Town”, “Five Guys Named Moe”, I mean everything.  I was a really big Louis Jordan fan so I wanted to play saxophone.

PHAWKER: He was a very exciting player; another player that is connected with you is Coleman Hawkins, you must’ve been inspired hearing “Body and Soul”?

SONNY ROLLINS: Exactly; precisely. When I heard “Body & Soul” a light went off in my head.  I said it’s not as earthy as Louis Jordan, but its got an intellectual quality, something happening…this guy’s playing all this technical stuff on the saxophone. It was amazing that record “Body & Soul”, it was ubiquitous in Harlem, all over the jukeboxes in clubs, you could hear it all over Harlem.  Every jukebox had “Body & Soul” and it was really tremendous. Something about that “Body & Soul”; I remember Thelonious Monk asked Coleman Hawkins, he said “Coleman, how come you can play a record with no lyrics and you didn’t really play the melody and yet it became a big hit?” I said, “Wow, that’s a great question”. because that’s what he did, he played “Body & Soul”, extrapolations on the melody, very very advanced harmonic things which are still relevant today in music.  And he didn’t play the lyrics of course, it was just instrumental and it became a huge hit.  And not only a hit among the people, it became a benchmark for saxophonists, it became something all saxophonists had to try to learn.  The whole “Body & Soul” phenomenon was really something at nine years old.  That got my attention right away.

https://i0.wp.com/www.archives.gov/education/lessons/robeson/images/alston-drawing.jpg?resize=300%2C300PHAWKER: I wonder if you heard back in the forties, Hawkins recorded one of the first unaccompanied saxophone pieces “Picasso”? It seems like that could’ve been an influential one for you since you yourself recorded so much unaccompanied saxophone.

SONNY ROLLINS: Yes yes sure, he was a big influence on me. I don’t know if I was as successful as he was with his but it certainly gave me the guts to try something like that.

PHAWKER: What are the special challenges of playing accompanied saxophone?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, it’s tremendous, because not only do you have to accompany yourself, you have to carry a narrative without any harmonic background. You have to really be a person who can really hear the melody, the harmony, all of these things in your mind while you’re playing.  Now I think I have the ability to do that, in fact I’ve made a lot of recordings with just bass and drums, and to do that you have to have the melody and harmony in your mind while you improvise. So that aspect of it I do have so I was able to successfully graft that from Hawkins legacy, that large legacy he left us.

PHAWKER: By your late teens you were a working saxophonist, were you not?

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, I was working when I got out of high school.

PHAWKER:Did you know Thelonious Monk in high school?

SONNY ROLLINS: In a sense I did, because one of my trumpet playing friends, we had a little band together.  He got a job with Thelonious Monk and he left school for one week and went to Chicago as the trumpet player in Thelonious Monk’s band.   I think I had played someplace and Thelonious Monk had heard me play somewhere in Harlem, we weren’t playing together but he heard me when I was eighteen.

PHAWKER: Was Monk older then you?

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, he was thirteen years older than me, an elder statesman, definitely. Anyway he got my friend and he went with him and then my friend came back and said, “Sonny, I’m gonna get you into Thelonious Monk’s band, we’re going to get this other guy out”.  So we conspired to get me in Thelonious Monk’s band. This is how these machinations work when you’re trying to get next to great talent in the music business. So anyway, I went down there and I eventually got in the band.

PHAWKER: What were your impressions of Monk at the time?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well I always liked Monk because I had heard Monk with the afore mentioned Coleman http://musicselections.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/thelonious-monk-the-unique-thelon-357284.jpg?resize=300%2C300Hawkins. That’s when I first heard Monk. There was a record called “Flying Hawk” and Monk was the piano player with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. So when I heard that I said, “wow, this guy sounds different, you know he sounds good, he sounds interesting.”  This is not the same kind of stuff everyone else is playing.  So I was a fan of Monk’s the first time I heard him. I liked him.

SONNY ROLLINS: Yes, his chord structures, his ideas, everything was not what everyone else was doing. You know this is what made Monk unique, he had his own thing going really. And although he could play stride piano on some of the records, you’ve heard his ballads that’s he playing by himself, he could play stride which is from the earlier era.  But no, he had something really unique.  He was a different guy.

PHAWKER:: It wasn’t long after that era that you were really walking among giants.  Looking at your first record as a bandleader in 1951, the group is just stunning, its Miles Davis with Kenny Drew on piano, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey on drums, and Percy Heath on bass.  Were you aware of the heavy company you were keeping at that point?

SONNY ROLLINS: I was a sincere musician from the beginning, I was very conscientious, I was practicing twenty hours a day, and that is almost literal. So when I began to attract attention from the older musicians in the community I did not believe I was out-of-place at all, I melded right in to that position. I don’t mean to sound like I’m self-aggrandizing, or “well, I must be great”…

PHAWKER: It’s unmistakable, the evidence is on the recording, it shows that you fit right in with the company.

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, I fit right in with those guys and I didn’t feel that I was not in my element. Maybe I was young and stupid a little too. That might be involved, I was young and fearless.

PHAWKER: You played with another legendary band of that era, the Max Roach/Clifford Brown group. Can you tell me about this group, it seems like no one has a bad word to say about Clifford Brown…

SONNY ROLLINS: Oh, Clifford Brown was an angel.  (Repeated for emphasis) Clifford Brown was an angel.  I mean he was a great, great, great trumpet player, he was just a guy who had a great sound and a joy in his playing.  He was just outstanding.  And as a person, he was a humble person. My experience with Clifford Brown came at a time when I was trying to find my way through life in certain respects.  When I saw what a humble person Clifford Brown was, and playing so great, it sort of had a very good effect of me, it helped me get my own head together. It was a great experience playing with Clifford.

I’m so blessed, unbelievably, when I look back at my own career, all these people, like you said, these giants that I’ve been involved with.  I must have done something right in my last life to be picked to live this life.

http://babylonoise.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/walljohncoltrane1960.jpg?resize=300%2C300PHAWKER: There’s a couple names I wanted to run past you.  Being in Philadelphia John Coltrane’s legacy is still large, I know you were friendly with him and recorded with him once as well.

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, we recorded together. Of course John’s legacy is as wide as the planet. I first played with John with Miles Davis’ group, we were both playing saxophone with Mile’s group, and that was when I first met him.  That was back in the late forties, ’48 or ’49.

PHAWKER: That was back before Coltrane had made much of a name for himself.

SONNY ROLLINS: Right. I mean among musicians we all knew that he was an exceptional, gifted individual, everybody that was in music knew that. It took him while to get his own self together, after he left Miles then he really left his legacy but he was great even before that.

PHAWKER: You played with another Philadelphian who kept a public profile here for years, I was curious what you could tell me about Rufus Harley, the jazz bagpiper.  You made a record with him called “The Cutting Edge”. I interviewed him a few years back and he spoke very highly of his time playing with your band.

SONNY ROLLINS: Rufus was great, I loved Rufus’ playing and he was a very sincere, beautiful spirit. I took Rufus to Europe with me and of course he was a sensation in England, with the Scottish bagpipe tradition over there. And I also had Rufus with me at a very memorable concert I did in Town Hall, where I had Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Rufus Harley. It was quite a line-up.

PHAWKER: You have mentioned that you went through an unhealthy state in the fifties. I know there was some drug use and you have mentioned one of the things that brought you out of that was a conversation you had with Charlie Parker.

SONNY ROLLINS: Like many other young saxophone players in the forties, once we knew Charlie Parker was using drugs we thought, “Wow, then drugs must be okay, if Charlie Parker does it and we want to be like Charlie Parker than we better use drugs too.”

So we started using drugs, a lot of us and I was one of them. It was at a record session I did with Charlie Parker https://i0.wp.com/www.oderecords.co.nz/attachments/aja5566.jpg?resize=300%2C300actually. I had told Charlie Parker that I wasn’t using anymore, because at that time people knew I was sort of off the deep end.  So I had told Charlie Parker I wasn’t using and boy, he was really happy. But then someone at the record session ratted on me and said, “Hey man, he’s still using!”. And when I saw the depressed look on Charlie Parker’s face about my plight, since I loved Charlie Parker – we all loved Charlie Parker – I realized that hey, I’m not gonna kill this guy, I’m going to actually get his message.  So I went away and ended up in the rehabilitation place.out in Lexington, Kentucky, sort of the precursor to the Betty Ford clinic.  So I went there and took the cure, we had to stay there four-and-a-half months or something like that.  And then I came out and boy, I was really going to show Charlie Parker, hey man I got your message.  And what happened unfortunately is that Charlie Parker left the planet before I could get out. I was subject to get out in a month or so and Charlie Parker got out of here.  So anyway, I didn’t give up my pledge to him, and I was able to get together and kick the habit as they used to say. And that was back in 1955.

PHAWKER: In 1959 you took a sabbatical and took time off.  It’s one of the legendary New York stories, at the height of your career you dropped out and began practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge.

SONNY ROLLINS: I went on the bridge in 1959 and stayed there until 1961, and then I came back.

PHAWKER: What did you learn in that period?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, you know I was playing with Elvin (Jones) I was playing a lot of jobs and getting a lot of notoriety. People were saying, “Oh boy, listen to Sonny Rollins, he’s the new Charlie Parker” and all this stuff.  Anyway, I wasn’t quite convinced of all the hoopla and I needed to study some more things I wanted to do so I figured the only way to it was to completely get away from the music scene, just go off someplace, to go “in the woodshed” as we used to say.  That means just go in there and practice and get what you’re trying to get together by yourself.   So that what I did. My woodshed ended up being the Williamburg Bridge down there where I lived in Lower Manhattan.  But that was the motivation.

PHAWKER: It has become one of those iconic New York stories, about the possibility of discovering greatness right underneath your nose while living among all the dynamic personalities in Manhattan.

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, it has become sort of, how did you describe it?  An iconic story.

PHAWKER: You came back in 1962 with a major record “The Bridge” which started your relationship with bassist Bob Cranshaw, who you’ve recorded with thru five decades now. I wonder what you could tell me about him as a player and what about him connects him to you?

https://i0.wp.com/img2.allposters.com/images/ACTPOD/PRCD-7029-2.jpg?resize=300%2C300SONNY ROLLINS: I first heard Bob Cranshaw on tour with Playboy magazines jazz festival in the fifties.  They began having these jazz festivals in the fifties; I had done a tour with my trio and Dave Brubeck’s band and the Four Freshman and Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. Anyway, so our tour was completed in Chicago and for some reason my bass player wasn’t there for the last job so we said hey, let’s get somebody from town. So Bob Cranshaw is an Evanston guy, a Chicago guy, so we got him and he came by and we rehearsed for a couple of minutes and I realized that he had the ears, the conception, and he followed me into some harmonic progressions that were crucial to what we were doing and I said to myself “Wow, I wish I could get this guy to play with me”. And actually I told him then, “Look, I’m going to retire for a while, but when I come back I want you to join my band,” and that’s what happened.  Bob has been with me off-and-on for all these years. He’s plays a lot with everybody but he has played with me for a lot of that time.

PHAWKER: After that period you took another spiritual retreat as well and went to India. I was wondering what you could tell me about that time.

SONNY ROLLINS: We spoke about John Coltrane a few minutes ago. John Coltrane was a very spiritual person and I began being interested in these pursuits, and trying to find a way to live in this world that is so antagonistic to musicians. So I began reading and we used to exchange books, this was in the fifties. I began reading of many of these disciplines, Sufism and yoga, Rosicrucianism; all these things I was interested in trying to find out if there’s really a way to survive as a musician.  Because if you know musicians they have beautiful thing to give to the world yet they live wretched lives, so we were both trying to find a way to obviate that. At any rate, I was studying yoga at that time and I had been a devotee of a fellow called Paramahansa Yogananda.  He wrote a very spiritual book called “Autobiography of a Yogi,” a very popular book at that time.  Anyway, I decided, okay I’ll go to India just to find out if could gain any knowledge. So I did make a trip to India, in 1967 I believe. I stayed there about four plus months and I actually gathered a lot of knowledge.  I really had a fantastic trip. I learned a lot, got a lot of things straight in my mind so it was a fruitful period.


PHAWKER: I heard your wife was an influence on one of your best known moments in music.  She was a Rolling Stones fan when they were looking to record some sax for one of their records, “Waiting For A Friend”.


SONNY ROLLINS: That’s due to her.  The word got out that the Rolling Stones wanted Sonny Rollins to do a record with them.   I wasn’t that into doing records with other people, I mean I had my own thing going, so I wasn’t really thinking about it.


PHAWKER: Had you heard of them?


SONNY ROLLINS: I heard of them, but I wasn’t really familiar; I knew they were one of these English bands that played the blues, sort of punkers or something of that sort.  But I never really heard them play or anything.

PHAWKER: What did you think about crafting something for a very different musical project?


SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I thought it was a challenge which I accepted after her insistence.  I said well, it’s going to be a challenge to see if my playing – Sonny Rollins – with my background, where I came from, my whole musical thing that I was doing; can that work with the Rolling Stones?

So that’s how I went into it.


PHAWKER: It’s very memorable. For me, that was the song that first brought your tone to my ear. Later, when I was really ready to listen to your music, your tone was very familiar just from that single.  It was very memorable.

SONNY ROLLINS: Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way before. Actually I’m glad I did it, it was sort of a crossover move and it showed that music is music and at least it showed that I could play with anything, which is something I always felt.  I like all kinds of music, but the fact that I could relate to a British rock band was gratifying and showed me that, hey I was right, music is universal.


PHAWKER: I been curious what your personal health regiment. It’s very rare to find saxophone players at your age that are still playing with that sort of strength, stamina and power.


SONNY ROLLINS: Well, back in the mid-fifties, I not only began studying these Eastern philosophies and everything like that, I also began trying to find ways how to live a good life, eat right, exercise, keep my body strong, because I had a history prior to that of messing up my body. So during the fifties I really started out trying to do that and actually I guess it must have some good effect.  I eat a certain way….


PHAWKER: What does Sonny Rollins have for dinner, if that’s not to personal a question….


SONNY ROLLINS: (Laughing) No, not at all, its not personal at all.  The diet that I eat I wish everybody would eat, it would be better for the planet, but that’s personal.   Number one, I don’t eat any meat, I eat very, very little chicken on occasion, I eat mainly fish as a protein.  I eat vegetables, I eat lots of fruit; if a day goes by and I don’t have some kind of fruit, my body feels funny.  You know fruit is a very cleansing thing, I mean it’s delicious but it also cleans your body. So that’s my diet; I eat nuts and rice cakes.


PHAWKER: Do you keep physically active as well?


SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, I used to lift weights and I still do Yoga. I stopped lifting weights after a while but I’m going to get back into it.  I was just talking to my doctor and he gave me the thumbs up, so I’m going to get back into a little more physical regiment.  I’ve been into that for most of my life; from the fifties at least.


The great Lionel Hampton, when he was sort of infirm and in a wheelchair and his band was performing they had to wheel Lionel Hampton to the bandstand.  But once they put him on the drums or the piano or the vibraphone he would be like he was fifteen years old.  So there is some of that in part of my make-up also.  Once I start playing the guys have to tell me, “Gee Sonny, we’ve been playing three hours I think it’s time…”. Besides trying to stay healthy, I think I have a little bit of that other stuff, whatever that is, that makes you just forget everything and want to play.

PHAWKER: Thanks so much Mr. Rollins…


SONNY ROLLINS: Sonny!  “Mr. Rollins” was my father!


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