September 2007 By Nat Hentoff
Having known jazz musicians off the stand from my teens on, I was struck—contrasting with most of the adults I knew—by their dedication to their life’s work. Louis Armstrong, for example, distilled how he and the music were one in an interview long ago with Gil Millstein of the New York Times. Armstrong said, “When I pick up my horn, that’s all. The world’s behind me. I don’t feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. That’s my living and my life. I love them notes. That’s why I try to make them right. Any part of the day, you’re liable to see me doing something toward playing that night. You got to live with that horn.”
I thought about that essence of the jazz calling when I heard a penetrating interview with Sonny Rollins on National Public Radio on April 28. It was by Howard Mandel, the seemingly tireless engine behind the Jazz Journalists Association and a valuable historian of the music. His conversation with Sonny ought to be anthologized (it can be downloaded at npr.org).
Briefly included in the profile was Joanne Brackeen, whose own passion for the jazz life so powers her own intensely personal musical language that her insufficient recognition is inexplicable to me. Said Brackeen of Sonny, “He’s got a sound that is him. You hear just a couple of seconds and you know who that is. Not only who he is but kind of how he is.”
As Armstrong said of how music filled his days before he got on the bandstand, Sonny told Mandel: “If I’m doing a song, I practice it, I learn it. I learn the lyrics. I learn everything possible there is to learn about the physical piece of the composition or whatever it is I’m going after.”
But that preparation is only prologue to the surge of spontaneity that makes the jazz life so worthwhile. Once Sonny is on the bandstand or on a concert stage, he continued, “I don’t want to think about [all that]. I let the music play me. When I’m playing completely spontaneous, just something comes out of nowhere; that’s my best work.”
I got a glimpse of what that feels like—just a glimpse, because I’m far from Sonny’s league as an improviser—when I wrote fiction: novels for young readers (including Jazz Country, still being read in some classes), novels about homicide detectives (Blues for Charlie Darwin), and other fiction.
I’d do research, work out plots, but suddenly—when the writing started—the characters took over. I heard them speak. It was exciting, somehow starting a new world of surprises. But I never could do anything like that on the clarinet.
In the interview, Sonny went on to put into words why jazz musicians in their 80s and beyond never stop. “We’re about creation, thinking things out at the moment, like life is,” he said. “Life changes every minute. I mean, a different sunset every night. I mean, that’s what jazz is about.”
Or, as John Coltrane told me, “The music is the whole question of life itself.” And Charles Mingus: “I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time. But I’m going to keep on getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.”
As for Sonny—keenly aware that jazz has to go beyond what he calls the “corporate culture” of past distribution of recordings—he has, as Mandel notes, “launched his own Web site with MP3s from his current album and video podcasts.”
On sonnyrollins.com, Mandel continues, “You can see Mikayla Gilbreath, a 13-year-old saxophonist from Tempe, Arizona.” On one of the podcasts, Gilbreath, who first heard Sonny’s music in her grade school (I’d like to know the name of the teacher), is seen meeting Sonny backstage.
And she tells how she became committed to the jazz life. “I joined the [school] jazz band and we would, every Friday, listen to jazz music, just classic jazz,” she says. “I heard Sonny Rollins, and I just loved it. I loved the way it sounded and I just—I wanted to play jazz instead of just music.”
Mandel asked her if there was anything odd about having been “drawn to the music of someone whose background is so different from hers.”
The same question could be asked of Sonny’s admirers in Japan, Siberia, Iceland—all over the world. Wisely, the 13-year-old answered, “You know, I really don’t think it matters. It’s the music that kind of brought us together. It wasn’t the fact that I was white and he was black, or that he was old and I was young. It was just—it was the music that we both loved.”
Years ago, when rock music was exploding, I was gloomily telling Teddy Wilson that when I was in my teens, I knew that there was a nucleus, however small, of other kids my age who were beginning to go deeply into jazz, no matter what was being played on the radio. But I see no sign, I told Teddy, that a hard core of lifelong jazz listeners is going to emerge from this new generation (this was at the time of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, et al.).
“Something in music got to them,” Teddy said, “and in time, some of them will want more from music than rock, something more meaningful to them personally than what everybody else is listening to.”
He was right. And from what I hear going on around the country, there are more and more Mikayla Gilbreaths, kids whose own lives began to be enlarged when they heard someone like Sonny Rollins. Of course, there’s no one like Sonny Rollins, and that’s the point. Each listener he reaches connects in his or her own way, and wants more.
Originally published in September 2007