Sonny Rollins Soothes a World of Hurt

Like everything in else in lower Manhattan on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, the jazz world was affected too. Scores of artists and musicians who live near the disaster had to evacuate their homes, including Sonny Rollins, who lives seven blocks north of the World Trade Center.

Rollins’ apartment faces away from the Trade Center, and he couldn’t see the explosion. "I heard this plane driving very low, then I heard it dive bomb, like in a World War II movie, and pow!" Rollins says. Like others, he assumed it was an accident, so Rollins left his apartment to get some things at a nearby market.

Then the second plane hit; it was obviously no accident. When the first tower collapsed, Rollins was in front of his building; he soon saw people "running up toward where we were and it was a real madhouse. It was like a Godzilla movie where the people are running through the streets screaming."

He went back to his apartment and called his wife, Lucille, who was upstate, to let her know he was OK. Rollins dusted off his black-and-white TV, and switched it and his radio on.

Wondering what to do next, he waited. And waited. And waited.
H is power and phone went out at 5 p.m.

Rollins, soon in the dark save for a flashlight, spent the night in his apartment alone, as his extended neighborhood stumbled in shock from this modern day of infamy.

He awoke Wednesday morning to find that the electricity was still out. So Rollins did what any musician would do: he played. He sat in his home and practiced for two hours, trying to ignore the foul fumes and cloudy air that gradually invaded his apartment and his lungs.

Later that day the National Guard evacuated Rollins’ building. He grabbed his horn, a briefcase and a shopping bag of clothes, music and reeds, and "four of us made the 39-story flight down [the stairs]…in the dark. As we got around the fifth floor, the smoke began getting strong."

They were evacuating people from the neighborhood by bus, but Rollins was woozy from the smoke and stairs. "When I finally got the wherewithal to get to the bus, they were closing it; it was filled. I was sort of paranoid; I thought the guy was just not letting me on. So I just sat down there by the curb, waiting, and it was complete bedlam.

"I saw three old ladies, and one of them had a walker, and they had the masks, and they were waiting for the bus; sitting there very calmly in the midst of all this bedlam. When I saw them, I really felt sorry for them. I also said, ‘Well, if they can sit here and be OK, then I’m not going to pass out either.’ They gave me strength, made me not feel sorry for myself."

Rollins finally caught a bus, and was transported to shelter. From there Rollins was able to call a worried Lucille and arrange for a ride to Boston, where he was scheduled to play later in the week.

He played that gig. For those Bostonians—and Rollins—it was three hours of respite from a world of hurt.

Originally published in November 2001

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