“Newk”: The Real Sonny Rollins

Ed Hamilton’s archival interview with the legendary saxophonist

In 1972, Sonny Rollins was a much younger man at the age of 42 years and was in L.A. for two gigs after a 3 year performing hiatus: one at the new art museum and Shelly’s Mann-Hole to be followed by an appearance at the greatest Monterey Jazz Festival of its time. Newk as everyone called him because of his close likeness to Dodger pitcher Don Newcomb was on a Monterey greatest performer who’s who list that included Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Monk and some others. Now 82 years old and having won many awards including an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and The President’s Award and moving into new digs in Woodstock after 40 years in Germantown and living alone ---his wife Lucille passed away in 2004. It’s a different Newk who says he couldn’t take going up and down the stairs of the Germantown farmhouse built in 1880 and he’s not practicing many hous a day as in the old days. Now he’s practicing 2-3 hours daily. Yes, Newk has changed in 40 years---it’s now 2013. Let’s reflect back and reveal how the Real Sonny Rollins was in 1972.

Sonny performed at the opening of the the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)--Sonny and I talked and he agreed to give an interview before finishing his Shelly’s Manne-Hole gig and going on to the Monterey Jazz Festival.

That same night at midnight, my phone rang and my wife sleepily answered and handed me the phone saying ‘it’s Sonny Rollins.’ I said to myself, ‘Sonny Rollins is calling me to do an interview?’ Now I get the chance to meet the Real Sonny Rollins myself-up close and personal. He said he was at Gene Autry’s Continental Hotel on the Strip-12th Floor. I said to myself I bet “Newk” hadn’t called anyone directly unless it was Alfred Lion of Bluenote or Bob Theile of Impulse. Yet, the greatest saxophonist living---called me

Sonny had played a mini-concert on the steps of the newly opened Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA}. It was at Cal State LA earlier in the day when Nate Ware told me that Sonny was going to play. I eternally owe indebtedness to him because I wasn’t in sync and didn’t know Sonny was appearing and would have missed a once in a lifetime experience.

I immediately got to the Continental Hotel -12th Fl., room 527; knocked and Sonny opened the door, and said ”Come on in--would you like a Rice Cake?” I said, ‘all right’. (Freddie Hubbard had told me when they had roomed together that Sonny was into the health thing--- weights and nutritional foods.) My questions were already written down in my head, because I had heard Sonny was meticulous about interviewers organization or lack of and would cease the interview if your shit wasn't together. I was ready and immediately asked why had he disappeared? (Sonny had stopped performing for 3 years).

Sonny: I really didn’t disappear-I was out here in 1969 at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. (3 years back).

ED: What were you doing--- woodshedding?
Sonny: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking---a lot of things like that---looking at television like a fool.

ED: But all the while you’re doing these things, you were getting you brain and mind together.
Sonny: Gettting my mind together to play the music the way I wanted to play it. It all gets down to that.

ED: Are you going to go off in a vein of music you haven’t played before?
Sonny: That’s possible---there’s a natural sequence.

ED: What do you mean by that?
Sonny: A natural sequence. I’m not trying to play anything that I can’t feel. I got to be feeling it in some kind a way..

ED: A lot of critics have written that you’re a very sensitive musician and I’ve never been influenced by critics.
Sonny: I think I am. You have to be to be a musician. You have to be to really play music. I think you gotta be sensitive to be a musician---to really play music.

ED: How long have you been playing professionally?
Sonny: Well a long time. I just started playing. They said ‘look it that little boy playing the horn.’

ED: Where are you really from?
Sonny: Well you want to find out where Sonny Rollins is really from.---What’s Sonny Rollins really like---That’s what everybody really wants to know. The Real Sonny Rollins. Well Sonny Rollins is from Harlem, not St. Thomas. Harlem USA.

ED: You were born there---went to school there?
Sonny:Right! Everything..

ED. When did you leave Harlem to go play professionally?
Sonny: I began by going up to Montreal. You know. Up to Canada. Then I eventually branched out to other places---Philadelphia; parts of New Jersey; other neighboring states and finally I got as far as Chicago. You know. Yeah, that really was a beautiful experience.

ED: You made it as far as the Windy City. Who did you play with when you hit Chicago?
Sonny:Well, when I went to Chicago, I had an offer to join Woody Herman’s Band. Woody Herman had sent an offer to me to join the band. I was still in High School at the time. So after I got out of High School, I just went there. I just wanted to see it for myself and wanted to check it out. I had in the back of my mind the fact if I wanted to, I could have gone with him at that time. So I was free and easy which has always been the case of my whole life. I always had a lots of opportunities and jobs and things that people have given me, offered me, and wanted me to play. And it’s always been just a matter whether I myself want to do it and feel that is something I could really identify with and really offered right. So it’s always been a matter of that. So people have always given me these opportunities to work. So in my case, I have always had the opportunities to work after a certain point---you know. So that’s why sometimes I go away. And where is Sonny Rollins at? I’m trying to get it all together. You know--- not just one part of it. So I’m trying to get my mind-head together. Like everyone else is suppose to be doing. And so that you know I can play and do anything I want to do. And have the right mind-mental attitude towards what I am doing.

ED: in all the years of playng is there a certain group of guys that you’ve gigged with that you really enjoy playing with? Or when it comes to a gig, do you have in mind certain people you want to play with?
Sonny:Yeah--- Miles Davis, Bud Powell. And I could name other people that I got a chance to play with when I was also a teenager. And they always formed in my mind---some of the best people---You know.

ED: Do you think if it were possible, you and Miles could ever get togher and do a date?
Sonny: Well I don’t know. Anything is possible. You know.

ED: Like you were saying that there has always been work for you or something for you to do, and the main reason why you usually split is because you want to tighten up your game. Was it 1966 or ‘67 when you did the music for Alfie? And how did it come about?
Sonny : Well how that came about, I was in London playing an engagement---my first time in London, although I had been to Europe many times before. So I finally went over to London doing an engagement. It was the right time, I felt like going, I felt like playing music. It was quite an occasion for the people at the club they (Ronnie Scott) made it a very successful engagement. Making it very good for people around the business and everything. So the word of mouth got around--- everybody was coming down you know. And some of these producers came by ‘well let’s go see Sonny Rollins; he’s in town.’ Everybody was crowding down to see Sonny Rollins at this little club he was playing in Soho--- this little basement nightclub. And all these people were there--- all these society people came. Everybody was coming into Ronnie’s (Ronnie Scott’s). And that’s how the chap (producer) making the picture approached me to do the music for the film. And I told him well ok it’s alright, but I didn’t hear from him for quite a while. I had forgotten all about it and finally, then he called and so my old lady said yeah-go ahead. She kept pushing me to do it. So anyway, I did it like that and it turned out ok because it was a nice experience. And I really enjoyed it. So we finally did it.

ED: So if it were ever right again and the right person approached you with the right material, would you do it
Sonny: Yeah, I’d do it again. But I feel like this---my music is me. So that I am myself---I have to represent myself. Now if someone wants to make a picture, it’s got to mean something---it can’t just be. I’ve got to be involved with it more than just writing music for background music. It’s got to have more with something that has to do with me.

ED: Let’s go back. How did Alfie involve you? Did The guy (Michael Caine) that played Alfie in the film remind you of you in certain respects?
Sonny: Well, the people (producers) thought some how that a musician and many sort of all musicians were people like Alfie. In a sense that they would have a lot of women. Many musicians have a reputation for being like Alfie in a way--- if you saw the picture you saw how he was (with women).

ED: Yeah, I saw it. Alfie was a mother..
Sonny: Yeah---So they thought that I fit---that I would know enough about that type of going from women to women like that. I guess I had an idea they sort of felt that I could emphasize with Alfie. I thought they felt that strongly. Of course, which I can---a lot of people can.

ED: But they were trying to fit you in with Alfie, but that actually wasn’t you--- or was it?
Sonny: (pause) No I don’t think so.

ED:You said you really don’t want to take part in a pictiure unless there is something in it that you can identify with. So I was wondering, was it a matter of them forcing it on you saying we believe you are like this---like Alfie? Because you are a musician or was it something there that just reminded you of yourself?
Sonny: Well yes. There was something there which reminded me of myself also. And I kind of did that also
because it was the first picture. But the point is that now
if someone came to me with a picture, there would have to be something they would have to want me for. Which would have to be even more so than what i did with Alfie. Or they could get somone else to do it.

ED: What did you think about Oliver Nelson’s orchestration?:
Sonny: Oliver kept pretty close to my original charts, adding a little here and there and editing. But Alfie is basically the sound with all the musicians involved. Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Cleveland, Phil Woods, Danny Banks, Roger Kellaway, and Frankie Dunlop. Working with Oliver incidentally is enlightening. He’s not only thoroughly qualified musically, but personally, he is so easy to work with, that he got the best out of all of us.

(Alfie has recently been CD released and in Nat Hentoff’s original liners he says, “It seems to me that unlike most film scores, this will not fade into limbo after the picture has had its run. The reason is that although Sonny was faithful to the spirit and thematic patterns of the picture, he was always faithful to himself and therefore this music can and does stand on its own.”)

ED: Is music changing or has music changed to you as a musician? Or is it the same music played differently?
Sonny:Well if iI had to take one of those two, I’d take the second one that you said. It’s the same music played differently. You know i really don’t know what music is. It’s just a feeling that you get through certain notes which when placed in certain ways at certain times produces a certain feelings and other things. And how these notes are placed, what way and how they fall, is really a very mystical thing.

ED:Is there a new vein of music that you might be going into?
Sonny:Well I like to express myself more if God permits.

ED: You have a new album on Milestone Sonny Rollins Next Album for the first time in some years.
Sonny: it’s the first one in 4 or 5 years. There’s a lot of reasons why I haven’t recorded. It’s some bad business dealings with people-you know.

ED: Are there any plans for Sonny Rollins in the future as far as his music is concerned which will definitily affect the way he’ll play since you’re playing again?
Sonny: I plan on doing a lot of things if I am able to continue and work some more. I was just awarded a nice Guggenheim Grant to compose for the next year and I’m going to start composing some more. Something I haven’t done in a long time..

ED: I’m not familiar with the Guggenhim Grant.
Sonny:It’s a some kind of a foundation and they award grants to different people, and Charlie Mingus was a recepient and he recommended them for me. They always ask you to recommend someone else, so he recommended me and they asked me would I like to apply for a grant and I did. And then they said you’ve won a grant, and so on and so forth.

ED:Yes indeed---grants are always free money.
Sonny: Yeah, so I’m going to try to use that and do some composing. And when I go back to New york this time, get a nice studio and try to do some more composing.

ED: So you’re going to stay back in the Apple?
Sonny: Well I think so, but I may move up in the counttry just a little bit you know. But for the time being, I plan to be based in the area of New York, close.

ED: Right around that general vicinity?
Sonny: Yeah within reaching distance.

ED: Any idea when you’ll return to L.A.?
Sonny: Well, I’d like tot come back out here quite a lot on the other hand --I haven’t been out here for a few years, so I should try to come back the early part of next year .

ED: Have you ever had plans on teaching at any of the colleges? John Handy comes to mind; he’s teaching at San Francisco State University.
Sonny: Yeah I’ve been offered some things like this ---artists in residence. Some of these things are very nice and this type of work is very important. You have to have a certain mentality and certain temperament to be a good teacher ---and I don’t think I’m quite ready to start teaching yet. Although I have had many private students and colleagues and contemporaries and some that we practice together and a certain amount of teaching goes on. I ‘ve had actual students, but they are actually select people. But to actually teach in schools, I think it’s another kind of a mentality and approach that you have to have. I’m not sure that I would make such a good teacher. Although I hope to have individual people coming to me from time to time as they do. I’m not teaching, but still guys who are interested find their way to me. So they communicate in that way anyway.

ED: So when Sonny Rollins isn’t busily creating the thing he loves best, what is he doing? So what do you do to just enjoy or mess off?
Sonny: You know I walk my dog around---I have a big police dog. And you know, not too much of anything.

ED: Do you ever go out to clubs and listen to some music?
Sonny: At times I do---it’s very good for me when I’m getting ready to work and I do that as a part of work in a way. Allthough I enjoy it immensely when I go out and hear somebody play.

ED: So most probably since you’re going up to the Monterey Jazz Festival, you may take in some of the people up there.
Sonny: Yeah right. This will be a good chance to take in
some people and I’m sure there are going to be some good people up there.

ED: You are going to be in good company with Monk, MJQ, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Hendricks, Quincy Jones, Cal Tjader, John Hendricks, and Roberta Flack.
Sonny: Well I better be in shape---those are some great people.

In 2011, Sonny was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor by President Obama who said about Sonny , “Harlem in the 1930’s was a hotbed for jazz and it was heaven fo a young man with a big horn and bigger dreams, it was heaven...Duke and Coleman lived around the corner--Sonny learned melody and harmony from Thelonius Monk. So tonight we honor a real jazz master--Mr. Sonny Rollins.”

Sonny’s elation upon receiving the award from President Obama, ”I feel pretty good and very happy about getting the honor. It means a lot because America’s the country that created Jazz music, the music loved all over the world. And the US needs to export jazz and use it to help the image of America and we need it to make America a greater place.”

Sonny said about his new Woodstock home, “Now at my age, I needed a new abode without a second floor and steep stairs. In Germantown, I could see the Catskills, plenty of sky and and lots of stars at night here. I have many tall fir trees and a patch of sky and a little bit of moon-but that’s all right. What I like about my new house is that I can be left alone. I’m a very private person and I’m able to express that part of my life as a human being here.

Sonny once told Princess Nica Koenigswarter (patron to all the NY musicians) three wishes---money, the ability to do what I want to do on my horn, to have a closer affinity with nature. Living in Woodstock now gives and affords his wish for closeness to nature.

Hear his “Sonny On the Road 1&2) --people often wonder how he plays for so long--but in Sonny’s words, “It just means there’s something out there and I know I have to find it”; to hear Sonny Tell it--he’s just keeping things pure---”the worst thing in the world is to play by Rote..You have to play from the inside--- that’s real jazz.

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Ed Hamilton