I first met Sonny Rollins when I interviewed him for a cover story in 1978 for that other jazz magazine. I took the train up from Manhattan to his upstate New York home. Lucille, his late wife, picked me up at the train station. We had a spirited conversation in the car, en route to their simple, secluded home. As I walked up the stairs to that house, unchanged since that fall day, Sonny came out to greet me. He looked about ten feet tall.
I’d been listening to his music since I was a teenager, and had seen him live several times. But we’d never met. One of my friends, the late Walter Bishop, Jr., grew up in Harlem with Sonny, so we had a connection of sorts. Bish and Jackie McLean and Art Taylor and Sonny were young beboppers when Minton’s Place was happening in the mid-’40s.
The interview, a forecast of further endeavors, was difficult. After each question, Sonny seemed to meditate for about five minutes. Sensing I was in the presence of a rather thoughtful fellow, I left a lot of space after the answers, in case there was more to follow. And there usually was.
After the interview, he took me out to his woodshed, and so began a friendship that endures to this day.
We’ve done several interviews over the years, but I began working more closely with Sonny in 2005, producing his website, and shortly thereafter, when I returned to filmmaking, we began doing interviews on camera. Over the years, Sonny has become most comfortable with telephone interviews.
When I started using video, he was reticent, and still is. Two things he’s said to me: “What am I, Robert Taylor?” (a reference to the ’40s movie star), and “I don’t want to do any more interviews. I want to be the J.D. Salinger of jazz.”
But I persist, and from time to time, I manage to put Sonny on camera, albeit briefly.
Last year, in celebration of his 80th birthday, we did some retrospective interviews I put together as a series, “Sonny Speaks.” In this episode, “Gettin’ It Back Together,” Sonny discussed his Chicago days, in the mid-’50s, when he relocated temporarily to rehabilitate his health and his playing.