Joshua Redman: What an incredible honor this is for me to have a chance to speak with you today. You’re my biggest influence ever as a saxophonist.
Sonny Rollins: I’m very honored to hear you say that. Especially after I heard you last year. I really liked the show, I really liked your playing in [Kurt Rosenwinkel’s group].
JR: Thank you so, so much…. We have a tendency to view history, and especially jazz history, with this air of inevitability. Like, “I cannot imagine jazz history without Sonny Rollins. I can’t imagine the tenor saxophone or improvisation without Sonny Rollins.” Yet there was a point in time when you weren’t a jazz musician and you made a conscious choice to play jazz and to play the saxophone, and I’m interested in that time and that choice. What attracted you to the music, what made you want to play it? Do you feel like you could have gone in a different direction?
SR: I was born in Harlem at the time when Harlem was jumping with music, and I heard a lot of music when I was a kid. I always remember Fats Waller singing “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”—that was one of his big hits; I used to hear that on the radio all the time. I used to pass by the original Cotton Club when I was walking up and down as a schoolboy, but there were other places that I heard music. I had music in the house; there was a lot of jazz music. Always used to listen to the amateur night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater. Later on when I was old enough I sort of got my musical education at the Apollo Theater, going there every week and catching all these bands that came through. My older brother played violin; he used to be practicing, and I really got a kick out of that. He was playing more classical, but I really got a kick out of listening to him practice.
I remember when I was really small, around three years old, we used to have a player piano. Because times were hard, we had to move from that apartment to another apartment, and the piano was left out on the street. In those days in Harlem you used to see a lot of pianos on the street with the people’s furniture that were being evicted, moving from one apartment to another. These were the days of the Depression, but not that I as a boy felt any of that. You know how it is when you come from a loving family: You don’t know nothing about wars and the Depression. My people took care of me just like any good parents would take care of their kids.
But anyway, I listened to a lot of music. I was fortunate, as I said, to be right in the middle of a lot of music, hearing a lot of these cats. I remember my man, the great piano player and bandleader Buddy Johnson. When I was a little kid I tried to sing in front of one of these places on 133rd Street, which years ago used to be a real haven for clubs when people used to come uptown. And Buddy Johnson said he really dug my playing—I was about 12 years old; that was a great feeling. As I grew older, all the great people were living uptown: Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington.
JR: One thing that’s completely astounding to me is I’ve heard recordings that you did when you weren’t even 20, and some of your first recordings you did in your early 20s, and you had been playing the saxophone for less than 10 years. You were an absolute prodigy, you were playing on the highest level imaginable. It’s kind of intimidating and almost depressing for a musician like me to hear that. Did it feel like it came naturally?
SR: You’re very, very kind. I just practiced a lot; I practiced a lot because I loved playing. I’d be practicing all day long. My mother used to have to call me to come and eat dinner because I was in there practicing all the time. I guess some of that came through. I was also lucky to be around some of these great people. I was able to record with a genius like Bud Powell when I was very young, and so I always try to get myself up as close as I can to that level.
JR: When you were practicing at that time, what kind of stuff were you practicing? Were you practicing technique, were you practicing sound, were you practicing tunes?
SR: I remember my saxophone book: I had a Ben Vereecken book; it was very famous around that time. But as far as what I was practicing, I was always a stream-of-consciousness player, playing for hours, by myself. I think that’s why I relate to a lot of the so-called free players and they relate to me because I’m sort of like a free player, really. I think that’s where my thing is really at.
JR: One of the things that I really learned from you was this sense of flow and narrative as an improviser. You were able to be completely spontaneous—you say stream-of consciousness—but at the same time your improvisations have this incredible sense of structure and emotional logic and organization to them. I know you’ve heard people talk about you as a thematic improviser. Is this something that you’ve thought about?
SR: No, I never really thought about it, Joshua. I didn’t think about it beyond what I’m saying now. You’re a player; you can’t spend too much time thinking about what you’re going to play, it comes out so fast. The fact that there’s logic to what I’m playing, I’ve been very blessed about that part because I certainly didn’t have anything to do with that—whatever talent that God has given me. Just the thinking, the playing, the going on and on and on—that part is mine. [They both laugh]
JR: Do some of those characterizations of you as a player ever bother you? Do you feel that people don’t get it or it kind of reduces what you’re doing in a certain way?
SR: Well, my career’s been going on so long. There was a time when I felt more intimidated or bothered or upset by—there have been times when I’ve been much more interested in what people say. Sometimes they’re good critiques that you have to accept and other times they’re not, they’re not helpful. It’s hard. There have been times in my career when I was paying too much attention to what people—critics, I should say: Are critics people? [Laughs]
JR: [Laughs] That’s a good question. We’ll have to have JazzTimes do a whole issue on that.
SR: There have been times when I’ve been listening, watching what they say, and in all honesty there were times when it was very important, like when we first started out it was very important to get a good review from a critic, it was an economic thing. If I got a good review from Metronome the club owners would pick up on it: “Oh, this guy must be good.” Then, critics had much more power. It was much more important for me then; now it’s different, but I’m sure for many musicians they still are judged by what’s written about them. In my case, at this stage in my life, Joshua, it’s like Count Basie used to tell me: “It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon.” Now, I’m not worried about that; I’m worried about trying to get a little closer to what I hear that I want to play that I’m not playing. Even if someone was saying something that would be beneficial, I really can’t bother taking the time to get into it.
JR: One thing that I’ve noticed is that over the past decade, probably the past few decades, you’ve found a way of limiting the amount you record and you perform. Obviously that’s something you’ve been conscious of doing because I’m sure if you want, people are asking you to perform and record every day of the week. How important has that been to you in terms of being able to grow as a musician, or just have peace as a human being, to kind of limit your activities?
SR: The grace of my dearly departed wife [Lucille, who died in 2004]. When she began to handle my business affairs back in the early ’70s, we tried to do things that would be beneficial to me because, for one thing, it’s not—this is heresy, I’m sure—it’s not about money. I’m not going to play someplace just because of the money. I was interested in doing something that had a certain dignity: the club wasn’t too funky, it had a dressing room. Later on, we decided to stop playing clubs and only play concerts. These were career decisions that were deliberate, that tied in with the fact that I didn’t want to live a certain kind of life and be a certain kind of person and—I don’t want to sound too self-serving here; you’re making me sound self-serving….
JR: What you’re talking about is not about ego—”Give me this” or “Give me that”—but a certain kind of dignity. As you were saying, you forged your identity and came up in a time when conditions were, on average, a lot rougher for jazz musicians than they may be today. Coming up in that time, you’re going to want to reach a point where you don’t have to play under certain conditions anymore.
SR: Right, unless you want to. That’s the thing: If you want to play, there are great musicians that want to play. Some of the people I’m thinking about now, some of the greats of the greats, that was their life. They wanted to blow their horns every night, every day. You want to do it, fine. It’s not that you have to do it. Plus. in those days it was a little easier, they didn’t have as much. The social scene was different then, and they were sort of resigned that they were going to be hard-drinking jazz musicians, there was no way to escape that. Some of the people were so great that whatever they were to do was OK.
Of course there’s a lot of economic pressures today, so you also have to make a conscious decision that you’re not trying to get rich, because if you’re trying to get rich, you’re trying to get famous and you have these type of goals, then you have to be careful what you turn down because the people that run things, they couldn’t exist if too many cats said, “Man, I don’t want to take that job, that’s a funky club.” So if you want to have this kind of attitude, you have to be ready to sacrifice.
JR: So many people have been impressed by the way you handled your career and your willingness to withdraw at certain times from the music business, for whatever the reason, musical or personal. A lot has been written about when you took that time off from 1959 to 1961. Were you doing it because musically you were in search of something else, or was it personal?
SR: Well, both, because music and my personal life are the same thing. There were times I specifically wanted to get away to do music, and there were times when I wanted to get away from the scene to get my personal life together. So each of those took precedent at certain sabbaticals.
JR: Do you ever feel, as somebody who has been so influential and such a colossal figure, burdened by your past accomplishments?
SR: I felt the burden, the weight of the ’50s at one time more than at other times. I felt that way because there was a period when I really felt that I was the only guy that was out there from that era. So that I felt a responsibility to really not deliver a subpar show because it would sort of maybe reflect on the period or something. It’s sort of convoluted thinking. But no, there’s nothing now. At this advanced stage of life, everything is mellow [both laugh]. And even if things aren’t mellow, they are mellow, you know what I mean?
JR: Saxophone Colossus is probably the most influential record for me of any record in any genre of music. When you made that record, did you have a sense of the importance of it? Did you feel, “Oh, man, this is a really good date for me,” or was it just another moment in music for you?
SR: It was just another record date, you know? It wasn’t one of my first dates as a leader, so it didn’t have any particular significance. Of course, I had great musicians on that record, and with great musicians the music was always paramount—trying to make it the highest quality. But other than that there was no reflection at that time about that album, or even later.
JR: Was there any album or any performance that you remember feeling, “Oh, this was it, this was special, I got to something here”?
SR: Yeah, there’ve been a few scattered over my long career, but I remember one that took place in San Francisco. There used to be a club in San Francisco called Wolfgang’s. The rock promoter Bill Graham, it was his club, and one night we had just come back from playing at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. I felt really good about my playing; everything I wanted to play I felt I could play, you know, and it came out. Too bad that wasn’t recorded; I’d like to hear that now.
JR: At many points in your career you have addressed some major social and political concerns through your music. Freedom Suite, East Broadway Rundown, Global Warming—the titles of those albums alone made a strong statement. Do you consider yourself a political musician in any way? If you felt like you had a responsibility to try to make the world more aware through your music?
SR: I think W.E.B. DuBois and some other people said that it was the duty of an artist to express social opinions though his work, right? So in a sense, I think it is. But in the colored world it’s so hard to really know where you’re doing the most good, or whether you should write an album and say, “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat”—it might not be the best way to get across your real moralistic values by getting involved in things like politics. There may be better ways these days to express yourself and to make a contribution, so I wouldn’t suggest to anybody that they had to be overtly political in their work.
JR: The ’50s and ’60s were an amazing age in music, where all these incredible innovations were taking place. Among musicians in my generation, with everything we’ve read and heard, there is a perception that there was more of a life for jazz on the streets of New York, a sense of real community; musicians playing and recording with each other all the time. Is that true?
SR: Well, in those days—and I’m speaking now primarily of when I came on the scene, the latter part of the ’40s, into the ’50s and so on, there was less money to be made. Therefore, the guys sort of stuck together. It was more about the music than about becoming a household name—especially the type of music that was making the break from swing; the guys that were doing that felt marginalized anyway, so they had a community and it was a very close-knit community. There were the usual problems between human beings, but the jazz community, the guys that were playing, they were naturally brought closer together because there weren’t that many places to play. There were just clubs, and clubs were small, and not that much money to be made, not as many records sold.
The musicians were beginning to get a social consciousness, which is one of the reasons I always used to like Charlie Parker, the way he presented himself when he played, his persona. He was really serious as opposed to some of the guys were a little more jovial on stage. That attitude pervaded a lot of us guys who were coming up under him.
In those days, guys had to do what they did because they were often vilified by the larger community, and they just felt they had to stick together, fight together, create music together and never mind tomorrow. I don’t want to overpreach, but that was just the way things were more so then. I’m not saying that there are not people that don’t feel like that now.
JR: Do you think that sense of community, that sense of urgency, the sense of being the underdog—that music not being as accepted and not offering that many economic options—was perhaps a good thing for the development of the music?
SR: What you’re asking me is something that people have framed to me in several ways. They may say, “Billie Holiday was really a great singer, but would she be great if she didn’t live such a troubled life?” and everything like that. So therefore maybe her living that troubled life is part of her greatness and what makes her great. My response to that is Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, who had a lot of the same type of problems in their lives, they would have been great under any circumstances. It’s just that they happened to be put under that great handicap and they were so great that they came through it anyway. I don’t think that people have to suffer adversely to make it. If you have to have a goal you should think more in terms of maybe having some kind of a spiritual goal. If you’re a spiritual person, you’re always going to be the underdog in this world, so that’s something that you can feel marginalized about. Trying to be a good person, you’re always going to be on the margin in this world, so there’s something.
JR: Your forthcoming CD, Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), was recorded live in Boston only four days after September 11th. You were in New York City when the planes hit the towers, right?
SR: Right, I was about six blocks north of the World Trade Center.
JR: You were there for another whole day, and then the National Guard evacuated your building. Then you drove to Boston to perform a few days later, since the planes were grounded. What was the feeling that night, so recently after September 11?
SR: For one thing, my legs were hurting because I had to walk down 40 flights of steps to be evacuated; my legs were still stiff. Plus, gulping in some of those toxic fumes. So, I felt sort of unsteady physically. But since it was such a catastrophic thing I also got into that feeling everybody had, you know?
JR: Obviously, the audience was overjoyed to hear you and have an opportunity to experience music at a time like that. I’ve been to a number of your concerts, and that’s pretty commonplace for the audience to go ecstatic. You just have that effect through your music and through your presence. Did you feel something special in the reaction of the audience that night?
SR: Well, the enormity of the event, and playing so close to it, sort of overwhelmed everything else. I’m always happy to have a chance to play for my audiences. So that part is always the same anyway, and other than that, it was just the event and everything was so uncertain at that time. In a way it was good times because everybody was nice to everybody. Of course, all of that changed gradually, so we were back into this same old screwed-up world. But at least during that period, that immediate period it was sort of, a lot of feelings of positive feelings that people had for one another. I did observe that.
JR: I know when I came back to New York shortly after September 11, a few days later, it was such a special time in the city. New Yorkers related to each other in a way that I had never experienced before. Out of all that tragedy and the horrible events came this incredible empathy, human empathy and a soulfulness and a kindness.
SR: Exactly. It was really—it was great.
JR: You feel like that has changed, we’ve lost some of that?
SR: Oh, yeah. I think things have sort of reverted—it’s just like back in the ’60s. I spent some time studying yoga in India, and when I came back to the States I was really on a high spiritual plane. I was really walking on air, in a way; I wasn’t even walking on the pavement on the streets. I was sort of in an elevated state of mind, state of being, but the longer I stayed in the city—after a week, two weeks, three weeks, I began gradually coming back down to the reality of a more materialistic world. It reminded me of that, what happened after 9/11.
JR: On the CD there’s a portion where you’re giving introductions of the band, and you say something about music being one of the beautiful things of life and we have to try to keep the music alive in some kind of way and that maybe music can help. Can music help foster that kind of understanding, that kind awareness? Does it have that force?
SR: We all know how powerful it is. But in another sense, look at all of the great musicians that we’ve in our field—we’ve got all of these great people and it hasn’t had a real effect. I know when we were playing back in the ’50s and so on we used to think, “Oh boy, we’re going to change the way the world is going by our music.” A lot of the famous players thought that way, some of the cats that I was close with. But you see, it didn’t really happen. The music is there, no doubt, but I’m not sure that it can do anything to the nonbelievers.
I think music is great and it keeps us believers alive and it keeps us realizing that there is a heaven, but for the other people, I don’t think music can affect them, and even I used to feel at one time that music was great because it brought people together because that’s what I saw. I traveled around the world, and I saw everybody, all races and creeds, and everybody loved jazz. I thought, “Gee, this is a great thing.” Now when I reflect on that I realize, well, yes, it’s a great thing if you feel that it’s great for people to get together, but there are a lot of people in this world that don’t think it’s great to have all different people being friends and relating together. So, in that sense, it’s not a complete positive force. But music is a positive force for those of us who are ready to hear it and embrace it.
JR: Did you plan for the Boston concert to be released as an album?
SR: No, it wasn’t planned. I decided to put it out now because it was time—it’s getting around the anniversary of 9/11 again. I had another recording that I had started to work on and I didn’t finish it, and my dear departed wife—we were working together, and we didn’t get it finished. This was the last album that I had under this present contract and company, so I wanted to get something out and this was available for me to put out. But when I did the concert, I wasn’t thinking of it as a record, it was just a performance. It happened to be recorded; I recorded it also because I record my concerts now.
JR: Do you listen to them afterward?
SR: No, never. If there’s something good that I have and it needs to be released, I might listen. But right now, Joshua, I still have hopes of improving and sounding better and making a better record. Hope burns eternal. I’m going to put off going into the vaults and trying to find something I’ve done before. This [new CD] was a special occasion and we’ll see what happens in the future.
JR: Everything that you’ve done musically over the years, everything you’ve done for the music—I can’t imagine anything greater. But to hear those words coming out of your mouth, it’s inspiring, because it makes me realize even for the greatest musicians it still is an adventure, it still is a journey.
SR: For me it is. I’m not reticent about saying that; it’s a journey because I haven’t felt comfortable to say that I’ve reached my goal. If I did, I’d be happy—maybe I wouldn’t be happy; maybe then I’d be sad because I wouldn’t have anything to strive for. But it hasn’t happened. As you know, being a musician and a saxophone player—well, you may not know because you’re young and strong and these things haven’t affected you—but you know, I still feel that I haven’t gotten to what I want to get to. I’m really hoping that I get there, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I haven’t done enough. I haven’t gotten to something that I know is there.
JR: Wow. I know I’m never satisfied. In the past I feel like I’ve been self-critical to a fault. I love playing music, but I’m so unhappy with the way that I play that sometimes I fear it becomes debilitating. Sometimes it’s definitely not about youth or strength. I find myself getting older, and some things get easier and some things get more difficult in terms of playing the saxophone. But in terms of being happy or satisfied with what I play, that’s something, man, I’ve never felt.
SR: Well, that’s good! There’s a lot of guys that come off the stage and, boy, they get some applause and they look at their fingers and say, “Wow, did these fingers do that?” Which is fine, to each his own, really! But I’ve heard too much great music in my lifetime, fortunately, to phone it in. I know what’s great and that’s where I want to be, that’s what I want to play, and I’m going to keep trying as long as I’m able to. And again, if the point comes where I’m not, I’ll begin listening to the vaults.
JR: How do you feel about your relationship to your audience? Do you feel like you’re there to inspire them, to educate them, to challenge them, to entertain them?
SR: Right, well, I would say all of the above. But you’ve got to be careful: You don’t want to play for your audience. I don’t. I don’t want to play for my audience. I’m playing for myself. If, in playing for myself, the audience gets it, then I know that I succeeded.
You have to respect your audience, and you’re grateful for your audience, but you have to play your own feelings and your own truth. Play for yourself because that’s ultimately what the audience wants to hear. They want to hear what you’re feeling—that’s the music. That’s jazz.
JR: Very well put.
Do you remember the first time you heard Sonny play?
I was about 15, going on 16. I was hearing Sonny and then Ike Quebec and then Charlie Rouse. All I can remember was hearing them and then knowing that Sonny had something that was really happening. He had a lot of rhythm in his playing and he would leap out at things and take it and express something. – Wayne Shorter
The first songs I heard Sonny Rollins on were “St. Thomas” and “Strode Rode” when I was about 16 years old. “St. Thomas” really stuck out because it was a folk melody that I heard a lot as a child growing up in St. Thomas. But I never heard it sound that hip! – Ron Blake
The first Sonny track I was aware of was “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” on the Blue Note LP A Night at the Village Vanguard with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. It was the first jazz solo I ever wrote down, and I wrote down the way he played the melody as well. What’s extraordinary is the vibe Sonny throws on the melody immediately after Wilbur’s incredible bass intro; Sonny’s sound is warm and soft and yet strong, almost paternal-maybe I’m projecting that! – Joel Frahm
I first heard about him from my best friend in high school, Booker Little. They met him in Chicago in the mid-’50s when Booker was studying at the Conservatory, and they were both staying at the Y. Booker loved Clifford Brown and Maestro Rollins introduced them to each other. When Booker came home at Christmas, he brought a recording that had “There’s No Business Like Show Business” on it, and he told us how Sonny was looking for a new way with intervals. – Charles Lloyd
I heard Sonny Rollins play for the first time live in 1970 at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Jackie McLean took a few of us up from Hartt School of Music to hear the concert. The quartet was the same personnel from The Bridge: Jim Hall, Ben Riley. Sonny didn’t use a microphone, and managed to fill up this huge auditorium with his sound. We were way in the back and we heard every note! – Bob Mintzer
It was just after I started playing the saxophone, when I was 10. I remember someone telling me that I had “better start checkin’ out Sonny now, before it’s too late!” So I went to the Central Branch of the Public Library in Berkeley, California. There were a few albums there, but the one that caught my eye was Saxophone Colossus. For months afterward, this was virtually the only album I listened to. I eventually learned many of Sonny’s solos on that album. It forever changed the way I thought about jazz. – Joshua Redman
The name Sonny Rollins first came to my attention in the 1970s, long before I even knew what a saxophone was. “Don’t Stop the Carnival” was a big hit during that period, and it resurfaced annually for quite a few years after it’s initial release during London’s Notting Hill Carnival. It’s also the theme of a popular radio show focused on Caribbean music and current affairs. – Denys Baptiste
The first album I bought by Sonny was The Bridge in 1962. I remember being in a department store. They had The Bridge and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. I was only a kid and only had enough money to buy one. The picture on the front of The Bridge let me see who he really was. I bought The Bridge, of course. – David S. Ware
The album was Saxophone Colossus. His massive sound, and his ability to use rhythm to add uniqueness and character to 8th and 16th note lines. -Branford Marsalis
I was about 14, and a jazz tap dancer had accidentally left a bunch of jazz cassettes at the house. The Amazing Bud Powell, featuring Sonny and Fats Navarro, and Saxophone Colossus were among them. – Soweto Kinch
What is your favorite performance by Sonny?
I don’t have a favorite Sonny Rollins album. I just have the whole total of Sonny Rollins in my pores, in my body, in my entity.
– Wayne Shorter
Rollins Plays for Bird is brilliant, especially the second side where there are no breaks between tunes.
– Jeff Coffin
Sonny on Impulse, “Three Little Words.” Sonny’s short intro on that is worth the price alone, and he plays a turnaround in one of his choruses in the bottom register of his horn that is so burning and masterful on every level that it still drops my jaw. Also, the way he starts “Autumn Nocturne” after jumping off the stage in the Saxophone Colossus documentary. It’s such a great and funny and beautiful moment-even though Sonny got hurt! The sound of his horn on that melody with him lying on his back melts my heart.
– Joel Frahm
The Bridge is right up there at the top, A Night at the Village Vanguard is amazing. Alfie, Way Out West. Sonny Boy has the two fastest tunes I’ve ever heard: “B. Quick” and “B. Swift.” Tenor Madness, and on and on.
– Bob Mintzer
If I had to pick just one it would the A Night at the Village Vanguard set with a very slight preference for Volume One.
– Pat Metheny
The record that truly made me fall in love with him was Way Out West. It was cool to see and hear the sense of humor involved, but more than anything else it was great to hear his love for the simplest of songs. I think I can still sing every note of “I’m an Old Cowhand.”
– Mike Lewis (Happy Apple)
I will throw out a favorite recorded performance, because I have the feeling that not many others might. His version of “Skylark” from the Milestone period.
– Marty Ehrlich
Song: “Airegin.” Solo: “It Could Happen to You” from The Sound of Sonny. Album: The Bridge. Performance: Our Man in Jazz.
– Joe Lovano
I still remember his solo on “St. Thomas”; it was just a trio on that thing, I remember he took the last two notes that Doug Watkins played-Sonny takes that fifth interval and works for about three days on that solo. He had all the things that I went to music school for five years to find out.
– Jim Hall
Saxophone Colossus. But I also love In Stockholm (1959), The Sound of Sonny, A Night at the Village Vanguard, Way Out West, etc.
– Joshua Redman
During the mid-’80s I happened upon a record in my local library: A Night at the Village Vanguard. I remember eagerly taking it home, expecting to hear a whole album of infectious calypso melodies and rhythms-and was greeted with “Old Devil Moon.” Sonny was commanding the tenor in a way I’d never thought possible. I still listen to that recording today and it inspires me as much now as it did then.
– Denys Baptiste
One time I heard him play “Sonnymoon for Two,” and he played the melody over and over for about 10 minutes before taking short solos in between the statement of the theme for another 10 minutes. That was something only a virtuoso and true artist would have the confidence and concept to approach.
– Ron Blake
Our Man in Jazz, and the bootleg recordings from Europe with Roy McCurdy on drums.
– Branford Marsalis
For one tune I would say the title cut from the Alfie recording. Sonny plays everything there is to do on the saxophone, even Trane-isms. As an overall record, A Night at the Village Vanguard stands as a pinnacle of not only bop but also Sonny’s unique way of putting all the elements together. Then there are the great recordings from the early ’60s after he took a sabbatical and really transformed his playing to an even more personal level: The Bridge, The Standard Sonny Rollins, Our Man in Jazz and Alfie.
– Dave Liebman
My favorite songs are “St. Thomas” and “Hold ‘Em Joe.” I also love the recordings The Bridge and Saxophone Colossus.
– David “Fathead” Newman
All the songs on Saxophone Colossus were amazing, “Strode Rode” particularly. It sounded spontaneous but not accidental-forceful and yet he would play amazing memorable and singable phrases, and his sound was warm and huge. Also A Night at the Village Vanguard.
– Soweto Kinch
The RCA recordings with Don Cherry and Coleman Hawkins, and the Impulse records East Broadway Rundown and Alfie are some of my favorites.
– Don Byron
What are some of the techniques Sonny uses to create his sound?
He always had that excitement and that full sound all the way up and down the instrument. The high range and the low range of his horn were as full as it can be.
– Wayne Shorter
Sonny sounds to me like he’s speaking through his horn. His impeccable sense of swing and timing, his percussive articulation and use of vibrato as an expressive device are all elements that he made into a very unique style.
– Ron Blake
The particular use of varying articulations, the roundness of his sound-and the buoyancy and bounce it has to it as well. The very vocal sound he gets on certain notes and the way he can play one note so many different ways. He is also a genius in motivic development.
– Jeff Coffin
Sonny’s articulation and the manipulation of rhythm is to me one of the most important facets of his mastery. He gets so many different colors depending on how much air he decides to push through the horn, how heavily he’s going to tongue the reed. With him, I almost picture the saxophone as a drum in his hands, like he’s adding great melody to a drum solo. I always joke that sometimes his articulation reminds me of a bulldog periodically shaking a steak in his mouth.
– Joel Frahm
From the start his approach on tenor was a marvel. Straight on through from his melodic, harmonic and rhythmic invention. He is a master of time and space.
– Charles Lloyd
Sonny’s powerful tenor voice resonates with distinction. He has been one of the pioneers-along with Trane, Ben Webster-who set the course in technique, sound and harmonic approach for some of our more contemporary players such as James Carter, Joe Lovano, Branford, Michael Brecker, etc.
Sonny used such a wide variety of articulations and manipulations of pitch and sound to create the broad terrain that was the trademark Rollins style. He was equally creative in the way he played with the time, stretching, falling behind, catching up, playing like a master drummer. Sonny’s use of motifs, where he would play a phrase and spin a whole chorus or more around this motif in such an ingenious way-pure composition as an improviser!
– Bob Mintzer
Sonny’s rhythmic and harmonic senses are superb to go along with a one-of-a-kind tone. His tone has all the elements: edge, smoothness, largeness, muscularness, angularness and strength of character all rolled into one.
– Byron Morris
The whole idea of narrative melodic development was taken to new heights by Sonny. He found a way to make each idea expand to a logical conclusion while simultaneously spinning it off into fresh territory. The result is a kind of improvising that invites and brings the listeners with him as he literally makes connections between ideas that are both surprising and inevitable at the same time. Of course all of this done with one of the greatest sounds ever and a rhythmic clock that stands apart from just about anyone in the history of this music.
– Pat Metheny
I used to love hearing Sonny-out of some already incredible soloing on the chords-all of a sudden play this earth-shaking low note, almost sounding like some other instrument. He’d circular breathe and hold this out for awhile until ripping into the changes again. This would make everyone hollering for more.
– Mark Soskin
Hard-driving, relentless, muscular swing. A huge, warm, focused sound. Incredible variety of articulation and tone coloring, giving his saxophone playing a speechlike, conversational quality. An unerring, virtually metronomic, sense of time. Mastery of rhythm. For example: One moment playing completely on the beat-even at the most lightening fast tempos-and then the next moment laying back so hard that the time almost feels suspended. Phrasing effortlessly and completely freely across the bar line. Acerbic wit. Razor-sharp irony, coupled with a genuine tenderness and romanticism. Incomparable use of motivic development in his solos. A conversational, storytelling approach. Logical, yet unpredictable. A genius improviser.
– Joshua Redman
Sonny plays and develops his ideas with a poetic brilliance. His interpretations of themes and reworking them inside and out in such a free-flowing way, along with his incredible swing, articulation, sound and feeling.
– Joe Lovano
His sound is unmistakable at any stage of his career, coming out of the Coleman Hawkins school of a big, deep and dark-tinged tone. His ability to articulate and place phrases all over the pulse are probably his most important trademarks. No one has the ability to play with the beat more than Newk. Of course, his quite thematic approach, so evident on the famous “Blue Seven” solo, marked him as different from all the more conventional approaches that had evolved from the Charlie Parker style. Finally, his sense of humor and parody is keenly felt throughout his career, which one can only surmise must be a part of his personality.
– Dave Liebman
Most of what makes Sonny great cannot be codified. The way he tongues almost every note. His amazing sense of time. His understanding of the power of silence. Those things cannot be explained away in a linear fashion.
– Branford Marsalis
The first thing I think about with Sonny Rollins is intense preparation. He plays with unlimited virtuosity, of the Paganini/Chopin variety. He can relax and play creatively at tempos so high that most players can barely play uncreatively. If you gave a Sonny Rollins solo to a classical player, he or she might have to practice it for weeks, so think of how many weeks every note he plays costs him. His practice habits are legendary. One thing I love about Sonny is that he has fully developed “out” side to go with his “in” side.
– Don Byron
He’s very big on melodic invention. He layers melody; that’s one of the things that has influenced me so heavily. All his flights, all his inventions, came from the melody, as opposed to chordal invention. It’s his main modus operandi.
– David S. Ware
He is able to play freely in front and behind the beat-and still be very aware of the pulse. He also must have spent years purely developing his sound. He can move between straight Parker-like playing and Coleman Hawkins-like vibrato. The amazing range of dynamics and variety is what draws you in, and there’s nothing predictable about his improvising.
– Soweto Kinch
His sense of organic construction, ambidextrous timing, humorous quotes, supreme swagger, infectious personality, individual choice of notes, note displacement, keen sense of drama, staccato punctuations followed by virtuosic runs, worrying a single note, a very personal tonal texture, unique use of smeared notes and more.
– Ron Holloway
How has Sonny influenced you?
Having grown up listening to calypso and reggae, and different styles of Caribbean folk and pop music, Sonny’s embrace of this music encouraged me to find ways to incorporate all my musical background into my developing sound. I hope to be able to swing like that, really hearing and feeling the pulse, every time I play the horn. And his command of harmony and phrasing are all worth studying and enjoying for a few lifetimes.
– Ron Blake
He’s infused my playing in so many ways. Rhythmically, of course, but also just in the vibe and confidence he exudes every time he plays. That’s what’s the most infectious to me. He is brave musically.
– Joel Frahm
Maestro Rollins imbibed all that came before him and personalized it with his own dignity and grace. He lifted the music and inspired those of us who followed in his footsteps to reach for something higher.
– Charles Lloyd
Sonny offered the alternative. When I was growing up many players focused on John Coltrane. Sonny wasn’t the media icon, but he was truly a giant in the expression of the instrument.
What has influenced me most about Sonny is his sheer determination, flow and ease of execution, wide variety of shapes and colors in his playing, and his compositional way of approaching solos.
– Bob Mintzer
As an improviser, Sonny has set the highest standard for all of us to follow. I listen to his records constantly for inspiration about how to develop ideas, particularly in a trio environment. But the thing about Sonny, like all great music, you can also just put it on and it just makes you feel good. He reminds you of just how great it is to be alive.
– Pat Metheny
After hearing Sonny Rollins, I became fully aware of the true power and potential of jazz improvisation. It was as if Sonny handed me a key that unlocked a great musical mystery. Sonny showed me that as an improviser you could be completely emotive, immediate, in the moment, off-the-cuff and yet at the same time be entirely ordered, coherent, logical and compositional. He awakened me to narrative flow and organic architecture. He taught me how to improvise.
– Joshua Redman
To develop my technique with that high level of execution. Study rhythm, harmony and concepts of melodic invention in my own voice with a free approach to become a more creative improviser.
– Joe Lovano
My solo on “Gloomy Sunday” is how Sonny has influenced me. The choice of notes is not his. But the style of the solo is what I stole from Sonny.
– Branford Marsalis
Next to Coltrane, he is the major influence on me as an improviser, who could play through, around, upside-down-you name it-on chord changes with a sense of swing that is unparalleled. He is at the top of the food chain for swinging lines, to be sure.
– Dave Liebman
I have always sensed a bit of politic in his choice of repertoire. Specifically, he has a great way of looking at songs that a black jazz musician isn’t supposed to know or care about. He emotionally rewrites them. He doesn’t get Downtown-ish or reharmonize them heavily; he just plays them with passion. People needed to be reminded of what a strange and humorous choice it was for Sonny to play “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” Here’s a song from the most white-bread kind of movie-musical culture, a song seriously unintended for black consumption. He plays the song with drums alone, no chordal accompaniment whatsoever, taking full harmonic responsibility for defining the song. It’s a hilarious and daring way to start a classic record. The same impulse that made Ray Charles record country songs made Sonny record cowboy songs. They both show their connectedness to things outside of the genre they work inside of. People always find that funny. I think it’s serious.
– Don Byron
He’s the type of man who does not want to interfere with whatever direction you’re going in. There wasn’t a time he said, “Dave, why don’t you try that?” He always had the utmost respect for what I was doing; always let me be who I was musically. That was beautiful.
– David S. Ware
His appropriation of West Indian music and statements of black pride-Freedom Suite-have given me a perspective of the power of jazz and my own place within it.
– Soweto Kinch
I have always been partial to the tenor players with the big, full sound. He inspired me to investigate the entire spectrum of the tenor saxophone’s sound palette. Finally, when it comes to the concept of the musician willing the instrument to become an extension of himself, there can be no better model than Sonny.
– Ron Holloway
Do you have any memorable stories about Sonny?
I met Sonny when I was on a weekend furlough from the Army, during the summer of 1956. It was right after Clifford Brown died, and Kenny Dorham was playing with Sonny at a place called Sugar Hill, which was up the street from where I lived in Newark on Broad Street. Max Roach was playing the drums. They called me up on the bandstand, and they started off with “Cherokee”-real fast. I had this Martin sax, which had a high-pitched sound; almost sounded like an alto. And when I finished playing, Sonny said to me, “Did you ever think about getting a custom-made mouthpiece? Call Otto Link down in Florida. He’ll fix you up.” That was cool.
– Wayne Shorter
Jerome Harris and I shared an apartment in the early ’80s when he was working with Sonny, and I would periodically take messages from Sonny for Jerome, which was always a thrill. Once he called in the early morning and woke me up. Apologizing repeatedly for waking me, against all my assurances that it was OK. He finished the call by saying, “You go back to sleep now, you hear?”
– Marty Ehrlich
I had the chance to play in his band quite a bit years ago and loved every second of it. Every time I got to be in his presence on or off the bandstand, it was fantastic. He is really one of the greatest human beings of our time. I really love Sonny.
– Pat Metheny
I was introduced to Sonny Rollins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by Chet Baker. Sonny was in the next-door dressing room. I will never forget: For 20 minutes I heard sustained high harmonic whistle tones and nothing else! It was uncanny to me: He played high squeaks to warm up while I played my Bird heads or whatever. Needless to say, when he came out the first note was a low, big, fat tenor sound-after 20 minutes of squeal!
– Steve Slagle
I remember we were working on “Cherokee” one time-fast, naturally-and I never did really enjoy playing fast. So Sonny said, “Oh,” kind of ironically and parenthetically, “Supposedly we’re both part Cherokee.” I’m not positive I am because some of the family denies it, but Sonny certainly is. So if any racial stuff would come up Sonny would say, “Just tell ’em we’re a couple of Redskins.” He’s my hero.
– Jim Hall
Around 1993 I was in the lobby of a Pittsburgh hotel hanging out with Christian McBride. We were just chillin’, joking around, passing time, waiting to be picked up for a ride to the venue. Then all of a sudden we saw Sonny Rollins walk by. We shut up immediately. We just sat there, mesmerized, eyes wide open, jaws agape, until he finished checking in, got his key and strode off round the corner and toward the elevator. Afterward all we could say was, “Newk. Newk. That was Newk!”
– Joshua Redman
The only time I ever spent with Sonny was the day he kicked my ass at Carnegie Hall. It’s an amazing thing to watch great musicians think. I tried to watch his eyes as he played. It was as though he was using everything in the room as a source for improvisation. He is easily-with the exception of Louis Armstrong-the greatest improviser in the history of jazz.
– Branford Marsalis
The first time I actually talked to Sonny was in ’69. We saw him at a fruit stand. He loves fruit. I said to him, “I’d like to play for you. I’d like you to listen to my playing.” He looked me straight in the eye to see my sincerity and said, “All right.” We went back to his apartment and started practicing together. We practiced together from ’69 until the early ’80s.
Another time he was playing the Village Vanguard, and we went down the first weekend, and he said, “Next week tell the guy at the door to put you on my tab”-all three of us. In those days, the clubs were open until four in the morning. He took all of us home one night-all three of us are saxophone players-and as the sun is rising he was teaching us all how to circular breathe. I was 16.
– David S. Ware
Around the middle 1990s I went to hear Sonny at the Bottom Line in New York City. A radio personality enthusiastically introduced Sonny and his group. Everyone was onstage except Sonny. The air of anticipation increased with each passing moment Sonny lingered somewhere backstage. Suddenly, the curtains parted and Sonny emerged. The audience erupted, but amid the manic clapping you could hear several people in the audience gasp. Once the spotlight hit him I was not ready for what I saw. Sonny had let his hair grow pretty long and thick-and every hair on his head was combed upward. And had a red tint to it! I could tell from the look on the band member’ faces they had absolutely no idea Sonny was going to make such an entrance!
– Ron Holloway Originally Published