The Zen of Sonny Rollins

Sidelined by lung disease, our greatest living jazz musician longs for the stage and ponders the nature of existence

Sonny Rollins at home in upstate New York, December 2015
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Sonny Rollins attends Ornette Coleman's funeral in New York, June 2015
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As Danny Glover looks on at the Apollo Theater, Sonny Rollins accepts a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America last October
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Sonny Rollins records in September 1957, two years before his fabled sabbatical on the Williamsburg Bridge
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The most recently recorded track on Sonny Rollins’ new album, Holding the Stage: Road Shows, Vol. 4 (Doxy/OKeh), is a ballad called “Mixed Emotions.” On its face, it’s the latest manifestation of the sublime way that Rollins-jazz’s preeminent tenor saxophonist and most heralded improviser, as well as its most admired living master-can extract truth and beauty from a mawkish, minor piece of the American Songbook, as if spinning straw into gold.

“Mixed Emotions,” composed by Stuart F. Louchheim, was a moderate hit in 1951 for Rosemary Clooney, who recorded it with Percy Faith and His Orchestra. Rollins first heard a version of the song recorded by Dinah Washington, with backing by musicians like the Lester Young-ish tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette. Washington does her regal best with the song, a cry of romantic ambivalence that bends toward fond resignation: “But if you were perfect/It wouldn’t be the same,” she sings. “To a tiger, a tiger’s not a tiger if he’s tame.”

Rollins didn’t have to gild these lyrics when he recorded his version of the tune, on Oct. 31, 2012, at the Lucerna Grand Hall in Prague. But he may well have been thinking of them as he phrased the melody tenderly, accompanied only by a guitarist, Saul Rubin. Listen to Holding the Stage and you’ll hear how Rollins embellishes the theme in a dreamy rubato, yet stops short of a proper solo-trailing off as he begins a second verse, which Rubin gracefully but hastily resolves. The track clocks in under two minutes, making it one of Rollins’ shortest on record. Beyond that, it rings of unfinished business, in a way that now feels poignant and fraught.

At the time of this performance, Rollins was 82, a distinguished elder with no intention of resting on his laurels. “I still practice every day,” he had told the Prague Post in advance of the concert. “I’m still trying to get better.” Over the next few weeks his tour schedule would carry him across the European continent, and finally over to the United Kingdom. But then a spate of concert dates in 2013 was postponed, due to what was described at the time as respiratory illness. A press statement expressed hope that Rollins would return to the stage the following year.

He hasn’t played in public since. So for all of its halting brevity, “Mixed Emotions” stands as the last sanctioned evidence of Rollins at work. And it’s really no clearer now than it was a few years ago whether he’ll perform again soon-not to the global jazz public that eagerly awaits some reassurance, and not even to the great saxophonist himself.

“I haven’t been able to practice for a while now,” Rollins said in late February, at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. An unopened tenor case sat in a corner of the living room behind him. “I have a tin flute that I play on a little bit, but that’s even been a while,” he added. He has been diagnosed with a form of pulmonary fibrosis, which involves scarring of the lung tissue and results in difficulty breathing. “There are always new treatments,” he said. “Our wonderful scientific community is coming up with things all the time. We’ll see what happens.”

Jazz lore contains its share of disappearing acts, and Rollins has been responsible for several. His most famous happened in 1959, when he was regarded as the hotshot tenor on the scene, rivaled only by John Coltrane. Rollins had already made some of his most celebrated albums by then, including Tenor Madness, whose title track was a friendly standoff with Coltrane; Saxophone Colossus, which inspired both a heroic sobriquet and a new critical standard (“thematic improvisation,” coined by Gunther Schuller); Way Out West, a buoyant trio summit with a raffish cover photograph; A Night at the Village Vanguard, the first live album recorded at the Greenwich Village club, and still one of the finest; and Freedom Suite, a powerful sociopolitical statement that also stands as a coherent experiment in form.

The largeness of Rollins’ stature made his absence all the more conspicuous. Rumors circulated about his whereabouts, until a journalist discovered him practicing his horn on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. Rollins was living with his wife, Lucille, in a loft on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and had been feeling guilty about bothering their neighbors with his playing. So he reported to the bridge almost daily for two years, drawn to the freedom of his sound in the elements. “I could have just stayed up there forever,” he wrote in a brief reminiscence for the New York Times Magazine last year. “But Lucille was supporting us, and I had to go back to work. You can’t be in heaven and on earth at the same time.”

Rollins’ characterization of heaven is telling: neither the rush of the bandstand nor the charge of a crowd, but rather a lone pursuit of excellence, unburdened by any expectations outside himself. “In a way, the audience is your adversary,” he told me. “You’re not all there together. They’re there waiting for you to do something.” Jazz is a performing art, its musicians and its audience closing a necessary loop, and Rollins has often been seen as the ultimate example of someone who thrives on the spontaneity of live performance. Still, it would be a mistake to assume that he trusts the validation of a roaring crowd, especially in those moments when he feels he’s fallen short. “If they like it, then I’ve shown that I’m a professional,” he said. “That’s all. It’s up to me to satisfy what I think are my best performances. Then we can all be happy.”

The Williamsburg Bridge residency, so to speak, ended in 1962, and Rollins announced his return with an album naturally titled The Bridge. It was the first in a series of valiant early-to-mid-’60s releases, some of which plunged into the avant-garde. Ornette Coleman, the maverick alto saxophonist, had recently brought a galvanizing jolt to the syntax of modern jazz, and Rollins was one of many prominent artists-Coltrane was another-who chose to grapple seriously with these new freedoms, even at the cost of public approval. Rollins still remembers a gig at a club in St. Louis, with a brilliant but short-lived quartet featuring the Coleman associates Don Cherry (on cornet) and Billy Higgins (on drums). During a break, he took a seat at the bar and overheard a guy and his girlfriend in conversation. “The only thing of his I like is Way Out West,” the girlfriend said. “This doesn’t sound like that at all.”

“What could I say?” Rollins said, posing a distant rhetorical but sounding freshly pained. “I wish I could satisfy everything that everybody wants. Miles and myself, we used to talk about how the biggest thing we hated was clichés. Now, some guys can play clichés and they go through their whole career playing clichés, and playing them in a real meaningful, good way. I can’t do that. I can’t recreate stuff that I did before. That’s not my gift.”

The drive for pure creativity is serious business, and for a jazz musician as self-critical as Rollins it can border on a state of perpetual existential peril. It’s no wonder, anyway, that he needed another sabbatical before the decade was out. In 1967 he traveled to India, seeking nirvana, or at least deeper understanding: He took only his saxophone and a single bag, and wound up at an ashram. He stayed there, studying yoga and making the occasional excursion into Bombay, until a swami pointed out that his truest form of meditation took place when he was playing his horn.

During each previous hiatus in his career, in other words, Rollins broke his pact with the public but strengthened his bond with the saxophone. His current situation suggests roughly the inverse. Even in semi-rural seclusion in upstate New York, Rollins has often found himself at the center of the conversation recently. His influence rings clearly through the jazz landscape, and not just among sworn disciples like Joshua Redman and Melissa Aldana. Rollins paid his respects onstage at a Celebrate Brooklyn! tribute to Ornette Coleman in 2014, and at Coleman’s funeral service the following year. He has been interviewed by news outlets, and saw fit to respond publicly to a piece of satire posted to the New Yorker’s website in 2014, bearing the misleading title, “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” Last fall he received a lifetime achievement award from the Jazz Foundation of America, appearing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem-his old stomping grounds-to deliver a grateful and rousing acceptance speech.

But of course it’s hard to picture Rollins without his daily communion with the saxophone, which is why I asked about it within the first five minutes of a two-hour conversation. “At first it was very difficult,” he replied. “I mean, because I’m a guy that likes to play all the time. When we go to play a gig, I’m in there playing between the soundcheck and the performance. Now, when this pulmonary thing happened, I knew that it wasn’t comfortable playing. So I found out what it was, and I went through a real period of depression. The longer the time went and I couldn’t play, I was really in a very depressed state. Until I was able to finally come to terms with it, and realize that depression is not where it’s at.”

When I brought up Holding the Stage, the fourth installment of Rollins’ beloved Road Shows series, he made no effort to feign enthusiasm. “It’s what I have to do, in order to keep producing in the musical arena,” he said plainly of his archival releases, which have topped jazz polls since the first volume appeared in 2008. “I can’t be completely off the scene for four years. I am not particularly happy with the stuff I’m putting out. But I feel that I have got to put something out.”

Was it affirming at all, I asked hopefully, to have these recordings in circulation-reaching listeners at a time when he couldn’t be out there himself? “Well, in a sense it is,” he allowed, “if somebody writes and says, ‘Oh yeah, this is good stuff.’ But it’s also really debilitating because I can’t come back and play another concert and clean up what I did before. In other words, this is it, and if somebody likes it, yeah, that’s affirming to me. But it’s also a drag, because I can’t change it.”

He reiterated this idea before bearing down on the point: “I can’t make it better. I can’t do anything. That’s it. It’s there, and that’s it. I can’t redeem myself.”

The emphasis in that last sentence was his, and the obvious feeling he invested in it can only be described as heartbreaking-especially if you believe, as most of us do, that the music on Rollins’ Road Shows albums requires little in the way of redemption.

What lifted Rollins out of his depression was a philosophical resolve, coupled with a spiritual inquiry. “I think I’ve always been a person, from childhood, who felt there was an inner voice,” he said. He characterizes his fate as part of a larger design, beyond our transient realm.

“This world is not real,” he said, more than once. “To me, the real world is the universe.” Music, and especially the flow state of spontaneous invention, can be seen as a dispatch from this deeper realm. “I can’t explain it,” he said, “but I know there is something in music that’s real. This world, and all this stuff that happens-oh boy, it’s so unreal. The things we go through every day, it’s the little picture. It’s not the big picture.”

Curious to know whether this meant Rollins has somehow withdrawn from the world, I asked how much he keeps up with the news. He chuckled-a low, bemused ho-ho-ho-and said he tuned in to sports radio and NPR. “I don’t look at TV, and I’m not into social media,” he said. “But I do listen to the radio. I haven’t been strong enough to get rid of that habit.”

I said it was interesting that he described listening to the radio as a weakness-whereas to be more evolved would be to tune everything out, in a kind of ascetic solitude. “Well, solitude could be the outer way of looking at it,” he said. “But having the wisdom to know what’s going on, and not be influenced by what is going on in the world, that’s what I mean. In other words, I know what’s going on in the world. There’s nothing changing the world. People talking about fighting and killing-well, that’s as long as you look in history, there’s fighting and killing. From the beginning of all our ancient books.”

He went on: “This world isn’t changing. I used to think this world was changing when I was younger and immature. I used to feel that: ‘Oh, we can change the world, and everything is going to be good, and we’ll eliminate hatred.’ It’s a good idea, but it’s not real. This world isn’t going to change. What is going to change is me. You. Individually. That’s what changes. That’s what it’s about. Getting wisdom myself. So that’s why I say that not listening to stuff is better. It’s not being ascetic. It’s not like getting away from stuff. It’s getting into stuff.”

We circled back to this idea later in our conversation, after I had brought up the subject of loss. (Lucille died in 2004. Some of Rollins’ close peers-including Hall and Coleman, who both joined him for his 80th birthday concert, documented on Road Shows, Vol. 2-have passed on in the last several years.) “It’s natural to mourn for things past, but it’s not wise,” he said. “That’s not wisdom. Yeah, this little lifespan might be over, but there’s a bigger picture. Life goes by like that”-he started snapping his fingers-“but it’s just a trip. I know my friend Ira Sullivan said, ‘This is a rehearsal down here.’ That’s right. This is just a place to learn.”

So does that make an individual feel small in the largeness of the universe? I asked. Or is the idea enlarging? “It’s enlarging,” Rollins quickly answered. “Because often I hear people say, ‘Here’s a big universe; we’re just a little speck.’ No, no, no, no, no, no. You’re not just a little speck. You are the whole fucking universe, really, if you want to get deeper into the concept.” He continued with the proposition that God resides within each person, but that human consciousness prevents us from seeing the whole picture. “I mean, it’s so beautiful and it’s so logical,” he said. “Thelonious Monk used to say all the time, ‘Two is one, two is one.’ And that was it. We’re all part of it, man.”

Rollins is aware that these views will be met with some skepticism. “I learned a long time ago not to proselytize,” he said. “People will make you doubt your own feelings.” But he was clear about the sincerity of his enterprise, and the fact that it’s a continuing process of discovery. “I remember guys used to say, ‘Oh yeah, Coltrane’s got into this spiritual thing,'” he said. “But they didn’t understand: That’s what he was doing all the time. That’s why I hate that word, ‘spiritual’-it’s so diminishing. But anyway, that’s part of the whole thing. Spiritual understanding, whatever it is, that’s what it’s all about.”

As with past Road Shows installments, Holding the Stage unfolds as both a time capsule and a highlight reel. A track called “H.S.,” dedicated to pianist and composer Horace Silver, features one of Rollins’ famously expansive improvisations, a solo in which he muscles through ideas with an elusive but intrinsic logic. “Disco Monk”-the oldest track, recorded in 1979-is a sterling example of Rollins’ engagement with pop music, through a jazz lens. Of course there’s “Mixed Emotions,” and another, fully fleshed-out songbook ballad, “You’re Mine You.”

But the heart of the album is a medley from Rollins’ famous concert in Boston, four days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It begins with a waltzing sashay through “Sweet Leilani,” a Tin Pan Alley tune famously recorded by Bing Crosby. (The tenor solo in this version, at once tender and robustly assertive, features a sly nod to “The Freedom Suite.”) Then a classic Rollins solo cadenza leads into a proudly exuberant closing calypso, “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” For reasons of sound quality or running time, this medley was left off Rollins’ 2005 album, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. There’s more than one reason to take note of its inclusion now.

As has been reported widely, Rollins experienced 9/11 at close range: He was at his New York pied-à-terre, six blocks north of the World Trade Center. He draws a dotted line between that traumatic day and his present state of health. “When that second plane hit, it was like snowfall coming down,” he said. “And that snow, of course, was just toxic stuff. Anyway, I gulped some of it down. We were waiting until the next day to be evacuated, so I picked up my horn to play, man. I took a deep breath and felt that stuff down to my stomach. I said, ‘Oh, wow, no practicing today.’ So yeah, it’s been conjectured that that’s part of what happened to me.”

Setting aside the implications of a story in which Rollins is harmed by the act of practicing-in search of inspiration, a word whose etymology literally derives from “to breathe in”-there’s something terribly definitive about this moment. Rollins was born and raised in New York City, and he kept a foothold there until the events of 9/11, after which he and Lucille retreated to their home upstate. He never got another apartment in the city. So among the many things buried deep in the music of that Boston concert was his farewell to a way of life.

He has had to adjust to other, more profound disruptions since: the death of Lucille, and now the difficulty of his condition. “I’d like to contribute something more,” he said, “just for my own edification-not that I have anything specifically to contribute to the musical discourse, though I’d like to think I would. Just for my own edification, you know what I mean? I think I can do something, at least for myself, that I haven’t done before.”

Whether Rollins can regain enough strength to make such a return is, of course, an unanswerable question. In the meantime, there’s some solace in his big-picture perspective, and in the fact that he has never been one to glorify the past at the expense of the moment at hand. Speaking with the Prague Post before the concert that gave us “Mixed Emotions,” he unwittingly touched on this idea. “Everybody should try to do it,” he said. “Play every concert as if it is your last time. That’s what I have learned. Do everything as if it is your last time.”

Home page photo of Sonny Rollins by John Abbott.

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