Clip: Listening to CDs With Sonny Rollins
Listening to CD's With Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins: A Free Spirit Steeped in Legends
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: September 30, 2005
HIS face and neatly trimmed white beard shaded by a Filson hunting cap,
Sonny Rollins arrived for our appointment straight from a visit to the
dentist. The dentist is more or less the only reason for Mr. Rollins to
make the two-and-a-half-hour trip to New York City now unless he's giving
an infrequent concert.
Sonny Rollins, asked about a recent performance he gave, says, "I look at
all that from the inside, so you'd probably have to ask someone else."
Now 75, the tenor saxophonist whom many call the greatest living improviser
in jazz lives on a Columbia County farm in Germantown, N.Y., that he bought
in 1972 with his wife, Lucille. Until recently they also kept an apartment
in Lower Manhattan; after the World Trade Center, six blocks away, was
attacked, they had to leave their home temporarily and then decided to let
go of their pied-à-terre. His wife, who was also his manager and record
producer, died last November. This is a period of transition for him.
Mr. Rollins had agreed to my request that he choose some music for us to
listen to together and discuss. In the elevator at The New York Times, I
asked him how his big concert had gone at the Montreal Jazz Festival over
the summer. "Well, I don't know," he answered in his froggy voice. "I look
at all that from the inside, so you'd probably have to ask someone else."
But on the subject of music other than his own, the basis of our meeting,
he is more forthcoming. Mr. Rollins had chosen a short list of pieces for
our session, the point being to listen through his sensibilities. He was
careful to contextualize his responses, but essentially remained open to
exploring any idea. And his responses were fairly fresh: he said,
regretfully, that for 20 years he had not really listened much to music, to
protect himself from too much information. "It's not healthy," he admitted.
"I would like to be able to listen to CD's. I enjoy it, you know." What we
did not discuss much was Mr. Rollins's new album, "Without a Song,"
released a month ago by Milestone/Fantasy. It is a recording of a Boston
concert four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the first in a possible
series of live Sonny Rollins releases. Carl Smith, a 66-year-old retired
lawyer who also collects jazz recordings, has located (and in a few cases,
including the Boston concert, surreptitiously recorded) more than 350
Rollins performances, going back to a tape of a three-minute solo on alto
saxophone from 1948.
Were these performances to be made available, they would be taken very
seriously in the jazz world, especially because Mr. Rollins's studio
records of the last 30 years - some would argue 40 - scarcely indicate the
extent of his talent. Mr. Rollins is a powerful, grand-scale improviser who
often needs half an hour or more to say what he wants on the horn and
achieve his momentum. But he is also a paragon of structure as he
improvises. Almost every modern jazz musician is fascinated by Sonny
Yet he says he has an aversion to listening to himself play. He had to
force himself to listen closely to the tape of the Boston concert, a
process that he described as "like Abu Ghraib." "It's possible for me to
hear something I did and say, 'Yeah, I like that,' " Mr. Rollins admitted.
"Although it would probably never be a whole thing. It might be a portion,
a section of something, or a solo."
Mr. Rollins was born in New York City in 1930, of parents who had
immigrated from the Virgin Islands. He grew up in Harlem - first in the
lowlands around 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, and then, from age 9, in the
Sugar Hill neighborhood, a locus at the time for jazz musicians. He
attended Benjamin Franklin High School in what was then an Italian section
of East Harlem, and lived through an early New York experiment in bussing
black students to white neighborhoods; he remembers people throwing objects
at the bus windows. But it was such a high-profile case of school
integration that Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole gave concerts to the
students in the school auditorium to promote race relations.
Thinking of his childhood, Mr. Rollins wanted to hear Fats Waller's 1934
recording of "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." From
the beginning of the song he looked as if he had just stepped into a warm
bath. A clarinetist began playing counterpoint improvisations against
Waller's piano and voice. "Who's the clarinet player?" Mr. Rollins asked,
coming out of his reverie.
It was Rudy Powell. "Isn't that something?" he said. "I went to school with
Rudy Powell's son." Mr. Rollins and Rudy Powell didn't know each other,
although they stood about three feet apart in Art Kane's famous "Great Day
in Harlem" photograph from 1958.
"I remember hearing that song around the house, and on the radio and
everything," Mr. Rollins said. "Wow, I haven't heard that record in so many
years. It's one of my earliest memories of jazz. I believe in things like
reincarnation, and it struck a chord someplace in my back lives or
It's very restful, I said, as we listened to the song again. It's not the
other Fats Waller, the boisterous one.
"Yeah," Mr. Rollins agreed. "He could be raucous, but this is very, very
much - mmm." (Waller was singing: "I'm gonna write words oh so sweet/
they're gonna knock me off my feet/ a lot of kisses on the bottom/ I'll be
glad I got 'em.")
"Yeah," Mr. Rollins said, still impressed by Powell. "But the thing I want
to stress is that this is evocative of the whole Harlem scene. Where I was
born, when I was born. And his playing, that stride piano style, which of
course comes from other people. It's overwhelming to me, really. When I
hear him, to me it just says the whole thing. It encapsulates jazz, the
spirit of jazz, what jazz is about. In a very overall way."
Along Came Hawkins
We moved on to Coleman Hawkins. If Waller represents Mr. Rollins's
childhood, Hawkins represents his maturation. (An infatuation with Louis
Jordan came in between.) When Mr. Rollins became really interested in the
saxophone, as a teenager in the mid-1940's, Hawkins was especially hot. In
late 1943 the yearlong ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians,
preventing commercial recordings, had just been lifted, and Hawkins, nearly
40 and very competitive, was making up for lost time, collaborating with
the younger beboppers. (In 1963 Rollins would make a record with his idol,
performing with a kind of brave, modern idiosyncrasy.)
"The Man I Love," from December 1943, is one of the greatest performances
in jazz, though overshadowed by Hawkins's much more famous recording of
"Body and Soul." It was released on a 12-inch 78 r.p.m. record - a detail
Mr. Rollins remembered - because Hawkins had too much to say and started a
second chorus. It ended at 5:05, too long for the normal 10-inch format.
We listened to Hawkins's two voluminous choruses, ambitious from the very
opening phrase: an E natural chord jostling against an E flat.
"You know, he's doing a lot of stuff in there, man," Mr. Rollins said.
"Very far-reaching, too. Coleman was a guy that played chord changes in an
up-and-down manner. He sort of played every change, let me put it that way.
He had a phrase for every change that went by. So in that solo he was not
only playing the changes, he was also playing the passing chords, which is
another thing he was ahead of his time on. And still, he was getting the
jazz intensity moving, so he was building and building and building."
"It's a work of art," he concluded.
When did he get around to Coleman Hawkins? "Well, 'Body and Soul' was
ubiquitous in Harlem, on jukeboxes. They could have turned me on to him.
But since I moved up on the hill, where so many of these guys lived, I even
had a chance to see him driving around. He had an impressive Cadillac. He
dressed well. And, you know, there were certain other people that acted
more on the entertainment side. There was even a time in my life when I had
a brief feeling about Louis Armstrong, that he was too minstrel-y and too
smiley. That didn't last long. I was a young person at the time. But what
impressed me about Coleman was that he carried himself with great dignity."
A lot of Mr. Rollins's heroes lived in his neighborhood; the tricky part
was getting their ear. "There was a great photographer named James J.
Kriegsman, who used to make these pictures of musicians, and he made a
beautiful picture of Coleman. So I had my 8-by-10, and I knew where he
lived, up on 153rd street, and one day I knew when he was coming home. He
signed my autograph. I was 13 or 14."
"I was a real pest, as a young guy," he recalled. "It's sort of
embarrassing to think about it now."
Parker Cuts Loose
Inevitably, Charlie Parker was on Mr. Rollins's list. But the piece,
"Another Hair Do," from 1947, was an unusual choice. It is a 12-bar blues.
At the beginning, Parker and a very young Miles Davis play a repeated line
for the first four bars. But after that Parker cuts loose and improvises at
double-speed for the next five, before the written part resumes and the
"Another Hair Do" is nothing canonical in jazz history, but for Mr. Rollins
it was. "The thing about this song was that the form of it was
revolutionary even for bop," he said.
He backtracked a little. "First of all, this guy's rhythmic thing was
definitely on another planet. You don't find people doing that, the way he
was doubling up there. There was a lot of free improvisation in the melody
there." (By melody, Mr. Rollins meant the opening 12-bar theme section.)
When Parker comes back to play the theme again, I said, he's not going to
play that fast bit the same way. "No," Mr. Rollins said. "It's an open
space. See, Miles is trying to do a little bit of it, too" - improvising in
double-time over the steady pulse - "but he can't quite do it yet. But, you
know, Miles was a genius. He was playing with Charlie Parker and not able
to do some of the technical stuff, but yet making it sound like he's in the
same ballpark." He whistled, and laughed, then went back to Parker's
"It's not just the computer saying four notes against two notes. It's what
Charlie Parker's doing within that thing. It's music that can't be written
down. You have to feel that to make it come out. So what Charlie Parker
accomplished was, he made an open-ended song which was not open-ended. It
wasn't like playing anything you want. But within that there was so much
freedom to play what you wanted to play. And still he made it to sound like
a regular blues song."
Mr. Rollins himself wrote some open-ended pieces, like "The Bridge."
"Well, I probably got it from my idol there," he responded. "People playing
jazz have to try to understand where he was coming from, what that was, and
emulate it and absorb it. This is what jazz is: jazz is freedom. I don't
think you always have to play in time. But there's two different ways of
playing. There's a way of playing where you can play with no time. Or, you
can have a fixed time and play against it. That's what I feel is heaven -
being able to be that free, spiritual, musical. I would say that's an ideal
which is underappreciated."
Here he seemed to sense that he was getting into rough waters. "I mean
playing free without any kind of time strictures - there's nothing wrong
with that either. I'm not saying that's inferior. But I guess I'm getting
older now, so I'm getting to be a person that's steeping myself in the
tradition of Fats Waller and all of these people we're listening to today,
who are playing time music. I'm probably going to be dissing myself to the
new guys coming up somewhere, but a lot of our audiences still relate to
time. I'm still in the era of time being an important component of jazz.
I'm still there, O.K.? So kill me."
Finally, we got to Lester Young. "Afternoon of a Basie-ite" was recorded in
1943 - five days after Hawkins's "Man I Love" session - with a quartet
including Johnny Guarnieri on piano, Slam Stewart on bass and Sid Catlett
on drums. It is almost lotus-eater music, light and gorgeous, geared toward
dancing. "Boy, I'm telling you," said Mr. Rollins, smiling. "That's the
Savoy ballroom there."
"It sounds very free and easy," Mr. Rollins said. "But we know it's not,
because what he's saying is deep as the ocean. There was a beginning and an
end. He was storytelling all the way through. So when I first heard that, I
mean, this cat was talking."
When you talk about improvised storytelling, I asked him, what are you
really talking about?
"Well, I guess it's making sense," he replied. "It's like talking gibberish
and making sense. That's on the very basic level. Then beyond that, of
course, it's a beautiful story. It's uplifting. It's emotional."
He wanted to illustrate it further with an observation a writer once made
about his own playing, but then he stopped himself. "I don't want this to
sound self-aggrandizing," he said. "In my later years I've become very
self-effacing. I have decided that I know what greatness is, and I don't
want to put myself in that category."
Understood. "Anyway," he continued, "somebody wrote that what I was doing
in a certain song was asking a question and then answering the question. I
think he was talking about harmonic resolutions. So that would be sort of
what I think telling a story might be: resolving a thought."
I asked if there were any of his own recorded performances he felt
comfortable with, that didn't pain him with thoughts of how it should have
been better. "It's hard to say, because I haven't listened to any of my
stuff in a long time," he said. "Unless it's on the radio, and I can't
leave the room. But I seem to like 'Sonnymoon for Two,' with Elvin Jones
and Wilbur Ware." (It can be found on Mr. Rollins's 1957 album "A Night at
the Village Vanguard.")
I asked if the increasing self-effacement had any musical implications.
Does it come out in his work?
Mr. Rollins looked embarrassed and tickled by the idea; he started smiling
and looking at the corners of the room, as if wondering whether there was
an escape hatch. "Wow. Well, I hope that it's going to be expressed in my
work. But I don't know how. These things come out, you know." His hands
flew up to his face, and he twisted the white strands of beard around his