A Conversation With ... Sonny Rollins
September 7, 2016 Sonny Rollins turned 86. A few years back former executive director of the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival Pat Taylor and I discussed the great loss of living legends and giants of jazz and who to book in a prime venue where elevated ticket prices keep a festival afloat. Rollins was in town that year but few others from the 40s’ era that birthed bebop bop, hard bop and progressive jazz. 2016, other than Rollins and a handful, that day has arrived.
It was around 1974 that Rollins played the El Mocambo nightclub in Toronto. This was the same room a fully inebriated hillbilly psycho-boogie band Black Oak Arkansas, thrashed their way through “Red Hot Lovin’’’ on a Thursday night, and Boston’s much beloved Roomful of Blues would play a sophisticated style of jump blues the next.
On this occasion the room was jammed, everyone anticipating a mix of straight-ahead blowing and Caribbean rhythms. Rollins was in full roar! The solos were long extended rhythmic motifs that snapped and cracked through the attentive house. Forty minutes of long-winded soloing per tune normally drove a dozen or so patrons to the smoking lounge, but on this occasion, the fun had just began.
Rollins started the easy stroll, walking table to table, blowing a few staccato like lines--then moving on. Some 40 minutes later, the calypso-laden “St. Thomas” ends, and the delirious crowd is still insisting on more from Sonny.
I caught up with Rollins in 1997 and still cherish that conversation.
Bill King: After years of expanding the potential of the music, are you still finding new challenges?
Sonny Rollins: Yes, I’m finding new challenges because I view music as an open sky. This is something I said long ago, and somebody used it to name a festival in New York.
Music is so endless, so wide. There’s so much you can do with it. Jazz can assimilate so many other forms of music. There are lots of things I can envision doing. The problem is, you get to a certain age and the physical part of your body begins to decline. Playing the saxophone is a physical thing.
BK: Are you as passionate about music as you were when you were younger?
SR: Definitely, I’m a very conscientious musician. I’m fortunate to have been around some trendsetters. I have a great appreciation of jazz music, and feel it’s still not getting its proper dues.
BK: When you hear today’s musicians referred to as the ‘young lions’, do you hear original thoughts or an echo from the past?
SR: In many ways, that’s an unfair evaluation. Jazz is not pop music; it’s not going to change every month.
It’s a traditional form of music. We can’t really expect all young musicians to come out with a brand-new sound or style.
Jazz is a ‘classical music’. If you didn’t play anything traditional, you wouldn’t qualify as a good player. The years when I started playing, which I consider a golden age, lots of trends were being created, styles being set. We’re not going to get that now.
That was roughly between 1935 and 1965. That’s not going to happen every three decades or so. A golden age may not come again for a very long time. It just doesn’t happen that way.
It’s unfair to expect a new crop of Thelonious Monks to spring up. These young guys need time to assimilate the music.
Jazz is not a music that’s easy to find.
You’ve got to seek it out and find others to play with.
BK: Do you think for the most part, music critics in their critiques are aware of an artist’s goal, values, attitude and philosophy?
SR: I’d say they’re probably limited by personal taste. Writers have to say something clever. That’s what media writing is about. I think each writer comes to it with his or her own bias. They sometimes include their own personal likes and dislikes.
When we were coming up, writers had a greater influence than they do now. The media is more expansive today. A bad review in Down Beat is not going to mess up a guy’s career. Back in the ‘40s, there weren’t that many venues to work at. A bad review would get around in the small jazz world and make it hard for a guy to get his foot in the door.
BK: In most record reviews I read these days, many of the new writers seem less analytical, choosing to play it safe. Is this a good thing?
SR: A long time ago, I made it a practice not to read reviews. My wife would be the best one to answer that question. If she thinks the review is offensive, it goes in the round file. If it’s not offensive, she may show it to me.
I really can’t speak on criticism today; I’m just not up on the new writers.
BK: Can the academic dissection of an individual’s playing concepts be an impediment to a musician if he abandons chance for logic?’
SR: Of course, this is the big, big question. I think a player has to have natural talent. Having that, you must pursue the academic part, not necessarily in school, but with a teacher with the fundamental knowledge of music.
You’ve got to study as much as you can and learn the basic principles that that will make you a professional musician, but you must also have talent.
BK: You have never needed much in the way of chording because you cover the whole thing yourself. Does an accompanist limit you harmonically?
SR: I’m not sure that I’d say it limits me. It may be true today in certain ways, but it’s really just a matter of giving up one thing for another.
I like playing with piano players and I’ve had some great ones backing me, like Bud Powell for instance. He was the perfect accompanist. On the other hand, I’m a guy who falls into a trance when I play.
When I was a little boy, I would practice in my mother’s room so I wouldn’t disturb people outside. I’d be there for hours and hours. I’d be perfectly content. You’d have to call me over and over to eat dinner. I did this when I practiced on the bridge too. I hear a lot of the accompaniment in my own mind.
When I used to play solo from table to table, I’d get certain feedback from the people. It would energize me. It helped me dig deeper into my own creative process.
It’s much more difficult now. I may have a million more ideas than I had then, but they’re probably not going to come out because the physical stamina is just not there. It’s an unfortunate fact of aging.
BK: When playing live, you seem to link tunes together without saying much to the band. For the most part, do players respond well to this freedom?
SR: I’ve had some guys who didn’t respond well to it because they weren’t used to doing things like that. Linking tunes together is an attempt on my part to make things completely spontaneous. Unfortunately, I don’t do that as much as I used to.
I think part of the reason is there’s a certain reticence on the part of musicians to follow me when I do that. For me, that used to be one of the exciting parts about how I played. I’d segue from one tune to another.
BK:Can you listen to your past recordings without judgment and share the elation so many feel for your music? It’s been said that Saxophone Colossus is a record with which one can happily spend a lifetime.
SR: It’s hard for me to listen to my recordings. I’m one of those super critical people, so it’s very difficult for me to sit down and listen to myself play. In fact, I try to avoid it at all costs.
BK:During your two-year sabbatical, you and Ornette Coleman practiced together. What sorts of things did you work on?
SR: We used to go to a beach in California when I was out there. I always loved playing to the sound of the surf rolling in and the waves breaking. It was really a wonderful background.
With Ornette, it was nothing formal. We just played stream of consciousness and enjoyed the elements.
BK: West Indian rhythms have appeared frequently in your compositions. What is your connection with these rhythms?
SR: My mother came from the Virgin Islands. As a young boy in Harlem, I heard the music and my mother would take me to these calypso dances. It was something very unique.
BK: Milestone has just released Silver City, commemorating your 25-year association with them. Were you involved in selecting and sequencing the compilation?
SR: Yes, I spent a lot of time picking out the best stuff I thought would work in sequence. In retrospect, there are a couple of things I would change. Nonetheless, I think it represents the best of what was available there.
BK: In 1955, you assumed a crucial role in the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Group. In fact, it was Brown who dubbed you Sonny. Do you have any thoughts about what Brown might have achieved had he not died so young?
SR: He was such a prodigious talent. He did everything. It’s hard to say what else he would have accomplished. Maybe guys like Clifford Brown are allotted a certain amount of time, they do what they have to do, and that’s it. But their music is endless.