This interview first featured on Blog on the Tracks on Stuff here.
Sonny Rollins is one of the few survivors of his era, a living legend in the jazz world. He’s 80 years old – and he still practises every day (“I put down the horn to pick up the phone and talk to you, Simon”) and he is about to make his first trip to New Zealand. Rollins has played professionally since his teens. He’s played with all the greats. He has made two of my favourite jazz albums – both of them released 20 years before I was born. In fact they were released just a few weeks apart: Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus.
So how do you start a conversation with someone who has played with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, with Max Roach and Thelonious Monk? Well, considering Rollins had just been awarded the National Medal of Arts, we started there. And he gave me his impressions of President Obama.
“I thought he was a very charismatic individual, very charming – a very commanding type of person. I could see why he was voted in and was successful there. We chatted and he knew something of jazz. He told me he had some of my records and played them when he was in college. So that was nice.” And here there’s a slight chuckle.
Rollins was pleased to receive the award and says that as much as it’s a personal honour, he receives it as a jazz representative. “You are always pleased, I guess, with such things. Sure. But to me it was really about jazz receiving some recognition. It’s under-represented and under-appreciated, I feel. There are barely any radio jazz shows or TV shows. We did well by getting jazz into the colleges. And as much as there are people coming through and playing, you feel that it has been sidelined. It’s been overlooked because it was not an easy music to commercialise.”
And now we’re at the right starting point for an interview with Sonny Rollins. We talk of his beginnings in jazz; his start in life, the start of his lifelong love affair with music.
“The early influences for me were Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. They told a story, through jazz. And jazz expressed what American society was about. That’s the very deep thing with jazz. It was about the freedom of expression, about expressing creativity.”
Rollins was born into a musical family. His parents played and appreciated music. His brother was a good violinist. Sonny (born Theodore Walter Rollins) worked at the piano first but was given a saxophone as a gift from his mother.
“I loved music from when I was a baby in the crib, you know. I loved music and I still do. My enthusiasm hasn’t changed. My childhood was happy and music was important. I listened to players on the radio – that was the first exposure really. I would stay with my uncle and he had a collection of blues records. And I also discovered Louis Jordan. That was a trip. He was doing this amazing stuff with jazz and blues and just a great sax player. That was when I really noticed the saxophone. And that is what prompted me.”
Rollins developed a discipline early on, a focus. He worked hard at his craft. He felt immediate results but has always been his own toughest critic. He chuckles as I mention this – confirming that he still continues to be (“some say I’m my worst critic, maybe I’m my best critic?”).
“Please don’t think I’m being conceited,” he prefaces, “but I’m serious when I say that I always knew I would be an important player. I always,” he stresses, “knew this. It was just something I felt. So, you know, next thing I’m playing with Thelonious Monk, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach and these guys were, well, they were geniuses – but I felt that I belonged with them. I wasn’t a genius, but I had a confidence that I could keep up.” He breaks off into a very soft bout of laughter. “You’ll word that how you like,” he laughs, “but I’m sincere when I say that and please don’t think of me as being arrogant.”
The influence of these great players was strong – and not just on Rollins’ playing.
“Around this period, the 40s, jazzers were introduced to heroin. I must qualify this by saying that all artists through history were susceptible to alcohol and hashish, to psychedelics and heroin; there is a part of the artistic nature that is vulnerable to things that remove them from everyday life.
“Billie Holiday, the great Billie Holiday, was addicted. It became part of the scene. Charlie Parker did it. So, we did it.”
Here there is a pause. And then Rollins points out, soberly, “we got messed up. Some of us died. Good friends died. Great players died. The creative mind is vulnerable to hallucinogenics, it’s a destructive force of any drug of choice and it was too much. We had to confront it. We had to get it off the scene.”
So how did Rollins get clean?
“Well, I’ll tell you something, you might not know this but it was Charlie Parker that got me off drugs. It was Charlie Parker that got me on to drugs. He was my idol; he was a hero. And he was doing heroin. So I followed. But Parker saved me. I was doing a session with him, Parker liked me. He liked my playing. And I was a disciple. He asked me if I was using. I told him the lie that I was clean. Then when one of the band ratted me out and told him that I was still using, Parker was devastated. I will never forget that look he gave me. I can see it now. It was like he could not save himself but he wanted to save the younger players, he knew what drugs had done to him and he wanted the younger guys to be clean. He wanted us to not be using. And that was it. That look he flashed when he found out that I was not clean, I was just crushed by it. A light went off in my head. And that’s it. I was clean.”
Rollins has fond memories of working with Miles Davis.
“We were good friends. We had the same sort of musical taste. We had a nice musical relationship and we became very good friends. He’d visit my house and I’d visit him at his house. And we would work on ideas and hang out. He was very kind to me. One of the best. I wouldn’t say that I followed all of his career when he moved into the rock and funk areas but I was always aware of it and what he did and I respected him always. He is one of the names people first think of when they think of jazz and it is with good reason.”
I ask for a word about Max Roach too. He is one of my favourite drummers – probably my all-time favourite.
“Well Max had to be up there,” Sonny offers. “I mean many people consider him the greatest or one of the greatest and really there was nobody better at what he did. And many weren’t capable of what Max did. Playing with Max was great. He accompanied me; he knew where I was going. It was a great privilege to play with him. He allowed me to develop my voice and that is what I needed to do. You cannot stay a copyist – you need to develop your voice and become yourself on your instrument. I felt I needed to do that.”
Around this time Rollins stepped up as a leader, abandoning work as a sideman. He became famous for his work leading a trio as the only melodic instrument; accompanied by just a bass player and drummer. And, essentially, he found his voice.
“I’ve always been a stream of consciousness player, very natural and primitive. That’s how I learned and it’s how I like it. Playing with the trio gave me the freedom. A lot of the bands would feature piano also. Now piano is a very beautiful instrument but I find that a piano can be very dominating against a horn player. You can drown out the horn player with a piano. You have 88 keys and it can become hard to compete. So I removed the piano. I wanted my mind to be free – I wanted the steady rhythm and then space to create and improvise, to just blow and see what happened.”
What happened were those albums I mentioned in the introduction to this interview. And a year on from those, the trio format established, two more jazz classics with Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard.
Rollins is famous for taking sabbaticals. As we carry on through his timeline of playing he prompts this discussion, pointing out that “the first one was musical, the second one was personal”.
He elaborates, “in 1959 I had a lot of acclaim – but I wanted to improve my playing. It was that simple. I wanted to get better. I didn’t feel I was playing well enough; not as well as I wanted. So I stopped playing live for audiences. I stopped recording. And this is the, I guess, famous story that people know about me – you know The Bridge.”
Rollins would walk to the Williamsburg Bridge to practise his playing. Apparently it was to save a pregnant neighbour from hearing his horn. Nearly three years later he returned to the studio and offered The Bridge – one of his best sellers. The story becomes close to apocryphal; Rollins was “discovered” by various jazz luminaries, mistaken even as a busker. And it’s part of the inspiration for the character “Bleeding Gums” Murphy from The Simpsons, featuring significantly in at least one of the main storylines for this recurring character.
But he also took the second of his sabbaticals. “This time it was personal – although I guess it was relating to music. It was about my disillusionment with the music industry. I was very unhappy. Life was hard. Most musicians, and this is a generalisation, but most musicians are gentle in their approach, deep thinkers too. Sensitive, philosophical perhaps. And I was in a world that was hostile. So I went to India where I studied yoga. I started what I refer to as my spiritual journey. I developed rituals and studied and I still follow a lot of what I learned. In the 1970s I returned to music.”
Sonny Rollins has been back, making music, for the last 40 years. He believes that he is now as prolific as he has ever been. “I’m playing a lot. I don’t play every night but I do practise every day. And I’m writing a lot; writing more than I have in years. And I’m still recording regularly. Working on albums all the time.”
There have been tragedies in his life and he has lost many friends. He agrees that as far as jazz’s elder statesmen go he and Ornette Coleman are “among the last”. But Rollins intends to continue sharing his gift.
He has so many stories to share too. He tells me he will one day write his autobiography “but not yet. I’ll do that when I’m older. I’m working with someone on a biography at the moment. It will be his opinion but I guess you could call it authorised, I’ve sat and chatted with this writer and that’s fine. But I would like to tell my story in my words one day because I have lived through a lot.”
And this is where we get to Rollins’ story of September 11, 2001.
“It was,” he tells me, “a beautiful blue sky, a beautiful morning, very clear. My wife and I had an apartment in the city and a house in upstate New York. So my wife was at the house and I had travelled into the city to start packing to get ready for a trip to Boston. My wife and I would always travel together. So I’m doing the packing and then I just heard this noise – a pow! – and it was really quite something, so I figured, since we live quite near the Hudson River, that it was perhaps a small plane crashing there or something. But no. I turn on the radio and start to hear the news – so I switch on the TV.”
From there Rollins explains that his north-facing building couldn’t allow him to see the twin towers but he was just six blocks from the catastrophe.
“We started to head downstairs, people from my building. We’re all feeling rather confused and we’re just starting to try to understand what is happening and there’s a fire we can see in the building, one of the towers. It was a chaotic scene. We were waiting in bewilderment and then the second plane hit. Again we couldn’t see the actual impact but we heard that one of the buildings was collapsing, imploding. So then everybody started running. There was toxic snow in the air. It was an environmental disaster.”
Rollins is calm telling this story he’s lived through. No doubt he’s told it many times. But if it was ever a horror to walk through again it’s his calmness that prevails.
“We couldn’t leave the area so I went upstairs. Back up to my apartment on the 39th floor. And I sat. And listened. Watched TV. Listened to the radio. I spent the night there. We had power to start with. Then the lights went out. The National Guard came in and evacuated us. I took my horn, a small briefcase and a shopping bag. I was able to eventually get back upstate to see my wife – a day later. And then we made the journey to Boston a few days later to perform.
The concert was recorded and eventually released as Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. Rollins says, “I didn’t want to play the show. I was so discombobulated, so unsure of, well, anything. But my wife said we should do it. I had to leave everything else in that apartment. My records, books, my stage clothes, even my piano which Monk would come around and make sound so sweet…all gone. I lost so much.”
Rollins’ wife, Lucille, passed away in 2004. He has continued touring and recording. He has continued without her as best he can.
He tells me, “I feel now I have more of an understanding – based on everything I’ve been through. I am at peace with myself as much as I can be; as much as an ignorant human being can be. I was very upset after 9/11 for a while. I was upset at what I had lost, my records, my books, instruments. But then I became very angry with myself for being so selfish. I had to say to myself, ‘Sonny, you are so lucky to even be here!’ I had to say that,” here he breaks off for some laughter, and “you know it’s important for us to remember these things. I was acting in a way that went against everything I believed in. But ultimately I feel I’ve become a better person; I’ve tried to anyway. I feel I’m at peace.”
We have, at this point, been on the phone for nearly an hour. I am close to tears – several times. I am talking to one of my heroes. He sounds like the nicest, wisest, kindest musical soul. He is telling me about other heroes – people he looked up to and learned from. He has told me about his time getting off junk; his time on junk. He has told me about his wife dying. About September 11. He has told me that at 80 he might get around to writing his life story when he has some time.
I tell Sonny Rollins that it feels like a naff question to ask him but I figure since he has not played in New Zealand before I have to inquire, on behalf of an expectant audience, as to what he might play.
“Whenever Sonny Rollins performs,” he announces himself in third person for only the second time during our chat, “he never knows what he is going to play.” He adds a hoot of laughter. “I’m serious though, I’m quite serious. I can’t play one song the same way twice, everything is improvised. I try to get my band in that space, so that they are ready. Jazz is the most spontaneous music there is. I want New Zealand to tell me what it wants!”
And then he adds that he will be playing some new compositions – and “bits of some of the old pieces will be there too”. But the plan is “to have a good time; to just go with it”.
Rollins believes that performing live is “the apogee; the top. I study still; I still practise because I’m still in search of the perfect style, the perfect soul, the perfect sound. It is a blessing that I’m allowed to play. I practise hard, work at rudiments, scales, I blow through ideas. And then when I get to play live it all hopefully comes together.”
So there’s still a thrill from performing for an audience?
“Well, yes there is. But let me tell you, Simon, I am not someone who expects the audience to give me energy. We do feed off energy, absolutely. But if you’ve paid your money to see me then you do not have to do a thing. It’s me that has to deliver! All right? I have to be on top of my game. And hopefully I am. I don’t like these people that stick to a clock and tell you that time’s up – they’re done. Not me. If we’re having a good time I will play all night. And that’s just something that I guess was drummed into me a long time ago. You perform for your audience. You never expect anything from them; they expect things from you. I still have things to say with my horn. And I want to share them with you. I am so privileged to play for you all. And I’m so looking forward to it. And thank you so much New Zealand for the invitation.”