Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Rollins, Sonny (Theodore Walter)

By age twenty-five, Sonny Rollins was hailed as a "colossus" of the tenor saxophone. Yet for some, this colossus has had feet of clay: his brilliant career has been punctuated by periods of reclusion and self-doubt. For others, Rollins's questioning spirit enlivens his music. Because for all his genius, humanity is always close at hand.

Rollins resembles Prometheus of Greek mythology: an intermediary to the gods, who risks everything to bring fire to earth. Accepting the ups and downs of his task, Rollinsís quest has been a search for sound. And his sound is unique: raw, heavy, at turns harsh and tender, always human - with unpredictable phrasing which can both gather powerful momentum and take the sweetest slow turns at any moment.

This is exemplified by the moment in February of 1963 when Rollins recorded with the idol of his youth, Coleman Hawkins. As a Harlem teen, Rollins waited for hours to get Hawkins' autograph, and sent him adoring fan letters. By the time they met in the studio, Rollins was 32, and had come in to his own. On tracks such as "Lover Man" and "Just Friends," he bows to his elder with obvious respect, yet simultaneously searches for his own sound and phrasing.

Rollins was also a young bebopper, and was not too late on the scene to help define the genre's vocabulary for his instrument. He went on to shape hard bop, and shared stylistic elements with both John Coltrane, with whom he recorded Tenor Madness in 1956, and Ornette Coleman, two players whose approaches contrasted to his, and whose fame may have fostered some of his self-questioning.

So while Rollins is best known for landmark recordings in the fifties and sixties, such as Saxophone Colossus, his influence extends far beyond this period. His compositions have become modern standards, he has served as a mentor to young players, and his live performances are still masterful examples of modern jazz improvisation.

Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins was born on September 9, 1930 in New York City, to parents from the Virgin Islands and Haiti. When he was still a child, his family moved to Harlemís "Sugar Hill" neighborhood, where his neighbors included many of the era's best jazz musicians, including Andy Kirk, Don Redman, and Hawkins.

Rollins started his musical studies on the piano, then asked his mother for an alto sax, which he first tried to play in the jump-swing style of Louis Jordan. At 16, he switched to the tenor sax to emulate his new idol, Coleman Hawkins. The aspiring young musician also frequented Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theatre, along with teenage pals such as Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor.

Before long, Rollins was playing with local rhythm Ďní blues bands, then took part in his first recording with singer Babs Gonzales. His interest in bebop took a new turn when he sought musical direction from another neighbor, Thelonious Monk, whom he has called his "musical mentor and guru."

Rollins's reputation quickly spread in the New York jazz community, and before he was 20 he had already recorded with J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Miles Davis. His collaboration with the latter lasted and evolved, with lapses, over the next decade.

Rollins' early acceptance as a jazz performer of the highest level brought him to be considered a hero by other young musicians as well as fans. Indeed, from the start his playing was innovative, with a strong rhythmic feel, and his tone was virile and agressive. But this early acclaim may also have contributed to the self-doubt which led to his two sabbaticals from music.

In the early fifties, he moved to Chicago and withdrew from performing, in part to flee his quick and overwhelming fame, and also to distance himself from the drugs which were endemic to the New York jazz scene, Rollins moved to Chicago, where he stayed for a few years at the YMCA. It was in Chicago, in June of 1955 at the Bee Hive club, that Rollins sat in with the Max Roach and Clifford Brown quintet. Stunned by the saxophonist's abilities, Roach and Brown eagerly asked Rollins to join the group.

When he resurfaced, he could no longer be seen as just a young hip hero. He joined the era's most advanced combo, and his playing had become even more confident and creative than before, both rhythmically and melodically. His empathy with Brown gave birth to the best front line of the so-called "hard-bop school."

Even if he didnít write much for the Brown-Roach quintet, his talent as a composer had developed, and from 1955 to 1958 he wrote some of his best and most enduring songs, including "St Thomas," "Valse Hot," "Oleo" and "Airegin." These last two became hits when Rollins recorded them with the Miles Davis Quintet, bringing the trumpet playerís combo catchy compositions and a strong second solo voice, that contrasted with Milesís own.

During the second half of the fifties, Rollins was essentially a freelance musician, who had no regular group of his own. He could both adapt to and assert his personality in different settings as a sideman, such as with Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet. He also led studio sessions on both the East Coast, where he recorded masterful albums for Prestige and Blue Note, such as Newk's Time, and on the Way Out West Coast, where he recorded for Contemporary.

Indeed, it is a testament to Rollins's talent that he produced highly creative music with musicians he hardly knew, on tracks such as "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" and "Come, Gone," and "I'm An Old Cowhand." He liked to explore the 3/4 time signature in his compositions, which at the time was a rarity for jazz musicians. He also demonstrated his ability to play well in every imaginable setting, such as with a big band on "Grand Street," in a trio with only bass and drums, in a duo with drums, as on "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and even solo, as on "It Could Happen to You," recorded for Riverside in 1957.

The trio setting, of which he was a pioneer, would in fact become for some time his trademark. Eliminating the piano's weight from the harmonic structure of a song may have enabled Rollins to unleash his rhythmic and melodic creativity on tracks such as "I Can't Get Started" from his A Night at the Village Vanguard album, recorded for Blue Note on November 3, 1957, where he is supported by a young and stimulating Elvin Jones, and a strongly rooted Wilbur Ware.

Rollins's producers at Prestige Records confidently billed him as their "Saxophone Colossus" on an album released in March of 1956, but by that time there was another tenor giant looming on the horizon: John Coltrane. While some have speculated that Coltrane's rise to prominence somehow undermined Rollins's self-confidence as an innovator, the fact is that they were friends, and Rollins invited Coltrane to join him on the album Tenor Madness in 1956.

It is true that the two did not record together after this session, and Rollins entered a three-year musical retirement in 1959, not long after the double-whammy of Coltrane's magnum opus, "Giant Steps," and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's arrival on the East Coast.

Rollinsís motivations for this sabbatical are summed up in his own account of the period.

"I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I'm going to do it my way. I wasn't going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time."

So Rollins' own explanation about this long interruption has more to do with himself as an artist than any kind of competition. Perhaps we do best to lend credence to Rollins's version of events, rather than doubt him, and pay closer attention to how his evolution as an artist has diverged from the revolutions in jazz around him.

When Rollins returned to the scene in February of 1962, with an album entitled "The Bridge," his playing had clearly changed. It was more poised, and he explored the standards, such as "Without a Song" and "Where Are You?" in a way that gave more space to harmony. He also tackled new compositions, and his sound had mellowed. In no small part, this was thanks to his collaboration with a master of soft sounds and subtle chord voicings, guitarist Jim Hall.

Rather than settle into one style, Rollins continued to relentlessly experiment with standards, original compositions, album-length improvisations, and film scores. He also tried out the bands of both Coleman and Coltrane, borrowing Don Cherry and Billy Higgins for the RCA album Our Man in Jazz, and Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones from Coltraneís group for the 1966 album East Broadway Rundown.

During this second period of his career, Rollins reached out to record with his heroes, like Hawkins, and newcomers like Herbie Hancock. Rollins was obviously trying to find his own way in the maze of new styles of jazz that flourished in the early sixties, and in particular coming to terms with free jazz. But a deeply rooted player like him, with strong links with harmony, melody and rhythm, couldnít easily go beyond the mastery he had acquired in these fields to find new ways that suited him.

In 1966, he decided to quit the music business again, and traveled to Japan and India, where he stayed for a long period in a monastery. Always a spiritual person and an individualist, Rollins is a good example of an artist who never hesitated to withdraw from the scene, without regards to his career, when he felt that his art and his deep self werenít in tune with the music business.

This second sabbatical lasted until 1970, and he didnít record again July of 1972, when he recorded Sonny Rollins' Next Album. Since then, his career and musical output became quite stable, with his wife Lucille working as his manager until her death in 2004, and himself steadily recording on the Milestone label, with Orrin Keepnews as his producer. After a couple of years, Rollins decided to co-produce his own records with his wife, and this stability ó which also extended to the personnel in his bands ó can be directly attributed to the presence of Lucille by his side.

Did this period of stability produce better music? Most observers think not. Of course, it would be hard for any artist to top the monumental achievement of albums such as "Saxophone Colossus," "The Freedom Suite" and "The Bridge." It is also true that while Rollins consistently surrounded himself with able musicians, such as on 1998's "Change Partners," it would be hard to recapture the unpredictabiliy and finesse of the interactions he had with Clifford Brown, Max Roach or Jim Hall. While Rollins has collaborated with gifted younger musicians, like guitarist Pat Metheny, these associations have never lasted long enough to produce anything that rivals the creativity of his earlier work.

This relentless searcher has recently developed a reputation as something of a crowd pleaser, always happy to play the same calypso hits his fans expect in concert. Still, he regularly tries to shake off this tendency to rest on his reputation by inviting young and upcoming musicians to challenge him, or by composing new material that sometimes proves stimulating enough to bring him to give his creative best.

This was the case in 1989, when Rollins recorded the album "Falling in Love with Jazz" with Branford Marsalis on second tenor, Jeff Watts on drums on two tracks and Jack DeJohnette on two more, and Jerome Harris on guitar. DeJohnette and pianist Stephen Scott helped Rollins carve a couple of other good recordings during the nineties, but they unfortunately were not always part of his touring band.

In 1998, Rollins issued the album "Global Warming," which had a highly danceable calypso title track. With this song, which could rival with some of his most famous former compositions, Rollins had a vehicle in which he could stretch out onstage without seeming to turn endlessly around the same old spot.

In 2006, Rollins won a Grammy Award for Jazz Instrumental Solo for a CD released the previous year, "Without A Song: the 9/11 Concert." At the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rollins lived only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, and was forced to evacuate with only his saxophone. The concert was recorded five days later, at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Rollins has since founded his own record label, Doxy Records, which released the album Sonny, Please in 2006. In September of 2007, Rollins performed at Carnegie Hall, on the fiftieth anniversary of his first performance at the hall.

Even those detractors who claim Rollins's music has lost its lustre, and that his bands rarely push him to do his best on stage, must acknowledge that whenever he decides to, Rollins can show that he is one of the greatest tenors of all time. Whoever heard him play a long stop chorus at the end of a tune will keep and cherish the memory of this stunning moment forever.

Select Discography

Saxophone Colossus Prestige, 1956

Tenor Madness Prestige, 1956

Way Out West Contemporary, 1957

A Night at the Village Vanguard Blue Note, 1957

Freedom Suite Riverside, 1958

The Bridge RCA, 1962

Sonny Meets Hawk RCA, 1963

East Broadway Run Down Impulse, 1966

The Cutting Edge Milestone, 1974

The Solo Album Milestone, 1985

Falling in Love with Jazz Milestone, 1989

Global Warming Milestone, 1998

Contributor: Thierry Quťnum