Right there when bebop was freshly minted and he was running around with Miles and the fast set, through his startling early flowering with the classic Saxophone Colossus, to his London jazz club days in the 60s, and up to today when he steps up to the mark once again live and in the studio, very few come near Sonny Rollins. Interview by Stuart Nicholson
'Rollins – Unique And Absorbing'. The headline of a review in Melody Maker during Rollins' first visit to London in 1965. “His nightly sessions [at Ronnie Scott’s] are something which no serious student of jazz can afford to miss,” continued the review and it has remained that way ever since. A Rollins concert continues to be an event to be savoured, Rolling Stone magazine once saying that in the future people will boast of having seen Rollins perform much as the lucky few now boast of having seen the great bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.
Sonny Rollins is one of the last of the titans from the great era of modern jazz. Noted for his bold tone, propulsive phrasing and buoyant lyricism, he is a master at blending the contradictory impulses of contemporary jazz. He swings even as he fragments rhythms and as he ranges through chorus after chorus of heated improvisation, you always feel the melody is a stone’s throw away. His playing imparts, somehow, a simultaneous sense of struggle and celebration that has helped make him a legend in his own lifetime.
Among the first American jazz musicians to drive a coach and horses through the Musician’s Union ban on visiting American musicians in the mid-1960s, he followed fellow tenor saxophonist Ben Webster into London’s Ronnie Scott club in January 1965 for a three-week residency. As he told Sunday Times writer Derek Jewell at the time, he had accepted the engagement against the advice of his agent because he couldn’t bring his own group. “But I’m glad I did,” he said, adding that he found London a very special place. “I get feelings here like no American city.”
Forty-four years later, he still remembers that visit with great affection. “When I first came to London for those series of club dates at Ronnie Scott’s I agreed to do something which I was not in the custom of doing, which was to play with a new rhythm section,” he says.
“Since my early times I had my own rhythm section, however, for whatever reason – I forget why I agreed to leave them at home – I was very pleasantly surprised. I had a great group of people, Stan Tracey [on piano], Ronnie Stephenson [on drums] and Rick Laird was our bass player and they were all very competent, talented people so it made my stay there very comfortable and rewarding musically. We hit it off right away and it was very comfortable. It was the original Ronnie Scott’s club on Gerrard Street and it was quite a homely place.”
When he arrived, Stan Tracey recalls he called a rehearsal. “He asked us to play ‘Prelude to a Kiss’,” he told The Guardian. “We played on nothing else but that all afternoon. But he never asked for it at any time in the next four weeks he was at the club. Then next time he came, about a year later, he asked us to play it. Probably the most inventive improviser it’s ever been my pleasure to work with.”
At the end of the engagement, Rollins did an unusual thing, which says much about how he regarded his first trip to London. “I brought presents for some of the staff there, which I am sure was highly unusual. I don’t know, maybe others had done it, but I never heard of it being done. I did it because I really made friends with the people there; I really felt a strong bond with the staff and everybody around the club and parting I felt I wanted to leave something of a remembrance. That indicates how much I felt part of the family, so to speak.”
Described by Ronnie Scott in the pages of Melody Maker in January 1965 as “tremendously moving and technically fantastic”, it was while playing at Scott’s club that Rollins was invited to contribute to a little bit of British movie history by providing the soundtrack for the motion picture Alfie, starring Michael Caine. “I did it when I was working at Ronnie’s,” recalls Rollins.
“The producer of the film came in, we were having a nice successful season in the club, lots of people coming by, and I guess we had some notoriety as being ‘a good ticket.’ And so the producer – actually the producer’s son – heard me playing and said, ‘gee Sonny, you’re the right person who we feel would express the character of Alfie’. Now, after having seen the movie, I don’t know if I should have taken that as a compliment or not! But anyway, I was anxious to do the film, so I did it – I actually wrote the music for the film in the club. When I got through an evening’s performance I would have had to have gone home to a hotel and try to get to sleep, it’s always hard to come down from a concert right away and just get yourself into bed. So I said, ‘Ronnie, after I get through playing tonight I’d like to stay in the club, just lock me up, and I’ll stay here until they come by in the morning to open up, because I want to work on the music and I’ll have a nice private space to do it.’ And Ronnie said, ‘Yes, fine, if you want to do that.’ So, that’s what we did, and I got locked in at night and in the morning the people came to open up the club and clean up the club and everything and I had spent that time working on the score that we used for the film.
“Tubby Hayes was a frequent visitor to the club during our time there but I would have probably have remembered if Tubby had been doing the soundtrack, I don’t think so. I think it was Ronnie [Scott], Stan Tracey, Phil Seamen – the drummer, a good guy. We had a lot of fun with Phil, and all the guys. As I said I was quite friendly with everybody and it was really a very bright period of my life that time when I was playing at Ronnie’s.”
Sonny Rollins wrote himself into the pages of jazz history on 22 June 1956 with a series of nonpareil performances on the album Saxophone Colossus. From the moment it was released it was hailed as a classic. But for the 25-year-old saxophonist it was just another session during a remarkable creative high that spanned almost three years. During that time he recorded 15 sessions under his own name that began with Worktime in December 1955 and ended with Freedom Suite in 1958, taking in Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West plus the classic Blue Note session A Night At The Village Vanguard for good measure.
“Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety and even wit”
By any standards this was an astonishing period of creativity. It saw Rollins prising jazz from the omnipresent influence of Charlie Parker, whose legion of followers mistook speed for content and ended up creating solos like one enormous glissando. In contrast, Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety and even wit. With blunt, asymmetric phrasing and a big powerful tone, his style was unmistakable. Before your very eyes he seems to dismantle songs and reassemble them in new and interesting ways, a feat performed with such clarity of purpose you could almost hear him thinking.
His solos were propositions, cerebral inventions that sounded as if they could be spun endlessly, rather than the pronouncements of an Armstrong or a Parker, which seemed to arrive etched in stone. “I always stress that music never ends, it just continues, there is no real cut off,” he says. His improvisations were governed as much by the underlying harmonic sequence as the development and thematic variation of a melodic idea. Ever since ‘Blue Seven’ from Saxophone Colossus, shrewdly analysed by Gunther Schuller in the pages of the then highly influential American magazine Jazz Review, Rollins has, over the years, developed and refined this creative process into a unique art.
In September 2008, after more than two decades mainly playing with a quintet (including his nephew Wes Anderson on trombone, an association on record that began with 1984’s Sunny Days, Starry Nights), Rollins decided to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall with a trio. As the New York Times reported at the time, “All those who watch jazz closely stepped back and took a deep breath.” The reason was simple. For many, perhaps most, of his fans, performing with just bass and drums accompaniment was the ideal forum in which to express his remarkable improvisatory gifts. Yet his trio recordings seem to exist almost in parallel to his remarkable career and yield some of his most memorable albums – not least Way Out West, A Night At The Village Vanguard and Freedom Suite.
“When I look back on my career I find that I was playing trio almost from the beginning,” he reflects. “You know when I first met Miles Davis I was playing as an opening act for him, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, some of these stars that were playing down on 52nd Street. This was a place up in the Bronx called the 845 Club and I was hired to play and open up for these guys and as I look back I remember I had a trio then. When Miles, I remember, offered me a job in his band he had heard me in a trio originally. When I look back on my career I find that many records were made with a trio, that’s why nowadays when you find saxophone, drums and bass there’s a little bit of Sonny Rollins in that line-up. I found I had been doing it for so much of my career. I didn’t even realise it until somebody asked me about it a year or so ago, and I looked back and realised how much of my work was with a trio.
“Some of my records like A Night At The Village Vanguard, Way Out West, Freedom Suite were made with a trio. I had some more than useful accompaniment too! I had people like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Shelley Manne, I mean I had configurations of groups which really had the crème de la crème and so the success of those records is certainly not only my playing but I do find it has been some years since I played in that grouping. I find that as a soloist it gives me more freedom to hear the harmonic possibilities of any piece of music that we’re playing. With due respect to the piano players, and I have worked with some of the best, the piano is a dominating instrument and if you have 88 keys and the person is playing chords behind you when you are soloing it is very difficult to deviate from their harmonic direction. With a bass and drums I don’t have that, I can hear my own harmony and fill it in myself. I’ve always liked that, when I first started playing as a kid I used to be in the house playing by myself, for hours and hours, and my dear mother used to call me, ‘Sonny, Sonny, it’s time to eat dinner.’ And I’d just be in there in the bedroom playing in my own reverie, my own peaceful trance so to speak. I have always been a person who has been able to create my own harmony when I play.”
Rollins’ instantly recognisable tenor saxophone sound did not come out of nowhere. It includes a synthesis of key players from the generations in jazz that preceded him when he was developing his own voice in the late-1940s. “My idols were originally Louis Jordan, the rhythm and blues saxophonist, then I gravitated to Coleman Hawkins and I stayed with Coleman Hawkins trying to absorb him and then I familiarised myself with Lester Young,” he recalls.
“All the time of course I had heard Ben Webster and tried to absorb some of his playing and the great Don Byas was one of my ultimate favourite saxophone players who I think was one of those unsung heroes. So I tried – I learned a lot, I wish I could have learned more from these people [laughs], I studied them a lot, let me say that! I studied all of them a lot, and Charlie Parker came along and I studied Charlie Parker a lot, the fact that Charlie Parker came on the scene just at the time I was coming into my adolescence he became a prominent source of my inspiration at that time.
“When I first heard Charlie Parker it was in the 1940s – the first record I had by Charlie Parker was a record called ‘KoKo.’ It was a famous record of him playing on ‘Cherokee,’ it was on Savoy. On the other side of that record was ‘How High The Moon’ by Don Byas. I actually bought that record for Don Byas because I didn’t really know Charlie Parker, but listened to Charlie Parker play, it was interesting but after playing it for my friends at school I realised this guy has got something going here, and I began to become a devotee of Charlie Parker.”
“I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker, our idol, our prophet, our god” – Sonny Rollins
Later, the great Charlie Parker would become something of a mentor to the precociously talented Rollins. “He looked at me in rather an avuncular way, myself and a lot of other young people, all trying to play like him, and I think he was very proud of us, really,” he says. “As I began playing more and getting some recognition from some of the older players and so on, finally I got to the point where I was playing with Miles Davis and our paths crossed, and Miles said to Charlie Parker, listen to this guy, and Charlie Parker, the first time he heard me, he said, ‘Hey, man that’s me!’ So I really felt great, and he was like a father figure to us all, mentor and everything. People have asked me, ‘Sonny, you played with people like Charlie Parker when you were young, didn’t it make you feel a little bit scared?’ I said no. Actually I loved all those people, they were my gods, but still I had something in me that made me always feel as if I belonged, and that I should be where I was. I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker, our idol, our prophet, our god.”
Charlie Parker, whose personal life has become legendary, had, as Joe Goldberg points out in Jazz Masters of the Fifties perhaps “too great” an influence on the young Rollins.
“Jazz musicians have hard, hard, hard lives and they are prey to the usual things artists are prey to – alcohol, drugs all these things,” says Rollins frankly. “I would say all artists are subject to getting involved in these things because it sort of goes with living and trying to get closer to nature and music, and these things are hard to find in every day life, every day society, so artists and writers may get into drinking and all that, because we’re trying to find essences of things you’re not going to find in everyday life. That’s what makes art ‘art,’ something separate, so one of the pitfalls is that in order to find those things you drink a lot, you use drugs a lot, you find ways that at least temporarily give you a different consciousness.”
“Rollins abruptly dropped out of the music scene to break his pattern of addiction and found work in Chicago as a janitor”
Having seen two friends, Ike Day and Lowell Lewis, have their careers ruined by addiction, Rollins abruptly dropped out of the music scene to break his pattern of addiction and found work in Chicago as a janitor. He continued playing, but not professionally during this period. It was now 1955, and Miles Davis, who was forming a new quintet, let it be known in print he wanted Rollins to join him. “Well I had been playing with Miles,” he recalls. “When I was away from New York he gravitated towards me to start his band up, we were very good friends, Miles and me used to hang out, at my house, I’ve been in his house, this kind of stuff. Although I had played with Miles and John Coltrane in 1949, I think that’s right but my chronology could be off a little bit, we both played with Miles [around then], so Miles knew Coltrane and he knew me – I think he recounts some of that in his biography. I was very excited when he wrote that he wanted to get Sonny, but I think that was because he and I were very close personally and musically, so probably that’s why he wanted to get me back when he formed his band.”
Rollins was playing in Davis’ quintet with pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones on a July 1955 broadcast from the Café Bohemia in New York City, but in September 1955 he signed himself into Lexington to try and kick his drug habit. He was replaced by John Gilmore, but on Monday 26 September, Philly Joe Jones phoned John Coltrane who joined the band the following day at the Club Las Vegas in Baltimore. The classic Miles Davis Quintet was born. “I’m sure Coltrane was available and was someone who he would have taken also,” says Rollins. “I think he just mentioned my name as the first one at that point, but Miles loved to have a strong saxophone player. That was one of his desires, he always wanted to have a strong saxophone player, as you know he always had strong saxophone players with him. I think it set his playing off in relief, which he enjoyed and he realised it was good musically to play against the pattern of saxophone sounds, it set his playing off in relief that made it made him more cogent and I think he knew that.”
As Miles Davis went on to make jazz history with John Coltrane, Rollins was about to make history himself. In December 1955 saxophonist Harold Land left the Clifford Brown / Max Roach Quintet at the Beehive club in Chicago, so Roach called Sonny Rollins. “I had been in a rehabilitation hospital for substance abuse, and when I joined Clifford Brown and Max Roach I had been fighting to get free of all of these things,” he recalls. “I had been going along very nicely, in fact I had turned a corner in many ways, I had turned a corner but I had to stay away from music for a while, I had to stay away from the environment of music until I got myself strong enough to be around music and not fall prey to drinking and drug abuse and all that stuff. So I was right at a critical point in my life when I had turned a corner and I was ready to going back to playing, and that’s when I met the band and they asked me to join it and Clifford became such a light to me, because he was playing so great and yet he was completely clean, a clean living person. So he was a great influence on me in a very, very positive way.”
Just about a year older than the mercurial Clifford Brown, Rollins was about to step into a front-line partnership where he would realise his own great talent. “Clifford was a fine, consummate musician, but I certainly didn’t feel, ‘Boy, Clifford Brown, I don’t know if I should be up here,’” he says. “I didn’t feel that, but I certainly felt a big challenge playing with Clifford Brown because of his great playing. However, I was playing a little differently to the fellow I followed in the band, Harold Land, a fine saxophone player. But the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band with Land was set in a certain direction, when I joined the band it sort of opened up a lot of other things, it changed a lot about the band, a lot of people observed that, it changed the character of the band, and in so doing it changed Brownie. He was so great, I don’t know if I was as great on saxophone as Clifford was on trumpet, I’m not sure about that, you know? But what I am sure is that I had it in my hands to go in a slightly different direction which changed the character of that band.”
By now, Rollins had developed a strong musical personality that could challenge Brown and Roach and help them reach new highs, and their remarkable recorded evidence suggests Rollins brought a gravitas to the band which took it to the cusp of true greatness. Potentially their musical relationship could have been one of the most seminal in the annals of modern jazz, eclipsing that of even the Davis quintet. But it was not to be. The clean living Brown lost his life in a car accident on 26 June 1956. Rollins remained with Roach, playing with Brown’s replacement Kenny Dorham for almost a year, but it was to be his last as a sideman, and his association with Dorham was his last significant association with a trumpeter (except for a brief alliance with Don Cherry five years after he left Roach in May 1957).
Since then, as an internationally renowned artist Rollins’ stature within jazz has continued to grow. In 1986 he was hailed as jazz’s greatest living improviser, and he continues to be capable of filling any concert hall around the world.
So what is he looking for, with all that he has achieved, in his constant search for perfection? “I’m looking for continuity of ideas and the perfect cut-off. I’m looking for that type of really beautiful statement, an impressive statement, really on my part. I’m also looking for a good community effort on behalf of the group, not just myself. So I’m looking for the perfect balance, and this you can get to a certain point, maybe 50 per cent, maybe 60 per cent, maybe 70 per cent, maybe 80 per cent but it is never there completely. So that’s what I am looking for.”
This article originally appeared in Jazzwise, November 2009. Subscribe to Jazzwise.