The Ongoing Improvement of Sonny Rollins


“I guess people are going to do whatever they’re going to do,” Sonny Rollins tells me over the phone. “Say whatever they’re going to say as loud as they want to say it, even if it’s wrong or dangerous.”

We’re talking about the recent protests in opposition to the proposed Park51 Islamic Cultural Center, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” It seemed fitting, with Rollins’s upcoming Beacon Theatre concert scheduled for September 10, a day short of nine years since the World Trade Center attacks.

Dubbed “Saxophone Colossus” at just 25 via the title of his now-classic Prestige LP, Rollins’s image has, improbably, grown in the years since. Now 80, he has spent the last decade adding a worthy coda to his storied career. Sonny, Please, his first studio recording in five years and his strongest in at least a decade, was an unexpected surprise in 2006; 2008’s Road Shows, Vol. 1 was the first in a promised series culled from his own soundboard tapes of concerts and bootlegs he has acquired from various sources, including hundreds found or surreptitiously made by an avid collector, Carl Smith.

Rollins’s wife, Lucille, who managed his business affairs until her death in 2004, used to be adamantly opposed to bootlegs of any sort. But the saxophonist has softened his view, perhaps when he considered the Smith tapes that led to his gorgeous release Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, recorded at a Boston venue just four days after he evacuated his apartment near the World Trade Center. On it, his bold, blistering sound, which always carries powerful emotion, sounded just a bit more resonant. “Maybe music can help,” he told the audience. “I don’t know. We have to try something.”

How has the meaning of September 11 changed for you since the time you played that concert in Boston? Of course, that was such a catastrophic event that it will always live with me, just as it must with you. But the strange part is that right after 9/11, there was this whole period in which we had these wonderful ecumenical meetings, everybody joining hands: Muslims, Jews, Christians. Everyone was lamenting that this was the wrong thing to do, that it should not have happened to these innocent people, that we needed to wake up. And I noticed that people in the United States were kinder people then. They were nicer to each other. I felt, I feared that it wouldn’t last too long. I’d say it lasted two months—still, it showed us there was another way to go.

When you told the crowd in Boston, “Maybe music can help,” did you think it could? Can instrumental music, without any sung pronouncements, change anything? Well, music is and always has been the one thing that makes me a believer. You can say, “Oh, I’m an agnostic. I don’t believe in God.” OK, fine, but then explain music to me. Music is a great gift, and I’m privileged to bring it to people. Of course, you can’t overgeneralize. There’s such a thing as martial music that people use to go to war. So people can use music for their own ends—it’s neutral. But it’s such a powerful, wondrous thing. It’s unsurpassed. Why not use it for good?

Was that the impulse back when you recorded Freedom Suite in 1958, and included that forceful liner note about “the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence,” being “rewarded with inhumanity”? When I wrote Freedom Suite, I think I was on the right track. It was necessary at the time, and it could be received in that moment, I thought. Timing is very important when you do music that has a political statement.

When you titled your 1999 album Global Warming, I’m not sure even Al Gore was talking about that issue. . . . That was simply something I felt strongly about. I have a little more nuanced view now. Not that I said anything wrong, but I have improved on my analysis now.

Was this idea of music as a force for good something you discussed with John Coltrane during the time the two of you were close? Actually, yes. We were investigating books on music at that time. But not just books about the music itself—but things that related to the larger idea of music and its uses. I was also getting into yoga around that time. John showed me a book about Sufis, by Hazrat Inayat Khan.

The Mysticism of Sound and Music? Yes, that’s it. Both John and I had ethical values we were developing at that time. So this book was significant, because it showed us that music and those impulses go together in a natural way. It was a wonderful realization that music, if you’re trying to play honestly, and the attempt to become a better person are of one piece.

You’ve been asked many times about your uneasy relationship with recordings. I’ve read many references to you being self-critical to the point of not wanting to hear the playback. But there’s something deeper in your discomfort, isn’t there? It’s my nature to be self-critical, but you bring up something that most people don’t consider, and it’s important. The whole act of recording is sort of unnatural to me. Jazz mimics the way we live. I never play or hear anything the same way twice. I’m sitting at a window now looking out over a cloudy day, but in 20 minutes the sun might be shining.

Isn’t there a deep irony to your attitude, given the fact that, since your teens, you’ve made recordings that many fans consider to be sacred jazz texts? On the surface, I’d have to say it is a contradiction. But life is full of contradictions. I do agree it’s great to have records. I can listen to great music I would never have heard or music I want to hear again. On the other hand, the more you capture something, you know, like as a real-world hard copy, or whatever we call it these days, the more you take away from it.

Well, then forgive me if I dwell on recordings a bit more. Along with iconic status in jazz sometimes comes a certain complacency on the part of critics. Were you at all surprised by the critical affection showered on you with your last few releases? Not at all. I’ve been working toward each achievement my whole life. I still practice every day. I cannot play rote—I don’t have that facility, really. But I don’t want to, either. And, thankfully, I don’t have to attempt it, because I have a form that demands improvisation. So my life can’t be circumscribed by something I did 20 years ago or played 50 years ago. It’s impossible. I’m still in the middle of my quest, getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m hopefully getting better—I’m still trying to improve.

Does it pain you that the lessons learned nine years ago in Downtown Manhattan appear, perhaps, lost? That’s lamentable. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was great while it did. I don’t want to get too metaphysical now, but maybe this world is meant to be an imperfect place. At a certain point, you have to accept that, and it’s fine.

Sonny Rollins plays the Beacon Theatre Friday, September 10,, with his working group plus special guests—guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Christian McBride, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. On September 14, Rollins will participate in a talk about the new book Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins, along with author Bob Blumenthal and photographer John Abbott, at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble.

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