King of Jazz Benny Is Dead, Long Live King of Jazz Sonny


If jazz must have a king, the present ruler is Sonny Rollins. In case anyone doubted his eminence, the rainy season abated for his August 9 concert in the Central Park SummerStage series. He appeared without a pianist, not that he needed one. He was on

such a tear that he may not have needed the Afro-percussionist or the trombonist or the bassist or the drummer, though all augmented a rhythmic fury that allowed him to sustain his opening 90-minute set with three tunes. Arithmetically, he went from 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4; emotionally, he reached higher and higher, with Bob Cranshaw and Steve Jordan never wavering. The first number was a very-good-plus riff that got the blood racing. The waltz was absolutely primo Rollins, an Italian folk song he calls “Italian Folk Song” because he doesn’t know the title, and a beautifully gauged performance that shivered with romance.

And the calypso was off the charts. After a good opening solo and a round-robin by the others, Rollins seemed overextended upon his return, and I wondered why he persisted. Then it became clear that he was not going to surrender the piece until he found something worth searching for, and half an hour later he was playing things that for all I know have never been played on the tenor sax. He even manipulated the lever on the gooseneck in his march to a death-defying catharsis and earthshaking final blast. All of which implied that the way to make common cause with current pop is not to hire a rapper, but to embrace pure rhythm. As well as Italian folk songs.

Return to “Benny Carter, 1907-2003: A Gentleman You Didn’t Mess With” by Gary Giddins