When Sonny Rollins Rose in the West

Before he took to the Bridge, the original jazz colossus headed to California


The image is indelible. Sonny Rollins — not yet 30 years old and at the top of the jazz world in 1959 — walks away from the music industry to think, to be alone, and to hone his already fine craft. Not that he walks far. He takes his tenor saxophone a few blocks east from his Grand Street tenement to the Williamsburg Bridge, where he wails and honks, purrs and hoots, alongside the aural flotsam that traverses the span, the horns and sirens from the cars, the rhythmic clanging of the subway, the toots of the tugboats below, the singing of birds above. Since 2016, Lower East Side resident and jazz enthusiast Jeff Caltabiano has led an initiative to rename the Williamsburg Bridge after Rollins, whose hiatus lasted through 1961.

It makes sense, this proposed renaming. Rollins, now 87 and living near Woodstock, is a quintessential New Yorker, born and raised in the five boroughs (Harlem, in his case, before he eventually moved downtown), to parents who emigrated from the Caribbean. On the bridge, betwixt and between, he found an urban cloister.

As he told the writer Hilton Als in 2015, “It was beautiful. There was hardly any traffic up there. It’s perfect. And the sky. There was a place on the bridge where the trains were — traffic, cars, the boats coming down below, and nobody could really see where I was standing. The part of the bridge where nobody could see me but they could hear the horn. That was a great revelation to me.”

The year of 1959 may have given us Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Charles Mingus’s Ah Um, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, and most tectonic-shifting, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, but Rollins was already ahead of the game.

Not only did he have memorable stints with Miles, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach, but as a leader, he’d recorded what are still recognized as two of his best offerings, Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus, both from 1956. Even a less-celebrated album, like 1957’s Way Out West, just re-issued in a beautiful double-vinyl box set and via streaming with never-before heard outtakes (from Craft Recordings), shows off that gorgeous tone of his, the clever improvisational flourishes, rhythmic invention, and his sly wit. He may not have topped any charts with Way Out West, but his playing, and thinking, was off-the-charts.

As a leader in the mid- and late-1950s, Rollins rarely used the same bandmates. So when he went to Los Angeles for the first time in 1957 as part of Max Roach’s Quintet and landed a contract with Lester Koenig at Contemporary Records (which signed newcomer and L.A.-transplant Ornette Coleman to his debut album the following year), he was used to working with all kinds of sidemen. In this case, he would team with drummer Shelly Manne — like Rollins, a native New Yorker who had moved to L.A. earlier in the decade and was integral in the West Coast scene — and bassist Ray Brown, in town with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Much has been made of this album’s cover art — by the noted photographer William Claxton — of city guy Rollins in the Mojave Desert with cowboy hat and holster, armed with his tenor horn, but the backstory to the recording session, detailed in Koenig’s original liner notes included here, is still more revealing. (For fans of Claxton, who did several books of jazz photography, a more conventional portrait of the urbane Rollins, in dark suit and dress shirt, is also included in the new box.) Since all three musicians were performing at night, and Manne and Brown — both of whom, as Koenig noted, were just voted number one in the popularity polls of Down Beat, Metronome, and Playboy — had gigs during the day, the recording session took place between 3 and 7 in the morning.

According to Koenig, the three had never played or recorded together before. Clearly, though, they had an intuitive simpatico. Manne — who also raised horses in his ranch outside L.A. — sets the tone immediately by perfectly mimicking the clippety-clop of a Standardbred’s slow gait in “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Throughout, he and Brown are like two middle-infielders so sound they can turn a double-play blind-folded and still afford to showboat now and again. (A few years ago, when I reported on the bassist Linda May Han Oh and observed her teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, she consistently brought up Brown to her young students. “In terms of fundamentals,” she would tell me later, “if you want to be a solid working bassist and Ray Brown is all you checked out, that would be great.”)

Way Out West is traditional, at least superficially. It has a standard (“There Is No Greater Love” — Rollins wows on both takes) and a piece of Ellingtonia (“Solitude”); two originals by the leader (“Come, Gone” and the title track); and, extending the cover concept, two cow-poke ditties from the old westerns Sonny so enjoyed as a child (“Wagon Wheels” and that opener “I’m an Old Cowhand”), albeit with a modernist, hard-bop spin. But then look at the trio again, and how emphatically untraditional it is: tenor saxophone, bass, drums. It’s a configuration that had hardly been used at that point. As critic Neil Tesser writes in his informative new essay for this re-issue, “Only Lucky Thompson had recorded in this format, and he did so in only one song, in early 1956.”

It was Rollins who established and popularized this combo: He would play with just a drummer and bassist often after Way Out West and again post-hiatus — as would Albert Ayler and Dewey Redman later in the 1960s, David Murray in the ’70s, Joe Henderson in the ’80s, to Mark Turner into this century, Ingrid Laubrock, and now the 26-year-old Kevin Sun, who has absorbed Turner and so much of the jazz canon, and advances the concept in his excellent debut album Trio, just out, in which he’s joined by bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor. A sixty-year line, however undulating, from Sonny Rollins to Kevin Sun.

Without the chordal structure of the piano, Way Out West anticipated free jazz. As Rollins told Tesser last year in preparation for this re-issue, “[In the trio] I could have the rhythmic support of a drummer, and then I could have the harmonic support of a bassist. But that’s the thing about it: It wouldn’t be more intrusive on what I might be playing. It’s still very freeing to just have the bass providing harmonic content.”

On that 1957 trip to L.A., according to Tesser, Rollins met Ornette Coleman, and the two practiced together outside on the beach. Ornette’s 1958 debut, Something Else!!!!, on Koenig’s Contemporary label, had a pianist, but it was the last time he would employ one for decades. Coleman’s next album, Tomorrow Is the Question! from early 1959 (also with Contemporary), included Shelly Manne on drums. Later that year, he released The Shape of Jazz to Come (cover photo by William Claxton) and stormed into New York with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden. The rest is jazz history.  

Rollins’s vision, and gumption, didn’t go unnoticed at the time. Whitney Balliett, who in April of 1957 had just started his long-running jazz column in The New Yorker, wrote: “Rollins performs with a consistent resourcefulness and vigor that leave most of his contemporaries far behind,” and added that his playing was “a clear indication of a striving toward an improvisational approach that is revolutionary….”

Revolutionary indeed, if quietly so. In recent years, Sonny Rollins has had to give up playing his saxophone because of health issues. Without playing a note, though, he still demands that we listen.