People are often eager to toss around the phrase “living legend.” But when a principal creator of an entire art form lives to see his 90th birthday, there are few other ways to describe it. Sonny Rollins is now 90 years old, and while he is retired, he’s still with us. Congratulations, you lived on Planet Earth the same time Sonny Rollins did. This fact automatically makes you a little bit cool.
With no disrespect to a few other elderly jazz heroes (Roy Haynes at 95, Benny Golson at 91), Rollins is the last Mount Rushmore-level jazz founder still drawing breath. As a young man, he made cornerstone contributions to the careers of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and The Modern Jazz Quartet. Rollins recorded with Coleman Hawkins and with Charlie Parker and with John Coltrane. Rollins is only one degree away from Louis Armstrong. That’s like looking at a playwright and saying, “That guy collaborated with a guy who worked with Shakespeare.” He’s living a connection to history, to myth.
Rollins isn’t just one of the best saxophone players of all time, he’s an embodiment of jazz itself, having evolved through the multiple forms of that vaguely defined back section of the record store. He played — no, conquered — bebop, hard bop (a style that to many is what they think of when they think of “classic jazz”), the lower orbit of free jazz, fusion and made one prominent toe-dip into rock with The Rolling Stones. By the end he’d achieved his ultimate form, mastering an indefatigable style of performance in which a simple theme (oftentimes a calypso melody) is pummeled into oblivion with relentless, muscular soloing using repetition, head-fakes and borrowed riffs in the determined search of an inexplicable goal that can easily last 30 minutes. I’ve seen it myself, whipping an audience of otherwise genteel outdoor concert goers into madness.
Rollins’ long life is directly entwined with the major crises of American 20th century history, oftentimes in surprising ways. He was born in 1930, in Harlem, the child of immigrants from the Virgin Islands. (A Caribbean tune his mother sang to him became his signature song, “St. Thomas,” first recorded on his 1956 album with an unbelievably awesome name, Saxophone Colossus; “St. Thomas” is such a jazz staple even prog rock act Emerson, Lake & Palmer stole its riff for a moment in “Karn Evil 9.”) His youth was surrounded by the embers of the Harlem Renaissance and his grandmother was active in the Marcus Garvey movement.
While his recollections of his section of Harlem, Sugar Hill, are idyllic, he and others from his area were sent to attend a new high school in 1946 in what was then an Italian section at East 116th Street. There, he and his cohort were physically attacked until Frank Sinatra held a concert at the school to cool everyone out. Nat “King” Cole did a follow-up. By this point, Rollins was already playing the horn.
In the years after World War II, a new thing was happening at the Harlem clubs. Stripped-down ensembles, not big bands, were playing a lightspeed form of electrifying jazz known as bebop. When Rollins began, he was young enough to be of the first wave to have only played bebop. The veterans would have cut their teeth on big bands of the swing era, a more showman-like, radio-friendly style. Soloists like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young would still blaze up the bandstand when they got their moments to shine, but it wasn’t an idiom devoted exclusively to wild, kinetic experimentation.
Coming into jazz without having needed to pander for applause set Rollins’ career up exactly as he needed. Rollins’ whole life is that of a pure artist, made evident by his legendary saxophone solos that can sometimes sound like hurled slabs of concrete. Though always (or, at least, usually) on the pleasing side of dissonance, his career in the 1950s is one triumph after another.
But it started out rough. He was recording with known beboppers (J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell) but also became a drug addict. This was a plague for jazz stars at the time, as well as for many musicians who would have been stars if they didn’t get hooked. In 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery. He can barely recall what actually happened, or at least so he said in Eric Nisenson’s 2000 book about Rollins, Open Sky: His memory is only that he was stupid and he was the one holding the gun.
He ended up at Rikers Island, then got out, then went back in on a parole violation. He knew he’d end up in a longer stint or perhaps dead if he didn’t get clean, so he entered a drug treatment center in Kentucky. The jazz scene was eager to welcome him back afterwards, but after some sweaty palms revisiting clubs, surrounded by temptation, he knew he wasn’t ready. This would be a recurring theme in Rollins’ life. He worked as a janitor for a while before he slowly got to recording, and that’s when he helped Miles Davis’ career reach escape velocity.
Davis had left Charlie Parker’s unit as bebop receded, and created “cool jazz” with his nonet. The resulting album, Birth of the Cool, was a one-shot for Davis, even if it begat a whole new sound. This style, also called West Coast jazz, quickly became, if you want to get blunt about it, white jazz. It’s not a diss on who played it or who enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what Davis was looking for. His next step included groups featuring Rollins on tenor sax, and this eventually led to the 1957 masterpiece Bags’ Groove. On it were two Rollins compositions that have since become jazz staples: “Oleo” and “Airegin.” “Airegin” is Nigeria spelled backwards, and while that may not seem like much of anything today, back in 1957, anything that was so explicitly Black was considered a radical act.
Before Bags’ Groove, Rollins recorded a few times with Thelonious Monk, whose cubist style of piano playing had no precedent. Their 1953 album Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins is one of the foundations of hard bop, the bluesier, more rump-shaking sound in opposition (if I may generalize) to West Coast jazz.
Hard bop (which you can also just call jazz; all of these categories can drive you insane) had, in my opinion, two perfect bands. If Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were the Coke, then the Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet were the Pepsi. Rollins was the reed man with this tragically short-lived group (trumpeter Brown and pianist Richie Powell died in an automobile accident in 1956), and if you ever want to hear something perfect, listen to their album At Basin Street.
Rollins’ recordings under his own name at this time were similarly extraordinary. In 1956 there was Saxophone Colossus which, apart from its ridiculously awesome name, introduced calypso to jazz with “St. Thomas,” and featured the track “Blue 7,” an 11-minute improvisation on a very simple blues theme. This is jazz-as-cardio, a true workout for performer and listener. When people who like to pick on jazz say, “They’re just making it up as they go!” point them to this and ask if these roller-coaster-like phrases aren’t saying something, man.
1957 brought Way Out West, which is notable because Rollins started playing as a trio — sax, bass, and drums. It’s pretty rare not to include piano in a group like this, but Rollins wanted to try new things. He played with piano again later, or sometimes ditched the piano for guitarist Jim Hall, but being the lone gunman with only the necessities to back him fit him nicely for a while. The album had him in cowboy regalia, but perhaps the most daring thing was what tunes he picked. Jazz artists since day one chose popular songs to (forgive me) “jazz up” in their own style, but where others used showtunes or the Great American Songbook, Rollins often liked to get corny. I can only guess he considers it a challenge. As such, Way Out West kicks off with “I’m An Old Cowhand,” but somehow it’s cool.
Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West were both vanguard works (as were others in between — he was busy), but in 1958, there came something unprecedented: Freedom Suite.
Freedom Suite is an album of five songs, but the title track, at 20 minutes, is what is vital. While there are no lyrics, it was the first piece of “programmatic” (i.e., “narrative”) music for a small jazz ensemble. Moreover, it was defiantly about the Black experience and racial injustice, presented as protest music just as the Civil Rights era was to take off. It included a quote on the back of the album that was quite daring for its day. It read: “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as its own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”
The Suite moves through distinct sections, from a swagger bop to a bluesy wail. How do you top this? You can’t. So Rollins quit.
Part of it was because he was sick of touring, sick of record executives and sick of being famous. But the main reason was this: Rollins didn’t think he was as good as he ought to be. Despite being considered by most critics and fans as one of the best in the game, he wanted to focus only on his craft and he wanted to be even better. What happened next is legendary.
Living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in an apartment building with neighbors, he didn’t think it was fair to stay home and practice all day. Out for a walk, he noticed a little stairway up to the side of the Williamsburg Bridge. (It isn’t there anymore, so don’t go crazy looking for it.) He discovered an alcove where few people came that was mostly hidden from cars and the subway. He could play out facing the river, serenading the tugboats. If he could make good music over all the noise, he figured, he knew he was getting somewhere. So Rollins rehearsed alone, on the bridge, for hours and hours every day in the open air. For two years.
He only came down “off the bridge” because word started leaking out, and because his wife, who was a secretary at New York University, wasn’t bringing in enough money.
When Rollins returned to playing in 1961 things had changed. Ornette Coleman had issued the mandate to “free jazz.” The free jazz style is controversial and a little abrasive, but Rollins was headed in this direction anyway. His recorded output rarely dove fully into the anarchic plasma pool, but in the 1960s, his club dates (often featuring Coleman alum Don Cherry) evolved into open-ended marathons. Rollins’ solos would go on and on, only ending when he felt he found what he was searching for. (Or if he just gave up. In Open Sky, Rollins recalls a solo lasting two-and-a-half hours. It didn’t go so long because he was being touched by genius, but because he couldn’t quite get to where he wanted to be.)
Rollins’ time on the bridge opened him up to his surroundings, and how that would craft his sound. He got mobile on stage, moving into the crowd, continuing to play backstage, even walking up the steps of the Village Vanguard to jam on 7th Avenue in the middle of a tune. (When technology evolved, he pinned a microphone to the bell of his horn, so the audience could still hear.)
Considered truly one of the all-time greats by 1969, after the death of his friend John Coltrane (which the press presented as a rivalry, but which he rejected), he took another hiatus. He travelled to India to study yoga and returned to jazz in 1971, giving concerts of solo saxophone improvisations and also delving into fusion and funk. Horn Culture from 1973 is my personal favorite from this era. It’s not quite as wild as some of the other far-out rock-jazz, but absolutely cooks.
Rollins only recorded one rock session and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s among the best use of the instrument ever put to wax. The Rolling Stones asked him to blow over two cuts on their 1981 album Tattoo You. Rollins is terrific on the upbeat rocker “Slave,” but he’s absolutely devastating on the bluesy ballad “Waiting on a Friend.” This is, for me, tied for first place as the best sax solo in rock (alongside Clarence Clemons’ on “Jungleland”). I also think that Tattoo You is the Stones’ last essential album. “Waiting on a Friend” is the last track, and Rollins gets the last note.
As time moved on and Rollins became a draw for bigger theaters, he did, indeed, dabble a bit, for a moment or two, in what can only be called smooth jazz, or at least cutaway-to-commercial-on-SNL-jazz. While that doesn’t really speak to me, maybe it will some day. I’ll check back in with it again as I get older.
Rollins was in his Tribeca apartment on September 11, 2001 and wasn’t evacuated until the following day. Without knowing what to do, he rehearsed that night, and played a gig in Boston on 9/15, and it’s certainly plausible that this led to the pulmonary fibrosis that’s caused him to retire.
At least, this is what Jeff Caltabiano believes. Caltabiano is a disaster relief planner who, in 2017, realized an obvious truth: New York City needs to rename the Williamsburg Bridge “The Sonny Rollins Williamsburg Bridge.” The Queensboro Bridge was renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in his lifetime, and nobody even likes that guy anymore. Rollins is a pillar of a uniquely American art developed in New York, and a primarily Black art at that. Who in the world hears of Rollins’ effort to better himself on the Bridge and doesn’t swoon?
There has been some momentum to get the bill passed, but you know how it is. Things can linger. Now, with Rollins turning 90, it’s time to return to action.
The foundations of the bridge are in four districts. (Makes sense: two in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn, and it forms a natural boundary.) Brooklyn’s Stephen T. Levin is very supportive. Manhattan’s Carlina Rivera and Margaret Chin are also on board. But Brooklyn’s Antonio Reynoso thinks it is a bad idea and won’t even speak to Caltabiano about it. Reynoso also has eyes on becoming Brooklyn Borough President.
There are two ways to celebrate Rollins’ birthday, then. The first is obvious: Listen to his music. I say head straight to Saxophone Colossus, but definitely hit Freedom Suite, go to Our Man in Jazz to hear Rollins as he approaches free jazz, maybe try Horn Culture if you like some funk, or play Don’t Stop the Carnival from 1978 to check out some of those powerhouse live solos. Do all of that and more.
While the coronavirus epidemic clearly puts so many things on the back burner, what could possibly be a more uplifting story than consecrating ground for this artistic hero? Especially while he is still living, and double especially at a moment when more Americans are recognizing the way Black artists have been treated in this country.
A great way to unite a population is with a bridge. How great would it be to honor this man, and this art, while he’s still with us?