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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 8 May 2007

Sonny Rollins: A Giant Steps Out

by Marc Chénard / May 30, 2007

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The return of Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins to this year’s TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz festival promises to be a celebratory occasion indeed, with a hero’s welcome in store for the famed saxaphonist, courtesy of the city’s hardcore jazz lovers. On June 22, enthusiasts will be delighted to see him on stage at the hallowed Orpheum Theater, for the opening concert of the festival’s 22nd annual edition. With his five-man band in tow, including his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and his perennial bassist Bob Cranshaw (a Rollins associate of close to 50 years), this living legend of American jazz will be dusting off his trademark mix of well-worn standards and recent vintage originals (among which a staple calypso number is an expected show-stopper).

Now inching towards his 77th birthday on September 7, the master saxophonist has struck gold in a year strewn with lucky sevens. His West Coast trek (he plays in Victoria two days after Vancouver) comes on the heels of a trip to Sweden, where, on May 21st, he will receive the prestigious Polar Prize from Sweden’s King Carl Gustav XIV, signaling yet another milestone in a lengthy and momentous career. Instituted in 1989 by the guiding light of the once wildly popular group ABBA, this life achievement award of one million Swedish Kronor (roughly $160,000 CAN) has also been granted this year to minimalist composer Steve Reich. Rollins and Reich join a select club ranging from the late Iannis Xenakis to Led Zeppelin, as well as a notable coterie of American jazz and pop icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Keith Jarrett, Ray Charles and Quincy Jones.

Young at Heart, Spry of Mind

While he may be at an age where he could sit back and bask in all of the glory, Rollins has yet to play his last chord. Although the long road trips and strings of one-nighters are a thing of the past, he nevertheless has nine concert dates on tap over the next four months, including a stop at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall on May 5th, his North-Western Canadian junket in June, dates in Italy and France in July, and appearances in the western United States in September and at least eight more before year’s end.

By the looks of it, the seemingly ageless tenorman seems to contradict the old adage that jazz is a young man’s music. Despite the passing away of his wife (and manager) Lucille in 2004, he is not ready to pack in the horn yet, whether on stage nor in his recording output. Just two years ago, after a hiatus, the album “Without a Song” appeared. Subtitled “The 9-11 concert,” this Boston date occurred only days after that fateful tragedy; more pointedly (and poignantly), he was there in the Big Apple at the time and was among those evacuated from the area, appearing by chance in a film sequence shot by CNN. Late last year, a second opus, entitled “Sonny, Please” was released, both of these sides appearing on his own newly created imprint, Doxy Records. Diehard fans should particularly excited to learn that he has cut a third side, yet to be released, which will return to the bare-bones piano-less trio format of the late ‘50s – clearly one of the most important junctures of his career. This time around, he has elected to go with hislong-time stalwart Al Foster on drums and ever-faithful bassist Bob Cranshaw, who returns to his good old acoustic model after years of strumming the electric one.

Throughout his checkered musical career, the tide of his activities has receded on occasion, only to come surging back with gushes of what appear to be a boundless wellspring of musical ideas. While it may seem effortless on stage, his playing is the result of much hard work and toil. Of course, he doesn't need to go through the practice binges of his formative years. Still, when reached by phone at his rural homestead in New York State he reveals that he still keeps a daily practice regimen. When asked how or what he practices, he responds somewhat evasively, “I do things very much intuitively, which means I do not neglect the rudiments, but still try to approach these in a creative, or spontaneous way, if you will.”

From Legend to Fact

Sonny Rollins has constantly fuelled his musical gift with diligence and discipline. So much so that he twice withdrew from the concert scene, including his now legendary “bridge period” of 1959-1961 where he found a spot on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge to commune with his muse. Though now the stuff of lore, Rollins’ reasons were of a more practical nature. “At the very beginning,” he explains, “I woodshedded at home, but the neighbors complained, so I found a spot out there and it became my practice studio. It was perfect, because the walkway lies somewhere between the street level and the underlying commuter train tracks.” During that period he would invite fellow saxmen like Steve Lacy, Jackie McLean and Paul Jeffrey to join him for impromptu sessions. Lacy, for one, remembered it well. “The first time I joined him, I could hardly hear myself for all of the din of the New York harbor, the traffic, boats and what-not, but on subsequent visits I was starting to cut through. And it was then that I finally realized I was developing a sound on my horn.1

While not as apocryphal as it was made out to be, this chapter of Rollins’ life nonetheless enhanced his mystique, and his return to the scene – with a handsome advance for signing with RCA records – enabled him to find peace of mind, and to leave the city after purchasing a property in the countryside. That, together with the guidance of his late spouse, has unquestionably been a significant factor in his longevity in the business. At this juncture, only a few of his contemporaries remain: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon, among the music’s radical thinkers; drummers Max Roach (now retired due to ill health) and the still very active Roy Haynes, and saxmen Jimmy Heath and Phil Woods, among Rollins’ fellow bop mainstreamers.

Rollins also made himself scarce in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, retreating to meditate and purge some of the discontent he had endured, not the least of which was his less-than-satisfactory contract with Impulse Records.

Ambassador for the Ages

Showing no signs of age in conversation, Rollins remains as articulate as ever, and his unique voice remains as resonant as it was in his prime. While his memory is still quite sharp, he is not one to wax nostalgic for too long. He likes to talk about his doings in the here and now, and he is as dedicated to keeping his chops up with the pen as well as with his horn. “I compose every day,” he states, “not just at home, but when I travel as well, and I never go out on the road without manuscript paper.” Yet, when asked if it is harder to be creative in the twilight years, he admits that it takes him more time to compose, or at least to work out “something satisfactory.” Because of this constant focus on his own pursuits, he does not listen to much music – written by others, that is – but tries to keep in touch via old colleagues or his sidemen.

Like most greats, Rollins is a perfectionist, not very fond of listening to his finished recordings, and shows considerable humility in regards to his gift. “I don’t think anyone can reach complete mastery of something like music,” he points out, then tips his cap to his bandmates by stating, “I am very honored to share the stage with my accompanists, all excellent musicians.”

Having been in the business for close to six decades (his first sides were cut in 1949), he considers himself “an ambassador of the golden age of jazz,” and feels a sense of responsibility towards those whose paths he has crossed. “I always try to be at my best, because I do not want to disgrace the music and the people I have come up with and represent, a great number of whom are not with us anymore. I do feel like an elder statesman, and I certainly feel the responsibility of being on time and to honor contracts with concert presenters. All of my life, I’ve been involved in trying to project an honorable image of myself and the music I represent.”

Like all seasoned pros fashioned in the original school of jazz and the university of the clubs, Sonny Rollins had to pay his dues; the challenges he faced in his time were unquestionably more daunting than those faced by students in today’s classroom. He may well be a resilient survivor, but he has also made sound choices to ensure his lasting presence. In art, there is an old cliché that says you need to be damned to be good; Sonny Rollins has proven that one needs to be damned good to make it in this tricky business called jazz. n


Sonny Rollins boasts an extensive website, complete with the latest information on his activities, an episodic podcast of reminiscences on his career and testimonials from his sidemen, past and present, as well as from his younger contemporaries.

› Surf the net to: www.sonnyrollins.com


(1) As recounted in a talk given by Steve Lacy in Montreal on January 29, 2004, a mere four months before his passing.

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