The Monumental Improvisations of Sonny Rollins

The Monumental Improvisations of Sonny Rollins

What Jazz Is

The many improvisations of Sonny Rollins.


America didn’t invent improvisation, but it seems to have held the patent for generations. Even if, as many presume these days, the nation’s democracy is imperiled, its promise of unlimited reinvention remains its biggest selling point. Nothing exemplifies this more than jazz. The will to improvise, embedded in a society that has always cherished freedom, found its highest and purest cultural expression in an art form whose greatest innovators—from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman and many more in between—were one with all the legendary pioneers of American expansion, whether of inner or outer space.

Sonny Rollins is the last living progenitor of jazz’s make-it-new ascent during the 20th century. Like many of his peers, Rollins has at various times been both inside and outside of history’s flow; he has also been at various times an enigma and a victim, a cautionary tale and—now more than ever—a role model. Though sidelined by illness, Rollins, now approaching his 93rd birthday, remains a living testament to jazz, to American music, and to improvisational possibility itself. He has never quite enjoyed the same instant-recognition status in popular culture as Sinatra, Aretha, or even his onetime bandmate Miles Davis. But he’s also more than a cult hero revered by those huddled along the fringes of the musical zeitgeist. Rollins has always shown an iron will that permits him not just to invent and reshape sound but also to adapt to and, above all, survive whatever the world has thrown at him.

A figure of such heroic stature deserves a monument worthy of him. And until something even larger and more expansive comes along, Aidan Levy’s new biography of Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, will do nicely. Taking its name from the 1957 album that I, among many others, would recommend as the best place to begin assessing Rollins’s storied, varied, and endlessly fascinating body of work, Saxophone Colossus can be read as a bildungsroman of a Black American artist reinventing himself and his art throughout a crowded, challenging life. With meticulous detail (the reference notes and annotations are almost as voluminous as the footnotes to a David Foster Wallace article about a tennis match), Levy’s book recounts Rollins’s painstaking, dogged, and ultimately inspirational struggle to summon forth the sounds he heard and continues to hear in his head. To do so, if I’ve properly read what both Levy and Rollins say about this process, you need to take in whatever’s in the air around you, rechannel the raw data, and make it up—and make it new—as you go along. You have to, in other words, improvise. As Rollins puts it early in the book, it’s about “having my rudiments ready to go whenever the spirit hits me. My part of the bargain. I want to get that right…it just has to happen because that’s what jazz is. It’s natural. It’s like the sky—it’s never the same two days in a row.”

To be able to make creativity and invention sound “natural,” one needs an avid, almost greedy urge to absorb anything—and everything—that is out there. Accounting for Rollins’s eclectic range of interests is part of what gives Levy’s narrative the worlds-within-worlds momentum of a Rollins solo.

Born September 7, 1930, to parents from the American Virgin Islands, Walter Theodore Rollins grew up in a Depression-era Harlem that, however economically challenged, was as culturally vivid and energetic as it had been during its vaunted “renaissance” of a decade before. Almost from the start, Sonny was destined to be a musician. At the age of 8, he got his first saxophone, an alto, and almost immediately fell into a lifelong compulsion to fill his immediate surroundings with his own sounds. “I went into the bedroom, shut the door, and I started playing, and I was playing, playing, playing,” Rollins recalls. “My mother had to call me ‘Time to eat!’ I just get into that zone and it’s a spiritual thing.”

For the sake of the neighbors in his Harlem building (and perhaps his parents, too), Rollins eventually moved this “zone” into a closet. There, the young Sonny would spend nearly the whole day in practice. He would “blow for hours—nine, ten hours and I’d get lost in my own reverie, in the sound. I really didn’t practice any one thing. I’d just play songs and blow in a stream-of-consciousness way.”

When Rollins did leave his closet, he would take in every musical sound coming toward him, whether it was the sinuous, densely layered countermelody to “Body and Soul” that the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins spun into a hit record when Rollins was in fourth grade, or the light and lively rhythm-and-blues riffing of the altoist Louis Jordan. Hawkins and Jordan both lived in Rollins’s Sugar Hill neighborhood, as did W.E.B. Du Bois (“a very austere guy,” Rollins recalls) and the future artist Faith Ringgold, whom Sonny remembers having “eyes for.” Besides the many jazz luminaries who passed through Harlem throughout Rollins’s youth, there were the budding talents of his own generation, such as fellow saxophonist Jackie McLean, drummer Arthur Taylor, and pianist Walter Bishop Jr., whom Rollins once asked—stammering, as he was prone to do when “trying to articulate a point of significance”—how to play long, flowing lines. “And I showed him some little pivot points,” Bishop recalled, “some little connections. He took it and ran with it. He could play endless [sic], almost without taking a breath…. Even in the course of another song, he managed to interweave melodies from other tunes…like a collage.”

The wide breadth of influences on Rollins’s collage-like approach to sound took in the calypso of his parents’ Caribbean homeland, which in later years would prompt some of his most infectious ear candy, notably “St. Thomas” from the aforementioned Saxophone Colossus album. Levy’s conscientiousness also discloses Rollins’s childhood affinity for Bing Crosby (who helped inspire the crooner in Rollins’s balladry), Louis Armstrong (who Rollins believed was “everyplace and everywhere”), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (whose 1936 musical Swing Time made Rollins a lifelong fan of Jerome Kern and such standards as “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Rollins would record multiple times). Levy even connects young Sonny’s infatuation with comic books to the formation of his sound, especially the artist Jack Kirby, whose use of “forced perspective, surrealistic urban landscapes, and three-dimensional characters who could seemingly reach outside the frame” Levy compares to the “expanded harmonies and rhythmic vocabulary of Rollins’s musical heroes,” including Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and other modernists. It has often been said that one could hear Rollins’s own life story in any of his longer solos, and given the evidence Levy assembles, such assertions are neither hypothetical nor hyperbolic.

Curiously, the “feeling” or emotional content in Rollins’s playing has been a point of dispute even among knowledgeable jazz fans like my late father, who had a delicate radar for tone and nuance. “No soul” was Dad’s blanket dismissal of Rollins’s tone on the tenor.

I never understood why my father carried this bias against Rollins; all I could hear was soul, from his delicate, impassioned variations on “Where Are You?” (from Rollins’s 1962 “comeback” album, The Bridge) to the witty, cunning classics from 1957’s Way Out West to 1956’s Tenor Madness, with its eponymous “duel” between Rollins and John Coltrane that, to my ears at least, ends in a spectacular draw. And who could deny the soulfulness of Sonny Side Up, which brings together two years’ worth of sessions featuring Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Stitt? But reading Saxophone Colossus, I realize that my father’s lifelong grievance against Rollins’s playing was not his alone. Many listeners agreed, including those as influential as the jazz critic and historian Nat Hentoff. In a three-star review of Miles Davis With Sonny Rollins for Down Beat magazine, Hentoff contended that Rollins’s tone was “undistinguished” and that his “conception almost never comes fully alive.” Hentoff was not any more convinced by the tracks on Rollins’s subsequent Moving Out album (“unimaginative”) and only came around on the saxophonist with Sonny Rollins Plus 4.

Part of what troubled Hentoff and the other critics at first was Rollins’s early style, what Levy describes as the “grainy, pugilistic voice” that Rollins adopted on the tenor saxophone, which tended to “enunciate” tunes “with a rough-hewn attack that favored tonguing every note, unlike the legato phrasing that characterized the cool sangfroid of Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young. If Sonny squeaked, it was not because he misspoke but because he had spoken perhaps too emphatically.” But Rollins would eventually smooth away some of the rough spots—and even his early critics had to acknowledge the go-for-broke imaginative reach poking from even his raggediest solos.

Though Rollins later reshaped and tweaked his sound beyond the Eisenhower years, he never wavered in his youthful determination to get things right—including himself, as he spent most of the early 1950s in and out of heroin addiction and imprisonment. No matter how roughly critics like Hentoff treated Rollins at the start, no one could have been as tough on Sonny Rollins as Sonny Rollins himself was. Even after making 10 albums in 1956—six of them as a leader, including the Saxophone Colossus LP—Rollins was still trying to perfect his style of perpetual invention. As he told Hentoff a year after Colossus, “I’m not satisfied with any of my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it.” He was already hinting that he would like to “take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene completely.”

By the late 1950s, Rollins also began to engage with the growing momentum of the civil rights movement in his songs. “The Freedom Suite” was a 19-minute piece in four movements for which “freedom” wasn’t just the overriding theme; it also reflected, in the trumpeter Art Farmer’s opinion, modern jazz’s growing impulse to stretch its boundaries: “Instead of regarding melody, harmony, and rhythm as prisons, [jazz musicians] use these elements for freedom.” More acclaim followed, as well as more touring in America and abroad.

Then, in the spring of 1960, Rollins stunned and perplexed the jazz world by doing what he’d hinted at a few years earlier: He dropped out of the scene completely. “I was filled with question marks,” he recalls. Despite all the kudos and the hard-won prestige that he’d achieved at the end of a whirlwind decade, “the problem was that I really wasn’t good enough for myself.” Instead of going back to school, Rollins found his own “woodshed” on the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn—a “beautiful, perfect place,” he remembers, where he could practice, alone and undisturbed, for hours, everything from “breathing techniques, tone production, vibrato, phrasing, and articulation” to intervals, scales, chords, modes, and “evenness of embouchure.” He’d also taught himself hatha yoga, studied anthropology, joined the Rosicrucian movement, quit drinking, and developed disciplinary habits that he would sustain for the rest of his life. Though Rollins would continue to interrupt his recording and touring routines with impromptu and extended sabbaticals over the succeeding decades, it was the Williamsburg woodshed that forged the cornerstone of the legend of Sonny Rollins: an artist so committed to self-improvement and personal growth that he was willing to forsake the perks of celebrity and the money that accompanied them to step back from the world at various intervals. In a way, he’d made his life into an analogy for one of jazz performance’s steadfast truths: Sometimes, in making up your solo as you go along, it’s the spaces in between the phrases, the stuff you don’t play, that are just as important as what you do.

Rollins carried his mystique like a suit of armor protecting his privacy, which allowed him to sustain his focus on improving his chops. He remained his own severest critic, even as his stature continued to grow throughout the world to the point that only superlatives would be used to describe him and every musician wanted to work with him, whether it was the Rolling Stones, on whose album Tattoo You Rollins played three tracks (though the results left the Colossus feeling ambivalent at best), or Leonard Cohen, with whom Rollins shared a rare TV duet on a 1989 installment of NBC’s Night Music series (a happier experience, it seems, for all concerned). The second half of Levy’s chronicle is a mostly ascending arc comprising acclaimed recordings (though few matched the high-water marks of Rollins’s 1950s classics), triumphant live performances before packed venues, and august career honors, including both a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center honor in 2011. By that time, Rollins was a living monument of jazz, though, as the live concerts of the last three decades conclusively prove, he didn’t sound as though he were cast in granite.

Indeed, my best memories of live jazz from the 1990s onward are of Rollins onstage in full, unfettered flight. One particularly memorable night at Carnegie Hall in April 1991—a 30th-year commemoration of the recording of The Bridge—found him reunited with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Bob Cranshaw, both of whom played on that session. As had become a staple of Rollins’s live shows in that era, the performers also included a representative of the younger generation, in this instance the fiery trumpeter Roy Hargrove, then just six months shy of his 22nd birthday. The music from all involved was so incandescent that the stage lights seemed superfluous. At one point, Rollins (who, if memory serves, wore a long cherry-red shirt) dove so deeply into a solo that he seemed to leave the others behind, causing Hargrove to look nervously at his bandmates, including the drummer Al Foster. They appeared to look back at the younger man with reassurance: Don’t worry, he does this all the time, like he’s floating away. Or, more to the point, as if Rollins were still little Sonny of Sugar Hill, sitting in his closet so as not to bother the neighbors and furiously playing his horn for hours until dinner was ready.

Hall, Cranshaw, and even Hargrove are all gone now. And the recent passing of Ahmad Jamal and Wayne Shorter—another great, hugely influential saxophonist with an epochal résumé—reinforces the melancholy feeling that when Sonny Rollins makes his own transition, this will close and seal the door on a transformative era of American music: the last true giant—and the only colossus—leaving the scene for good. Which offers yet another reason for us to be grateful to Aidan Levy and his admiring yet clear-eyed chronicle of Sonny Rollins’s life. When he goes, that will be it. The innovators who created jazz and extended its parameters will all be gone. And we’ll be on our own, trying to move it forward, making it up as we go along.

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