On September 18, Carnegie Hall was a mob scene, a space so besieged that at curtain call many ticket holders were still jammed into the will-call line. They had come to hear what would happen when tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who had just turned 77, left his comfort zone. Rollins usually plays once a year in New York City, mostly on outdoor stages, where he can blow into the open air. The amplifiers reverberate, the electric bass thuds, the trombone and conga solos often ramble and roll.
But this night was different. Rollins would be joined by the upright bass virtuoso Christian McBride, 35, and Roy Haynes, 82–the last drumming master of the bebop generation. Haynes’s drumming lit a fire under John Coltrane, and he also played with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. In 1949 he played with Rollins on The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 1; the last time he’d worked with Rollins was in 1958. Rollins, McBride and Haynes would perform the same three songs that Rollins had played for his Carnegie Hall debut fifty years earlier: the blues original “Sonnymoon for Two,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific and “Moritat” (better known as “Mack the Knife”). Rollins usually avoids all-star shows, but on this night he was making an exception. Library of Congress archivist Larry Applebaum had discovered a broadcast recording of Rollins’s 1957 Carnegie Hall debut, and Rollins announced his plan to release it this spring on his label, Doxy, alongside a recording of the night’s performance. And so I found myself at Carnegie Hall, where, like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, Rollins was set to unspool the tape of his younger self.
Rollins must have felt the weight of expectations when he received a standing ovation just for showing up. He had made his debut in the room on a bill that included Chet Baker, Ray Charles and Thelonious Monk; the following year, the third-stream composer Gunther Schuller wrote “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” in which, with a canonical sweep, he invoked the names Mozart, Rembrandt and Shakespeare to convey how a solo from Saxophone Colossus‘s “Blue 7” excelled in “thematic and structural unity” while also swinging madly. Structure and improvisation: where Apollo met Dionysus. All eyes in the jazz world were already on Rollins then, but even though critics thought he had reached a pinnacle at the tender age of 28, he just wanted to improve his chops. He also stopped playing “Blue 7.”
He soon fled to the Williamsburg Bridge for a two-year sabbatical, where he blew choruses over the East River. When he took those choruses to the public again, at the East Village’s Jazz Gallery and on the classic album The Bridge (1962), they were as spectacular as ever. But the jazz world was changing at a frenzied pace, and critical buzz, as always, was fickle. Rollins’s thematic improvisation gave way to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” and by the end of the ’60s, Rollins would embark on another musical sabbatical and seek enlightenment in India. His recordings from the ’50s and ’60s are now cherished objects in the age of reissues, but people who saw him perform then insist that he was even more spectacular when the tape decks weren’t rolling. To be at the Five Spot at the right time and the right place was a jazz fetishist’s very heaven.