Sonny Rollins, the Colossus
By Mark Jacobson, Men’s Journal Sep 2013
At 82, Sonny Rollins is one of the last jazz originals. He still tours, records, and practices three hours a day, convinced he’s still got something to learn – and something to prove.
Legendary jazz master Sonny Rollins is the subject of a great profile by Mark Jacobson. Most of what follows is excerpted from Jacobson’s excellent piece, slightly remixed.
The image of the brilliant jazzman seeker – the lone figure amid the chaotic howl of the city, blowing his horn in quest of a bit of sanity.
On the bridge, 135 feet above the roiling East River, he could really let loose under the sky and the stars with the whole city laid out before him. Musicians all over town thought he was nuts. Why did he need all this practice? He was the best; wasn’t that good enough? But those people didn’t hear what Sonny heard. He was nothing but a glorified beginner, Sonny believed, a work in progress. There were places he needed to go. When he got there, that’s when he’d come back.
Between 1959 and 1961, at age 29, already widely regarded as the leading tenor man in the jazz world, he abruptly quit playing in public, instead practicing up to 16 hours a day on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. Here’s how Rollins describes it (in the FAQ):
In the 50s and 60s, Lucille and I had a small apartment on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of New York. It was a nice time. I had a lot of friends there and I was welcomed by the neighborhood people. Like most of New York, the Lower East Side has undergone gentrification but back then, it was a much more ethnic place.
I started practicing in the house because I had to practice, but I felt guilty because I’m a sensitive person and I know that people need quiet in their apartments.
I was walking on Delancey Street one day, not far from where I lived on Grand Street and I just happened to look up and see these steps that I decided to check out. And there, of course, was the bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge. It was this nice big expanse going over the East River. There was nobody up there. So I started walking acoss the bridge and said, “Wow. This is what I have been looking for. This is a private place. I can blow my horn as loud as I want.” Because the boats are coming under, and the subway is coming across, and cars, and I knew it was perfect, just serendipity. Then, I began getting my horn and going up there regularly. I would be up there 15 or 16 hours at a time spring, summer, fall and winter.
“It wasn’t like I was playing bad. I just knew I could get better, that I had to get better… All I wanted to do was play my horn, and get better.”
While acknowledging “top-shelf praise”, Rollins says, bristling “I haven’t been out here all these years for them to stick me in a museum. They can take me out and shoot me before I’ll allow myself to be some oldies act.” He presented several pieces of sheet music marked with tightly grouped musical figures. It was a new composition, Sonny said, an idea that had come to him when he was practicing only the day before. He couldn’t say for sure where the piece might end up, but he liked the direction. That was the key, moving ahead. The past could be “a beautiful dream,” Sonny said. But he wasn’t about to dwell on it. Forward, that’s where the Saxophone Colossus was heading.
“People say, ‘Sonny, take it easy, lean back. Your place is secure. You’re the great Sonny Rollins; you’ve got it made.’ I hear that and I think, ‘Well, screw Sonny Rollins. Where I want to go is beyond Sonny Rollins. Way beyond.'”
“You see, I’m going toward this breakthrough, this piece of music that is going to explain it all to me,” he declared. It could be a single note or new composition, but it was there, Sonny knew, inside of him, “it will matter.”
On “the wrong side of 81,” he could feel the metronome inside his head ticking away, each instant too precious to be squandered on the puny minutiae of the day-to-day.
“Others might say, ‘Poor old guy; he’s doing his best.’ But I can’t cut myself that slack.”
Despite what he calls “the decrease in my physicality,” Sonny has always looked like a giant…his copious mane of gray hair combed out to appear as if flying electrically away from his outsize, coffee-light-colored skull, Sonny looked like nothing less than a madly hip Moses, fresh down from Sinai, forever larger than life.
“Technology, man,” Sonny said with a shrug. “All this little stuff interrupts my chain of thought. Consequently, I haven’t been able to properly practice my horn the way I have to,” he said, emerging from the laundry room in a loose-fitting khaki shirt, a pair of baggy gray sweatpants, and thick white socks stuffed into open-toe leather slippers. “If I don’t get to practice, work on my embouchure and scales, then I can’t play correctly, and if I can’t play correctly, I can’t work out my ideas, and if I can’t work out my ideas, then I go crazy.”
On drugs, politics, and the jazz scene
“To me, jazz has always been about politics,” Sonny said. “You can read philosophy – and, believe me, I have – but no matter what you do, you can’t take the music out of life in the street.” This was why Harlem in the 1930s and ’40s was such a special place.
“Monk was my guide, my guru, the one who made me understand what it meant to be a true musician… the geometry of musical time and space,” said Sonny. “Monk always told me that without music, life wouldn’t be shit.”
“Well….let me put it like this: At that time, we were all using dope. And Monk, he would never take more than his fair share. He was also the single most honest man I ever met in my life.”
“It gave me that celestial feeling, like being attached to everything in the universe. So why would I stop? All my idols were using it, so it seemed the normal thing to do. All we did was play and get high: existence broken down to the basics.” But, the heroin life had “negative lifestyle aspects,” Sonny ruefully acknowledged. “I stole, I lied. I did things I will always regret.”
“John Coltrane was my great friend and my great rival”