“It begins with rhythm…”
—Bob Blumenthal, from Saxophone Colossus
“Jazz is the umbrella under which all other music exists.”
On September 10, tenor saxophonist Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins, Harlem native and one of the last of the great boppers, celebrated his 80th birthday with a major concert at the Beacon Theater. Aside from his regular working group, the special guests included Roy Hargrove, Jim Hall, and Christian McBride. Though considered a cornerstone of the bop era, Rollins is, ironically, a contemporary of some of the leaders of the free-jazz scene that followed, notably Ornette, Cecil Taylor, and Bill Dixon, and though his influence was never as great as that of Trane or Bird, Rollins did manage to touch such contemporary giants as David S. Ware, who freely acknowledges the debt he owes to Sonny. The relatively small age gap between Sonny and some of the avant-garde players is due primarily to his early immersion into the scene: He was a mere fledgling of 17 when he made his first recording with bebop singer/storyteller/shoe-salesman Babs Gonzales.
Rollins has at times also managed to stray from the more linear approach to jazz, with such gems as 1963’s Our Man in Jazz with Don Cherry on RCA, and with the massive East Broadway Rundown from 1966 on Impulse. He also had some rather advanced formatting, as with the pianoless trio groupings on such unforgettable recordings as his 1957 Live at the Village Vanguard dates for Blue Note, and a favorite of mine, the incomparable 1958 trio piece Freedom Suite on Riverside, the protest album later re-packaged as Shadow Waltz for “political reasons.” (Ware some years later recorded this as an homage to Sonny for the Aum Fidelity label.)
Panned by critics upon its release, another daring LP that shows Sonny’s chops at their best is his 1985 solo effort for Milestone recorded live in MoMA’s sculpture garden, where Sonny in all his glory meandered around the edge of the pond while playing. I listened to it recently to see if it felt as raw as I remembered it, having actually attended the gig and always recalled that somewhere toward the midway point he burst out with some Ayleresque craziness. I had to buy the CD to hear this because the original LP was edited, and sure enough, there it was. Bravo, Sonny—I still love that gig.
During his formative years Rollins played with the likes of Dizzy, Miles, and Monk. He was an early member of the legendary Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet, the group that, to my mind, helped build the bridge between bop and hard bop, a genre that brought to the fore such giants as Art Blakey and Horace Silver. And speaking of bridges, Sonny took the first of his legendary hiatuses in 1959, and when he returned in 1962 recorded the groundbreaking LP The Bridge for RCA. So now that Williamsburg has become the guppie capital of the world—or, as a saxophonist friend put it, a college town without a college—artsy as it is streetwise, gentrified as it is dumbed-down, and outfitted with what was once the slowest subway ride (the L) to what is now the best trip back and forth across the river, we should all get out our vinyl copies of that classic which, as history has it, was worked out while he practiced every morning on the Williamsburg Bridge.
But back to the concert: After a brief intro by Stanley Crouch, Sonny came out blowing, and except for brief pauses to announce guests he continued to blow strongly and consistently for the next two-plus hours. His single-note phrasings were cool and angular, his cluster blowing was meticulous, and he threw in quotes from every conceivable genre even while playing standards. At most of his recent gigs Sonny’s playing has been inconsistent, and his current working band has never done it for me, but on this night the whole thing worked, sounding crisp and fresh from beginning to end as he breezed through such tunes as “In a Sentimental Mood” and “If Ever I Would Leave You,” both with Hall, harkening back to their RCA days together. He started with the working quintet playing two calypso-type pieces, and then brought Hargrove on to deliver a smooth yet edgy hard-bop groove.
After Hall, Sonny brought up McBride and then announced a surprise guest, none other than the ever youthful Roy Haynes. The group launched into a delicate trio version of “Solitude,” where somewhere Sonny threw in a bit of “The Tennessee Waltz” and Haynes took what to me was a somewhat out-of-place but spectacular solo. Then Rollins launched into a mid-tempo “Sonnymoon for Two.” After a few bars he went up to the mic and said that there was a horn player backstage who wanted to come out and wish him happy birthday. When no one appeared, the audience deep in anticipation, he faced the direction of backstage and kept beckoning and playing his horn until, like magic, Ornette appeared, literally bowing to Sonny. This sublimely incongruous pair started trading lengthy solos, each in his own inimitable style, after which the night abruptly ended. With the crowd going wild, the entire crew minus Ornette came back to do an encore of—what else?—“St. Thomas.” Everyone went home happy, even, I’m sure, the people in the $120 seats.
In conjunction with Rollins’s 80th birthday, Abrams has published a new book, Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins, with photographs by John Abbott and text by Bob Blumenthal, and the three were on hand to discuss it at a recent event at Barnes and Noble’s TriBeCa store. The book, named for one of Sonny’s seminal Prestige albums, is filled with stunning, mostly color photos (many too “commercial” for my taste, I have to admit) of Sonny in action and at home. Blumenthal’s text is relaxed and methodical, but never boring or overly academic. In addition to expounding on the Colossus LP (there are five chapters, each corresponding to one of the album’s tracks), the book traces the development of Sonny’s career, outlines his approach to rhythm and improvisation, and discusses the importance of such early influences as Coleman Hawkins.
Rollins remains for us the living embodiment of the small-group-oriented musician, and, though modest about his compositional skills, he has given us such standards as “St. Thomas” (which Blumenthal claims was assigned to Rollins as author but was actually in the public domain), “Oleo,” and “Doxy.” He was an early pioneer in fusing world music with jazz, adding Caribbean rhythms to his already hyper-rhythmic structuring and creating a sense of joy and playfulness even in his most serene moments, continuing his commitment to richer tone and constant depth.
Two Sonny stories:
In the ’60s, when I was working in a head shop on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, this local junkie named Lester used to come in to bug me and to use the toilet. You know—goes in squirming, comes out scratching. Well, one day he comes into the store and says, “Hey Steve, can I use the phone? I want to call up Sonny Rollins”—who at that time I was in awe of but not yet a fan of. Lester, a bassist, knew I loved the music so we always got into conversations about it. Sonny was his favorite and he claimed to have known him and taken lessons from him. “Sure, sure,” I told Lester, all the time laughing inside, “you can call him”—another story by another sad junk-sick junkie. Well, Lester dialed and started to talk: “Hello Sonny, blah blah blah. You wanna talk to my friend Steve? Here, Steve, say hello to Sonny.” He hands me the phone. “Hello,” I say. The voice at the other end says, “Hello, Steve, how are you?” and asks about Lester’s problem, Sonny having been a junkie himself way back. I go numb realizing by that rich unmistakable voice that it really is Sonny. We chat for a few moments and I give the phone back to Lester. “Sure, Sonny, blah blah, talk to ya soon,” and he hangs up and splits. A couple of weeks later Lester trundles into the store carrying his entire Sonny Rollins collection and offers to sell them to me—he needs the bread for his rent and whatever else. I tell him I can’t; those are his treasures and he’ll regret it later. He says he couldn’t think of a better person to pass them on to. So I bought them and that started my Sonny collection. I still own those LPs today.
Years later, Yuko and I were at J&R records for a CD signing by Sonny. I brought tons of LPs, including those of Lester, for him to sign, and the store employees refused to let me near him. Suddenly, in a strange moment when I found myself close by, I said, “Sonny, they won’t let me get these to you to sign.” Looking up, he said, “Steve, how are you?” and waved me over and signed them all. I still don’t know how he knew my name, and since then any brief encounter I’ve had with him proved that he had no recollection of me. Go figure.
When Sonny made his 1958 Contemporary LP Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, he played the standard “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” and somehow I get the feeling that when Sonny told them they all listened—as we all should, to the countless moments of musical pleasure this Saxophone Colossus has given us.