It is pretty hard to overstate Rollins’ influence on the art of both jazz and saxophone playing. And his stature endures as he continues to outlive most of his peers and play at a creative level that is aggressive and uncompromising at the age of (on Sept. 7) 81! Theodore Walter Rollins was born in 1930 in New York City. He grew up in Harlem not far from the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the doorstep of his idol, Coleman Hawkins. After early discovery of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, he started out on alto sax, inspired by Louis Jordan. At the age of sixteen, he switched to tenor, trying to emulate Hawkins, and fell under the spell of the musical revolution that surrounded him, Bebop. Thelonious Monk became his musical mentor and guru. Living in Harlem’s Sugar Hill, his young neighborhood musical peers included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor, but it was Sonny who was first out of the pack, working and recording with bop giants like J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis before he was 20.
Miles was an early Rollins fan and wrote that "Sonny had a big reputation among a lot of the younger musicians in Harlem. People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird… He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas.” After working with Miles for 6 months in 1951, Sonny spent the early 1950’s freelancing and making some of the first records of the hard bop era. The jazz business was rough and uncertain, and like many of the modern jazz giants at the time, he fell into a reliance on heroin to cope. Miles Davis kicked the habit in 1954, and after a news-making return at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival put together a new touring quintet with Rollins. In Philadelphia, Rollins was so sick he left the band. Miles called Cannonball Adderley to sub, but Cannon said no. Thanks to his drummer, Philly Joe Jones, Miles found John Coltrane working a local club with organist Jimmy Smith (don’t you wish that combination would have recorded!) Trane finished the tour, stayed with Miles until 1960, and that’s the real story of how the first classic Davis Quintet came about. In fact, all the publicity for the first tour had already gone out, and posters in front of the clubs listed Sonny Rollins on tenor. Rollins was already such an icon among modern jazz fans that they actually booed Coltrane on stage because it wasn’t Sonny!
Rollins went to a Kentucky hospital to dry out, then emerged in Chicago to work as a janitor and practice. After subbing for Harold Land in the Clifford Brown – Max Roach Quintet at Chicago’s Bee Hive, Rollins stayed in the group almost 2 years. He acquired a nickname, “Newk” because of a resemblance to big Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe. And he began recording a now legendary series of albums: “Saxophone Colossus” 1956, “Tenor Madness” 1956, “Sonny Rollins, vol. 1-2” 1956-7, “Way Out West” 1957, Max Roach’s “Jazz in ¾ Time” 1957, “Newk’s Time” 1957, “A Night at the Village Vanguard” vol. 1-2 1957, and “Freedom Suite” 1958. The music solidified Sonny’s position as the top modern tenor player. His tune “Blue 7” was hailed by Gunther Schuller as demonstrating a new manner of thematic improvisation. Modern jazz played in waltz time (“Valse Hot”), tunes based on Calypso rhythms (“St. Thomas”), rhythm sections of only bass and drums, long unaccompanied solo improvisations, and music that expressed the social unrest of the time set some long lasting characteristics of his style.
But for Sonny, the achievement and acclaim was ultimately unsatisfying. From 1959 until late 1961, he stayed home, while rumors flew that some nights one could hear a tenor sax being played from a bridge over Manhattan’s East River. According to his web site biography, Sonny remembers that he took his leave of absence from the scene because "I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I'm going to do it my way. I wasn't going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time."
Rollins returned to performing with the classic 1962 album, “The Bridge” (RCA) showing an even more personal “stream of consciousness” style of soloing. After 4 years, restless and wide-ranging in his choice of musical collaborators, he took some more time off. "I was getting into eastern religions," he says. "I've always been my own man. I've always done, tried to do, what I wanted to do for myself. I wanted to go on the Bridge. I wanted to get into religion. But also, the Jazz music business is always bad. It's never good. So that led me to stop playing in public for a while, again. I worked in Japan a little bit, and went to India after that and spent a lot of time in a monastery. I resurfaced in the early 70s, and made my first [new] record in `72."
He now had the encouragement and support of his wife Lucille, who had become his business manager, signing with Milestone Records and releasing two dozen albums in various settings during the next 2 decades. His playing began to included the soprano sax, some rock, pop, and R&B influence, and he gave up playing in clubs for the most part. In the mid-80’s he was the subject of a film documentary, “Saxophone Colossus” by Robert Mugge, and some live performances caught on film, mostly in Europe. For the last 2 decades, Sonny has continued to perform at the highest level, winning a host of awards along the way. The albums “This Is What I Do” 2000 and “Without A Song – The 9/11 Concert” 2004 won Grammies, and NARAS gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. In 2010 he entered the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies, and in 2011 was awarded the Medal of Arts by President Obama at a White House ceremony.
Since 2006, Rollins has been releasing his music on his own label, Doxy Records, including the beginning of a planned series of recordings from Rollins’ live audio archives. “Road Shows, vol. 1” was released in 2008, with “Road Shows, vol. 2” just released this fall.
Mr. Rollins’ current touring band includes guitarist Peter Berstein, veteran bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobie Watkins, and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. For concert information, go to www.nashvillesymphony.org More information about the tour, including pictures and playlists from some of the recent dates, can be found on Sonny’s website, www.sonnyrollins.com