Sonny Rollins’s 90th birthday: I know how he feels about this day: Photos, Videos

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In the course of his career he has been described as a giant, colossus or titan: saxophonist Sonny Rollins is perhaps the most important living representative of the golden age of jazz. He started his career almost 70 years ago and will be 90 years old on September 7th.

Liederhalle in Stuttgart, May 12, 2001: People rise from their chairs as if intoxicated, push forward through the center aisle to the edge of the stage, forming a cluster in front of it. They all want to be close to him. The giant looks even more powerful on stage, waving his saxophone over the cheering people and playing one of his typical, almost infinite final cadences, probably to his calypso hit “Don’t stop the Carneval”. Like a beacon of sound, its tones seem to shine in all directions, some point to a time that seems to have passed, some to the future.

Sonny Rollins, founding father of hard bop, jazz legend, then 70 years old, with a secure place at the very top of the Olympus of this music. It establishes the connection to the golden age of jazz, known to most people at the Stuttgart concert only through records, books and pictures. Sonny Rollins contributed crucial chapters to this jazz story and he carried jazz into the 21st century.

Philharmonic Hall in Munich, St. Nicholas Day, December 6, 2008. Sonny Rollins takes the stage. The giant with the golden horn is leaning forward, pulling one leg a little, his gait seems unsteady. Then he starts his instrument and he floods the room with his powerful sound. His torso sways back and forth with every phrase he plays. The saxophone funnel sinks almost to the floor, then is jerked upwards. Gone is the frail impression. There it is again, this strength and energy, this will to play and the joy of playing that have accompanied the saxophone star since the beginning of his career. He seldom lost this desire, but then he immediately drew the consequences and at times said goodbye to musical life in order to gather new strength and inspiration.

Tenorsaxophonist Sonny Rollins bei einem Konzert 2010 beim North Sea Jazz Festival | Bildquelle: picture-alliance/dpa

CARIBBEAN IN EAR AND MILES ON PIANO

Theodor Walter “Sonny” Rollins was born on September 7, 1930 in New York. His parents were from the Caribbean Virgin Islands and the sounds of the West Indies were always around him as a kid. They mingled with the sounds of jazz in Harlem, where he grew up.

He is said to have been seven years when his uncle showed him a saxophone, and this curved golden horn delighted the boy. At nine he learned the piano, at fourteen he switched to the alto and soon the tenor saxophone, his mouthpiece.

As early as 1949 he was involved in a record and immersed himself in the seething New York scene. Two years later it was Miles Davis who accompanied Sonny Rollins on his first single under his own name. Davis played the piece “I know”, it only lasts two and a half minutes, not the trumpet, he was sitting at the piano. In the recording you can hear Sonny Rollins’ personal style well. This grippy, strongly accentuated playing style is harmoniously influenced by the bebop, but the lines are more rhythmic. Rollins already has his powerful, irrefutable sound here.

The saxophonist should keep this for his entire active time. In the later years, however, it gained in sharpness and heartiness and no longer had this warm roundness.

Tenorsaxophon-Legende Sonny Rollins am 8. November 2009 beim Salzburger Jazzherbst. | Bildquelle: Bayerisches Jazzinstitut, Sammlung Christian Wurm

RECORDING ON THE RUNNING TAPE

Rollins made recordings with pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Max Roach in the early 1950s, and the two of them later played on Rollins’ albums. Miles Davis also brought Rollins into his quintet for a short time. Fortunately, after the saxophonist had overcome the heroin addiction that was unfortunately widespread among jazz musicians in the mid-1950s, he performed mainly under his own name and released several albums. In 1956 and 1957 a total of twelve albums were released with Rollins as the band leader, with five different record companies, including classics such as “Saxophone Colossus” or “Way out West”.

Several trademarks that made Sonny Rollins immortal can be found on these albums. On “Saxophone Colossus” you can find his most famous composition: the calypso “St. Thomas”, named after an island in the group of the Virgin Islands. The melody is derived from an English folk song and was sung as a nursery rhyme in the Virgin Islands. Rollins made the piece his own and it became his most famous catchy tune. Probably all saxophone students around the world who are interested in jazz will learn this piece at some point. But interpreting the calypso feeling with the necessary mix of relaxation and grabbing is something only a few succeed in doing.

Rollins’ further specialty was playing without a harmony instrument, around 1956 that almost always meant playing without a piano. On his album “Way out West” Rollins shows the enormous ability to lead through the harmonies of the pieces without chords from the piano. As a listener you never lose the thread of hearing. Rollins always clearly depicts the structure of the pieces and the interrelationships between the chords in his improvisations, but he is extremely creative. A masterpiece!

Tenorsaxophonist Sonny Rollins im Jahr 1974 auf Tournee mit Saxophonist und Dudelsackspieler Rufus Harley. | Bildquelle: picture-alliance/dpa

BRIDGE MUSIC

In the same year, 1957, Rollins met the later free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and both saxophonists jammed together. Rollins’ first appearance on Carnegie Hall stage. He was at its zenith and was called “Boss of the Tenors”. In 1958, Rollins’ musical political statement followed, the fascinating “Freedom Suite” again in a trio with double bass and drums. A dispute arose over the title, which was to be polarized for the record company, and the record was renamed “Shadow Waltz”. Today you can buy the album with the original title.

In 1959, Sonny Rollins could have just kept swimming on the wave of his successes, but he was frustrated. He was no longer inspired and he retired for more than two years.

He wanted to practice extensively and was afraid of disturbing the neighbors too much in his apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. So he took his saxophone to the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Brooklyn, stood on the pedestrian crossing and played, surrounded by the noise of traffic. During this time Rollins stopped smoking, started practicing yoga and developed an even stronger sound. This story is so moving that there has even been an initiative since 2017 that wants the Williamsburg Bridge to be renamed “Sonny Rollins Bridge”.

In November 1961 the saxophonist came back on stage and The New Yorker newspaper wrote: “Rollins is not just back, he’s an apparition”. In the spring of 1962 the saxophonist recorded another masterpiece with the support of guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Ben Riley: “The Bridge”.

If one would actually expect a thundering saxophonist, tempered by playing against the traffic noise, on “The Bridge” one hears rather a supple ensemble player who uses his strength in an extremely differentiated and balanced manner. A musician who chooses his tones precisely and makes clear musical statements.

Sonny Rollins im Oktober 2012 in Prag vor einem seiner letzten Konzerte. | Bildquelle: picture-alliance/dpa

THE MOST EXPENSIVE SAXOPHONIST IN THE WORLD

In the years that followed, Sonny Rollins expanded his style to include free improvisation, but was always looking for players from the traditional jazz context. There were albums with the trumpeter Don Cherry, who was inspired by free and ethnic jazz, but also with the tenor saxophone father Coleman Hawkins. Rollins wrote film music for the Hollywood film “Alfie” and toured the world, including Japan for the first time. In 1969 the saxophonist retired a second time for two years. He visited Jamaica and deepened his knowledge of Far Eastern philosophy and meditation in India.

From 1971 Rollins was a celebrated soloist at the very big international festivals. He experimented with different styles, approached fusion jazz, also played the soprano saxophone and even performed with a bagpiper at the 1974 Berlin Jazz Festival. Few of the albums of this time can build on the earlier milestones.

Rollins became one of the most expensive jazz musicians. If an organizer wanted him at his festival, he had to raise a real fortune.

ACTIVE EVEN WITHOUT AN INSTRUMENT

In 1998 Sonny Rollins released “Global Warming”, an album as a statement on climate change. The composition of the same name became an integral part of his repertoire. The saxophonist gave a particularly moving concert on September 15, 2001 in Boston, which was released as an album in 2005. A few days earlier, on September 11th, Rollins was evacuated from his apartment in Greenwich Village with only his saxophone in hand, it is said, shortly after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center. “Music is one of the beautiful things in life, so we have to keep it alive. Maybe music can help, I don’t know, but we have to at least try in days like these,” said Rollins at the concert on September 15, 2001 and the music his sextet then played was one that, after all the terrible experiences of the previous days, went to the heart, reconciled, carried away and at least for a brief moment returned lightness.

Sonny Rollins has not performed since 2012, he can no longer play the saxophone for health reasons. But he is extremely active in social networks, posts on Facebook, congratulates other jazz players on anniversaries and recalls special events in jazz history. In June 2020 he gave the newspaper “The New Yorker” a detailed, critical interview about the current situation in the USA and about his personal situation.

Today is Sonny Rollins’s 90th birthday. I never talk to Sonny on his birthday. I know how he feels about this day.

It brings too much attention to him, and Sonny is happiest off the grid. But that doesn’t mean I cant write about him.

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My bond with Sonny goes back to to an afternoon we spent in the summer of 2010 just before his 80th birthday. I had just started writing for The Wall Street Journal and came up with an offbeat idea. I wanted to drive Sonny to key Manhattan locations in his career and talk about them—the Village Vanguard, the Williamsburg Bridge and so on. Terri Hinte, Sonny’s publicist and long-time friend, loved the spirit of the idea, but she warned me that he might pass. It’s worn turf, she said. Instead, Terri suggested taking him back to his old neighborhood in Harlem. Works for me, I said.

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I planned out the route and the stops we’d make along the way. Then I hired a Town Car and briefed the driver on where we’d be going and when to pull over. This allowed me to avoid bothering with directions once we were in motion and I was interviewing him.

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I picked Sonny up on time at his room at the Four Seasons and we went down to the car. For the next two hours, Sonny and I drove up to Harlem and made a series of stops, including where his mom met him one night as he came back from his first gig in the Bronx; the building where he dropped a chunk of plaster down on someone as a kid and narrowly missed, a youthful prank he still regrets; and the manhole where Sonny playing stick ball clocked a pink Spaldeen over a building, among other places. At each location, we pulled over and Sonny talked wistfully about them.

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It was a soulful afternoon and one that remains with me as if it were yesterday. Sonny was very taken with the day as well. From that ride forward, we’ve been friends. When we talk, it’s often for an hour or longer. I cherish every minute,

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In a zone, Sonny has this way of absorbing what’s being said and expressing his feelings similar to how he plays. He likes to travel around the subject until he figures out how to zoom in on it. Being with Sonny that day gave me insight into what it’s like to play with him. When you climb onto his wavelength, it’s a gorgeous ride.

Happy birthday, Sonny. Love you.

One of my favorite albums by Sonny and Kenny Dorham, from 1956: Sonny Rollins Plus 4

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