When I visited Sonny Rollins at his home in Germantown, New York, a semi-hardscrabble hamlet 100 miles up the Hudson River, the 82-year-old jazzman they call the Saxophone Colossus was doing his laundry. "Oh, man, come on in, man," Sonny said in his reedy, slightly high-pitched voice as he stuck his head out the back door of the modest house, blood-orange skullcap on his kingly, lantern-jawed head. Jumble of shirts fresh from the dryer in his arms, he led me through the cluttered kitchen to a sitting room. "Be with you in a minute," he said with a sigh.
For Sonny, certainly one of the greatest tenor-saxophone players in the history of the instrument invented by Adolphe Sax in 1841, and a key figure in jazz for more than half a century, it is a drag any time "the celestial Big Picture" is infringed upon by "the Little Picture," which the musician defines as "that day-to-day crap you have to put up with on this misbegotten planet."
Doing the laundry, while necessary, was definitely in the latter category. But the entire past few weeks had been a hassle, Sonny said. He was booked to leave on a European tour with gigs in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and "some other burgs." There would be arrangements, flights, hotels to stay in. Not that all that hadn't happened before, hundreds of times. The new thing was "the move," Rollins' then in-progress relocation across the Hudson River to a larger house near Woodstock. After living in Germantown for four decades, the last nine years by himself since the death of his wife and manager, Lucille Rollins, the shift was proving more problematic than the jazzman had expected. There was always one more box to pack, one more real estate agent to talk to. Plus, telemarketers kept ringing on the phone, the very sound of which caused Sonny to summon his innermost Buddha Nature, lest he fly off the handle. The whole thing was giving him "psychological claustrophobia," Sonny said.
Once upon a very storied time, growing up on Harlem's Sugar Hill during the 1930s and '40s, a relatively well-off son of a West Indian-born Navy chief petty officer, Sonny felt like he had all the time in the world. Already a self-taught neighborhood prodigy at 17, well-versed in the ample brawniness of his great idol Coleman Hawkins and the ethereal stylings of Lester Young, he'd go over to Minton's Playhouse or the Club Baron on Lenox Avenue, where people like Fats Waller or Thelonious Monk might be playing. Then he'd take the train downtown to 52nd Street, the famous jazz thoroughfare, and sit at the bar at Birdland, where he'd often be invited to share the bandstand with bebop immortals like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.
"That was my life back then – I thought it would always go on like that, never change," Sonny said. Now, 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.
For instance, only that week he'd spent nearly the entire morning down in the Big Apple, making an episode of The Simpsons. Sonny played a holographic image of himself that hovers, godlike, outside the bedroom window of perhaps his best-known mainstream musical disciple, Lisa Simpson. Sonny had three lines, which he dutifully repeated over and over again, coached by a voice on a speakerphone originating 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. Later, Sonny said that taking all morning to produce a hologram visible only to a TV cartoon character was "kind of strange," especially for someone who'd managed to cut albums like Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus in a few short hours on a two-track machine located in Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, New Jersey, studio.
"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."
Sonny reached over and tapped the hard-shell case of the instrument resting on the table at his right. In there was the gold Selmer Mark VI with the Otto Link mouthpiece that he's played almost exclusively since the mid-1970s. "My second wife," he said, regarding the ax. "I don't sleep with it in bed. But I don't let it out of my sight."
When Sonny's mother gave him his first horn back in the late 1930s, it was an alto, owing to the fact that as a young man, he loved listening to the fabulous jump blues master Louis Jordan, who often played at the Elk's Rendezvous on Lenox Avenue, not far from the Rollins' home. "He played an alto, so I wanted to play an alto, too," Sonny said. However, it was only after switching to the growlier tenor in his middle teens that he became "obsessed." From that moment on, Sonny said, "music was the only thing that mattered to me. All I wanted to do was play my horn, and get better." Sonny was known to spend up to 16 hours a day practicing. His most iconic study period occurred between 1959 and 1961, when, at age 29 and widely regarded as the leading tenor man in the world, he abruptly quit playing in public.
One of the great stories in the annals of jazz, or any other modern creative endeavor, Sonny's two-year "sabbatical," time spent practicing alone on the desolate, decrepit walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge in New York, remains the jazzman's emblematic moment. It was a radical move. After all, Sonny had already fronted groups that included Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach. Saxophone Colossus, recorded in 1956 and including all-time classic performances of "St. Thomas," "Strode Road," and "Blue 7," established him as a star.
Yet Sonny wasn't happy. "It wasn't like I was playing bad," he told me. "I just knew I could get better, that I had to get better."
The original plan had been to woodshed in his Grand Street apartment on the Lower East Side, but the lady next door had just had a baby, and he thought if he played too loud he'd give the child "bad ears." That's what led him to 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.
Tell Sonny that 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 – has always been a source of personal inspiration and he will be touched by the comment. Mention that he's your favorite player, along with Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges, and he'll shake his head slowly. "To be put with those guys, wow. That's a real compliment." Go on to say that you always hummed "St. Thomas" for your children when they were tiny, and a few years later your daughters made you a birthday card with a handmade tinfoil saxophone in the middle of roughly drawn treble clefs along with the words Sonny Rollins, and the Colossus will begin to tear up.
Then again, a lot of accolades have been coming Sonny's way over the past few years, "top-shelf praise," as he calls it. The Kennedy Center gave him its honors in 2011. President Obama personally handed him the National Medal of Arts. Much of this adulation came from the fact that, nearly seven decades in, Sonny continues to play at a very high level. Anyone listening to "Sonnymoon for Two," recorded with fellow legend Ornette Coleman at Sonny's 80th birthday celebration in 2010, could tell that. The performance, captured on the album Road Shows Vol. 2, played a big part in why Sonny, for the second time in a row, was named the "Musician of the Year" by the not so easily impressed Jazz Journalists Association.
Yet, for many, the enduring boon of being alive at the same time as Sonny Rollins goes beyond what comes out of his horn on any given night. That's because the bop era – that fleeting period of post-World War II optimism and angst channeled through the fabric of African-American existentialism served up by a bunch of mostly New York-based players who could really cook – clearly ranks as the high-water mark of 20th-century modernism, easily the equal of any art thing that happened in Europe during the 1920s. It was a gloriously urban, silkily noirish time when being "hip" (a whole other thing then) was to be in possession of a secret code of cool, articulated by shamanic jazzmen capable of sculpting a wholly new, real gone Rosetta stone every time they blew a horn or hit a drum.
Now, of course, the 52nd Street clubs – the Onyx, Club Downbeat, the 3 Deuces, and Birdland – are way gone, along with the titans who once strode those gummy sidewalks, Bird, Diz, Monk, Mingus, and the rest. No one knows this better than Sonny himself, who never fails to credit the "people whose shoulders I am standing on," the legion of players now largely forgotten due to prejudice, poor promotion, or, as Wynton Marsalis once aptly put it, "sheer bad taste." This doesn't mean, however, that Sonny is content to revel in what he calls "this victory-lap, lifetime-achievement crap."
"No, man. I haven't been out here all these years for them to stick me in a museum," Sonny said, bristling, as the laundry in the adjacent room hummed into spin cycle. "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.
Up in Germantown that day, this was the basis for the urgency he felt, why the intrusion of "the Little Picture" was such an imposition. He was 82 – even if he kept doing yoga every day and kept his mind straight, no one lived forever. The physical body was a fleeting thing. It was impossible to ignore the decay. At a recent show in Detroit, Sonny couldn't play the way he wanted because his teeth were bothering him. A few days later in San Francisco, he had a cold, again keeping him from achieving what he set out to do.
"I don't know if the audience noticed. But I did," Sonny reported. "Others might say, 'Poor old guy; he's doing his best.' But I can't cut myself that slack."
Soon there would be more unsettling news. A few weeks after my visit, Sonny was diagnosed as experiencing what he called "some pulmonary distress." It was suggested he stop playing for a while, which caused him to cancel some gigs, which he absolutely hates to do. In a way it made sense. After all, there weren't many human beings who have ever blown for as long and as hard as Sonny Rollins. In jazz there was Wayne Shorter, 80 this year, and the 86-year-old Jimmy Heath. Both of those guys were great musicians, Sonny allowed, but neither of them blew with "my velocity." He joked about perhaps donating his lungs to medical science: "Sonny Rollins' lungs, the most blown lungs in jazz." Still, retaining his customary long view, Sonny chose to remain upbeat. Certainly it was hard to leave his horn in the case, but things happened, and then you lived through them. Soon he'd be back. This was just a bump in the road.
The drive he felt, the desperate need to get better, was no less at 82 than when he went up on the Williamsburg Bridge, Sonny said. "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. When he played the music, "it will matter," he said.
"You mean, like you're going to play this music and the rivers are suddenly going to run backward?" I asked, trying to be funny. After all, he was already perhaps the greatest single improviser in the history of jazz. No one had his emotional range, the ability to one moment be riffing like a musical stand-up comedian and then, abruptly, be tearing your heart out with the abject blues of the human condition. What about that fabulous opening to Monk's "Misterioso"? How about that spectacular ending to "God Bless the Child"?
This made Sonny laugh. When Sonny laughs, you know it. He bends his neck back nearly 45 degrees, casts his eyes skyward, and his mouth becomes a widening circle. Ha-ha-ha, he goes, loudly, like howling at the moon, albeit with perfect breath control.
"Don't you see, that's exactly the point," Sonny chortled as he clamped his skullcap onto to his head. "Those notes you mention, those notes have already been blown."
Sonny leveled his gaze, suddenly deadly serious. "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.'"