Up close in Germantown, however, it was apparent that even accounting for being markedly bent at the waist, part of what he calls "the decrease in my physicality," Sonny isn't all that big. Yet on this forlorn late-fall afternoon, surrounded by a pile of haphazardly folded sheets and pillowcases, 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.
We got to talking about Sonny's boyhood in Harlem, where he began life on September 7, 1930, as Walter Theodore Rollins, in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.
"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, Sonny said, fondly recalling when his grandmother used to take him on marches down Lenox Avenue. "She was from the islands and was a Garveyite," Sonny said, alluding to Jamaican-born Pan-Africanist and prophet of the Rastafarian movement Marcus Garvey, who envisioned the "Black Star Line," a flotilla of ships that would take the stranded Negro multitudes back to the motherland where they belonged. "I'd walk down the street holding my granny's hand, chanting, 'Free Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Boys!' I couldn't have been more than eight," Sonny recalled. A couple years later, like a number of Harlem youths, he was sent to the leftist Camp Unity in Wingdale, New York, which billed itself as America's "first proletarian summer colony." One of Sonny's camp counselors was Abel Meeropol, who would later adopt the orphaned children of the executed Rosenbergs and write the lyrics for the wrenching anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit."
"Later on, when I first heard Billie Holiday sing that song, it really tore me up," said Sonny, adding that he and Lady Day "were close, you know."
It was a conversation for any jazz nut to treasure, and soon the topic of Thelonious Monk, the all-time-great pianist, came up. "Monk was my guide, my guru, the one who made me understand what it meant to be a true musician," said Sonny. "Monk always told me that without music, life wouldn't be shit. Outside of his family, music was all he cared about. That's how he was, totally pure. I always hated the way they demeaned him, made him out to be some high-priest weirdo, like he just happened to play these beautiful things by voodoo or putting his fingers on the keys by accident." The fact was, Sonny said, Monk was actually "a completely normal, down-to-earth guy" once you got to know him.
"I would drop in on him, and we'd talk. He was 13 years older than me, but we had a very similar way of looking at things." It was Monk who taught him about "the geometry of musical time and space," Sonny said. This seemed odd because – musically, at least – Sonny has always had a fraught relationship with the piano, often excluding the instrument from his various bands. It was a matter of too many notes in too small a space. "Piano players have those 88 keys, and they've got to play them; know what I mean?" Sonny said. "Even with someone as great as Bud Powell, I felt he was taking me places I didn't want to go....but Monk kept things open, always gave you room....He was also the single most honest man I ever met in my life."
Asked what he meant by that, Sonny said, "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 never cheated anyone. Maybe he could have, but he didn't. He was straight, no chaser. In the situation, that's saying something."
An addict from his late teens, Sonny said there was a time he thought he'd never stop doing junk. "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."
The heroin life had "negative lifestyle aspects," Sonny ruefully acknowledged. "I stole, I lied. I did things I will always regret." In 1949, on the verge of joining Miles Davis' band, Sonny was busted for armed robbery and wound up doing 10 months on Rikers Island. Later, already a star, he found himself broke and homeless, living on the street in Chicago. Maybe the worst of it was when Sonny swore to Charlie Parker, desperate to kick his own habit, that he was clean. "I saw Bird smile when I said that, and I could see how much he cared about me. But I wasn't clean....I lied to Bird. That's when I knew I had to stop."
Many jazz fans have always suspected that Sonny's sabbatical on the Williamsburg Bridge was all about kicking drugs, but the musician says that's not so. "I wasn't using then. That was only about the music. These young guys like Ornette Coleman and Coltrane were coming up. I told myself, 'Sonny, you better get your shit together, because these cats have something to say." When Sonny came back from the bridge, the expectation among the ever-messianic-minded jazz community was that he would return, like Aeneas from the pit, bearing a hitherto wholly unheard soundscape, a wig-stretching concept that might push the so-called new thing "free jazz" into the stratosphere. As it was, his first post-hiatus record, The Bridge – a lustrous, diamond-like piece of work now regarded as among his finest efforts – sounded remarkably like the Sonny Rollins everyone knew. Once the leading-edge hero, now Sonny was being called conventional, even old-fashioned. At 32, he seemed a relic of a bygone era. Many conjectured that the advent of Coltrane's "sheets of sound" had gotten into Sonny's head, messed with his ever-present insecurities about where he stood in jazz's eternal cutting contest.
Seen in hindsight, the situation is galling from Sonny's point of view. Here he was: Newk, the ballsy, urbane player, the voice of the street, full of sly humor and lightning-quick references to every tune in the songbook, someone who had no problem admitting more than a passing affinity for Bing Crosby. Then, suddenly, none of this seemed to matter. The Sixties were times of the bared soul, the mystic declaration of faith, when it was believed that a single revolutionary, salvation-providing act would change the human calculus for all time. Asked about this, Sonny is fairly reticent, saying only that he "enjoyed the stuff he was hearing, but that just wasn't me."
You weren't about to hear him, the self-described "regular Joe," a guy who even today keeps up his subscription to Mad Magazine, start chanting "a love supreme, a love supreme." Coltrane was a minister's son: Full-scale cosmological rearrangement was his métier. Sonny, for all his loner idiosyncrasies, remained very much the jazzman, inventively negotiating within the more or less established boundaries of a genre. Orbiting on a whole other plane, Coltrane was blowing the music up from inside, much as Sergio Leone's Man with No Name spaghetti westerns shattered the time-honored orthodoxies of the cowboy movies Sonny so loved watching as a kid.
Whether or not he was unnerved by Coltrane's ascendancy ("John Coltrane was my great friend and my great rival" remains his basic comment on the topic), there can be no doubt the 1960s were a mixed bag for the Saxophone Colossus. Nonpareil moments like the score from the film Alfie and the piano-less experimentation on discs like East Broadway Run Down were offset by his seeming inability to keep any stable group together. His post-bop records were an uneven bunch, and high-profile contracts with RCA Victor and the jazz label Impulse! ended unsatisfactorily. A spate of heavy amphetamine use led to much self-confessed "paranoia."
Times had changed. Rock & roll, once considered nothing that any serious jazzman need trouble himself about, was increasingly seen as the lingua franca of the culture, high and low. A performance at the Both/And club in San Francisco shortly after the Summer of Love seemed indicative of the Colossus' mood at the time. In front of a house of Sonny-lovers, myself included, the musician started several tunes, played a few bars as his sidemen sat silent, but soon stopped. After about six of these false starts, Sonny stared at the audience. "Maybe you have an idea," he said, grumpily.
By the end of the decade, Sonny had said, "For the first time I didn't care about music....I'd had it; I didn't want to play." So he took another sabbatical, but not on the Williamsburg Bridge. Putting down his horn, Sonny spent several months studying Zen at the foot of Mount Fuji and concentrated on Vedic philosophy in an Indian ashram.
"I think he was really lost there for a while," said the esteemed jazz critic Gary Giddins about the work Sonny did in the early to mid 1970s, an exceedingly strange time to be a jazz musician of the traditionalist bent. In what appeared to be an ill-considered attempt to keep up, Sonny made a few "fusion" records with Bob Cranshaw's electric bass, a number of jazz-rock guitarists, and the criminally forgotten kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing Rufus Harley, but nothing took off.
By the late 1970s, however, things began to look up. "Sonny seemed to relax," Giddins said. "It was as if he realized that he was primarily a concert artist and didn't have to spend all that time in the recording studio. His live solos became these great meditative, playful, stream-of-consciousness things. It was like the whole history of the music was just pouring out of him on any given night. The audience understands the process, waits for him to find his groove, then the whole place explodes, because when he's on, there's nothing else like it in this world. The fact that he has continued to play as well as he has for so long is a real blessing. I never thought I'd say this, but Sonny's really great period might be 1978 to now."
This view is seconded by Jack DeJohnette, the drummer who played on Miles Davis' cataclysmic Bitches Brew and with Keith Jarrett and Sonny. "He's gotten to such a deep, spiritual place, listening to him is like hearing someone speaking in tongues. He's otherworldly. That is very inspiring to other musicians. Sonny might be older, but he doesn't sound old. That is for sure."