The famous Hudson Valley light was beginning to wane when Sonny started talking about an epiphany he'd had a couple years ago in France. "We were on tour. We lost something we really needed. It seemed like a real catastrophe, and I was responsible. I was going crazy, imagining the worst. Then this feeling came over me. I'd never felt anything like it before, something with so much clarity, that profound. Maybe it sounds silly, but when I look back on it, I think this was really the high point of my entire life. Because I just felt: 'It's all good, man.' I mean, I'd been saying that phrase for years, like offhand, when someone asks, 'Hey, Sonny, what's up?' I'd say, 'It's all good.' But now I really felt it, what I call the Big Picture, and I understood it to be true. 'It's all good.'"
Since then, Sonny, so often tormented in his early years, has felt relatively serene. The newfound tranquillity has helped him deal with his unique position in the jazz world. Asked about his reputation for firing drummers back in the 1970s and '80s, Sonny shook his head in acknowledgement and said, "The kind of music I play, the horn and the drum have to be really tight. These younger musicians, they're great. They can play anything. But I have played with some good drummers in my time. Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes. These are some good drummers, man. I'm not looking for someone who can play what Max played in 1956, because it isn't 1956 anymore. I am looking for someone who can play what Max would play in 2013. That's a lot to ask from a young drummer."
Then Sonny laughed. "I don't want to say things have been easy for me, because I've put a lot of work in. But I knew who I was from very early on. From the first moment I started to blow a horn, with my alto when I was seven, I knew I would become a prominent musician. Don't ask me how, but I knew it. When I started playing with Miles and Monk, these were people I really looked up to. They were geniuses. I figured these guys have been around, they knew more than me, had a more sophisticated point of view. But I never felt intimidated. I never felt like, 'Wow, I don't belong here, these guys are just being nice to me,' because I knew if I couldn't keep up, they would have let me know about it right away.
"It is true that when you get older you can't do everything you used to do. I remember one time, I was playing with Dizzy, late in his career. He said, 'Just don't play anything too fast.' I couldn't believe it: Dizzy Gillespie is saying don't play too fast! Now I know what he meant. Believe me, I know. It balances out, though. I may not physically be able to play what I did in 1957, but there are things I couldn't think of playing in 1957 that I play now. I'm not making more of myself than I am, but an artist has periods. Picasso had periods. Things evolve. You can't play what you played when you were 25 just because that's what you're expected to play. Those same notes? I can't do it."
Then we were talking about death. When it came to the Little Picture and the Big, death was a major dividing line, Sonny said. For years he kept a small apartment in New York's financial district, six blocks from the World Trade Center. On the morning of 9/11, he heard the planes hit the buildings. "I went downstairs and saw one tower on fire. The other tower came down, and a lot of people – myself included – panicked and started running up the street." A decade later, he still wondered about the dead. In the long run, did it matter how you died, if it was in some horrific incident or not? "You think, 'I don't want to go like that.' But what do we know? Those people might have ended up in a really beautiful place."
We talked about David S. Ware, the well-loved saxophonist who had recently died at 62. "David was kind of a protégé of mine. He used to follow me around like I used to follow Coleman Hawkins. I really liked him a lot as a person and a musician," said Sonny, who taught Ware the value of circular breathing in the 1970s. "Well, he did what he came to do," Sonny said with a sigh, adding, without sentimentality, that death no longer upset him.
"Almost everyone I know is dead!" he said almost giddily, followed by one of his yodeling laughs. "Death!" Sonny shouted, as if to underscore that if there was a life expectancy for strung-out bop musicians, he, by whatever quirk of fate, had certainly exceeded it. "What can I tell you," he added with a showman's wink, "death just ain't what it used to be, to me."
I asked Sonny if he ever got lonely up here in the forest by himself since his wife died. "Sometimes," Sonny said as he squinted out the back door and into the leaden skies. "When it gets dark early, like around this time of the year. That's when you feel like you want someone."
Then Sonny shook his head as if to accommodate what he'd just said. "But I'm good. Like I said, 'It's all good.'"