Sonny Rollins Profile
Credit: Photograph by Martin Scholler

The next time I saw Sonny, he'd already moved. The Woodstock house, not far from where Jack DeJohnette lives, was more spacious than the one in Germantown. A ranch-type deal, it was equipped with a modern kitchen, a nice fireplace, and many skylights, most of which Sonny had covered up. Out in the back was a little pond. Asked if the pond had fish in it, Sonny said he didn't know. He hadn't really been back there much.

"I mostly stay in," Sonny said, sitting in his leather chair with his now familiar blood-orange skullcap on his head. He had a bunch of tests scheduled to check on his lungs, which he said had gotten "a little worse." He believed that the problem had been building for some time, perhaps back to 9/11. "I was living so close to the Towers, and when they fell down, we had to stay there," he said. "It was such an upsetting time, I really felt like playing. I took out my horn and took this deep breath, something I've done a million times. But I immediately felt sick, like I'd gulped down something bad. Some poison. It was just in the air."

Sonny looked wistfully at his sainted ax sitting on a brick shelf beside the fireplace. He hadn't played for months, the longest period since he returned from India in 1971.

But he wasn't feeling sorry for himself. Indeed, he appeared in good spirits, even jolly. It was difficult in the beginning, he said, not being able to practice. It was something he feared. "I really felt that would be the end of me, not being able to play. But I'm coming to terms with it. We're here for such a short time, you have to make the most of it. I've been lucky, getting to spend my life playing this horn. So how can I complain?"

Besides, Sonny said, it wasn't like the verdict was in for sure. There was every chance he'd play again. This was a good thing, Sonny said, because "I haven't really met my goals. I haven't made my full statement yet."

He asked if I remembered what he'd said back in Germantown, about those transcendent notes, the notes that hadn't yet been blown, the ones that were going to take him "past Sonny Rollins, way past."

Of course I did, I said.

"Well, keep your ears open," Sonny said. "They're coming."

Mark Jacobson is a contributing editor at New York and the author of five books.