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.'”Before he became the Saxophone Colossus, Sonny was known to many in the 1950s jazz scene as Newk. This owed mostly to the musician’s supposed facial resemblance to then Brooklyn Dodger ace Don Newcombe, the first black pitcher to win 20 games in a season. Newcombe was also a huge, even scary-looking, man, standing on the mound, staring down a batter. Sonny, who keeps a framed Fifties-era baseball card of Newcombe on his bookcase, has always given the same impression: broad-shouldered, with the arms of a power forward, a muscular train coming right at you. It didn’t matter how he dressed, whether he was seen in the one-size-too-small suits he wore in his youthful bebop days, the wild Mohawk and dashiki he sported during the 1960s, or in the Nehru coat and cool sunglasses getup of today – Sonny has always looked like a giant.
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.”
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.'”
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.
Sonny’s best recordings, from the 1950s to now
Saxophone Colossus (1956)
From 1951 until his 1959 “sabbatical,” Sonny’s music had a masculine force and emotional versatility that has rarely been matched. If you had to pick one of Sonny’s best 1950s recordings, it might as well be this – with its iconic cover art, titanic blowing, and tunes including “St. Thomas,” “Strode Road,” and “Blue 7.”
Bags’ Groove (1957)
Few players ever made a better sideman than Sonny, and he did a lot of his best work during the 1950s with people like Monk, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, and Miles Davis. This Davis disc happens to be one of Rollins’ finest, most notably for Rollins compositions like “Doxy,” “Oleo,” and “Airegin,” all of which went on to become classics.
The Bridge (1962)
Largely unappreciated when it was released, The Bridge is now considered one of Rollins’ signal achievements.
His playing on “God Bless the Child” moves the famous tune into another realm. This album and the rest of his 1960s RCA work can also be found on the sprawling, superb Complete RCA Victor Recordings.
If you want to hear the full-throated pop side of Sonny’s playing, this is the place to start: The soundtrack to the Michael Caine movie is generous, humorous, and totally entertaining. The hip nursery rhyme refrain of “Alfie’s Theme” is a joy, and the orchestrations by Oliver Nelson take this recording way beyond most soundtrack work.
Silver City (1996)
Rollins’ 25 years on Milestone Records tended to be spotty, so cut the guesswork and just pick up this overview, which has songs from 13 of his Milestone albums and is spectacular start to finish. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a real tearjerker, and the live version of “Autumn Nocturne” sends you, as they say, through the roof like 151 proof.
Road Shows (2008-2011)
This collection of Sonny’s recent live shows (two volumes, with a third on the way) proves that the man is still out there, reaching toward nirvana. Check out “They Say It’s Wonderful” on Road Shows Vol. 2. He comes out like a fighter, showing you from the get-go that there’s plenty in the tank. At 80, Sonny is swinging, capable of the sublime at any given time.