Sonny Rollins took the most famous sabbatical in jazz history from 1959-61. Uncomfortable with the fame swirling around him as the most inventive tenor saxophonist in jazz and anxious to reinvestigate the fundamentals of his art, he dropped off the scene, famously practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge, which links lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
But Rollins, one of the all-time greats, began a second, much-less documented sabbatical in the late ‘60s. His playing had reached new levels of brilliance, but by 1968 he was burned out by the business — unable to command the money he felt he was worth, unable to secure enough steady work to keep a band together and bamboozled by lawyers for Impulse Records into signing away rights to the score he had written for the film “Alfie.”
So he quit. In early 1968 he boarded a plane for India, staying four or five months, living on an ashram and studying Indian religion and yoga. When he returned he performed sporadically, and after a trip to California in September 1969, he disappeared for nearly two years, resurfacing at a jazz festival in Norway in June 1971. By October, Down Beat magazine trumpeted, “Exclusive! Sonny Rollins returns.”
At 79, Rollins remains for many the greatest living jazz musician and on a good night can still summon the powers of Zeus. He spoke from his home in Germantown, N.Y., about this period of his life.
Q: What was the motivation for the second sabbatical?
A: I was really dissatisfied with the music business. I had finished contracts with RCA and Impulse, there wasn’t much happening and I was getting interested in self-development, which had started earlier when I went on the bridge. I guess I was trying to find myself.
Q: Why India?
A: I had been interested in metaphysical organizations and things like Buddhism, yoga and Sufism. I felt like I needed to get more into self-improvement and the greater purposes and meaning of life. I had been investigating yoga since the ‘50s, so I had been primed to make this voyage. It wasn’t something I did as a whim. I had separated from my wife for a while, and the time was right to make that move.
Having read quite a bit about yoga and various yoga masters and teachers, I took my horn, a bag or two and booked a flight to Bombay. On the last leg of the flight, I was talking to some Indian people and one fella knew something about ashrams. He suggested this particular place to me just outside of Bombay and this swami, Chinmayamananda.
Q: What was a typical day like at the ashram?
A: There were yoga students there from Europe and elsewhere and we had our meals and everything. When the swami came there were lectures. We studied the literature texts from the Vedanta. We studied the Upanishads and Yoga Sutras and all of these writings from antiquity. We weren’t doing hatha yoga so much — hatha yoga is the positions. We were mainly studying the texts, and when we didn’t have sessions, we’d endlessly discuss things among ourselves.
Q: Did you play the saxophone?
A: Not really. I did do one solo concert for the people there.
Q: When you finally dropped off the scene completely, were you practicing?
A: I was definitely practicing, but there was a period when I was living in Brooklyn when I became the ultimate recluse. I didn’t go out at all; well, maybe just to buy groceries or something. I think I had something called agoraphobia — a phobia about going out and being among people.
Q: What got you out of that period?
A: I don’t know. That would be interesting to know — what happened moment by moment and day by day and how I got out of that.
Q: It sounds like depression.
A: I’m not sure that’s apt. I had visitors coming by my house. Unless maybe I was depressed over the condition of human existence. That sounds like something I’m still depressed about. I was still practicing yoga. I was able to get into these states where I could leave my body; they call it floating.
I used to do these practices to find out what was possible in life. Life is not what we see around us. It’s something else. This is a screen. Behind the screen there is something else.
Q: Did you find what you were searching for?
A: I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to say that I found it, but I found a great deal of it. It’s like my music; I’ve found something, but there’s always more. I’m closer to my self-realization, but with my music I still can’t get there as often as I want to.
I did find peace. This is really a more recent thing. It isn’t something I found in the ‘70s. This is something where you keep gaining knowledge of different things and they eventually coalesce. ...
The swami taught me some things. I couldn’t concentrate sometimes because my mind would be flitting from one thing to another. In those days, concentration meant sitting in a lotus position, getting quiet and closing your eyes and contemplating o m. He told me, “When you play your music, you’re in a deep concentration. That’s deep mediation.” I realized it’s not about sitting down and meditating. It’s about trying to reach a deeper place of understanding — especially playing jazz, because this is a type of music that lends itself to true improvisation.
In true improvisation, you go to the subconscious. The process of improvisation is such that you can’t think. The music is happening too fast. If you try to think and try to put in something that you practice, it doesn’t work. It’s a perfect kind of music for a mystical concept.