Sonny Rollins is a model of aging with wisdom and grace, but even those qualities are overshadowed by a towering artistry that’s as vibrant as ever. The 78-year-old tenor saxophonist may be the last of the jazz titans, but he plays like he still has something to prove.
Rollins lives alone in a 150-year-old farmhouse in Germantown, New York, a reminder that he has long found opportunities to duck away from the world - including extended sabbaticals in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout it all, music has been the overarching activity of his life, and his commitment to creativity continues unabated.
“I’ve always practiced a lot,” said a ruminative Rollins, talking on the phone from his kitchen. “I’m not secure that what I’m playing is always going to go right. That’s why I practice every day - that and so I’ll have more ways to play. There are things I haven’t figured out yet.
“I think I’m getting closer to being what I can be. I think I’m playing better than I ever have.”
Bear in mind that Rollins was playing with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Art Blakey 50 years ago, while still a teenager. By the late 1950s, he was leading his own groups and winning jazz polls. In 1973, he was elected to the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame.
But listen to his recent albums - particularly “Sonny, Please” and “Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert)” - or catch him live, and you’ll likely hear a musician playing with bountiful beauty, invention and an uncanny directness.
In the post-Coltrane era of jazz, stellar musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter have blossomed. But as jazz weathered the diffusing winds of rock and of free improvisation in the 1960s, a certain standing - a cultural bearing - of being a jazz master was left behind to previous generations. Rollins is the last of those giants.
He grew up in New York, picking up the saxophone at the age of 7 and immediately developing an affinity.
“As a little boy, I’d play and play and play, in reverie, until my mother called me to dinner,” he said.
Rollins’ playing and career developed steadily until 1959 when, nearing an apex of popularity and media attention, he pulled a J.D. Salinger disappearing act. For two years, he studied, making no public appearances, practicing throughout the night alone on the Brooklyn Bridge.
He’d later say he’d dropped out because he didn’t feel his playing matched the critical acclaim. His harshest critic has always reflected from his bathroom mirror, and his own recordings are something Rollins has long avoided.
“I hate listening to myself,” he said. “I’m always listening for what I could have done, what I should have done.”
His return to the scene in 1961 found him in even better form. His music continued to stretch and evolve. Then in the late 1960s he again split - this time to Japan and India, where he pursued his appetite for philosophy and self-realization.
The final product, today, is a man with an easy humility and an unwavering dedication to creativity. He says he’d like to perform more, but the physical toll of the year limits him to 25 or so concerts a year. He admits to lonely spells since his wife, Lucille, died in 2004, but he continues living in the farmhouse they moved into in 1974.
“My life is thinking about music and preparing for music,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
Rollins weathered, gentle, grandfatherly voice perks up when talk turns to the subject of performing.
“I don’t perform that much, so when I do, I’m fully engaged,” he said. “Why it comes off better sometimes than others is a complete mystery ...
“I come at it to reach a higher place musically, and to give that to the people who are listening.”
Rollins said he’s careful not to dwell too much on the deaths of his contemporaries.
“I’m blessed beyond words to still be involved in this,” he said. “As long as I’m alive, I still have a chance to improve myself as a human being and as a musician. I believe in the afterlife, so the farther I get in this life, the better off I’ll be in the next.”
And how does a master musician who’s been playing for 70 years practice to become better? Rollins said he works on the rudiments of chord progressions for songs he’s bringing into his repertoire, absorbing the harmonies that are available for his improvisations.
“Once I have that, I go a lot by the melody,” he said. “And then I forget about it. You have to know what you’re doing and then forget about it, so it’s coming from the other side of your brain, the nonanalytical.
“I get on the stage and I get in a reverie. I go back to playing like I was in my mother’s room.”