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Music

Sonny Rollins, Still Living the Well-Lived Life

Sonny Rollins is the rarest of birds: the enlightened being who figured out early on how to live life in full, on his own terms, and has never strayed from that almost monastic path.

There is an excellent feature on American treasure (and no I don't use that word lightly) Sonny Rollins in April 17th's Boston Globe.

The man is going to celebrate his 80th birthday this year (in September) and is still active, creative, engaged.

There are certain artists who are so incomparable, as artists, as human beings, as role models, that enough good things cannot possibly be said. There are not many in this category, but if anyone is, Rollins must be included. Ceaselessly humble, relentlessly ambitious and seldom (if ever) satisfied with his performances, Rollins is the rarest of birds: the enlightened being who figured out early on how to live life in full, on his own terms, and has never strayed from that almost monastic path.

A few money quotes from the article:

"I don’t care about landmarks and foolishness," he says. "I am a musician very much into everyday activities. I practice everyday. I compose. I am in the middle of my career in my mind."

"I never thought anything was as important as understanding what I needed to do as an artist," he says. "You can’t care about how the public reacts. It’s not something you can contemplate and anticipate. I try to get close to my inner self, and I know that will be OK. When I know I’m playing well, I know that everyone else feels that way."

You want to know what a bad man Sonny Rollins is? There are numerous examples, but two leap to mind (one well-known; the other less so):

Example one: two words, The Bridge. (I could explain this, but thanks to YouTube, footage exists of him describing this unbelievable story.)


Example two: at a concert in the '80s, Rollins was in the middle of one of his ebullient solos when, in the joy of the moment, he decided to leap off the stage. Suddenly, silence. After a few stunned moments, the music started up again. Miraculously this is caught on film, and the cameras pan in on Sonny, flat on his back, continuing to play. Cool enough, right? It turns out he broke his heel in the fall. And continued to play. Not just the song, but the rest of the show. The show, of course, must go on.


The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process.

Blow on, Sonny.

(Recommended Rollins for the uninitiated: Sonny Rollins Plus 4, Saxophone Colossus, Night at the Village Vanguard, Alfie, and East Broadway Rundown, which, for whatever it's worth, is one of my all-time favorite recordings in any genre.)

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