A Colossus Nears the End of the Road: Sonny Rollins at 75

Past, present, and future mean different things to different types of musicians. For pop musicians, the present is often nothing more than an opportunity to relive the past — we’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much.. The thought of Mick and Keith rolling out a Reggaeton version of “Satisfaction” is frankly embarrassing. But jazz is something else all together. With jazz, past performances are there as touchstones, not templates. For the jazz musician, the only value in consistency is as a standard of quality; the playing should strive to be consistently great, but not to be consistent. Too much looking back from performance to performance and it stops being jazz. If you’re not moving forward, you’re not moving.

The forward impulse is something Sonny Rollins knows well. As our greatest living jazzman and a link to the music’s most storied era, Sonny, much to the chagrin of fossil collectors, has never stopped moving. Since his recorded debut in 1949, his restlessly rhythmic and joyously witty playing has placed him side by side with greats like Miles, Monk (who never had a more sympathetic partner), Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, the Modern Jazz Quartet — the list goes on. But while his support appearances have frequently been brilliant, it’s the music he’s made as a leader that earned him his greatest praise. Saxophone Colossus, Way out West, Freedom Suite, The Bridge — we could go on for a while. Some critics feel that Rollins’ best work, particularly in the latter half of his career, has been heard on-stage, but you can be sure that every time he puts the reed to his mouth a moment will soon follow where the ground opens up, and the kind of wonder that only jazz can offer is in full flower.

With over 70 albums to his credit, most of which are still in print, Rollins’s catalogue has plenty to offer once you’ve memorized the solos on Saxophone Colossus. Check out the following for some over-looked Rollinsiana:

1. On the Outside (Bluebird) 1962
Too in love with melody to fully embrace the avant-garde, Sonny still explored it’s possibilities while retaining the essence of his style. This is as far out as he got — and as humane and impassioned as anything by more celebrated avant-gardists.

2. Plus 4 (Prestige) 1956
Somewhat overshadowed by Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness, both of which were recorded and released around the same time, this album finds Sonny and the ill-fated Clifford Brown (on trumpet) achieving a rare unity of thought, feeling, and execution.

3. Silver City (Milestone) 1972
This two-disc compilation was released to celebrate Sonny’s 25 years on the Milestone label. While all the performances come from after his “classic period”, the album shows that even though listeners and critics may have been stuck in the past, Sonny never was.

4. Saxophone Colossus VHS/DVD (Winstar) 1998
Daydreaming in an introductory jazz class in my first year at university, the professor popped this in and woke me up. A sterling example of the personal charisma and willingness to take risks that makes the man such a compelling live performer.

5. This Is What I Do (Milestone) 2000
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Rollins’ recent recordings aren’t up to snuff. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” soars beautifully, and his reworking of “Sweet Leilani” and “The Moon of Manakoora” show that there is no such thing as inherently corny music. In yet another example of the award’s irrelevance, this album won Sonny his first Grammy.

Since his mother bought him his first saxophone as a child, Sonny Rollins has been chasing the future, looking for the next note, trying to scale the next mountain, giving as much as he could, because that’s what it takes to get something important back. Now, as he celebrates his 75th birthday (on September 7th), and is able to count the number of remaining peers on one hand (and with fingers left over), Rollins is in a unique place. There’s a lot more past behind him then future ahead, and age means he may never get to where he wants to go, but goddamn if he’s not going to keep trying.

The slow and heavy steps Rollins took on stage when I saw him play this past June suggest that his days are not without a fair amount of discomfort, but the show he gave — a two hour master class in the history of jazz saxophone — showed that he’s still got a lot to give. At this stage in his life and career, no one would fault him if were he to take it easy and rest on his laurels, but that’s not something he knows how to do.

“I’m always in danger of sounding too different than I did on my last record, but it’s what I have to do. I don’t have any choice about it. I’m not gonna copy my past performances.”

Over the course of his career, Rollins has seen jazz music’s position in society shift from a place as the hippest of hip to its current status, where its most popular manifestation comes in the form of sexy piano players and any claims to “cool” status are framed by the soft focus of hindsight. The changes that Rollins has witnessed in the way jazz is viewed have caused him to reassess his attitude toward the music he’s given his life to.

“It was a naïve concept I had, a long time ago, that jazz was able to change the world. I think it’s a great music and it can have some effects, but I think today it’s very difficult, unfortunately there’s much less people crossing lines. People are hardened into their positions and it’s difficult for a jazz musician to reach these people, even if they might like what they hear, it’s difficult for them to be in a position where they would be open to hearing it.”

Rollins was not alone in his belief that the music he loved had the potential to change the world. Musicians like Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and, perhaps most importantly, John Coltrane, sought to use their music to elucidate undeniable truths that humanity could draw strength from. Rollins himself released Freedom Suite in 1958, an attempt to articulate the hypocrisy of his country’s attitude toward the people who created jazz — America’s greatest homemade contribution to world culture. But the intensity demanded in order to try and achieve such lofty goals had the opposite effect than was intended. The music was going places that most listeners weren’t prepared to follow. By the end of the’ 60s, Coltrane was dead, the technical excess that was fusion was beginning its reign, and Rollins left for India — and he wouldn’t release an album for six years. An attack on the walls of Jericho was abandoned in favour of smaller battles.

“Well, I found that it’s admirable, and perhaps there’s no alternative, but the only person you can really change is yourself. You can be a more positive person, a more generous person, a more kind person — you can do that. If you’re playing and you’ve changed one person, and you’ve changed one person to like jazz, that’s a great achievement and one I now realize I should be happy with. I should have been happy with it a long time ago.”

Perhaps it’s part of his effort to change that single person, but Rollins has on occasion been said to pander to his audience; playing rhythmically simple Caribbean-inflected tunes rather than using more complex structures as launching-off points for the improvisatory heights that he has scaled so many times in the past. Some say he can lose his way in concert, especially when he’s playing for young people who may not be able to follow the rhythm of his more “adventurous” work. Jazz? Making people happy? The gall! But more often than not the people who pay to hear him have been on Sonny’s side. Not that he’s concerned with that.

“I’ve been accused of playing a lot of Caribbean-style tunes. There’s some people that dismiss those songs and feel that I’m catering to the people when I play them — which I disagree with thoroughly.

“I have to play for myself. I have an idea of what I want to play like — that’s what I do when I’m practicing. I have to depend on that. I’m not a good enough musician to be able to try and discern what the people want and really do it in a convincing way. Everything I do is what I consider to be my best effort. Usually, if I’m satisfied with what I’m doing, 99% of the time the audience will appreciate it.”

Rollins’s intention to play for himself and satisfy his own musical needs means he’s spent the majority of his life trying to find the key to a door that may be impossible to unlock. He maybe a modern Sisyphus, but it’s the limitless possibility that keeps Rollins playing.

“There’s always new things happening, new things that you hear, new developments in music that I might be able to get something from. I don’t know if I’ll ever catch the brass ring, but I know that there’s a lot going on every day that I need to aspire to, and I still enjoy the quest.

“To me it’s not important whether the end result is reached. What matters is that I’m trying to get there and that there’s always something in trying to get there that is exhilarating and exciting and new — so I’m not really worried about the end result. You’ll never learn all of music anyway and I’ll probably never get everything that I want to get, but there’s so much more that I feel I want to get to.”

In an era when folks will kick a cat for a chance at 15 minutes of fame, the purity of Rollins’s dedication to his art form is a rare and inspiring thing. Speaking with him only confirms what listening to his music suggests: the only standards that he cares about are his own. And it’s not just talk. This is a man who, uncomfortable with what he felt was undeserved praise, retired from public view at the height of his acclaim in 1959. Aren’t people are supposed to drop out because they can’t sell enough tickets, not because they’re selling too many?

“I began to feel, ‘Gee, I’m not that great’. I don’t deserve this. I’m far from doing what I want to do. Therefore when people like it, it puts questions there because I know that I’m a long way from what I feel is my best work. I haven’t got it all down under my fingers. So when people praise you too much in view of my own feelings… Can’t you see how it creates a little turmoil?”

That kind of integrity can only come from someone who has dedicated his life to his art. Rollins doesn’t need an audience to make him happy — he just needs his horn. He’s playing for something greater than praise or self-satisfaction. Listen to the solo on “Skylark” or “Silver City” or “God Bless the Child” and you can hear someone trying to get closer to the meaning of why we’re here at all.

“I can play for myself and feel perfectly happy. I do that. During my life in music I’ve always sought a private place, like going out to the oceanside or going into the woods and practicing. I find out that when I’m out playing in the country by myself there’s something there that’s very spiritual or meditative.” An “alpha state” he calls it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to be a virtuoso to get where Sonny’s going. “Everybody can get to that stage,” he says. “It’s just a matter of finding it. That’s one of the great challenges of life.” When Rollins speaks, it’s abundantly clear that to him music is so much more than a commodity, an art form, or even a means of expression. It’s a part of his “physical and mental wellbeing”. If he doesn’t play, he feels “laggard and withdrawn”. It’s his “great happiness.”

I’d tell you to sit back, Sonny, and relax, but I know you’d just laugh and do your own thing anyway. I know it bugs you to see it written, but you’re more than just the greatest we have left. You’re one of the greatest there’s ever gonna be.

Try to find a slyer and more strutting performance than his playing on Alfie. Check out “Why Was I Born?” from his soon-to-be-released live album, Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert) and see how emotion and experience can be translated and brought into divine focus by a musician. Bleeding Gums Murphy standing on a bridge wailing the blues? Sonny was on the bridge first — and he ain’t no cartoon.

What do you do with a guy who says, “Everyday I play, it makes me realize it’s a shame because I’m not good enough. I mean I should be better. I’m wasting time — I should be making a giant step when I’m just doing a baby step. I’m thinking about trying to improve.”

I don’t know about you, but after hearing something like that, I realize not burning the toast in the morning isn’t quite the accomplishment I thought it was.

If Sonny Rollins, SONNY DAMN ROLLINS, says something like that, then you and I got something to work on. Humility from a colossus runs the risk of coming off as displaced hubris, but the ease and sincerity in his voice, to say nothing of the questing and puckish buoyancy of his playing, makes him believable. It makes him admirable. Shit, did Picasso ever say he wasn’t good enough? Did Brando? Jigga?

There’s one thing we can admit, even if Sonny won’t. He’s still capable of going places that only a handful of musicians are ever able to get to, and the day he stops the journey — which will be the same day his horn hits the ground — a big part of the spirit of jazz will be gone forever. Uncle Don, Newk, The Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins!