Sonny Rollins

1983 NEA Jazz Master and 2010 National Medal of Arts recipient
Headshot of a man.

Photo by John Abbott

Music Credits: Excerpts from “The Bridge” and “John S” composed and performed by Sonny Rollins from the album The Bridge, used courtesy of Sony Music Management.

Excerpts from “I Want to Be Happy” composed by Irving Caesar and Vincent Youmans, performed by Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins from the album by Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, used courtesy of Prestige.

Excerpts from “Tenor Madness” composed by Sonny Rollins, performed by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane from the album Tenor Madness, used courtesy of Prestige.

Excerpts from “Kiss and Run” composed by Sam Coslow, performed by Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow from the album, Sonny Rollins Plus Four, used courtesy of Prestige.

Excerpts from “Airegin”, composed by Sonny Rollins, performed by Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke, from the album The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, used courtesy of Prestige.

Jo Reed: The music you’re listening to is “The Bridge.” Composed and performed by 2010 National Medal of Arts recipient and 1983 NEA Jazz Master, Sonny Rollins. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts; I’m Josephine Reed.

Today, September 7, we’re celebrating the 87th birthday of Jazz legend, tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins. Rollins has played music for over 70 years. He began as a teenager playing with icons like JJ Johnson and Bud Powell. In the 1950s, he was a sideman for Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and then joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. He also teamed up with John Coltrane for the recording Tenor Madness. Let’s face it: if I were to list every musician Sonny Rollins has played with, it would be a very long who’s who in jazz. Because of his sheer talent and absolute dedication to the music itself, letting it takes him wherever it leads, he’s been the jazzmen’s jazz player and acknowledged as its greatest living improviser. Rollins has recorded at least sixty albums as leader and a number of his compositions, including "St. Thomas", "Oleo", and "Doxy", have become jazz standards. He always been an adventurous musician. Not afraid to change or to embrace the sounds of calypso, Latin, avant garde, funk and R&B. His solo work is unsurpassed either playing solo gigs or when performing with his band launching into long, extemporaneous unaccompanied cadenzas. He’s played in venues around the world and as much as his cds are lauded, and believe me, they are, some critics have thought Rollins reached his pinnacle as a musician on the concert stage. Luckily for us, Rollins began recording many of these performances in 2000 and has released four cds that give listeners a sense of the experience of seeing him perform live. Because of respiratory problems, he hasn’t been able to tour for a few years and recently stepped away from recording as well. Still, he was incredibly gracious allowing me to interview him in his Woodstock home earlier this summer about his music, his memories and his philosophy. So here we go: Mr. Sonny Rollins.

Sonny Rollins: I always loved music. My older brother, he's five years my senior, wanted to be a classical violinist, so I used to hear him practice. I really enjoyed listening to him practice. And I just loved music.

Jo Reed: You came up in New York, my city as well, at a time when music, especially in Harlem but not exclusively, was just exploding. Tell me about what it was like to be in music at that time in New York City.

Sonny Rollins: Well, I was born in Harlem. I was born in '30. And of course, in those days I had the radio. I heard some of my great people, Fats Waller, on the radio. As soon as I got old enough, I began trying to go to see them in person.

Jo Reed: Weren't they playing in clubs? Was it hard for a kid to get into the clubs?

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yeah! I didn't get into clubs until I was in my teens. The clubs that I can remember getting into were the clubs where 52nd street, which was jazz street. And when I was going down there, I had to put on eyebrow pencil to look a little older. And…

Jo Reed: You mean, like make a mustache?

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, of course, I looked ridiculous, I know. <laughs> But they let me in. You know, they probably wanted the money. I didn't go into any clubs like the Cotton Club and all this stuff. You know, that would be too adult for me.

Jo Reed: What attracted you to the music?

Sonny Rollins: Well, when I heard Fats Waller, for instance, then I really realized that this was what I wanted to do. What I must do, what I had to do. So I was very fortunate. I heard a lot of these records. Louie Jordan, which I loved. I was hooked by that time and knew I had to be a musician. So, I bugged my mother to get me a saxophone.

Jo Reed: And why the saxophone?

Sonny Rollins: Well, I think it was Louis Jordan, who was a saxophone player. And I used to go to the school; my elementary school was across the street from a nightclub where he played at. So, there’s this great picture of Louis Jordan with his with his tails, beautiful shiny saxophone, and it just happened during that same time is when I was beginning to listen to his records. So it all came together, you know? So, Louis Jordan was a big inspiration at that time.

Jo Reed: And you started with the alto sax, and then switched to the tenor. What, why that move?

Sonny Rollins: Well, actually, my mother got me an alto. Of course, I was a young boy so a tenor would have been a little bit big for me anyway. But she got me a used alto. At that point, it was all the same. They were all, saxophone, alto, tenor, whatever. It was just this to have a saxophone. You know, I went in the room, and I'd practice, and my mother would always tell people, my mother had to call me for dinner. I was just in there, and I'm just playing. I didn't know what I was playing, but I was playing something, and that was heaven. And that's mainly how it's been all my life with the saxophone. It's really been a transcendental experience whenever I play.

Jo Reed: And when you went to the tenor, did it feel like you were coming home?

Sonny Rollins: Well, the reason why I went to the tenor was because I heard another saxophonist at that time, the great Coleman Hawkins. And Coleman Hawkins had this great record out, "Body and Soul," you'd hear that all over Harlem, coming out of the all the bars, and it'd be playing through the juke boxes. So, I became captured by Coleman Hawkins, who was very different from Louis Jordan. Coleman Hawkins was a much more intellectual, I could put it that way, player. Louis Jordan was just more earthy. Coleman Hawkins was really a great musician harmonically, and things like that. What he was doing. He was very I would say advanced.

Jo Reed: Dense.

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, it was dense. And boy, everybody was trying to play that "Body and Soul." So after that, I began to want to play tenor. Coleman Hawkins then became my prophet, and eventually, my mother got me a saxophone. I must have been maybe 13-years-old, something like that. And this time she got me a brand new saxophone.

Jo Reed: That was a big deal.

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, it’s a big deal. She went down to Manny's Music Store, which was a big music store on 48th street, and I got my “King Zephyr Tenor.”

Jo Reed: Very soon thereafter, you met Thelonious Monk and began playing with him. How did you meet?

Sonny Rollins: I played at a little club someplace in Harlem on Lenox Avenue someplace, and Thelonious Monk was featured. We had kid band, really, that played opposite Thelonious Monk. So, that's the first time I met Thelonious. He liked my playing. Let's see, I was early teens at that time.

Jo Reed: And playing with him. You had a deep relationship with him.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yeah! Well, that happened later. Oh, boy, it's a long story, but it was a friend of mine, Lowell Louis, a trumpet player. We had a band together. And we went to high school together and the whole thing, we were two buddies. And what happened was that Monk had a band that he was taking out of town to Chicago. And Lowell went with Monk to Chicago for a week. I mean, that was a big, big thing! We were in high school. We were about to graduate pretty soon, but anyway, so Lowell said, "Hey, Sonny, gee, I'm going to get you with Monk. You know you got to get with Monk," you know? Monk might have remembered me from earlier when I told you I first met him. I'm not sure about that. Anyway, he liked… Monk liked my playing. So, I got in the band pretty easily. I was playing in the band.

<Music interlude>

Jo Reed: I'm not a musician. I’ve read, playing his music is really difficult.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yeah! I remember one time in particular that it was… let's see, myself, four musicians were rehearsing at his home. And of course, he was living in an apartment building. So, it was like a small bedroom. It was four guys in there playing. And so I remember the trumpet player saying, "Hey, Monk, we can't play this music. It's impossible to play this on my horn, you know?" So it was that kind of stuff. Depend on all the time. Monk had been writing things which were not the norm. Anyway, generally by the time the rehearsal was over, everybody was playing it. Everybody was fine, you know? <laughter>

Jo Reed: But on first hearing it. <laughs>

Sonny Rollins: Right! "Hey, man, what's this?" You know? But anyway, so I, began playing with Monk, and Monk liked me. I was like one of his protégés. And I used to go down to his house, and they used to hang out and the whole thing, you know? That was really good. And then, of course, I played with them after that, recordings so on and so forth.

Jo Reed: Did he give you advice? Or was it just letting you be.

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, more letting me be. None of those guys give advice. If you're qualified to play with Monk, or with anybody of note, of stature, especially in small band. I could see Dizzy Gillespie with his Big Band, and Dizzy was a natural teacher. He was always showing guys different chord progressions. So Dizzy was different. But most of the guys that I played with, if you were there, then you should know what you're doing, or else you wouldn't be there. And if something came up and you had to ask Monk, "Well, gee, Monk, what should I do?" Then you're not in the right place.

Jo Reed: What attracted you to improvisation so deeply?

Sonny Rollins: Well, I know that improvisation is really the pinnacle. All music, I respect, great arrangements and everything. But to be able to create music on the spot as it comes to you. That’s really the top because you’re getting the music from above or from wherever around you, whatever. But the music is...

Jo Reed: Almost coming through you?

Sonny Rollins: Coming through you. See, this is different than knowing what you're going to play and reading music. And it's… and then, you know, playing your solo, which is very much close to what the music is, it's a completely different thing. This is what determines working with John Coltrane, Joey Parker, Bud Powell, all these great improvisers. These people are really at the top. And all the musicians recognize that.

Jo Reed: When did you begin to play with Miles Davis?

Sonny Rollins: I began to play with Miles Davis, I think, in 1948.

<Music Interlude>

Jo Reed: And how was he as a leader?

Sonny Rollins: Well, Miles was a very good leader. I really liked Miles. We had a good relationship, because he's a very sensitive guy.

Jo Reed: And a genius, both as a leader and as a player.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, sure! No, no, no, no. He was definitely, well he developed a persona. You know, Miles used to turn his back when he was playing on the stage. So everybody in the audience said, "Oh, wow! What an arrogant guy! Look, he's turning his back." Actually, Miles was doing that because he was shy. And he was trying to work out something. But this worked to develop a persona being arrogant and, "Oh, man! Wow!" But Miles was nothing like that really. He was sort of a text bad boy in a lot of ways. I really love Miles. He's really a great musician, a great friend. He was one of my best friends.

Jo Reed: The ensemble with Max Roach and Clifford Brown that was an amazing group of people. And the CD, "Sonny Plus 4."

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jo Reed: Ah! And I'm just so curious, when I'm listening, especially to "Kiss and Run" with you and Clifford Brown. <laughter> Did you feel like you were in conversation with him musically?

Sonny Rollins: Yeah. And Clifford was a superb musician. And it was a thing where I had this beautiful part of my musical life playing with Clifford. He was such a great musician and a humble person.

<Music Interlude>

I learned about life from observing Clifford. He was a humble guy, and he played all this great music. He and I became very close. He was a great artist, taught me a lot. The part that is great is that he played a lot of people would have a big head. You know? I mean, it would be normal if you played that much you would have to have some affectations. But Clifford didn't have any of it. It was just about playing the music.

Jo Reed: And you were close to John Coltrane.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yeah!

Jo Reed: Another-- a seeker.

Sonny Rollins: Coltrane was my really friend. Him and Monk were my really two best friends. Miles was on a different level, because well, Miles was always a guy that had movie stars by his house. I mean, you know, he was sort of in that social strata. But yeah, Coltrane and Monk were really the two closest musicians to me.

Jo Reed: And playing with them. What does that feel like?

Sonny Rollins: <laughs> What does it feel like to play with… <laughs>

Jo Reed: Yeah!

Sonny Rollins: Well, it's a completely different space. It's so different than anything else. It’s like when you have a world that we are living in now, this is a-- we're living in what I like to call the small picture world. Okay, now there's small picture, then there's a big picture. Infinite. As opposed to transient world we live-- so that's how it is playing with them. You're in a different space. It's indescribable. There's no comparison. It's like being in the big picture, and then here we are living in the small picture.

<Music Interlude>

Jo Reed: You shared with John Coltrane sort of relentless practice effect. You pra--

Sonny Rollins: <laughs>

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, yeah, I think so, right, right, right. Yeah, well, yeah, no, I liked to practice all the time like Trane practiced all the time. I remember one time John was playing down at the Half Note, which is a club in New York. You could sort of look in from outside and see the stage. So, Coltrane was playing there one night. And after the set was over, you know, everybody come outside, leaving the club, a lot of musicians and everything. Coltrane is standing there by the stage working something out playing. And it's normal for him, but some musicians were saying, "Well gee, I thought this show was over,” you know, something like that. So, it’s not about that show. I remember one time, I was playing in Germany, in München. But it was something that I was trying to work out, and after the job was over, and everybody ended the job, people going home, I was trying to work this thing out. You know, "Oh, Sonny," blah-blah, "The guys have packed up, they're leaving." I'm not into that. I'm trying to work out something musically. Has nothing to do with playing at a concert, or anything of that sort. It's the music that we're trying to do. So, I shared that feeling with Coltrane. We both were like that. So yeah, I like to practice all the time anyplace I can, outside, inside, on the bridge.

Jo Reed: Now how did you end up on the Williamsburg Bridge practicing?

Sonny Rollins: Well, that was the same thing. I was living in a small New York apartment. And I couldn't really practice in there. And I just happened be walking down delancey street one day, and I saw these steps going up, and I'd really never been on the bridge. And I walked up the steps, and wow, I saw this expanse! There was nobody up there! So I said, "Wow! What is this?" So I walked across the bridge toward Brooklyn. So, I realized, "Well, thank you, God.” I found my spot.

<Music Interlude>

Jo Reed: When you were practicing then, were you practicing songs, sounds, technique?

Sonny Rollins: Oh, everything.

Jo Reed: All of it.

Sonny Rollins: Everything.

Jo Reed: Because this was a sabbatical when you weren't performing publicly.

Sonny Rollins: Exactly! Yeah.

Jo Reed: Was that because you wanted to work stuff out musically?

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I was thinking.

Jo Reed: I am really curious. When you did that famous recording "Night at the Village Vanguard" and you had a trio fronted by a saxophone, what led you to do that?

Sonny Rollins: Well, you know what led me to do that was—I like to play by myself. And, I'd like to go out and play by the water, by the ocean. I go in the park, anyplace where I can be alone with my saxophone. That's what I always like to do, and the idea of the piano, which is a beautiful instrument and I've played with some great piano players. Is the piano is a very dominating instrument. So, when I was playing with Miles, his band, we used to do a thing which we called stroll. Stroll means that in the middle of a number you're playing, the piano lays out (that's what strolling was). We used to do that all the time. I loved strolling. I always like to put all the music in my head, create it myself, patterns, ideas, thoughts, passages, anything like that. I needed to have complete freedom to do it. So, I made plenty of records with saxophone, bass, and drums. That was sort of the thing I became famous for doing. And that's sort of where it came from. That was the impulse.

<Music Interlude>

Jo Reed: That reminds me. You have this way when you're soloing or referencing songs.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: Which I love.

Sonny Rollins: <laughter>

Jo Reed: But the way you have to be able to listen while you're playing because obviously you're not thinking "Oh, I'm going to where or when." I mean clearly you're not doing that but…

Sonny Rollins: I tried that, but it didn’t work. You know, when I was practicing I was thinking "Oh gee, this fits something I'd been playing. Gee, wait until I get to the club tonight. I'm going to play this, and everybody'll think I'm so clever," but I couldn't do it because the music was going so fast. Things are happening, and you can't do that. I can't stop to say "Oh, well now I'm going to play this clever little quote." You just have to get that quote in your head and when it comes out, who knows where it'll come out sometime, but you can't make it come out, not when you're soloing. So that's real improvisation. There's a second level of improvisation where you can do that. You can just play riffs, and things that you know are going to work at a certain place and play them. That's one thing, but that's not the highest form of improvisation. It's when you don't think. It’s like Zen. You let the music play you. I don’t know everything. I wanted the universe to inform me, and I'm going to tell the universe "Oh, gee, I heard this song 'Will You Still Be Mine' and I'm going to play it." No, no. The universe knows better than that. I wanted the universe to tell me something. In other words as a soloist, when you're soloing, you're not going to get lost and not know where the bridge of a song is or the first eight. No, no. That is embedded, so that's okay. So, you have to practice your material and know what piece of music you're working on. Once you get that you’re not even there. You’re standing up there blowing and whatever is in the universe is coming to you.

Jo Reed: It's like you are the music.

Sonny Rollins: You are the music. You are the music and boy, that's-- you can't get much higher than that. I don’t care what kind of drugs you take. You're not going to get that high.

Jo Reed: Well, I think that's why people are taking drugs. They want to get to that space. <laughter>

Sonny Rollins: Yeah. Yeah. Of course. Of course, but you can't. It's not there. This is the real thing.

Jo Reed: You spent time in India.

Sonny Rollins: Yes, I did.

Jo Reed: And clearly you've put time and effort and thought into spiritual practice.

Sonny Rollins: Oh, yes.

Jo Reed: I’m curious about whether you looked at your music differently because of your spiritual practice.

Sonny Rollins: Well, I don’t think so. I mean if I did it happened without my knowledge. As a boy, I've always been a person that had a knowledge that there was a conscious within me. There was something else besides me. You know, there was something there besides me that was bigger than me. More smart than me. More just than me. I always felt that.

Jo Reed: Does music allow you to access that?

Sonny Rollins: I don't know. I think that anybody can be a enlighten person. I've met people in my life that have nothing to do with music.

Jo Reed: No, exactly but we know there are many different paths.

Sonny Rollins: Yes.

Jo Reed: And I guess what I'm asking, do you think music is your path?

Sonny Rollins: Well, I guess so. I think it definitely was my path and I'm so grateful because I loved it and I did something in my life which I loved. And as a matter of fact, when I was about seven years old or eight years old maybe. I got my first saxophone. I knew that I would be a prominent musician. I knew it.

Jo Reed: But what strikes me is that you were willing to do the work. In other words, "I'm going to be a prominent musician, and I have a saxophone," and then you just wait for prominence to descend on you. You understood even at that young age that work was…

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, but I didn't know what it would take.

Jo Reed: No, of course not. How could you?

Sonny Rollins: I didn't know what it would take and as I said I'm blessed by wanting to play all the time. And when these young kids write to me, I always let them know that the greatest thing in the world is to be playing your instrument. That's the greatest thing in the world because it's you and the universe. Just communing with your instrument. I don't see what can top that. That's why I went in the room when my mother gave me that saxophone. I was in seventh heaven. I wasn't even in the same world anymore. Anyway, you know, I haven’t been active for a while. I have to accept the fact that I didn't get to what I wanted to do as a musician, as a player. And, I probably would still be practicing at the bridge. I'm sure I would be, if I was performing. I'm grateful for having the chance to play the horn the times that I did.

Jo Reed: For as long as you did.

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, well, for as long as I did, also. But I had more to get to, and I didn't get to it. But if I was playing today, I would still be looking for more, because there is not end to it.

Jo Reed: I was about to say, yeah, what would be enough? Yeah.

Sonny Rollins: There's no such thing as enough. Because there's always more. There's always more to learn and play. So, and after coming to that realization, then I didn't feel so bad about the fact that I had to stop playing. So I’m a really happy camper.

Jo Reed: Good! Not everybody can say that.

Sonny Rollins: Yeah, not everybody can say that.

Jo Reed: And I think that's a good place to leave it. Thank you.

Sonny Rollins: Thank you.

Jo Reed: Truly, thank you very much.

That was 2010 National Medal of Arts recipient and 1983 NEA Jazz Master, Tenor Saxophonist extraordinaire, Sonny Rollins.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

< Music excerpt “The Bridge” composed by Sonny Rollins>

The great tenor saxophonist reflects on his life in music.