© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Musician Magazine was in circulation from about 1976 to 1999 and, given the references to most of Sonny’s recordings in this article by Chip Stern, the year of publication - 1988 - actually catches Sonny just past mid-career. Sonny would go on to perform for almost another 25 years following its publication. Born on September 7, 1930, he is 90 years of age as of this writing.
In the second part of Chip’s interview, his questions to Sonny focus on getting him to share his thoughts on specific recordings, tunes/songs, musicians, instruments and Life in general, including his reminiscences about his early years, hobbies and interests beyond Jazz.
What I realized after reading both parts of Sonny’s interview with Stern as published in The Jazz Musician: 15 years of Interviews - The Best of Musician Magazine  was how little of Sonny’s music I was familiar with following his time with Prestige, Blue Note, Contemporary, Riverside and RCA. The recordings for these labels took place from approximately 1950-1970.
Sonny’s talk with Chip prompted me to check out what he was doing following that time frame and I was in for a big surprise as his recordings for Orrin Keepnews’ Milestone label alone number 24 from 1972-2005! This number does not include his work on a number of other labels during this period and beyond.
Sonny played his last concert in 2012, and in 2014, he stopped playing saxophone altogether, a result of pulmonary fibrosis. Discogs.com currently lists over 360 recordings on which he has appeared either as a sideman or a leader!
Rollins looks out the window into the gusty winter night, and there's that faraway look in his eyes again, as we talk of things that guide us through time on our way to spaces unknown. There is death in the air, but it does not beckon as a threat, rather as a promise, a hint of something beyond us yet beside us all the while — a life's work just to prepare and move on. A Mozart, a Robert Johnson, a Jimmy Blanton, Charlie Christian, Clifford Brown; a Charlie Parker, a Hendrix. Walking among us for but an instant, no more, giving us a glimpse of something unimaginably beautiful, then having the bad luck or good sense to swoop the sphere before someone can ask them ... what's next? Suddenly, what little they may have left behind is precious beyond compare; treasured, poured over and dissected and analyzed and worshiped until some begin to sense its meaning — its truth. No next album, just the living residue of legend and myth to guide us and beckon. And what of those left behind, the survivors, the disciples? What is left to discover, to reveal?
Sonny Rollins grows quiet. He's still dancing in the dark after all these years. "Chip," he asks softly, "what do you suppose Coltrane would be playing now?"
THE SOLO CONCERT MORPHEUS
Who's to say what is real? I've had some real dreams in my life. 1 had a dream when my mother died; we weren't getting along at the time, and then she died suddenly. And after awhile she came back to me in a dream, and I know it was real—a religious experience. 1 haven't dreamed about Coltrane in years and years, but I had a dream about him the other night—maybe because I was talking to you about him. It wasn't just a vision, it was very realistic. We were hanging out together, like back in the old days. We were talking, and he was telling me some of his stories with his wry sense of humor. It was very upbeat; everything was harmony and love, you know, and when I woke up I was happy—smiling. I'm sure glad he came back.
WEST END BLUES
When I think of the spiritual, I think of Louis Armstrong. I read where Django Reinhardt said that the first time he heard Louis Armstrong, he cried. Very spiritual. Very much beyond the physical, it's definitely beyond that — joy!
I remember with Miles, when we'd be breaking between sets, Louis Armstrong would be up the street and Miles's say, "Hey, let's go dig Pops." For me it was not so much hearing Louis Armstrong, although of course I used to listen to him — that '27-'28 music is some real bad stuff — but when I used to see Louis Armstrong, that did a lot for me.... just like a picture I had in a book one time when I was in India... and this guy who knew nothing about jazz — he saw this picture of Charlie Parker, and he got something from the picture, you know what I mean? He could feel Bird's strength. So seeing Louis Armstrong, that gave me a feeling, made me feel uplifted. The music is great; man, Louis Armstrong did everything but just being in his physical presence, you could feel the music and depth of his musical personality. I love him.
DUKE OF IRON
When I was young, I mean really young, I did a lot of sketching and watercolors. I can paint; I just haven't gotten back into it since I've been in music — I'd like to, though, if I can find the time. I was always sketching. Someone told me that Wayne Shorter used to do comic books when he was a kid. I used to too. I was into heroes: the original Blue Beetle, the Human Torch and Toro, Captain America and Bucky, the Submariner. The Submariner was nasty, man; he could stay underwater and fly with these little wings on his ankles. I dug Captain America, and that cat who created him... Jack Kirby — he was my man! I couldn't draw hands; I never could draw hands, so I'd have to have the guy holding something.
I sort of remember trying to get this character called the Chain. He was a strong guy, and the biceps were bulging, and chains were breaking up all over him; I think I conceived of him having certain powers. I remember the Chain especially because I'd gotten a whole book together with the boxes and all; I'd written most of it out and gotten all of it drawn, and I put some staples in it, which was a big thing in those days—put some staples in it and it was just like a magazine. He was all ready to go. 1 reached my peak with the Chain, I think.
See, there were guys who were good and guys who were bad. So I prided myself on this kind of attitude, you know, like sticking up for poor people that couldn't take care of themselves against guys who would take advantage of them — I bought the whole thing. This is still the case. In fact, when we lived in Brooklyn, I used to go out at night and sort of patrol the area; I had two big shepherds, and I thought of myself as being there to fight crime if we encountered anything on the streets.
It was just great to grow up in Harlem. I was born between Lenox and Seventh Avenues on 137th Street. Then we moved up economically, and my family moved from downtown Harlem to Sugar Hill... around 1939, when I was nine. 150th and Edgecombe, up by the Polo Grounds [home of the then New York Giants baseball team]. I used to see Carl Hubbell [pitcher for the Giants] and his funny left arm. At that time blacks were living up as far as maybe 165th Street; then you got to the Heights and there were certain streets you didn't venture beyond. There was a gang up there called the Rainbows, a bad Irish gang.
Above 145th Street, you were up on Sugar Hill, where the nicer brownstones and apartments were. All the top black musicians lived up on the hill, because that was the only good place they could live; all the cats — it was some neighborhood. Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, Jimmy Lunceford, Sid Catlett and John Kirby — oh, man. Mary Lou Williams had an apartment up on Hamilton Terrace; I think it's a landmark site now. I grew up with people like Jackie McLean, Art Taylor and Kenny Drew, among those who made it to the big time. That whole area was great — it was the center of the Harlem cultural community.
At that time, most of the cats you'd want to see play, you had to come up to Harlem. Later there were clubs downtown on 52nd Street, like the Hurricane Club, where Duke Ellington used to play, once black musicians were able to go downtown to play — to me, that was the beginning of the end of Harlem. And drugs, of course. As soon as black people were able to live in different places, they dispersed, and there went the energy that was Harlem.
SCHOOL DAYS (WHEN WE WERE KIDS)
My father was in the navy, so he was away when I was born, and I was conscious of meeting him. I must have been two or three. When I was small there was a xylophone I used to play around on. I was the baby of the family, and both my older brother and sister were excellent musicians and went on to attend the Music and Art High School in New York; Music and Art was a hell of a hard high school to get into in those days. My brother played a lot of violin, and piano, too; my sister played piano, and also majored in art — so we're all talented in those ways. I remember laying in bed and hearing my brother practicing; I really liked the sound of that violin. My dad said he played clarinet at one time, but I never saw it ... and my mother was just a very special person.
I had an uncle who took me by his girlfriend's apartment, and she had all these records by guys like Lonnie Johnson, Big Boy Crudup and Tommy McClennan — these were real blues cats, man. Sometimes they'd leave me there, and I'd listen to all these records. She also had some Louis Jordan, who was like a bridge between the blues and jazz — he had a great big sound on the alto, and I just loved him. Later on, Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five got more showbizzy, and I followed everything they did really closely. They would be on all the jukeboxes in Harlem, and used to play at a club — the Elks Rendezvous—right across the street from my elementary school P.S. 89. They would have Louis Jordan's picture outside — one of those eight-by-tens. He had this great-looking horn, shiny like a samurai's sword, and these sharp ties and tails the cats used to wear. I said, "Man, this is it for me — I've got to go this way."
Somewhere in that period after Louis Jordan I began to be more aware of big band music and radio jazz. I began to go to the Apollo Theatre and hear radio broadcasts from there; Benny Carter and Nat "King" Cole used to do shows together, Somewhere in there, I don't remember where, I began to hear Coleman Hawkins — maybe it was "Body and Soul." To me, he was a cat who played involved and sophisticated conceptions as distinct from Louis Jordan, who was more earthy and blues oriented. I really dug the change as something deeper... well, I don't want to say that, but perhaps more difficult to get to; it would require a more serious attempt at playing.
I knew Coleman because he lived right around the corner from me; I used to see him a lot. He was always very well dressed, and he carried himself in a very sophisticated way; a very taciturn man, but that was sort of a mask. For me he was a role model, besides being a musical idol. I remember waiting for him outside his house one day with my eight-by-ten glossy of Coleman Hawkins, you know; and I waited and waited and waited; and finally he came and I said, "Oh, Mr. Hawkins, would you sign this for me?" I've still got that picture.
Your tone always reminded me of Hawk, but the spaciousness of your line always suggested Prez. It's almost like subtractive improvising, where you airbrush away the extraneous notes, just to get to the meat of the melody — the core of the idea.
It's very interesting that you should say that. I heard Coleman Hawkins one night, playing one of the last gigs he did before he died, and he was not well; he was not playing with all of the notes he usually used — maybe he was having trouble breathing. But his playing that night had a profound effect on me. Because in a way he had peeled away all these other notes, and it was fantastic. He was just playing the essential notes.
Lester was like that — Lester was something else. He used to room with some people we knew up on Hamilton Terrace, so I used to see him frequently, walking around with his porkpie hat on, the whole silhouette and everything, and we'd whisper, "Look, there's Lester Young, man." And he was very cool and all by himself in a world all his own.
I liked him when he came out of the army, when he was playing songs like "Up'n Adam." The late-Fifties approach Lester had was real light and airy, real relaxed — he was so expressive. I dug that. And guys said, "Well, you should have heard him when he was out popping in front of the Basie band, that was the greatest!" But to me, he had gotten more introspective later and was really speaking more.
I got with Monk when my friend Lowell Lewis — a very fine trumpeter — got with the band. We were still in school, and after classes we'd go for rehearsals down at Monk's apartment. Somehow he worked it out so they finagled this other tenor player out of the band, and Monk hired me.
He was the type of guy who would never tell you what to play; if he liked you, here was the music, and that's that. A lot of his music was challenging, to say the least. I remember these trumpet players telling him, "Man, you
can't play this stuff; you can't make jumps like this." But eventually we would end up playing this unorthodox and hitherto unplayed material.
I looked up to him as a father figure — a guru, really, he was really into that music — that's all Monk cared about. One time he told me, "Man, if there wasn't music in this world, this world wouldn't be shit."
UN POCO LOCO
Bud Powell was known in the neighborhood as a sort of mad-genius type. So it was really great in 1949 when he was making this record for Blue Note and he said, "Yeah, I want you." I remember on one of those dates I made a mistake on the music and Bud looked over at me.... I mean, he really gave me a look. That was the last time I made that mistake. Though I don't know how I got it together after that look he shot me. He was very high-strung, man.
Bud used to take me around and we'd hang out. In my observing Bud, it seemed as if he was putting people on a lot, which is not to say that he didn't have real breakdowns at times or that being in and out of those hospitals didn't weaken him a lot. But it was also a way to keep people off him — like, "Boy, this cat is weird."
I felt very close to Bud, and Monk did, too, of course, and we'd go to visit him in the mental hospitals, several times. We used to go way the hell out to Central Islip, all the way out on Long Island, and one time we were in there ... you've got to picture this. All the cats used to dress in street clothes; there were no uniforms or hospital outfits. And we went in to see Bud, trying to talk to him: "Well, how do you feel, man, how are you doing?" Suddenly I saw this guy closing the doors, and I said, "Whoa, man! We're just visiting."
Miles is Miles. You can't destroy that kind of musician. He can't destroy
himself. He's just there — always.
BEWARE, BROTHER, BEWARE/PARADOX
I didn't have the average childhood. I didn't get a chance to go to schools where they really emphasized sports or scholastics. I feel very bad about this, because I know I have a good mind, and if I had been taken in tow by counselors and teachers, I think I could have had a different life in many ways. They gave you a smattering of academics — enough that it wouldn't do you any good — and kept you off the streets for a few years. Most of the guys didn't finish it, but I felt I had to. Still, I was involved with nothing in my school at all. I didn't even play with the band.
And we had to fight to get to school; they had all these race riots and stuff, you know, like "Oh, they're trying to send the blacks down in our neighborhood." We had fights every day with the Italian boys, and the neighbors in the houses would throw stuff out the windows as we were walking back across town — the same old shit.
I graduated from high school in 1948. Heroin was just getting out into the neighborhoods; it was cheap and it was plentiful. Thai's when I got hooked.
You see, Billie Holiday was using. And Charlie Parker. Those were really two powerful artists, and when we found out that Billie Holiday used drugs, and Charlie Parker used drugs, we figured it can't be all that bad — and maybe that's the key to creativity. Charlie Parker was a dream. He was such a leader for us, he did so much. We saw him as a Jesus Christ figure who got crucified for standing up for freedom, and even the fact that he used drugs — that was a sacrament of sorts.
The drugs were just a way to get into the music more, I believe —to shut out everything but the music. It wasn't just about getting off on a side trip; it was let's go, we'll get high, and we'll play — because that's all we did. It was about getting high and playing.
What finally made you decide to quit?
I didn't finally decide to quit—I had to quit, man. Because I had messed up that bad. I was over on Rikers Island—the Rock. I was in there twice, came out once, got hooked again, and went back in the joint for a parole violation. Came out and got hooked again. I was in bad shape. 1 had stolen from my best friends — I didn't have any friends. I had taken everything from my house. An old friend told me recently when he was coming to New York, Max Roach told him one thing: "Stay away from Charlie Parker, and stay away from Sonny Rollins." I didn't realize I was that bad at the time. But I was living like an animal, sleeping in parked cars, sleeping on the street, riding the subways all night long. I had no place to go.
Now I had some incentives. My mother stood by me all the way. She was really the only one — because I had burned everybody. I'll tell you one very scary thing that happened to me, which sort of brought it all home — one of the things that makes me believe in God, because you're talking about having to pray. Bud Powell came out of the hospital; he had been in for a period of time. And I met Bud, and he said, "Hey man, how are you doing — let's get high." So ... okay ... we went, and I copped and everything, because he'd just got back and didn't know where to go. So we went up onto the top floor of some building around the 140s off of Seventh Avenue, and Bud took his stuff and passed out. And then it hit me — suppose Bud dies?
Then I would in effect have killed him. I didn't shoot him up, but I bought the drugs, and we were together — we were together. And I said, "Please, God, don't let this happen." Then the seriousness of what we were doing struck home a little bit, and fortunately he came out of it. He'd been away for a long time, and his system was really clean, and it just knocked him out, but it could have killed him, too. Guys were dying of overdoses — that was nothing strange. And I realized: This is the last I'm going to do something stupid like that.
So that, and my mom, and this incident with Charlie Parker sort of brought me around. It was the time of that record date of Miles's, you know, with "Compulsion," where he had Bird and me on tenors. And Bird at that time was not a happy man. He was getting into all sorts of stupid things, like gelling put out of Birdland, if you could imagine something as ridiculous as that. And I guess he was needing money, and was in pretty bad shape during that entire period. And I perceived that one of his biggest problems was that all of these kids were getting high because of him, and there was nothing he could do about it — because he was hooked himself and couldn't stop, and all his disciples were using. That was one of the biggest hurts of his life. So he asked me, "Well, Sonny, how are you doing? Are you cool?" And I said, "Yeah, man I'm straight, now." So later on, Philly Joe told him, "Yeah, Sonny was over there getting high." And Bird's whole attitude toward me changed; he never spoke to me again. So that was something. Then I went and said, "Well, I'm going to show Bird that I can be cool." That was a big incentive for me to stop. And that's when I ended up in Lexington. I wanted to straighten out for Bird and for my mother, because she was my last friend — but Bird died before I could show that I'd really gotten his message....
I met Clifford Brown when he was on this record date — I think it was Lou Donaldson's session — and Elmo Hope was the pianist. Elmo and I had collaborated on a tune ("Carvin’ the Rock") which they were going to record. So I went by the session and that's when I think I first met Clifford. I didn't really see him when he was playing with Art Blakey and all those guys at Birdland — I must have been off the scene at the time. And I never ran into him in Philly. So I really met Clifford when Roach and Brown Incorporated passed through Chicago in 1955. The hand was just starting to get known at that time, and they were working around the country; maybe they weren't working that much, because gigs weren't that plentiful during that period. So Harold Land's wife was pregnant, and she wanted him to come home, so he left the band, and they were looking for someone else. Of course I knew Max and Richie Powell, and that's when I went by and got in the band. I felt I evolved musically, emotionally and personally in that period because Brownie was such a wonderful person on every level; he had a profound influence on me as a man — here was a guy who was really a channel for all of this fantastic music, without getting hung up on any side trips. We were both the same age. He was a very pixieish-looking guy; and his humility was something, because here's a guy who just did it every night — every night on the trumpet, man. On the trumpet. Brownie's chops were there every night — phenomenal, fn retrospect, he was one of these guys who was just too nice to really stay alive — too good to be in this world. I'm telling you, when Brownie and Richie died, George [Morrow] and Max and me just bawled like babies. It was too much. He was a beautiful musician, and to this day, guys are still sounding a lot like him: Wynton sounds a lot like Brownie in a way; and Freddie; and Woody — all the guys in fact.
And Booker Little.
Booker Little.. .mmmmm. He was a beautiful kid, man. I call him a kid because he was a kid when I met him. A beautiful young cat. At that time when I was in Chicago in 1955, I had a day job as a porter and I was living at the Y, getting by on whole-wheat bread and tomato juice. I had a goal, which was to stay away from drugs and get myself together for the music. So Booker used to come by the Y, and we'd practice together in the basement, he couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old — isn't that something? And he was really playing, man. He was like one of these people who just visit the earth, and when I found out he had uremia, when Max told me he just had a certain amount of lime to live, I just thought my God — I couldn't believe it. Because he was such a young vital cat, and sure enough, he was gone after only making a couple of records. It was a wonderful experience to know people like Booker and Clifford in this lifetime — they were like angels.
Like Eric Dolphy.
Eric! Man ... Eric was beautiful. I was so mad at Miles; the week that Eric died, there was this Blindfold Test in Down Beat where Miles was talking about how bad Eric sounded and how he would step on his shoes and all that. And you see, Miles can get away with all this kind of stuff because he's cute and he's a dandy, but you know ... Miles talks too much about people, and whether it's true or not, f*** it — don't say it. Anyway, I'll accept Miles if he wants to be like that; I mean, I'll accept whatever he wants to say about me or anybody, but that time it really came back on him — I know he must have had some feelings about it.
Every horn gives you a different sound, really, and every mouthpiece gives you a different sound, and the reeds give you a different sound. In my case, they give you a new perspective. If I play a new horn, it gives me a whole new palette. It's as if I decided to play a euphonium or something, just a completely different instrument, except it's one I know and can deal with.
There are some horn players, like Illinois Jacquet, who play one horn and that's it. I'm the type of guy who likes to change every few years or so — it's like getting a new lease on life. But I still keep most of my old horns, because I never know when I'd like to go back. A lot of it has to do with the physical mechanisms, the way they react to your constant pounding. But I play so hard and I practice so long that I get to the point where I kind of wear out a horn.... That's not exactly the right way to say it. You kind of get used to it and it's not giving you back enough.
Horns are very mysterious. There are certain parts of the room where the horn just projects better, where the sound is more friendly, you know. That's why I walk around the stage a lot — I'm trying to find that sweet spot. That's very important. There are some parts of a given stage you can't use; but there are some spots you try and find where the horn speaks back to you — and you hear what they're hearing.
I think they've tried and tested all sorts of metals for saxophones, and they found that, for overall resonance and sound, brass is best. So now that's what I'm using — a straight brass Selmer tenor. I've tried everything else, too. Silver horns tend to be a little brighter to my ears, and the quality is a little more brittle and the sound more difficult to control. Their tone is not quite as centered. The gold horn has what a lot of people refer to as a dark sound. Maybe more mellow or more focused might better describe the gold horn. The metal isn't always the determining factor — the shape of the horn is critical. For instance, I have one beautiful old gold Selmer Mark VI, and it has a gorgeous sound, but unfortunately the horn has never played completely in tune.
Lester Young played a silver Conn, but Lester Young was the exception in just about everything; and Chu Berry played a Conn. All of the guys played Conn early on. Even Charlie Parker made a lot of his breakthroughs on a Conn. Later on he went to a King. Alto players like Johnny Hodges used to play a Buescher. Bueschers are beautiful horns. As a matter of fact I went to a Buescher in the mid-Sixties. I was overseas, and I had a Selmer, and I got the notion to take the horn apart one day, and I had a concert that night. So I ended up borrowing a Buescher from this guy in Holland, and I just loved it; later the poor fella died, and I went back and bought the horn from his wife. I think I played that horn on "Mile's Theme."
I thought the most beautiful sound Bird got was on that cheesy plastic alto at Massey Hall.
That's the way I felt when I played that guy's Buescher in Europe. It played so easy, and it sang, and it was just so easy to play compared to a Selmer, which is a little harder to hear. You see, the virtue of a Selmer is that right up close you might not be able to hear it, but in the back of the house you can hear it — that's the difference. Like I think the Yamaha tenor has it all except the metal, in my opinion. They are very good horns, and I endorse the Yamaha soprano, but on tenor it's hard to get away from the Selmer. It has more guts; and that's where you get the real tenor sound. You can put more energy into it and it'll take more without going out of tune and losing its pitch — so you can simply ignore the horn and let the music come through you. I don't even want to know I have a horn there—I want the music to play itself.
THE CUTTING EDGE
I'm not the kind of guy who puts himself up as being the greatest this or that, and I hate to say this — because I don't want it to sound like back patting or whining — but there are so many things I came across over the years that I wanted to develop on the tenor that I had to sort of curtail because of denial problems and operations I've had over the years. I've just barely scratched the surface.
It's just a matter of what you want to do. Who would have thought years ago that guys would be playing wind instruments using all these circular breathing things, holding a tone indefinitely? There's all kinds of expressions that haven't been developed, With different mouthpieces, I've gotten enough notes that it sounds like chords; where you can play a note lower than the lowest note on the tenor, and not by slipping your hand over the bell either.
And guys say, "Oh Sonny, that's impossible." But I don't think there's anything that can't be done. Because music is such a spiritual thing, man.
There's a place where I believe you can transcend these metal instruments and go to another area where you can impose a spiritual reality on the music you are playing. If you have the determination, if you have the faith, if you have the ear of God, you can do any of these things.”