Up until the mid-1950s, tenor saxophonists sounded like Lester Young, whose tender, blues-infused solos and laid-back style captured the heart. But by 1956, a younger, generation of horn players began taking the instrument in different directions.
Leading the two breakaway movements were Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane—both of whom built their solos on modal scales rather than traditional blues and bop-era motifs. Helping to influence their experimental approach was the emergence of a new record format—the 12-inch LP—which allowed for more music and longer, more sophisticated solos.
On an artistic level, Sonny was more of a horizontalist—roaming
wide in his solos, working the top and bottom of his horn, and pausing to let space have a say. Coltrane's approach, by contrast, was more vertical, compressing creative expression in high-intensity silos dense-packed with ideas. On a professional level, the two giants had enormous respect for each other—yet each was distinctly aware of where his turf ended and the other's began. Both transformed the tenor sax, and their influence continues to be felt today.
Yesterday, in the second part of our conversation, Sonny spoke about the creative process and Coltrane, his reluctance now to listen to jazz recordings, and what's required of any musician to become a serious artist.
Today, in Part 3, Sonny talks about his Caribbean roots, his solitary lifestyle, his two-year period practicing on New York's Williamsburg Bridge, and what he hopes listeners hear in his music:
JazzWax: Your best-known standards—St. Thomas, Doxy, Oleo and even Airegin—all have a Caribbean feel. True?
Sonny Rollins: I guess so. I never looked at it that way, and it wasn't intended, but I guess so in some cases. As you know, I have Caribbean roots. A Caribbean feel has more joy and a dancey thing going. The Caribbean has enormous color and life—from the birds and sky to the water and flora and fauna. My late wife, Lucille, and I used to vacation in the Caribbean every year. We'd go to various islands until we found a couple we enjoyed more than others. But since I'm alone, I haven't been there. I haven't taken any vacations, as a matter of fact.
JW: You and your wife were married for 48 years. You miss her terribly, don't you?
SR: Yes, I do. Lucille [pictured with Sonny] was a very beautiful person. We were married a long time, so it's hard for me to relate to other people, you know? There’s a guy who lives around the corner from me who's older than I am. He was married a long time, and his wife was sick a long time. His wife passed away not long after mine did in 2004. I heard the other day that, hey, this guy got married again. People are different. But In my case I'm finding it hard to replace her because I'm just a different type of a person.
JW: Why did you quit performing in 1959 to practice on the Williamsburg Bridge?
SR: One reason was to avoid disturbing a woman next door who was expecting a baby. But the main reason was to find a place where I could grow without worrying about anyone hearing me. Soon after I started going onto the bridge, I realized that it was an idyllic spot for me to re-discover myself as a musician. There were boats below with their horns. There were birds. It felt great to be up there under the stars.
JW: Did anyone see you?
SR: I found a spot away from the view of cars and subway trains. It was quite a remarkable period in my life. I went up there just to practice, and it turned into an album [The Bridge] and lore. I was there for about two years, in summer and winter, practicing up to 14 hours a day. That period ended after I appeared at [New York's] Jazz Gallery in 1961 to perform what I had been developing.
JW: Do you often become frustrated with your own playing?
SR: Oh yes. That’s why I’ve taken several sabbaticals from performing and recording. I have a certain ideal when I play, and this ideal has changed over the years. I've taken breaks because I've been frustrated with a performance or I just wanted to go in the woodshed and experiment. I always become frustrated when I’m not reaching what I hear for myself.
JW: Do you think listeners hear what you hear?
SR: Listeners may hear one thing, and I’m humbled to be able to reach them and touch them. But I hear things differently. Just because I'm able to touch people with my music doesn’t mean that what I’m looking for in my music has been met. What I’m looking for perhaps is unattainable. I know that. But I certainly have a right to try to achieve it. It’s my duty to achieve it. I don’t feel I’ve done enough in music to simply rest on my laurels. I have my own ideas about that. If you don’t mind, that’s how I feel about myself.
JW: What do you hope a listener is thinking when listening to you?
SR: Before I tell you, let me say that I feel tremendously privileged to have succeeded in this profession. I love what I do, and I think it’s an honor to be able to play in a field that has included people like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller [pictured]—all of these guys who I thought were such tremendous people putting out all of this positive music. It was all that I could ever dream—to be involved in this.
JW: Fats Waller?
SR: My passion for this music goes back to hearing Fats Waller’s records in my home when I was a tiny baby. To be involved in this music is tremendous for me. But to get back to your question—for anyone who listens to me, I hope they get something positive out of what I play. I hope it gives them an extra spring in their step. The world is such a negative place. The ups and downs of life are such that I hope my music lightens their load.
JW: But your goal certainly isn't to provide people with tranquil music.
SR: Of course not. I never compromise in my art, in my music. I do what I do, and if it makes someone else's life better, then I'm happy. I’ve been told, “Gee Sonny, when I listen to your records, it helps me get up and go in the morning.” When people tell me that, I’m humbled beyond words. That’s what I hope. I hope I can make life seem a little sunnier for listeners, on my terms. I hope there’s also a deeper meaning to what I play. I just hope that my music helps people get through the struggles of everyday life.
Tomorrow, in the final part of my conversation with Sonny, he talks about the anxiety of performing, his decision not to release the Carnegie Hall CD, and what he does plan to record and release this year.
JazzWax tracks: In February 1962, after a two-year hiatus from performing—a period during which he practiced incessantly on the Williamsburg Bridge—Sonny returned to the studio and recorded The Bridge, with Jim Hall on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Harry Saunders on drums. The Bridge is a fascinating recording and marks another turning point in Sonny's artistic development. Not only is his sound edgier and more soulful than in the past, but his improvisation is looser, faster and much more experimental. At the time, Sonny took a lot of heat from fellow musicians for hiring Jim Hall, a white guitarist perceived to be (albeit incorrectly) too mainstream for the avant-garde Rollins.
Sonny and Hall also recorded together on What's New? (April and May 1962) and on The Standard Sonny Rollins (June 1964). In between these dates, Sonny recorded Sonny Meets Hawk!, with Coleman Hawkins. After Alfie in 1966, Sonny recorded mostly on tour up until 1968, when he took another self-discovery sabbatical that lasted until 1972.
JazzWax video clips: To compare Sonny's sound before and after The Bridge, go here for a superb 1959 performance and here to see Sonny with Jim Hall performing The Bridge. A big transformation in style.
Next go here for a 1968 performance, recorded just before Sonny's second hiatus. His style has changed yet again. And dig how Sonny works his way into the jazz standard Four. Whew!