After careful consideration, Sonny Rollins has decided not to
release a CD of his Carnegie Hall concert last fall. A highly critical judge of his own work, Sonny told me last week that he wasn't completely satisfied with his performance commemorating his famed 1957 Carnegie Hall appearance.
The news certainly will disappoint many Sonny Rollins' devotees, who believe everything the tenor saxophonist plays is high art and holds truths worth hearing. But as Sonny said with great humility during our conversation, he hears things in his own work that many people miss or politely overlook.
Sonny, 77, isn't a perfectionist. He just sets giant standards for his art, and he doesn't let his creative side off the hook easily. What you notice first when speaking with Sonny is how similar his voice is to the sound of his horn. His voice has a deep, rich, muscular tone with a faint New York accent that resonates like a bell. The more you listen to Sonny, the more you realize he articulates the way he improvises. You ask a question, and Sonny thinks on the go, circling a topic, turning it in his thoughts as he tests out what he wants to say. Then he drives his point home solidly, often finishing with a compact summarization.
In Part 1 of my week-long conversation with America's greatest living jazz artist, Sonny Rollins reflects on his 1950s recordings, his distinct sound, and the meditative effect practicing has on his temperament:
JazzWax: You started as a pianist. Do you still play?
Sonny Rollins: Well, I wouldn’t call it playing. I can pick out a couple of notes that I use in my musical work. But I’m not a piano player by any stretch of the imagination.
JW: Do you compose on the tenor or the piano?
SR: I compose on both.
JW: Which musician was hardest on you when you were coming up—pushing you to play better?
SR: That’s an interesting question. I never really had someone who filled that role. I was always a very conscientious player. I practiced incessantly. And I never met anyone who discerned in me any lack of sincerity and had to push me, or anything like that.
JW: When you hear people constantly praise your great late-1950s period, does that drive you nuts?
SR: I know that I had a very successful record—Saxophone Colossus—which was made in 1956. And I guess I became well known to a larger audience at that time as a result of it. A lot of people who talk constantly about that period probably think my career began then. Of course my recording career began many years earlier, in 1949.
JW: Why do you think fans hang onto that late-1950s period?
SR: Music is a very subjective thing. I don’t know what people see in certain things and what they don’t see in others. It’s difficult even to comment on my own work. I’m an eclectic type of artist. People will like one album and they won’t like something else. I don’t know what people like and don’t like. I just have to follow my own muse, so to speak. I just try to keep doing what I try to do. How people react to my playing is a complete mystery to me.
JW: When you recorded those albums in the late 1950s, did you sense immediately that something special was happening?
SR: Well, not particularly. There was a lot of music going on in the 50s at that time. I might have been young enough to not worry about anything and had a certain confidence in myself. At the time I didn’t really think that anything I was doing was earth shattering. As time has gone on, I might have felt that some of those records were OK. I had some great musicians that were alive in the 50s that were playing with me. I’m sure I liked some of that stuff. Subsequently, I’ve realized that regardless of what I like about them, the work is far from the best I should be able to do. I’m still on the trail, so to speak. So no, I don’t think I realized that anything I recorded in the 50s was going to last for posterity.
JW: Did you feel back then that too many tenors sounded alike? Were you striving for a new sound?
SR: I don’t think I was trying to consciously create a new sound. I had been a follower of all of the great players. I was a student of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Don Byas [pictured right]—all of the people who were prominent at the time. What came out was just Sonny Rollins. You have to realize that it’s very hard to completely copy somebody else. I didn’t try to copy others. I just tried to learn from them. Everybody has their own fingerprint, and that fingerprint is going to emerge eventually, especially if you get to become a recording musician. You’re going to hear your own independent sound. It just so happened I was playing a lot and people got a chance to hear Sonny Rollins and what that independent fingerprint was.
JW: It must have been exciting to have your own sound.
SR: Well, actually, I never really looked at it that way. Of course, I always realized I was held in certain esteem, because there’s always the competitive aspect of playing music, especially in the jazz world. People are always comparing me with Coltrane [pictured], or they compare Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, Charlie Parker and Johnny…—whenever two people have made some contribution, there’s always the inevitable comparison. So I realized back then that I had reached a certain level of proficiency and acceptability. But you know, that was such a far back time in my development. I had such a long way to go.
JW: You really thought you had a long way to go?
SR: Well maybe…I put it that way now, perhaps…I articulated that more with words later on, after the 1950s. But at the time, the way I would have articulated it was through relentless practicing. I was always practicing and trying to learn on top of the music. So that’s how I expressed it at that time. Later on, I could articulate it with words by saying I had a long way to go. At that time I might not have thought it out in that particular manner. But I think it amounted to the same thing, really.
JW: How many hours did you practice back then?
SR: It depends. During some periods I practiced maybe 14 hours a day. In other situations, when I wasn’t able to practice that long because of conditions and where I was at, I practiced as long as I could. Even as a little boy, I’d practice in my room on an alto sax, so much so that my mother had to call me to eat dinner. A friend of mine spoke to my sister a few years ago and he told me that she recalled how much I used to practice. I always practiced. It was sort of second nature. I never viewed practicing as a chore. I always saw it as a necessity to improve.
Now, of course, I can’t practice as much. But I recently thought, boy, if I ever had to stop practicing I’d have to search to find something to replace it. Because it fills up so many gaps in my life—being able to play and practice.
JW: What do you mean by "gaps" in your life?
SR: Not being able to practice would result in large blocks of empty time. Practicing and playing centers my mind mentally. When I went to India [in the late 1960s], I studied yoga. One day I told my teacher that I had trouble sitting still in one position. My teacher said, "You know Sonny, you don’t have to meditate that way. When you play your horn, that’s a form of meditation." I was glad to hear that. I mean, it made sense. But sometimes you have to go a long way around to find a simple truth. Playing fills this need for me, as a human being. Just being able to play satisfies so many things for me that are essential for life. Physical, mental, everything.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Sonny talks about why he no longer listens to jazz records or CDs at home, what's on his mind when he's playing, and what it takes for a jazz musician to become a great artist. (The fabulous black-and-white photo at the top of this interview is by Steve Maruta.)
JazzWax tracks. Sonny Rollins' first recordings were with bebop vocalist Babs Gonzales in January 1949. They can be found here. In April 1949, Sonny recorded with J.J. Johnson and His Beboppers (go here ), and in August 1949 he recorded with Bud Powell's Modernists, featuring Bud on piano, Fats Navarro on trumpet, Tommy Potter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums (go here).
Sonny's first date as a leader—Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet—was recorded in December 1951 and featured Kenny Drew, Percy Heath and Art Blakey. Interestingly, the recording was made a full year before Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke would form the Modern Jazz Quartet and record MJQ.
JazzWax video clips. For a wide range of fabulous Sonny Rollins video clips and podcasts, go here.