Sonny Rollins has really large hands. When I met him backstage Wednesday night after he appeared on stage with author and interviewer Gary Giddins at New York's CUNY Graduate Center, we shook hands, and I was instantly struck by how enveloped my own hand was in his. His hand felt callused around the edges but soft and fleshy on the palm and interior. Now I know how Sonny has been physically able to cover so much ground so fearlessly on his horn. Every button is within easy reach of those long fingers.
Sonny was dressed in a flowing charcoal button shirt over comfortable black slacks and black canvas shoes. The dark attire made his silver beard and hair seem almost metallic. He also wore his signature amber sunglasses that shield his eyes but still let you see them looking at you. Sunglasses for jazz musicians who guard their privacy but don't want to seem rude or uncaring to fans.
Rather than get into a big long writeup here about Gary's [pictured] interview (many of Sonny's responses were already covered here in my four-part interview back in February), I thought I'd simply share my notes with you:
News of the night: Sonny is working with Carl Smith, a collector in Connecticut who has amassed a collection of more than 300 bootleg recordings of Sonny's live performances, on a two-CD set from those recordings. The release date isn't set yet.
On the Carnegie Hall concert: As I reported back in February, Sonny has decided not to release the CD of his Carnegie Hall concert from last fall. (If you're a regular reader of this blog, you read it here first.) When Gary asked Sonny about his decision, Sonny repeated what he told me—that he didn't like how he sounded. Many in the audience groaned and seemed to be hearing the news for the first time. Sonny shushed the audience and said, "I'm not dead. There'll be plenty more. And better."
Earliest inspiration: Alto saxophonist Louis Jordan.
How he first heard Charlie Parker: On a Savoy 78 rpm record that featured Don Byas' How High the Moon on one side and Parker's Ko-Ko on the other.
Thoughts on what he heard: "From an insider's viewpoint, it wasn't that different from what Coleman Hawkins [pictured] was already playing. The difference was the drumming. After Billy Eckstine's big band came through New York [with Art Blakey on drums], the feel of the drumming was different, and many drummers picked up on that."
On an early recording date with Bud Powell [recorded with Bud Powell's Modernists in August 1949 featuring Fats Navarro, Bud, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes]: "I wasn't intimidated. I knew I wasn't as good as everyone else there. But Bud wanted me there, which gave me confidence. I had felt it was my destiny to play. But at one point I made a mistake with the music and Bud shot me that stare. I didn't make that mistake again."
On Thelonious Monk [with whom Sonny first recorded in November 1953 on Thelonious Monk Quintet]: "One of the most honest people I've ever known in my life. He was completely ethical, and different from the view many people had of him, as a crazy guy. Monk liked me and gave me a chance to play with him."
On Lexington, Kentucky [the location of a federal rehab facility where he spent part of 1955 kicking a drug habit]: "If you were in the arts, this is where you went to get well if you took drugs. I was there for 4 1/2 months to wean myself off drugs. It wasn't like jail—it was more like a hospital, or what today you'd call the Betty Ford Clinic. After I got out, it was hard to stay clear of drugs. I really struggled to avoid friends offering me stuff. But at some point, I realized I didn't want to wind up like Lester Young, drinking gin straight out of a cup and being helped around. I didn't want musicians playing a benefit for me."
On Clifford Brown: "Unassuming and self-effacing."
On hearing himself play. As Gary played for Sonny and the audience the first few minutes of Sonny playing on There's No Business Like Show Business from the album Worktime (1955) via his iPod, Sonny looked down at his lap and took out a handkerchief the size of a small tablecloth. He then began mopping his brow and beard. At the end, after the audience applauded, Sonny said the experience was excruciating. Some audience members laughed nervously, thinking the remark was a joke. Sonny said, "I don't know what you're laughing about. It was excruciating, for me." When Gary asked why, Sonny said, "When I listen back, I hear things I don't like." Then he astonished the audience with this line: "I can do much, much better. And I will." No one laughed.
Tenor Madness: Gary asked Sonny how John Coltrane, a virtual unknown in May 1956, wound up on Sonny's recording, Tenor Madness: "Back then, there was much more fellowship with jazz musicians. Someone said at the time, 'Why don't you have Coltrane on the date?' I said sure. That's how how young musicians got on dates. That's how I first got on dates. Actually, I first met Coltrane in the late 40s with Miles when we played with [drummer] Kenny Clarke."
The Bridge: Gary asked Sonny why he retired in 1959 to practice on New York's Williamsburg Bridge: "I was with Elvin Jones playing at a club in 1959 and was very disappointed with my playing. I knew it wasn't where it should have been. Yet the audience kept telling me how great I was. I didn't go along with them praising me. I knew there was a disconnect. So took two years off and practiced every day on the Williamsburg Bridge, and I had the time of my life up there. My confidence level in my playing just wasn't there when I took that break. When I came back, my playing felt different. While I had already heard the avant-garde players—Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and so on—I wasn't consciously trying to emulate them on The Bridge [the album that Sonny recorded in January 1962 following the break]."
On studio recording v. concerts: "Studio recording is a little bit restrictive. When technology made it possible to overdub, it allowed you to do everything perfectly. I tend to feel more at ease with myself in live situations. Playing live is great because I can forget everything, which is where I need to be to improvise. I like to let the music play me."
On movie soundtracks [after being asked about his music for the 1966 film Alfie]: "I think film should accompany music, not the other way around. The movie The Letter with Bette Davis is a great example. The film wouldn't have been nearly as good without that music." [The original score for The Letter was by Max Steiner and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1940 but lost out to Pinocchio.]
Favorite Fats Waller record as a child: I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.
Strangest moment of the night: An edgy questioner challenged Gary and Sonny to define what constitutes a jazz genius and why one artist from the 1950s is considered a genius and another isn't. "There was so much genius all around back then," the questioner insisted. Then the questioner repeatedly said that trumpeter Jonah Jones was a genius. Gary gave in on the what-is-a-genius part, but the Jonah Jones issue remained unresolved by Gary or Sonny. At which point the questioner, to drive home the point he was making, stated again that Jonah Jones was a genius. Then he left the microphone.
JazzWax tracks: You can hear Fats Waller's 1935 recording of I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter on virtually any Fats compilation. One of the best, however, is Honeysuckle Rose found here.
Don Byas' influential Savoy release of How High the Moon from November 1945, backed by Benny Harris on trumpet, Jimmy Jones on piano, John Levy on bass and Fred Radcliffe on drums, can be found on a superb Don Byas compilation, Savoy Jam Party: The Savoy Sessions. You can download the album or the track at iTunes. You'll hear a great deal of Sonny in this Byas recording.
Charlie Parker's recording of Ko-Ko is a revolutionary potboiler that Bird recorded on his first session as a leader in November 1945 using the chord changes to Cherokee. It's available on The Complete Savoy and Dial Masters at iTunes.
As for the Jonah Jones imbroglio, I agree that the term genius is overused and meaningless. But when the word is pulled out of one's holster, it's typically employed to define a jazz artist whose abilities and expression transcended those of his or her peers and were consistently at that high level for a good part of the individual's career. Jones was a beautiful player as is evidenced on The Jonah Jones Story at iTunes or Jonah Jones: J.J. Space (Fresh Sound) here. As for the consistency thing, go sample Serenata from 1962, which can be found on Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 6: Rhapsodesia, at iTunes. Warning: sample before you buy.