To truly understand Sonny Rollins, you need to know something about Westerns. The simple ones from the 1930s that weren't big productions and didn't have elaborate musical scores. Just terse dialogue, tough looks and lots of justice. Sonny loves them. He grew up in Harlem during the Depression and regularly tuned into Westerns on the family radio and watched two-reelers at local movie theaters. These films are as important to who Sonny is as his Caribbean roots or passion for Coleman Hawkins. Westerns take Sonny back to a time when his imagination first ran wild, transporting him to a free, open range where integrity, independence and fairness ruled. [Photo of Sonny Rollins in 1957 by William Claxton]
I spoke to Sonny on Saturday about his affinity for the Wild West and the connection between his childhood passion and the 1957 landmark album Way Out West. During our hour-long chat, Sonny laughed about the genre's magical simplicity and spoke eloquently about why the lessons of Westerns continue to be important to American culture. Sonny says that as a child, Westerns taught him about boldness, freedom and justice—all of which remain vital to his creative drive today.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Sonny, 79, on the Wild West, the legendary saxophonist talks about his childhood heroes, interrupting his grandmother's reciting of grace to listen to The Lone Ranger, and why Westerns have always transcended race:
JazzWax: When you think of the Wild West, what word comes to mind?
Sonny Rollins: Release. When I first watched Westerns as a child growing up in Harlem in the 1930s, they took me away from reality. My reality wasn’t bad. It's just that Westerns took me to another place. They gave me hope that a Utopia did indeed exist in life. Remember, I started looking at these movies when I was 6, 7, and 8 years old. I hadn’t absorbed a lot of other things nor had I become involved in other adolescent things. When I watched Westerns, my world was smaller.
JW: What was the big message in these movies?
SR: Freedom and open spaces. And plenty of room for everybody. Plus you had these great, wide plains with guys riding horses and beautiful mountains in the background. In Westerns, the world seemed endless and justice always triumphed. That was an important concept for me. The bad guys always got their comeuppance [laughs]. [Painting: The Cowboy by Frederic Remington]
JW: Who was your favorite Western actor?
SR: I was a child in the 1930s, so my Western heroes were from this period. My favorite was Buck Jones. I also liked Charles Starrett. Tim McCoy and Ken Maynard. Maynard seemed to be a real guy who was honest but hard-hitting. He was a guy you couldn’t fool around with more than once [roaring laughter]. What I loved about these movies is that eventually, right would win. It might have been a naïve world I was looking at, but it was my small vision. I just loved the optimism of these movies, and that fairness counted for something. Essentially, these were morality plays that always ended correctly.
JW: Was there anything that you didn’t like about them?
SR: [Laughs] Well, we didn’t always like to see the hero get the girl. We wanted the good guy just to be just a guy. When there are girls, that wasn’t really a part of it as a child. Of course, there were always women in the movies helping the good guys. I think we had more sympathy, though, for the bad girl in the saloon with the good heart who helped the good guy [laughs].
JW: Did this view stay with you?
SR: It’s funny you should ask. There are a lot of parallels there to my personal life. Many of the different women I knew in my life were similar to those types of saloon girls who had good hearts.
SR: Yes, black Westerns were a part of it, since many were available in my neighborhood. You had Harlem on the Prairie and many others.
JW: Did you see these movies as credible or as send-ups of the Westerns with white actors?
SR: That’s a very interesting question. I think I saw them as Western versions of the black gangster movies that were so popular then. I didn't really see Westerns as black or white. I was more focused on the genre and the feeling. Who was in them didn't change the premise for me.
JW: What did your friends think about your passion for Westerns?
SR: When I was older and told my friends about my affection for them, they’d poke fun at me. One time when we were driving by the movie theater where I used to see these movies, they made fun of me.
SR: Because I liked cowboys. My friends complained that the cowboys had taken away the Indians' land and so on. I was a young boy and didn’t realize all of that. I didn’t look at it that way. Actually, in most movies, the Indians weren’t the antagonists, and all of the white cowboys weren’t bad. It was really just the bad guys who started all the trouble, the guy who was greedy and had a ranch [laughs]. The Indians were there doing their thing, but they were usually unjustly treated and provoked by one bad guy or a group of bad guys. There were always plenty of scrupulous white cowboys.
JW: Your sister has said you once interrupted your grandmother saying grace to listen to The Lone Ranger.
SR: [Roaring laughter] Yes, I was a big fan of The Lone Ranger. Speaking of The Lone Ranger, that was a morality tale as well. He was a guy fighting for Indian rights. A respectable, worthwhile hero. A worthy idol [laughs].
JW: What did your grandmother say when you cut her off?
SR: I don't recall exactly. My grandmother used to say long graces. But as she was saying grace this one night, it was getting close to 7:30, when The Lone Ranger came on. There was a clock on the radio, and as the hands hit 7:30, she was still talking. I said, “Wait a minute, please.” I didn’t want to miss the show. I was the baby in the family, so I got away with a lot of stuff. I also was close to my grandmother so I didn’t have a problem saying that, and she probably let me off the hook.
JW: Which character in Westerns did you identify with most?
SR: I think the lone hero who rode from town to town looking to right the wrongs. The model for that type was the character Hopalong Cassidy—an independent guy who wasn’t tied down. Buck Jones, too. He epitomized righting the wrongs.
JW: Do you watch Westerns today?
SR: [Laughs] Not often. I lost interest when Westerns started adding big musical soundtracks and became more of a production. I liked the ones in the 1930s. They were all dialogue and action.
JW: If you were advising me to see three Westerns of any period, which would you recommend?
SR: Probably The Durango Kid  with Charles Starrett, High Noon  and any film with Buck Jones. You want the ones without lots of music, where you can really hear the hoof beats.
Tomorrow, Sonny talks about the making of Way Out West and why he recorded with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne rather than George Morrow and Max Roach, with whom he was touring at the time in California.
JazzWax clip: Go here to watch part of The Western Code (1932), starring Tim McCoy as Tim Barrett, one of Sonny's childhood cowboy heroes. When the first part ends, just wait and Part 2 will pop on.