A couple of months ago, I asked Sonny Rollins if he would be
willing to visit his old neighborhood in Harlem with me from the back of a comfortable car for the Wall Street Journal. His 80th birthday was coming (September 7). So was a much heralded concert at New York's Beacon Theater (September 10). Now was an ideal time to reflect and look ahead. [Photo by John Abbott]
So several Sundays ago, Sonny and I traveled uptown in a Lincoln Town Car. For the next two hours, we visited three different areas of Harlem, with Sonny commenting on the places and childhood events that helped shape him as an artist. He had never made such a personal trip with a writer before, and the result appears in today's "Greater New York" section of the Wall Street Journal. You'll find it online here. [Photo by John Abbott]
During our ride uptown, Sonny and I talked about his 1995 performance at the Beacon Theater and the struggles he encounters when trying to give an audience a powerful performance. There wasn't room for the following conversation in my Wall Street Journal article, but here it is as a bonus:
JazzWax: Did you enjoy playing at New York's Beacon Theater in 1995?
Sonny Rollins: Actually, I wasn’t happy with my performance. I don't blame anyone but myself. When the curtain goes up, it’s up to Sonny Rollins in terms of how I sound and what I'm doing. It’s my responsibility to be Sonny Rollins. I always try to make sure that is my No. 1 priority—making sure I sound good. Whenever I play, I take responsibility. I’m old school. It’s my job to satisfy the public.
JW: How do you do that?
SR: By practicing hard every day. I also compose every day when I can.
SR: I’m trying to get a certain perfection in my music, in my playing, in my performance, in my ability to make sense and ultimately to satisfy my audiences. It's all of these things. I am an artist seeking perfection.
JW: What has to happen for this to take place?
SR: Of course, my embouchure has to be in great shape and my reed has to be just right, but I also have to be in a good place mentally. When that happens, hopefully the audience reacts. If I'm happy, Marc, people will react. [Photo by John Abbott]
JW: But don't your audiences always react positively?
SR: To an extent. But I have stringent standards for myself that they don’t know about. Once I satisfy some of my demands, they will be even happier. That's when a performance comes together magically. There’s no explaining it. Every concert doesn’t come out the way I would have liked it to. Even the ones that people did think came out well, I sometimes wasn't happy with them. Every time I walk on stage I'm trying to create an extraordinary event.
JW: What are you doing when such events happen?
SR: Who knows why these things happen? That’s the unknown that makes music great. It's not something you can quantify all the time. That’s the beauty of the arts. You have to know when you did that stroke that opened up a new vista for you. You don’t know why you did it or how. You enter a place creatively and it happens. [Photo by Jamie-James Medina]
JW: So when you’re not feeling a specific way on stage, the odds are greater that you're not going to produce what you want?
SR: I would think so. There are times when negative things happen, like feeling it isn't my night or that things aren't in place musically. I’m trying all the time, of course, to overcome those things. You have to take that into consideration as an artist. Even if things aren’t falling into place right away, I’m working like heck to make it happen.
JW: Do you ever think you’re too hard on yourself?
SR: No. I don’t think I’m too hard. I probably could be harder.
JW: But does a point ever come as an artist when you're being too hard on yourself, that your discipline will trample the creative aspects of what you want to do?
SR: No, I don’t think so.
JW: How do you avoid becoming too rigid or formulaic?
SR: When I say I'm hard on myself, I don't mean that I'm rigid. When young people call me up, they say, "Sonny, what do you practice?" My answer always is that they must first absorb the rudiments that they need to know. You have to be sure you practice those every day. But then you have to make time to be creative and free. [Photo by Michael Jackson]
JW: So a jazz artist in performance constantly has to fight to be free?
SR: I think so. You don't want to say, "Gee I have to practice this or that over and over again." No. Of course, certain things are important. For instance, I know that I have to hold whole tones to build up my embouchure, so I do these exercises. But I don’t make it a big deal. If you do, then practicing becomes a chore. Practicing has to be viewed as fun, it has to be easy. You’ve got to leave time for expression, to keep yourself open to expression. That’s what I do.
JW: I have to assume that when you perform, you’re not even there, that you’ve left the stage mentally.
SR: Exactly. That’s my whole thing, the process of improvising. You have to know your materials, you know the songs, you know the harmonics—all these things. You have to learn those back and forth. Then when you get on the stage, you forget all of it [laughs]. See what I mean? [Photo by John Abbott]
JW: And then?
SR: And then you let the subconscious take over. That’s my thing. My subconscious takes over quickly and I don’t know what I do. I surprise myself by what I play, and that’s great.
JW: Are you letting yourself be more emotional when this happens?
SR: Emotional. Hmmm, that’s a tricky word.
JW: I mean soulful—emotional rather than rational?
SR: My mind is trained to do the things I'm trying to do. What happens after that I don’t know. It’s something else. It's magical. I'm not consciously aware of what I’m doing. My mind is blank and not consciously going after one thing or another. If everything comes together, then the creative part becomes an exciting experience for the audience. And for me. [Photo by John Abbott]