He's the greatest living jazz artist- and a resident of Columbia County. In this interview with the tenor saxophone titan, Sonny Rollins talks about life in the country, the loss of his wife, and the power of music.
The world¡¯s greatest living jazz artist ¡ª and a resident of Columbia County ¡ª Sonny Rollins muses on life, loss, and the power of music
By Thomas Staudter
The attendees at last January¡¯s International Association of Jazz Education conference in Manhattan were all abuzz. An annual industry get-together of more than 6,000 musicians, concert promoters, club owners, writers, photographers, and (of course) jazz educators, the gathering¡¯s main event was a scheduled interview with tenor saxophonist/composer Sonny Rollins.
The last giant of the modern jazz era, Rollins carries on the traditions of America¡¯s great musical idiom with every note he plays. Whether in full tilt, the riffs endlessly emanating from his saxophone, or in ballads bursting with emotion, his timbre is flawlessly sharp and distinct, nearly biting at times. And because he has truly internalized the music¡¯s styles and nuances, played alongside so many of jazz¡¯s legends and forgotten heroes, his work transcends close analysis or categorization. Simply put, man and instrument are one.
While Rollins¡¯ jazz primacy is unquestioned, more widespread recognition of his talent has come only during the past year. He was feted far and wide in honor of his 75th birthday last September. Also, he released Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, an album comprised of five long ¡°sojourn-songs¡± recorded in Boston just a few days after the World Trade Center attacks. (Last February, one of those songs earned him a Grammy in the ¡°Best Jazz Instrumental Solo¡± category. Word has it that he was pleased by the award, but nonetheless too hard at work to travel to Los Angeles for the glitzy accolades that so many musical artists thrive on.)
So it¡¯s not surprising that when the appointed hour for the interview arrived, every one of the IAJE conferees seemed to be waiting inside the Sheraton New York Hotel¡¯s ballroom. Without fanfare or grand introductions, Rollins ambled in from a side entrance. He looked sharp in a dark suit, dress shirt, and white scarf; a black beret and sunglasses helped frame his snowy beard and mustache. After requisite applause, he was miked up, and the session began.
In response to questions from the interviewer, Rollins recounted in detail his early years growing up in Harlem. The youngest of three children (his parents emigrated from the Virgin Islands), he studied piano briefly before taking up the saxophone. Reminiscing about himself and other ambitious young jazz players in the neighborhood, he talked about their first jobs in rough night clubs (¡°I learned to always watch my coat¡±); how they used eyeliner pencil to draw mustaches that gained them entry into classier nightspots; and how many of them ¡ª himself included ¡ª had to overcome narcotics addiction.
Rollins¡¯ rapid development on the saxophone (which he humbly ascribed to ¡°natural ability¡±) led to historic collaborations with some of the giants of modern jazz, including Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. By 1955, he was regularly recording with his own groups, but joined the renowned Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. The next year, Rollins cut Saxophone Colossus, considered one of the top jazz albums of all time. ¡°Jazz is not just about joy,¡± Rollins said, the IAJE crowd hanging on every word.
¡°It also makes you use your mind, which is why it¡¯s an important social force.¡±
Somewhat reluctantly but in an affecting manner, he went on to discuss his spiritual interest in ¡°having some values outside of materialism.¡±
For a musical icon generally perceived to be ¡°enigmatic¡± and ¡°reclusive,¡± Rollins proved instead to be a forthright, sincere artist willing to answer any question. After the interview, he sat at a table outside the ballroom and signed hundreds of autographs, taking a moment to greet each well-wisher. This was no surprise, really. Seasoned Sonny watchers witness similar displays of his generous spirit after each of his concerts.
Three weeks after the conference, Rollins is back home in Columbia County. His several acres of property slope upward from Route 9G as it passes through Germantown. From the front porch of his modest two-story frame house, there is a nice view of the Valley, toward the Catskill Mountains. There are several outbuildings behind the house, the largest of which is the saxophonist¡¯s studio.
Sporting a bright red hat and a beige fleece pullover, Rollins welcomes this writer, and leads the way directly to the studio. Inside is a musician¡¯s dream clubhouse: two electric pianos; a big stone fireplace; a stereo and turntable surrounded by stacks of CDs; several bookcases crammed with books on music, politics, and environmental issues; and a few easy chairs. The walls are lined with framed photographs and concert posters; in one corner hangs a platinum album (for the Japanese release of Rollins¡¯ 1962 classic The Bridge).
When discussing his music, Rollins once again downplays his own talent. ¡°Rhythm is perhaps what people hear first when I play. I do play some Caribbean music, which a lot of people characterize as being predominantly rhythmic,¡± he explains. ¡°I heard a certain amount of calypso music as a child; my mother liked to play it. Obviously, there¡¯s something in that kind of music that people really like.
¡°I pick songs for personal reasons, because I like a certain melody. If I pick a song it¡¯s because I¡¯d like to interpret it,¡± he continues. ¡°People don¡¯t know why I like a song. Maybe I saw it in a movie when I was three years old; people don¡¯t know that.
But music is a form of communication. My playing it a certain way will give them something.¡±
Rollins and his late wife, Lucille, first moved to Germantown as part-time residents in 1970. ¡°Originally, our idea was to get out of the city,¡± he says. ¡°We were living in an apartment in Brooklyn¡ but as time went by the community began to deteriorate, and there was a crime issue.¡± After someone tried to break into their home, they decided to find a house upstate and keep a small studio in Manhattan.
¡°So we came up here every weekend with a list of houses to look at,¡± he recalls. ¡°Realistically, we had to find something that fit our needs and we were able to afford. The big thing, though, was to be able to practice whenever I wanted to, which has been a problem all my life.¡± (In the early ¡¯60s, Rollins was often found playing his sax in the middle of the night on Manhattan¡¯s Williamsburg Bridge ¡ª as good a ¡°woodshed¡± as an urban environment can provide.)
The couple, who had no children, sold their lower-Manhattan pied-a-terre soon after 9/11 and made a permanent move to the Valley. Over the years, says Rollins, he and his wife enjoyed gardening and ¡°trying to grow vegetables,¡± but what they loved most about their rural retreat was the relative solitude. In the early 1970s, Lucille took over the managerial duties of her husband¡¯s career, then started producing his recordings in the early ¡¯80s ¡ª around the time when Rollins gave up performing club dates. ¡°I liked playing in clubs, the ambiance and being close to people,¡± he recalls. ¡°But it would be very difficult for me to play in a club now. The level of involvement that I have with my music is outsized for a night club. My work is more suited to a place where I can play a long set, and maybe another if I have to.¡±
Since Lucille¡¯s death in November 2004, Rollins has lived alone ¡ª ¡°a difficult deal¡± for him, he says. He no longer feels the need to walk over to the studio to blow his horn, choosing instead to practice in the house. ¡°For one thing, Lucille would always turn the light on the back porch when I was out here, so if I was out in the studio late I could find my way back in the dark,¡± he admits, apologizing a moment later for ¡°sounding lachrymose.¡±
Rollins still rides the train into Manhattan for rehearsals. Since 1993, he has recorded infrequently, releasing just four studio efforts. But the last few months have found him working on a new studio album with longtime bandmates Bob Cranshaw on bass and the saxophonist¡¯s nephew, Clifton Anderson, on trombone, along with drummer Steve Jordan, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and guitarist Bobby Broom. He has taken on Lucille¡¯s management duties, too, and is looking at new ways of promoting his music digitally. And while he may be acclimating himself to the business side of his profession, he concedes that ¡°my life is music, and there¡¯s not enough time to do that.¡±
What Rollins does make time for, however, is supporting numerous environmental causes in the Valley. ¡°On a large scale, I¡¯m optimistic about the health of the planet, but in smaller ways I see that technology has made people more callous about caring,¡± he says. ¡°In fact, I¡¯d almost say that we¡¯re involved in a lot of losing battles. You have to fight anyway, though.¡± A voracious reader, Rollins is well informed on myriad subjects. In the course of our conversation, he readily delves into the minutiae of national and state politics, foreign policy, and alternative energy sources.
Next month, Rollins will lead his band on a three-week tour of Europe, playing eight concerts in seven countries ¡ª a demanding schedule for a musician even half his age. And when you consider that a typical gig finds the maestro at center stage, horn held high and wailing at full-gale strength for nearly three hours, it¡¯s easy to understand why the venerable saxman maintains a strict regimen of yoga and weight lifting. (As for diet, a quick peak into his refrigerator says it all: fruit juices, plain yogurt, raw carrots, and brussels sprouts. ¡°I¡¯m sort of on a perpetual fast,¡± he concedes.)
But it¡¯s connecting with his audiences that keeps the artist at the top of his game. ¡°I want people to leave my concerts with a positive feeling so they¡¯ll feel hopeful and optimistic about everything,¡± Rollins remarks. ¡°That¡¯s my ultimate aim, that¡¯s why I play.¡± ¡ö