Sonny Rollins - Biography

Tenor Saxophone master Sonny Rollins first walked into a recording studio in 1949 and continues to wow audiences at live dates sixty years later. A respected innovator on his instrument, a star for most of his career, and the composer of such classics as “St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” “Doxy,” and “Airegin,” Rollins has been called the “last jazz immortal” and the “greatest living jazz soloist.” Saxophonist Steve Lacy, a friend and occasional practice partner in the Fifties, told jazz writer Joe Goldberg that “I’ve never seen anyone in love with the tenor saxophone the way Sonny is. He really loves that horn and understands it. He knows everything about it.”


For Theodore Walter Rollins, that love affair began in New York, where he was born on September 7, 1930. Raised in Harlem where his parents had settled after emigrating from the Virgin Islands, Rollins grew up near the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the home of his idol, Coleman Hawkins. As a youngster, Rollins was exposed to all kinds of music. Initially inspired by popular saxophonist Louis Jordan, he started on alto sax around the age of 11. Trying to sound more like Hawkins, he switched to tenor when he was 16. While still in high school, he led a group with contemporaries like Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor. Bebop quickly became his main interest. He soon met Thelonious Monk, who took the young player under his wing and rehearsed with him every day after school. By the time Rollins graduated from high school in 1947, he was a professional musician.


Gigging wherever he could, both as a sideman and bandleader, Rollins’ reputation grew rapidly. He appeared with novelty singer Babs Gonzales in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia before he made his recording debut on Babs’ “Capitolizing” and “Professor Bop” in January of 1949. Trombone innovator J.J. Johnson, who also recorded on the Gonzales date, enlisted Rollins for his own Savoy sessions that May. These sessions were released as J. J. Johnson's Jazz Quintet (1949 Savoy) and featured pianist John Lewis, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and drummer Max Roach. Rollins, who first heard Bud Powell by standing on the street and listening to him practice, played on the pianist’s Blue Note session of August 1949, which produced such classics as “Wail” and “Dance of the Infidels.” These sessions are collected and re-released on CD as The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (1989 Blue Note).


Although critical and popular acclaim for his work was growing, Rollins was grappling with drug use. Rollins became addicted to heroin, partly in emulation of Charlie Parker and partly as a form of rebellion. Rollins believes heroin use was “a way for the boppers to express what they thought about American capitalist values.” The demands of his addiction and the slim financial rewards of being a jazz musician led him to petty crime, which ended quickly with his arrest in 1950 and subsequent ten-month imprisonment.


The next few years were full of musical discoveries, but they were also dark days personally for Rollins. Miles Davis, a friend of Rollins’ since the late Forties, became an increasingly important influence. Davis called Rollins whenever he had a gig and Rollins was present for Davis’ first Prestige session on January 17, 1951. At the end of the session, Davis prevailed on label boss Bob Weinstock to let Rollins record a tune Davis had written. “I Know,” a piece based on Parker’s “Confirmation,” impressed Weinstock enough to offer the saxophonist a recording contract of his own later in the year. These early sessions featuring Rollins as a bandleader can be heard on Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet (1953 Prestige).


Rollins recorded again with Davis in October before making his own first full session that December with backing by classmate Kenny Drew, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Art Blakey. Early in 1952, he was re-arrested on a parole violation for possession of narcotics and spent the rest of the year in jail. Rollins struggled when he was released, both with his drug habit and with the understandable reluctance of club owners to hire him. He continued to record with Davis, and worked on a session with Monk for Prestige in November of 1953 and with trumpeter Art Farmer in January of 1954. He also did a couple of sessions of his own later that year. Just as Charlie Parker’s example had helped lead him to heroin, an encounter with Bird at a Davis date in January of 1953 convinced Rollins that he had to quit. It took a few more years, but faced with the prospect of more jail time, he went to the government’s treatment facility in Lexington, Kentucky to get clean. He was released in May of 1955.


Rollins had been spending a fair amount of time in Chicago in the early Fifties, trying to avoid the pressures of the jazz life in New York. He went back to Chicago after his release from Kentucky and took a series of menial jobs in order to get his life back on track. Parker had died and jazz underwent stylistic shifts while Rollins was out of the scene. Hard bop was coming into vogue with recordings by many of Rollins’ former associates like Davis, Blakey, and pianist Horace Silver. By late 1955, Rollins felt ready to return to active performing. He joined the new Max Roach quintet with trumpet phenomenon Clifford Brown, pianist Richie Powell (Bud’s brother), and bassist George Morrow. By December, Rollins was back in New York where he recorded Work Time (1956 Prestige) for Prestige. The album included a version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” an early example of Rollins’ penchant for transforming unlikely material into powerful jazz vehicles.


The following year would prove pivotal to Rollins’ career. There were studio recordings and tours with the Roach group, and continued work with Miles Davis and Monk in the studio. As a leader, Rollins recorded a series of important albums for Prestige including Tenor Madness (1956 Prestige) in May, which features his only encounter with friendly rival John Coltrane; Saxophone Colossus (1956 Prestige) in June, introducing his famous calypso song “St. Thomas;” and Plays for Bird (1956 Prestige) in October.


Tragedy struck in June of 1956 when Clifford Brown and Richie Powell died as a result of an automobile accident on the way to a gig. In addition to his prodigious musical talents, Brown’s clean living and humble personality made a tremendous impression on Rollins. In one sense, Rollins’ subsequent career and “genuine humility,” in Ben Ratliff’s words, can be viewed as a profound spiritual exercise designed to articulate the lessons learned from Brown.


Rollins moved on to even greater triumphs in 1957 and 1958. With his Prestige contract ending, Rollins embarked on a fruitful period of freelancing for various labels. In March of 1957, he made Way Out West (1957 Contemporary), his first recording with just bass (Ray Brown) and drums (Shelly Manne). For two volumes of A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957 Blue Note) in November, his accompanists included drummer Elvin Jones. In February of 1958, Rollins recorded his innovative Freedom Suite (1958 Riverside Records) for Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside Records, with Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford. In a career filled with classic albums, the trio recordings of the late Fifties are thought by many to be the best of the best. Other landmark sessions in this period include Jazz in 3/4 Time (1957 EmArCy), his final album as a member of the Roach band; Sonny Rollins - Volume 2 (1957 Blue Note) with Monk and Blakey; Newk’s Time (1957 Blue Note) with pianist Wynton Kelly; The Sound Of Sonny (1957 Riverside); and sideman appearances with Abbey Lincoln and Dizzy Gillespie.


In a widely-discussed 1958 essay called “Sonny Rollins and the Art of Thematic Improvisation,” musicologist and composer Gunther Schuller hailed Rollins’ achievement of “thematic and structural unity” in his soloing. Rollins was affected by the praise but also discomfited by it, later saying “I just want to play, you know?” Following a March 1959 tour of Europe where he performed as a trio with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Pete La Roca, Rollins made the decision to take a break from the jazz scene. “I was getting very famous at the time,” he has said, “and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I'm going to do it my way.” Rollins decided to study privately with a classical pianist and take classes in orchestration at the New School in New York. He also practiced incessantly and became famous for playing atop the Williamsburg Bridge near his apartment on the Lower East Side, thanks to a 1961 article in Metronome.


There had been many new developments in jazz while Rollins was in the proverbial woodshed, notably the controversial New York debut of Ornette Coleman’s quartet. Rollins finally returned to the fray in Fall of 1961 with a gig in New York and he soon landed a lucrative contract with RCA Victor. Naturally, his first release for the label was titled The Bridge (1962 RCA). It featured guitarist Jim Hall. Rollins would go on to make numerous albums for RCA over the next several years, including the live album Our Man in Jazz! (1962 RCA) and Sonny Meets Hawk! (1963 RCA) with Coleman Hawkins.


In the mid-Sixties, Rollins signed with Impulse Records, where he recorded the quartet album Sonny Rollins on Impulse! (1965 Impulse) and his first orchestral date with his score for the film Alfie (1966 RCA). His final effort for the label, East Broadway Run Down (1966 RCA), reunited him with drummer Elvin Jones. Following a 1968 tour of Europe, Rollins again took a sabbatical from the scene, this time working briefly in Japan before traveling to India and spending time in a monastery. Rollins wouldn’t resurface for several years.


Rollins’ wife Lucille, who managed his career and eventually became co-producer of his albums, encouraged him to sign with Keepnews’ current company, Milestone Records. Sonny Rollins’ Next Album (1972 Milestone Records) was released in 1972 and was the first of a regular stream of Rollins releases on Milestone. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, he often favored pop and funk rhythms with ensembles including electric guitar or keyboards. In the Nineties, he returned to a more acoustic setting. In addition to studio and live releases with his working bands, there were various special projects including all-star ensembles with guests like pianist Tommy Flanagan and drummers Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, and Tony Williams. In 1978, Rollins went on tour with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster as the Milestone Jazzstars. In 1985, Rollins recorded The Solo Album (1985 Milestone) live in the Sculpture Garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A special section of the Village Voice was devoted to Rollins’ career in December of 1995, in which editor Gary Giddins wrote a piece in praise of the Milestone years. His list of outstanding performances soon became the nucleus of the 1996 Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on Milestone (1996 Milestone) anthology, commemorating a quarter-century of Milestone recordings.


Rollins received his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000 Milestone), and a second for Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert) (2005 Milestone), his final effort for Milestone. Without a Song is the live recording of a Boston concert given just five days after the World Trade Center attacks and after the 71-year-old Rollins was forced to evacuate his downtown apartment with only his saxophone in hand. His next studio album, Sonny, Please (2006 Doxy), appeared on Rollins’ own imprint Doxy and was produced by longtime trombonist Clifton Anderson. In 2008, the year of his 78th birthday, Rollins released the live album Road Shows, Volume 1 (2008 Doxy), and continues to tour.


Rollins has been the subject of a film, Robert Mugge’s 1986 Saxophone Colossus, and several books including Charles Blancq’s Sonny Rollins: The Journey of a Jazzman (1983) and Eric Nisenson’s Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation (2000). His many honors include winning numerous polls of jazz fans and critics, a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2004, induction into the Academy of Achievement in 2006, and the prestigious Polar Prize in Sweden in 2007. With the vast majority of Rollins’ voluminous output in print, the legacy of one of the greatest improvisers that jazz has ever known is secure.

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