“The New Yorker” by Gaurab Thakali with permission
Jeff Caltabiano is a jazz devotee who continually immerses himself in its world, learning about the history, people and music of it. He’s the founder of an initiative to name the Williamsburg Bridge after one of the most accomplished and respected of tenor sax masters, Sonny Rollins, who in his 20’s practiced upon the famous span while overlooking the city that runs through his veins.
The Williamsburg Bridge connects Brooklyn with Manhattan; it is hoped that through its new name, the Sonny Rollins Bridge will connect people from all over the globe with his music and legacy.
Jeff Caltabiano, on The Bridge
Jeff described this movement: the hope, the joy and the red tape.
What does Mr. Rollins think of this initiative?
Mr. Rollins’s preference is that he not be involved in the project. Sonny Rollins is a sensitive and humble man, so we fully respect that.
How/when did you come up with this idea?
Ken Vandermark [sax musician and composer] sparked the idea last fall  after he posted a photo on Instagram of the Williamsburg Bridge with the caption: “It’s still Sonny Rollins’ bridge to me…” (https://instagram.com/p/BKv8yRFhg7B/)
That made the light bulb go off in my head. I had been thinking for some time that I wanted to somehow give back to jazz, which has provided so much to my life; but as someone who is not a musician, promoter or journalist, I didn’t quite know how to do that.
Then I saw Ken’s post and thought, “That’s it! I’ve gotta get the bridge renamed for Sonny Rollins.” For 13 years I lived only a couple of blocks from the pedestrian entrance to the bridge and had thought about Sonny Rollins playing on it, so it made perfect sense once the idea came about via Ken.
Ken’s a stellar player and composer whom I’ve closely followed for many years. Over a dozen years before his Instagram post, I vividly remember reading an interview with Ken in Jazz Times (https://jazztimes.com/features/ken-vandermark-focus/) where he really changed my views on Rollins, whom he argued was just as musically revolutionary as Coltrane in the 1960s.
It was a bold statement that really raised my eyebrows. As a Coltrane fanatic who up to that point hadn’t really listened to much Rollins, that got me digging deeper into his post-bridge material. The article was prescient – all these years later I see the same Ken Vandermark post on Instagram about “Sonny Rollins’ bridge,” which led to the idea to rename the bridge. It was almost like coming full circle.
Ken Vandermark is one of the deepest thinkers and listeners in improvised music. I’ve also been in contact with him and, despite being one of the busiest musicians in the world, he couldn’t be nicer or more supportive of the Sonny Rollins Bridge Project.
What’s the current status of the project?
A draft of the New York City Council bill for the renaming is currently under legislative review [at this writing in July 2017]. Council Member Stephen Levin, representing northern Brooklyn, is the sponsor and we are currently seeking additional co-sponsors.
Once the legislative review process is complete, we hope to have a bill that can be submitted to the City Council. It would then likely go to a hearing and hopefully work its way through to a vote.
It could take a while and we could meet some resistance, so we don’t expect it to be easy.
The project is also in post-production on a short film that we shot on the bridge in June with four saxophonists. We filmed on one of the hottest days of the summer but it was a really special day and each of the players brought their A game. We’re really excited to see what the final film looks like and share it more broadly.
The idea for the film is twofold: first, to be an homage to Sonny Rollins’ time on the bridge, and second, to more broadly tell the general public about the story. We’ll see how much reach the film has, but we’re hopeful it will help us meet those objectives.
Sonny Rollins can’t play right now due to a respiratory condition, so we figured we’d play for him as a way to say thank you for his music, his humanity and his enduring influence. His spirit has lived on that bridge since 1959 and you could strongly feel it the day we filmed there.
The project is also gearing up to finally do some fundraising. Up to this point the project and the film have been completely out-of-pocket and it would be good to have some funds to do more, such as raise money for a plaque or a sculpture to permanently install on the bridge. We may also need to raise money for new bridge signage if the City Council can’t cover the full cost. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Have the administrative delays been as expected, better or worse?
Frankly we’re new to this entire process so it’s hard to say what exactly was expected!
That said, the general idea was that the project first gain support within the jazz community, then gain broader support from the public, and finally get some political support to make the renaming official.
I think we’ve done a decent job within the jazz community. As for the broader public support, our Instagram and Twitter pages have a good, devoted following. The New Yorker article that Amanda Petrusich was kind enough to write was pivotal in gaining more public support and also led to additional press, which we continue to seek out. For example, Barcelona’s La Vanguardia just did a beautiful 2-page spread on the project and we’ve had some other international press, so that’s been really validating.
The idea is definitely spreading. But more focus will shift to gaining political support in New York City specifically, which includes not just elected officials but public and private groups that have a stake were the bridge to be renamed.
Has there been an official word from DeBlasio’s office on what they think of this?
There has been no word yet from the Mayor’s office, but we hope to do some outreach to his office this fall. They should have some sense of what the project is trying to do.
Has this ever been done before at the grassroots level?
Probably the closest example within New York City was the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge to the Ed Koch Bridge in 2011. However, in that case, the main proponent was Michael Bloomberg who was the sitting mayor at the time. If only we had that kind of power!
But in that (best case) scenario, despite some opposition from the Queens community, the renaming ultimately happened relatively quickly, in about 6 months. We’ll have a much longer road to reaching Sonny Rollins Bridge.
Importantly, the Ed Koch renaming happened while Koch was still alive. Similarly, our goal is to rename the bridge while Sonny Rollins is still with us. We believe strongly that it’s important to honor living legends and not wait until after they’re gone.
What’s left to be done to accomplish your goal?
The Sonny Rollins Bridge Project has two major goals, which are interrelated. While the primary goal is of course to rename the Williamsburg Bridge for Sonny Rollins, we also want to more broadly share Sonny Rollins’ story on the bridge. That second goal helps leading up to the renaming and becomes all the more important afterwards as people who aren’t aware of Sonny finally cross Sonny Rollins Bridge. “Who is Sonny Rollins?” “Well, let me tell you…!”
The idea is for people to understand not just that Sonny Rollins is the greatest improviser in the history of music, a colossal composer and bandleader, but just as important that they learn about his story on the bridge. Despite all of Rollins’ accomplishments, we think it’s the most compelling reason for the bridge renaming. It’s one of the greatest stories in the history of music, but not well known beyond the jazz community. That needs to change and it’s our goal to help change that.
How many people are involved in this?
The Sonny Rollins Bridge Project is much larger than just me. I’ve relied on other people’s help and guidance literally since moments after the idea for Sonny Rollins Bridge came into my head.
Dozens of people have so far have been involved in helping the project. I’ve made some good connections with jazz musicians who have been very generous with their time and support. I have also relied on a number of friends and family members for a variety of things from editing material, helping me think through PR and political strategy, and especially in getting the film made, which was a totally new endeavor for me.
Thankfully a number of dedicated and talented people around me have been generous with their time and extraordinarily supportive of this project’s mission. I simply couldn’t do it without them all.
Are you a musician?
I am not a musician. I grew up a big music fan and became a serious jazz fan about 20 years ago. My first epiphany was hearing Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood” on headphones in my college library. After that, I started collecting jazz albums and connecting the dots between all these musicians’ and producers’ names that I read on the back of album covers.
It’s been a never-ending search that I get a lot of enjoyment from. I love the music, the musicians and the history. I also love seeing live jazz – it’s one of my life’s greatest joys.
Would you say that Sonny exemplifies the jazz spirit – the New York vibe?
Absolutely! Sonny Rollins is to New York what Louis Armstrong is to New Orleans. (Although, with no disrespect to Pops, Rollins stayed in his hometown a lot longer.)
Mr. Rollins is a native son of Harlem. He grew up during an incredible time and place for music and the arts. It’s stayed in his bloodstream. I always love hearing Rollins in interviews reminisce about that time.
He spent most of his life living in New York City, including in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and TriBeCa. He recorded most of his albums here. He wrote a number of songs about NYC: “Grand Street,” “East Broadway Run Down,” and “The Bridge.” He’s played all over town: The Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall, the East River Park Bandshell, small clubs in Brooklyn, you name it.
He also, of course, spent two years playing on the biggest woodshed any musician had ever used: the Williamsburg Bridge. We can only imagine what he saw on that bridge surrounded by the most majestic skyline in the world.
Rollins played to the subway, the boats, the cars and the pedestrians going by. He also played to the open sky. He played for himself and no one else, practicing his basics, sure, but also improvising whatever came to him in the moment. Sonny Rollins sought out to become a better player and a better person, which he achieved on the bridge. There’s a remaining 50 years of recorded material and legendary concerts to prove that it worked.
Sonny Rollins on the Bridge is without a doubt the greatest New York story I’ve ever heard.
What do you most want people to know about this project?
That the idea to rename the bridge has a lot more to do than just honoring a great musician. It’s about commemorating one of the greatest journeys in jazz.
When Rollins took it to the bridge he was 28 years old and at the peak of his powers. He dropped out of a scene which had already claimed so many young musicians prematurely. He also wasn’t happy with his own playing despite being considered one of the greats. He said to himself “Enough! I need to decide whether I can rise above it all and be the best player I can be.” And he did.
Once named, will there be a ribbon cutting or other type of event? Will Sonny be present?
We have a long way to go, but yes, once it’s official we hope to have a ribbon cutting. We’d also love to have a large saxophone summit on the bridge to commemorate the day. It’s our dream to get Sonny Rollins back on the bridge for the renaming, but he lives upstate now and is not as mobile as he used to be. We’ll have to wait and see.
Are you fundraising and if so, how can people donate?
We will begin fundraising shortly. Stay tuned to our social media.
What is your specific role?
While this has been a group effort, I do the day-to-day work maintaining the social media, primarily on Instagram and Twitter, and dealing with any press. I’ve begun doing more political strategy and lobbying, but am new to that game. As mentioned I’ve relied on a lot of other people with various aspects of this campaign so far.
Thank you for the opportunity to share more about the Sonny Rollins Bridge Project. Please follow us on Instagram at @SonnyRollinsBridgeProject, on Twitter at @RollinsBridge, or on Facebook at @SonnyRollinsBridge. Let’s name it Sonny Rollins Bridge!
For additional news on The Sonny Rollins Bridge Project please visit the “Big Apple” news at: https://goo.gl/6fKXLB.
Photo courtesy of and with permission of interviewee. Artwork with permission of artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017