Sonny Rollins Makes a Monumental Mark on Music

When a jazz icon has a handful of words to say about a storied and stellar career, you listen. Especially if it’s the inimitable Sonny Rollins.

I first heard him on 1978’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and was nothing short of stunned. Recorded live at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, it was the first of many songs I would devour by the master tenor player. Recording as early as 1953 (Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet) and making albums (so far) up through 2016, his trajectory describes and outlines the decades of a jazz age full of energy, mood, color and character.

Thinking of his performances, persona and personality might bring you to the documentary by Robert Mugge, Saxophone Colossus, chronicling his musical inspiration, interviews with him at home in New York City along with his wife, Lucille, and highlighted by (among other events) Rollins’s Opus 40 concert set in a stone quarry in  Saugerties, New York, where he leaped off the stone stage and remained, playing his solo and finishing out the concert (it turned out he had broken his heel). He’s been named Jazz Artist of the Year (DownBeat, 1997), received a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album (for This Is What I Do, 2000), received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys (in 2004, the same year he lost his wife) and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America in 2015. He has received an Honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music, Duke University,  New England Conservatory of Music, and several more. Now 92, Mr. Rollins lives in Woodstock, New York.

There’s so much more to say about Mr. Rollins; this is but a whisper of the full story. He adds here a few comments that provide a peek into how he thinks about music and what he has enjoyed so far in sharing it with us, and for that—for all of it—we are incredibly lucky.

When did you know that choosing the tenor sax was such a good fit for your career?

When I heard Coleman Hawkins, I realized this was what I wanted to play in music.

What are you proudest of as a musician?

Practicing on the [Williamsburg] Bridge. This was something which became a role model for people in all walks of life.

What do you think your legacy is?

I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think about how to answer that question. That’s for others to decide.

What is your favorite story that illustrates what it’s like to be a musician on the road?

Getting to the various airports on time, making sure that the tickets are correctly distributed, and getting on the plane to the next destination. Having to pay attention to those details makes everything else possible.

Who were some of your favorite people through the years to collaborate with?

I collaborated with all of my musical idols with whom I was personally acquainted—Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach, among others.

In telling your life story with such rich experiences to discuss, are there “periods” you find most interesting in your career?

I have had so many unusual experiences—my life has been filled with so many rare musical and life experiences—that it would take a book to recount them. But a few do come to mind: My incarceration, my overcoming my bad habits, my travels to the East in search of myself, and every day that I’m still here.

Would you encourage young people today to become a musician?

That depends upon their God-given abilities. It’s got to come to you; you can’t choose it for yourself.

Other comments?

Positive thoughts and actions toward others reward us in ways we couldn’t imagine.

Thanks to Terri Hinte and of course Sonny Rollins for making this interview possible.

Photo credit: Mamadi Doumbouya

© 2022 Debbie Burke

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