Aidan Levy has written a just-released book on living legend Sonny Rollins that deftly chronicles the life and music of the great tenor player and does so with an honest eye. Perhaps its greatest strength is evoking the times he has lived (and continues to live) through and actually himself had a huge hand in creating. Rollins is of course a man, a musician, but also a larger-than-life figure in the world of jazz; Levy never lionizes him but rather tells a life story in detail. The visceral feel of the clubs, the streets of New York City, the big band leaders and musicians of the era, the vocabulary of this world and the difficult life of a gigging musician—all is felt as if walking through and personally experiencing it.
The book doesn’t shy away from the grit and difficulties of life as a musician and issues like drug use and addiction, imprisonment, the toll that performing takes on musicians and their families, etc. It is a well-considered accounting of the thoughts and wishes and travels, both to geographic places and through different life phases, one of our greatest natural treasures.
At well over 700 pages, this book is rich and dense, too full a meal to digest quickly just to gain ground. Although presented chronologically, the reader can do their own improv and bob and weave throughout by experiencing Sonny Rollins’s life here in small bites.
How long from concept to completion of your final draft?
I began research in the fall of 2015 and made final revisions in September 2022, so seven years.
How did you come to be published by Hachette?
I had a fellowship at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at The Graduate Center, CUNY during the 2016-17 academic year. When I began the fellowship, the book was not under contract. In December 2016, I accepted an offer from Da Capo Press, then an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. Given the name, Da Capo was predictably known for music, and in particular jazz books—Arthur Taylor’s essential Notes and Tones, Val Wilmer’s The Face of Black Music, the English translation of Francis Paudras’s Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell, and the venerable Da Capo Best Music Writing series, to name just a few. At around the time I signed the contract, Perseus was acquired by Hachette, and Da Capo was subsequently absorbed into the Hachette Books imprint. Much of the Da Capo team stayed on through the transition, and Hachette Books has worked to preserve the Da Capo legacy. This past November, they published RJ Smith’s brilliant new biography, Chuck Berry: An American Life.
What was the biggest challenge in your approach to the research? How did you plan it out?
The volume of material on Sonny Rollins is overwhelming. It was a challenge to synthesize the thousands of articles, tens of thousands of pages of archival material, thousands of hours of recorded material (including live tapes, records, oral histories), and hundreds of hours of interviews from my own conversations with more than 200 people. When it was finally time to write, I had to find a way to bring it all together in narrative form—to give it a thematic “ligature,” to use a saxophone term.
How did you organize your questions to him; did you schedule them out over time?
Sonny is a bit of a Luddite and does not use e-mail, so questions were written out and faxed. We had many conversations over the years, and slowly went through every part of the book after I finished the first draft of the manuscript.
What were your biggest questions for him when you started preparing for this book?
How did he become Sonny Rollins? What cultural, intellectual, political, and spiritual influences shaped him as an artist and as a person? What motivated him to take his sabbaticals? What drives his quest for the “lost chord” and how did he pursue it?
What was the biggest surprise in your research or in talking with him?
Sonny has a legendary work ethic, but he has never gone into great detail on what his practice routine consisted of. His approach to chord-scale theory, intervallic relationships and patterns, and exercises he referred to as “dailies” is documented extensively in his archive, and it is much more systematic than what has been suggested in interviews and critical writing. Also, almost nobody knows it, but Sonny has helped so many people when they were down, out of altruism and fidelity to the Golden Rule rather than his own self-aggrandizement. This is how Oscar Peterson treated Sonny in the ’50s when he needed help, a moment described in the book, and it’s how Sonny treated Hampton Hawes, René Urtreger, and many others. The community helped Sonny on his way up, and Sonny is always paying it forward. There were many other surprises. You’ll have to read the book to find out!
What period of his do you think has the most impact upon the general jazz body of work?
Between 1956 and 1958, Sonny Rollins recorded Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street, Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins Plus 4, Tenor Madness, Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard, Freedom Suite, and many more. That is a signal achievement unequaled by most in their entire artistic careers. However, Sonny remained prolific (if not quite that prolific), never resting on his laurels. In the book, I make the argument that Sonny’s impact has remained significant throughout his career, shaping generations of musicians as well as the broader culture.
What periods does Mr. Rollins think were the most impactful?
I think he has always been looking ahead to the next period.
What was it like meeting with and talking to him?
It is always inspiring to speak with Sonny Rollins. He is committed to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Easier said than done, but Sonny has motivated me to try.
How did he regard his own shortcomings and weaknesses as he was coming up as a professional?
Sonny has always been his own worst critic, even when the rest of us can’t hear it. Just because you’re the best doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
What would you say are his mantras having to do with music, being a musician, etc.?
Practice, practice, practice. All of that practice makes it possible to let go on stage. Here’s a quote: “I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I’m just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that’s when it’s really happening.”
Are you satisfied with the material you curated for this book and are you satisfied with your feedback from him?
Many biographies have the words “the life” in their title, and this one does, too, but Sonny’s life cannot fit between two covers—he contains multitudes. I know that he feels positive about helping others and following the Golden Rule, and I hope this book extends that mission. As for his response to the book, I can’t speak for Sonny, but I’ve heard good things.
What is your own background and level of familiarity with jazz?
I have written for JazzTimes, The Village Voice, and other publications, but my connection to jazz was forged in my early childhood. Jazz is really my first love. I began playing the saxophone when I was nine years old. I started on alto, then moved to tenor, and eventually settled on the baritone, though I still play all three horns on occasion, and double on clarinet.
I grew up in West Hartford, CT, and was part of the acclaimed jazz program at Hall High School, known for such alums as Brad Mehldau, Joel Frahm, and Noah Preminger. At the time, it was directed by the renowned jazz educators Haig Shahverdian and John Mastroianni. It was nothing like Whiplash, but we had that level of discipline.
One year, I recall the saxophone section in the all-state jazz band was just our high school section plus the great alto saxophonist Godwin Louis. My first exposure to jazz theory and improvisation came earlier, through Jen Allen and Erica von Kleist. I then studied with Drew Sayers, Kris Allen, and Larry Dvorin. I attended the Skidmore Jazz Institute, where I studied with Todd Coolman (who lives up to his name) and Curtis Fuller, among others. During high school, I also hosted a jazz radio show at WRTC, the Trinity College station, which was a transformative experience. Jaimoe Johnson, the drummer in the Allman Brothers Band, lived in a neighboring town, so I got to spend time jamming with him, sitting in at gigs, and talking about the music. He’s one of the iconic rock drummers, but not everyone knows how beyond category he is. Well, check out Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band. While at Brown University, I was part of the jazz performance program, studying with Bill Vint, Matthew McGarrell, and Ed Tomassi, and played at just about every dive bar in Rhode Island in the Soul Ambition Band. I ran Brown University Funk Night as well. My last performance at Brown was John Zorn’s “Cobra,” led by multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington.
After moving to New York in 2008, I held the baritone sax chair in the Stan Rubin Orchestra for ten years, playing with Tom Olin, Bob Curtis, Jeff Newell, Eyal Vilner, Chris Hemingway, Herb Gardner, John Eckert, and many others. I also played with folk-rock singer-songwriter Irv Irving. One of my last gigs in New York was at the Cotton Club in Harlem with the Cotton Club All-Stars, and the great James Stewart asked me to play a solo on “St. Thomas,” not realizing I was working on the book—pure kismet.
I recently earned a PhD from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where I worked with the Center for Jazz Studies, studying with scholars Robert G. O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Krin Gabbard, and others. Last but not least, my sister is the jazz vocalist and composer Allegra Levy. She is releasing her first children’s album soon, and I play on a couple tracks.
What did you learn as an author that you didn’t know before?
I learned so much from my research that I didn’t know before. From Sonny, I learned what it means to work hard at your craft, and to keep striving to improve. Also, sometimes taking a “sabbatical” to work on yourself is the best way to move forward with your life.
What should an author planning a work of this scope know/be prepared for?
Be prepared to spend a lot of time in the archive.
For more information, visit https://aidan-levy.com and https://www.amazon.com/Saxophone-Colossus-Music-Sonny-Rollins-ebook/dp/B09N3G8T6P.
Photo courtesy of the author.
© 2023 Debbie Burke
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