Presenting installment #4 of the Blurt Jazz Desk—go HERE to access the previous editions. For this installment, our Jazz Editor sat down with sax legend Sonny Rollins for a lengthy, career-spanning conversation.
BY BILL KOPP
Among jazz fans, Sonny Rollins needs no introduction. For everyone else, here’s a quick thumbnail bio. Born in New York City in 1930, Rollins began his career as a tenor jazz saxophonist in the 1940s. A contemporary of many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk—all of with whom he worked and recorded—Sonny Rollins is considered one of the most important instrumentalists in jazz. He has released more than 60 albums under his own name, and is a sideman/collaborator on countless classic jazz recordings. Though health problems currently preclude his playing, the now 85-year-old Rollins has embarked on a series of archival releases, a series of CDs under the Road Shows banner. For our BLURT Jazz Desk feature, Rollins discussed his career, philosophy, the music industry, and much more.
BLURT: Holding the Stage is the fourth in your series of Road Shows CDs. Have you been recording all of your shows for decades now? [Go HERE to see details of Holding the Stage, including a video trailer.]
SONNY ROLLINS: I have not. But I am amazed that other people have been recording many of my shows; I find out about them later. Other people have been surreptitious.
So are these Road Shows recordings ones that you made, or are they ones that you have collected from other people that made the recordings?
Some of them are [from] collectors; one who was credited on the album. And some I made myself.
One of the things that is remarkable to me listening to Holding the Stage is the way that it flows. It really does feel like an entire concert, a single concert, even though clearly it is not. Do you have plans to release more albums in this series?
(Laughs) Well, I don’t know. I really don’t know at this point. I had intended to record a studio album, but I had a few little health issues that prevented me from doing that. In order to fulfill a contract, I did another Road Shows [release]. But will I do any more in the future? I don’t know; I cannot answer that.
The medley that closes Holding the Stage represents the previously-unheard part of your 2001 Berkeley concert. Some of the reviews I read call the recording of that show among the finest work you have ever done. As I understand it, that set was informed by your firsthand experience of living in Manhattan when the Towers came down. Would you say that the emotional backdrop or context for your performances and recordings is important to the music that you make?
In that case it was. I mean, it definitely did. I had just experienced that, and everyone had experienced that. I was closer to it and had to be evacuated. But most of the guys were living in New York, so we all went through that whole deal. So that was definitely very important to that particular record.
But in general, you know, Charlie Parker used to say that when he played in a concert he was expressing what he lived through that day. And that’s sort of the way it really is. It’s all coming together through our music; everything that happens to us that day, and really everything that happens to us in our life is what we are playing. When you get to the level of being an improviser and a musician on that level, then you are really expressing your whole life. Everything that happens to you comes out through your music, and that’s what you are playing. The so-called good, the so-called bad, the love affairs, anything. Your whole life comes out through your music.
In that particular case, of course, that was a very horrific event, and I happened to be right there at the time it happened. So I was particularly shaken. But everyone was shaken: the audience was shaken, the band was shaken. It was some experience. So maybe that came out; I am sure that must have expressed itself somehow in the performance that we did.
The Holding the Stage press kit makes mention of the virtue of you having taken control of your musical output. Lack of control over one’s catalog is certainly a common theme among musicians in most every genre. The unfairness of that seems to have been visited disproportionately upon artists of color. Especially for music from the ’50s and ’60s, there are countless stories of artists recording their material and then having no control over what happens with it after that. How important has it been to you to be able to exercise control over your releases?
Well, it’s really something which is endemic in the society. It dates back to slavery, really. And in this music business, everyone is a slave: white and black are a slave to the industry. But of course black people are more prone to get taken advantage of. In my case – and in many cases – they tell you how many records you’ve sold, and you have to agree with them. Some people have been really ripped off in music.
One kid I used to be with, Joe Glaser, a very famous entrepreneur, used to be Louis Armstrong’s management. I was with his agency one time when I first left the Max Roach band, and I was working there with one of his agents. I had actually caught them ripping me off with a deal, and one of his agents was a very honest guy. He told me, “You know, Sonny, I have been in the boxing business and I have been in the music business, and the music business is worse than the boxing business.”
That’s pretty heavy stuff. I knew the music business was crooked, but I did not realize it was that crooked. So that’s the way it’s been: guys get ripped off. Even today – and, y’know, I am not Prince or Jay Z or somebody that sells these huge amounts of records – but even so, I realize. I have my company now, Doxy Records, but I still have to go to the big distributors to sell my records. So in a sense, I don’t really have control of my own product, because it still has to be distributed.
Now, in the future there may be ways to have more control of your own product with all of the new technology that’s coming up, streaming and all of this stuff. But somehow I doubt that I will ever have complete control of what I do. Somehow I think it’s just a dream. So I don’t dream that dream anymore. I just forget about the business part, and try and produce music. That’s a long answer.
To your knowledge, have pieces from your back catalog been sampled by hip hop artists? Do you get compensated for that?
I have had some songs being sampled but I don’t get any … I don’t know if it’s a large amount and if it produces any really recognizable stream of money. But some guys have.
Even when many of your contemporaries were going in a more, shall we say, abstract direction – and here I’m thinking of some of Miles Davis’ work, and Ornette Coleman – you made music that was somehow both ambitious and accessible. Is it by design or default that your music has such a strong melodic sense?
I think it’s by the way things worked out. As a kid I was much influenced by one of my favorite people, Fats Waller. I heard a lot of that music. I was born in Harlem, surrounded by a lot of melodic music. Louis Armstrong, all of those people, I consider them melodic music, yet they had the jazz tinge. I just consider myself that type of a player.
My early influences were people like Louis Jordan, the great rhythm and blues player. I used to get everything he made. And this was like, when I was 7 or 8 years old.
I think that you are correct. Some of my contemporaries might have a different style of playing. I might have thought [at one time] “Hey, I’m not really in the groove, but then these guys all like my playing.” Coltrane and Ornette Colman, all those guys whose playing could be considered more “outside,” they all were very big fans of mine.
I guess, even though my repertoire – in the large sense I’ll use that word – might be something which is melodic, it has the jazz element to it. The surprise that is emphasized in jazz, it has that to it. So that’s who I am. I love melodies. I used to go the movies a lot when I was a kid. Every week there was a new movie. It was way before television. So I heard a lot of the American Songbook. As a child I heard the Grand Old Opry. But I loved melodies, you know? I love Stevie Wonder when I hear some of his songs. So … guilty!
You mentioned Louis Jordan. When I talk to my friends who are mostly into rock music, I say, “you’ve got to listen to this guy,” because I think he is as important to the development of rock and R&B as all of the people who are normally associated with that: Fats Domino, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and people like that. I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, even though he wasn’t going for the same thing. I hear that in his music.
Louis Jordan was also a very popular guy. He did a lot of pop songs and he recorded with Bing Crosby, he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald. He was a very eclectic guy in the sense that he was rhythm and blues for sure, but he did a lot of pop music which was also very commercial. But still it was good stuff. [Below: Sonny Rollins Trio – “Weaver of Dreams” (1959)]
Recently, a good friend of mine gave me a gift. It’s a coffee table book called New York Hot – East Coast Jazz of the 1950s and ’60s. What it is, really, is a book full of notable album cover reproductions, just great album cover art. One thing that is so remarkable about the book is just how many of those records are Sonny Rollins titles. Back in the day, did you get involved in any way with things like album titles, album art and packaging, or was that completely the realm of others?
That was out of my hands, completely. Back in the day, we just came into the picture as artists and musicians. I can’t speak for everybody, but I think most of the guys just did the music, and then there were other departments which handed the designs of the covers and everything.
The only thing I was involved with was my Way Out West album. It was my idea to dress in the cowboy suit. But most of the other albums that I was involved with, it was the art department that did that work.
I would say that with the benefit of hindsight, in that regard anyway, I think you were perhaps better served than a lot of your contemporaries. Because some of those album covers are just wonderful. It’s wholly separate from the music, but they’re nice to look at, too.
I agree. I agree! That’s one thing we lost with the advent of CDs. We’ve lost the big album covers because the CD, even though it’s the same picture, is not as attractive. It does not look like art. These album covers are pieces of artwork.
And it has gotten even more so now, with things going to digital. There is no longer anything you even hold in your hand; it’s just files.
Yeah. But you know, it is funny you say that. You know, of course, that they are coming out with vinyl now. And I just got a few copies of Holding the Stage on vinyl. And so the albums look more like a work of art than the CD did. I guess now with the files and all that you don’t even get a picture. With this vinyl production, it really looks like the old days with nice artwork. [Below: Sonny Rollins & Don Cherry (1960s)]
Both of my kids, who are both in their 20s, have fairly extensive vinyl collections. A lot of times they will go to concerts, and there will be a merch table in the back of the room where you can buy a t-shirt or whatever, and they will buy vinyl of new recordings. Neither one of them owns a single CD; they only have vinyl. I don’t think records are ever going to be the primary physical format again, but I think vinyl is back in a way that we might not have …
… Predicted. It’s amazing.
Like much of your work, Holding the Stage features your original compositions along with readings of standards. When you’re composing music, do you come up with a melodic line for the head and then build a song around that, or do you use some other approach?
Well, that’s a tough question to answer. I think melodically, of course. And sometimes a melody will come to me, sometimes the whole concept will come to me. Sometimes I start with the melody and fill in the rest of it. Stuff comes at different times.
Sometimes I’ll get a whole melody. And that’s why I always carry around manuscript paper, because things come to me. And at night when I am sleeping, I always have manuscript paper right around. If I get a thought, an idea, I better put it down right away. Because if you don’t, it’s gone.
Music comes from … you are influenced by things you don’t remember. And it’s a matter of putting together things that you’ve heard. It’s very hard to say where music really comes from to you; how do you get music? I don’t know. It comes from what you have heard, of course, and some of it’s more invented. You hear things which are sort of more unusual than [by] other composers.
It comes to me in many different ways … just a phrase here which reminds me of something, maybe in this life, maybe in another life. In fact, I believe in reincarnation. It might be a thousand lives ago I might have heard a melody, and now here I am today writing it down. Who knows? I don’t know where music comes from, you know? But we’re all humans, so we are influenced by what we hear. And then we are putting it down as we remember it.
Only rarely have you played any other instrument besides tenor sax. Have you felt that there was enough to explore on tenor that there was no need to move beyond it, or is there some other reason?
The saxophone, my instrument, is, for me, a very difficult instrument. I think every instrument is difficult. I love the saxophone. As I said, my idol was Louis Jordan and then I gravitated to Coleman Hawkins, and then I gravitated to Lester Young. There were all these various styles that the saxophone could elicit. All these different ways of playing. I took piano [briefly] when I was a kid, and I could play a few chords on the piano.
But the saxophone was all that I could handle; it’s more than I can handle. I never felt a need to … I’m not that talented. There are some guys I know that can play many instruments. There’s a guy I know named Ira Sullivan, he’s a musician who was around … sorta my era. Ira plays great trumpet and great saxophone. That’s special. The great Benny Carter played trumpet and saxophone. Miles Davis used to play piano, enough that it could help him help his trumpet [playing]. Dizzy Gillespie was able to play enough piano to help his harmonic sense when he played the trumpet. So I can do a little bit, I can play some chords. But no, the saxophone is still my dream instrument; it’s still the thing that I am trying to conquer. And that’s that, I’m still in that. I’m still trying to get that right.
Throughout your career, in addition to enlisting a lot of fine and very, very notable side men, you’ve played and recorded with a lot of other legendary musicians. Is there anyone with whom you never got the chance to play that you wish you had?
I wish I played with Fats Waller. And I wish I had played with Louis Armstrong.
And I wished I had played with Count Basie. Now, Count Basie liked my playing; I know that. We played on the same bill, so that was good; it was nice to know that great Count Basie, but I never got a chance to play with him. Duke Ellington, of course: I would have loved to have been able to play with that great band, you know.
One of the great American composers …
Oh, boy! And the harmony and the harmonic adventures that he embarked on … I’m telling you, that was really great, great stuff. [Below: Sonny Rollins Quintet – “Don’t Stop the Carnival” (1976)]
One of the things that has always intrigued me about instrumental jazz, or any instrumental music for that matter, is how even without words it can be “about something.” Because you are so successful at conveying thoughts and moods musically, how do you set out to express ideas and emotions via your instrument?
Well, that’s another tough question. I’ve heard the words to the songs I have played. When I was about 3 years old my mother took me to hear “Pirates of Penzance.”
Gilbert and Sullivan …
Do you remember them?
But just historically.
Exactly right. I know you didn’t know them [laughs]. Anyway, so I heard that “Pirates of Penzance” at a performance in a park up in upper Harlem where we lived. So I always heard music and lyrics together. As I became a jazz musician, I guess that was always in my mind. I remember the great saxophonist Ben Webster used to always know the lyrics of what he played. And I think Lester Young also knew the lyrics of some of these beautiful ballads that they played. It would be in their head while they were playing.
I knew most of the lyrics of some of the popular songs that I played, those ballads. I knew most of the lyrics, not all of them like Ben Webster and Lester Young and others might have. But that was the way we went about it. [Below: Rollins w/Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, Rufus Reid & Mickey Roker (1987)]
Many musicians remark upon the difference in atmosphere between a live show and a studio session. Perhaps more than any other style of music, I think jazz seems best represented by live recordings. Is that your sense as well?
Well, it’s hard to say that. Back in the day when I first started recording – and I have been recording now since the late ‘40s – in those days there were a lot of great records being made, and they didn’t depend upon a live atmosphere, so it’s hard to say that.
When the technology came in to overdub and do a lot of technological things, I began taking advantage of that. I used to do a lot of extra takes on one track, for instance. And then I realized, well, somebody said: “the first track is your best track, so don’t waste time doing a million tracks.” But technology allowed us to do that, and I took advantage of it.
But a lot of great records – all the great records I heard – were done in studio situations. Very few were done live. I mean, there were some, but that was not the norm. I got sort of seduced by that and I liked playing live because I thought the studio was a very stultifying place to create music. You would always be looking for the red light to go on: “okay, recording.” So that was sort of a drag to me.
I always felt that when I was playing, not only could I get a lot from the audience, but it freed my inhibitions. So I do feel that, in my case – and it’s probably a detriment of mine – I like playing live. I always feel better when I am playing live under the sky, and I can get closer to Mother Nature, if you will. I just feel more with it. I prefer that to the constrictions, in a way, of a studio.
That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned about overdubbing and multi tracking. If I recall, in the late ’60s and early ’70s Miles Davis and his producer Teo Macero would often build entire tracks out of a little bit from here, a little bit from there. They would piece it together afterwards so that it didn’t even really resemble what they had originally recorded. And that’s just a different approach, I guess.
Yeah, I would say it’s a different approach. Originally, no one did that, so in a way it can be thought of as artificial, and in a way it can be thought of as just another way of doing something. They both have merit. But you know, Miles had to play first before he and Teo Macero could go and put stuff together. What comes first is his ability to create something. [Below: Rollins – “Falling In Love With Love” (Tokyo 1997)]
Even the shortest biography of you makes note of the periods in which you seemingly took time off from performance so that you could hone your skills, or engage in personal development, or however one might want to phrase it. I suppose that jazz is no different from other genres in that when an artist stops releasing material or stops appearing in public for a time, they’re quickly forgotten. Obviously that never happened to you, but one supposes that it could have. At the time you took each of those sabbaticals, did it feel like a risky move?
No, it didn’t to me, because I always had a sense of myself. I was cautioned by some people “Sonny, don’t leave the scene; they’ll forget about you! It’s a highly competitive field of music and you know, if you leave the scene you are going to destroy the fan base you’ve built up.” But of course in my case it did not matter, because I wasn’t really interested in trying to maintain something that I wasn’t sure about.
I wanted to get myself together and then be able to work. It’s a good model for anybody. Really make sure that what you are doing is what you want to do. Don’t get caught up in what other people expect of you [or else] you’re lost when they don’t like you; you’re just out there all alone. So you have to know what you are doing. That was a good lesson in life, and I didn’t pay any attention to people who cautioned me not to get away, that I would be forgotten.
The things that you studied during those times – yoga, zen meditation and so forth – can you tell me a little bit about how those studies affected your approach to making music?
They affected my approach to the meaning of life and what life is. I have always had this certain, for lack of a better word, religious feeling about an afterlife or a god. That was when I was a kid, going to church. As I grew up, of course, then we have to face the real world and we realize that it is not so easy. That’s when I began getting interested in yoga, just as a way of getting inside of myself, having some control of my own thoughts against the world; the world will lead you in a lot of ways.
I studied Rosicrucianism and thought that was fascinating. And then I saw this movie Annie Hall with Woody Allen. He made fun of Rosicrucianism: “Anything that you can find on the back of a comic book…” That was funny. And that’s all good; it wasn’t really about Rosicrucianism. It was a search for something beside the norm. I learned a lot out of Rosicrucianism, as a matter of a fact.
And then I began studying yoga; that helped me to stop smoking cigarettes. All these things helped me to get through life. I began studying Buddhism. All of these things helped me to sort of center myself and get some kind of control over my own mind. I think it was in the ’50s when I first really got into those things. And I’ve done them all my life.
Now, when I say that I’m doing yoga, I’m not doing the kind of yoga where you are doing exercises or twisting your body. I did that, and that is called Hatha Yoga. I did study that, but the other kind of yoga has to do with the mind; that’s the kind of yoga that I am more into now at this advanced age that I am. I am more into the mental disciplines, the mind rather than the body, at this stage. [Below: Rollins – “Nishi” (Orange County 2009)]
So you still find benefit in it, even now?
Oh, definitely. It’s learning. There are great teachers through history. Jesus Christ, all of these great teachers. And life is learning. We are here to learn. We are not here to eat ice cream and drive the cars. That’s something you find out. What you have in this world are some people that feel, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” That’s one way of looking at life.
There are other people that feel like me, that there’s something else. That there is some other reason for living. Life has some other purpose than for a sense of enjoyment. I fall into that other category. I believe life is here to learn something, to try and understand why we are here, what it means. And therefore to have a way of living.
Who knows what is right? I am not proselytizing at all, but for me, I am very, very happy with my study of the ancient scriptures and these rules, I could say, for living. It’s learning … it’s a learning experience for me. I am very happy. And if other people think that it’s about having fun and enjoying the senses and that’s what life is about, and there is no afterlife and that … well, okay. That’s fine.
Above: Rollins in the Fifties (photo from Rollins’ official website, which also has a remarkable trove of live videos and filmed interviews with the musician). Bill Kopp is BLURT’s Jazz Desk editor. He knows more about music than the entire office staff, so feel free to post him a comment here, or visit him at his most excellent Musoscribe music magazine.