Cover story Sonny Rollins: Mark Jacobson’s trib­ute to a jazz ge­nius, 83, not out

At 83, Sonny Rollins is one of the last jazz orig­i­nals. He tours, records and prac­tises three hours a day, con­vinced he’s still got some­thing to learn – and some­thing to prove, writes Mark Jacobson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Mark Jacobson is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at New York and the au­thor of five books.

WHEN I vis­ited Sonny Rollins last year at his home in Ger­man­town, New York, a semi-hard­scrab­ble ham­let 100 miles (160km) up the Hud­son River, the then 82-year-old jazzman they call the Sax­o­phone Colos­sus was do­ing his laun­dry. ‘‘ Oh, man, come on in, man,’’ Sonny said in his reedy, slightly high-pitched voice as he stuck his head out the back door of the mod­est house, blood-orange skull­cap on his kingly, lan­tern-jawed head. Jum­ble of shirts fresh from the dryer in his arms, he led me through the clut­tered kitchen to a sit­ting room. ‘‘ Be with you in a minute,’’ he said with a sigh.

For Sonny, cer­tainly one of the great­est tenor-sax­o­phone play­ers in the his­tory of the in­stru­ment in­vented by Adolphe Sax in 1841, and a key fig­ure in jazz for more than half a cen­tury, it is a drag any time ‘‘ the ce­les­tial Big Pic­ture’’ is in­fringed upon by ‘‘ the Lit­tle Pic­ture,’’ which the mu­si­cian de­fines as ‘‘ that day-to-day crap you have to put up with on this mis­be­got­ten planet.’’

Do­ing the laun­dry, while nec­es­sary, was def­i­nitely in the lat­ter cat­e­gory. But the en­tire past few weeks had been a has­sle, Sonny said. He was booked to leave on a Euro­pean tour with gigs in Aus­tria, Ger­many, Switzer­land, Lux­em­bourg, and ‘‘ some other burgs.’’ There would be ar­range­ments, flights, ho­tels to stay in. Not that all that hadn’t hap­pened be­fore, hun­dreds of times. The new thing was ‘‘ the move,’’ Rollins’ then in-progress re­lo­ca­tion across the Hud­son River to a larger house near Wood­stock. Af­ter liv­ing in Ger­man­town for four decades, the last nine years by him­self since the death of his wife and man­ager, Lu­cille Rollins, the shift was prov­ing more prob­lem­atic than the jazzman had ex­pected. There was al­ways one more box to pack, one more real es­tate agent to talk to. Plus, tele­mar­keters kept ring­ing on the phone, the very sound of which caused Sonny to sum­mon his in­ner­most Bud­dha Na­ture, lest he fly off the han­dle. The whole thing was giv­ing him ‘‘ psy­cho­log­i­cal claus­tro­pho­bia,’’ Sonny said.

Once upon a very sto­ried time, grow­ing up on Har­lem’s Su­gar Hill dur­ing the 1930s and ’ 40s, a rel­a­tively well-off son of a West In­di­an­born Navy chief petty of­fi­cer, Sonny felt like he had all the time in the world. Al­ready a self­taught neigh­bour­hood prodigy at 17, well­versed in the am­ple brawni­ness of his great idol Cole­man Hawkins and the ethe­real stylings of Lester Young, he’d go over to Min­ton’s Play­house or the Club Baron on Lenox Av­enue, where peo­ple like Fats Waller or Th­elo­nious Monk might be play­ing. Then he’d take the train down­town to 52nd Street, the fa­mous jazz thor­ough­fare, and sit at the bar at Bird­land, where he’d of­ten be in­vited to share the band­stand with be­bop im­mor­tals like Char­lie Parker, Dizzy Gille­spie, and Miles Davis.

‘‘ That was my life back then — I thought it would al­ways go on like that, never change,’’ Sonny said. Now, on ‘‘ the wrong side of 81,’’ he could feel the metronome in­side his head tick­ing away, each in­stant too pre­cious to be squan­dered on the puny minu­tiae of the dayto-day.

For in­stance, only that week he’d spent nearly the en­tire morn­ing down in the Big Ap­ple, mak­ing an episode of The Simp­sons. Sonny played a holo­graphic im­age of him­self that hov­ers, god­like, out­side the bed­room win­dow of per­haps his best-known main­stream mu­si­cal dis­ci­ple, Lisa Simp­son. Sonny had three lines, which he du­ti­fully re­peated over and over again, coached by a voice on a speak­er­phone orig­i­nat­ing 3000 miles (4800km) away in Los An­ge­les. Later, Sonny said that tak­ing all morn­ing to pro­duce a holo­gram vis­i­ble only to a TV car­toon char­ac­ter was ‘‘ kind of strange,’’ es­pe­cially for some­one who’d man­aged to cut al­bums like Tenor Mad­ness and Sax­o­phone Colos­sus in a few short hours on a two-track ma­chine lo­cated in Rudy Van Gelder’s Hack­en­sack, New Jersey, stu­dio.

‘‘ Tech­nol­ogy, man,’’ Sonny said with a shrug. ‘‘ All this lit­tle stuff in­ter­rupts my chain of thought. Con­se­quently, I haven’t been able to prop­erly prac­tise my horn the way I have to,’’ he said, emerg­ing from the laun­dry room in a loose-fit­ting khaki shirt, a pair of baggy grey sweat­pants, and thick white socks stuffed into open-toe leather slip­pers. ‘‘ If I don’t get to prac­tise, work on my em­bouchure and scales, then I can’t play cor­rectly, and if I can’t play cor­rectly, I can’t work out my ideas, and if I can’t work out my ideas, then I go crazy.’’

Sonny reached over and tapped the hard­shell case of the in­stru­ment rest­ing on the ta­ble at his right. In there was the gold Selmer Mark VI with the Otto Link mouth­piece that he’s played al­most ex­clu­sively since the mid-1970s. ‘‘ My sec­ond wife,’’ he said, re­gard­ing the ax. ‘‘ I don’t sleep with it in bed. But I don’t let it out of my sight.’’

When Sonny’s mother gave him his first horn back in the late 1930s, it was an alto, ow­ing to the fact that as a young man, he loved lis­ten­ing to the fab­u­lous jump blues mas­ter Louis Jor­dan, who of­ten played at the Elk’s Ren­dezvous on Lenox Av­enue, not far from the Rollins’ home. ‘‘ He played an alto, so I wanted to play an alto, too,’’ Sonny said. How­ever, it was only af­ter switch­ing to the growlier tenor in his mid­dle teens that he be­came ‘‘ ob­sessed.’’ From that mo­ment on, Sonny said, ‘‘ mu­sic was the only thing that mat­tered to me. All I wanted to do was play my horn, and get bet­ter.’’ Sonny was known to spend up to 16 hours a day prac­tis­ing. His most iconic study pe­riod oc­curred be­tween 1959 and 1961, when, at age 29 and widely re­garded as the lead­ing tenor man in the world, he abruptly quit play­ing in pub­lic.

One of the great sto­ries in the an­nals of jazz, or any other mod­ern cre­ative en­deav­our, Sonny’s two-year ‘‘ sab­bat­i­cal,’’ time spent prac­tis­ing alone on the des­o­late, de­crepit walk­way of the Wil­liams­burg Bridge in New York, re­mains the jazzman’s em­blem­atic mo­ment. It was a rad­i­cal move. Af­ter all, Sonny had al­ready fronted groups that in­cluded Miles Davis, Th­elo­nious Monk, and Max Roach. Sax­o­phone Colos­sus, recorded in 1956 and in­clud­ing all-time clas­sic per­for­mances of St. Thomas, Strode Road, and Blue 7, es­tab­lished him as a star.

Yet Sonny wasn’t happy. ‘‘ It wasn’t like I was play­ing bad,’’ he told me. ‘‘ I just knew I could get bet­ter, that I had to get bet­ter.’’

The orig­i­nal plan had been to wood­shed in his Grand Street apart­ment on the Lower East Side, but the lady next door had just had a

baby, and he thought if he played too loud he’d give the child ‘‘ bad ears.’’ That’s what led him to the bridge — 135 feet (41m) above the roil­ing East River, he could re­ally let loose un­der the sky and the stars with the whole city laid out be­fore him. Mu­si­cians all over town thought he was nuts. Why did he need all this prac­tice? He was the best; wasn’t that good enough? But those peo­ple didn’t hear what Sonny heard. He was noth­ing but a glo­ri­fied be­gin­ner, Sonny be­lieved, a work in progress. There were places he needed to go. When he got there, that’s when he’d come back.

Tell Sonny that the im­age of the bril­liant jazzman seeker — the lone fig­ure amid the chaotic howl of the city, blow­ing his horn in quest of a bit of san­ity — has al­ways been a source of per­sonal in­spi­ra­tion and he will be touched by the com­ment. Men­tion that he’s your favourite player, along with Sid­ney Bechet and Johnny Hodges, and he’ll shake his head slowly. ‘‘ To be put with those guys, wow. That’s a real com­pli­ment.’’ Go on to say that you al­ways hummed St. Thomas for your chil­dren when they were tiny, and a few years later your daugh­ters made you a birth­day card with a hand­made tin­foil sax­o­phone in the mid­dle of roughly drawn tre­ble clefs along with the words Sonny Rollins, and the Colos­sus will be­gin to tear up.

Then again, a lot of ac­co­lades have been com­ing Sonny’s way over the past few years, ‘‘ top-shelf praise,’’ as he calls it. The Kennedy Cen­tre gave him its hon­ours in 2011. Pres­i­dent Obama per­son­ally handed him the Na­tional Medal of Arts. Much of this adu­la­tion came from the fact that, nearly seven decades in, Sonny con­tin­ues to play at a very high level. Any­one lis­ten­ing to Son­ny­moon for Two, recorded with fel­low leg­end Or­nette Cole­man at Sonny’s 80th birth­day celebration in 2010, could tell that. The per­for­mance, cap­tured on the al­bum Road Shows Vol. 2, played a big part in why Sonny, for the sec­ond time in a row, was named the ‘‘ Mu­si­cian of the Year’’ by the not so eas­ily im­pressed Jazz Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion.

Yet, for many, the en­dur­ing boon of be­ing alive at the same time as Sonny Rollins goes be­yond what comes out of his horn on any given night. That’s be­cause the bop era — that fleet­ing pe­riod of post-World War II op­ti­mism and angst chan­nelled through the fab­ric of African-Amer­i­can ex­is­ten­tial­ism served up by a bunch of mostly New York-based play­ers who could re­ally cook — clearly ranks as the high­wa­ter mark of 20th-cen­tury mod­ernism, eas­ily the equal of any art thing that hap­pened in Europe dur­ing the 1920s. It was a glo­ri­ously ur­ban, silk­ily noirish time when be­ing ‘‘ hip’’ (a whole other thing then) was to be in pos­ses­sion of a se­cret code of cool, ar­tic­u­lated by shamanic jazzmen ca­pa­ble of sculpt­ing a wholly new, real gone Rosetta stone ev­ery time they blew a horn or hit a drum.

Now, of course, the 52nd Street clubs — the Onyx, Club Down­beat, the 3 Deuces, and Bird­land — are way gone, along with the ti­tans who once strode those gummy side­walks, Bird, Diz, Monk, Min­gus, and the rest. No one knows this bet­ter than Sonny him­self, who never fails to credit the ‘‘ peo­ple whose shoul­ders I am stand­ing on,’’ the le­gion of play­ers now largely for­got­ten due to prej­u­dice, poor pro­mo­tion, or, as Wyn­ton Marsalis once aptly put it, ‘‘ sheer bad taste.’’ This doesn’t mean, how­ever, that Sonny is con­tent to revel in what he calls ‘‘ this vic­tory-lap, life­time-achieve­ment crap.’’

‘‘ No, man. I haven’t been out here all th­ese years for them to stick me in a mu­seum,’’ Sonny said, bristling, as the laun­dry in the ad­ja­cent room hummed into spin cy­cle. ‘‘ They can take me out and shoot me be­fore I’ll al­low my­self to be some oldies act.’’ He pre­sented sev­eral pieces of sheet mu­sic marked with tightly grouped mu­si­cal fig­ures. It was a new com­po­si­tion, Sonny said, an idea that had come to him when he was prac­tis­ing only the day be­fore. He couldn’t say for sure where the piece might end up, but he liked the di­rec­tion. That was the key, mov­ing ahead. The past could be ‘‘ a beau­ti­ful dream,’’ Sonny said. But he wasn’t about to dwell on it. For­ward, that’s where the Sax­o­phone Colos­sus was head­ing.

Up in Ger­man­town that day, this was the ba­sis for the ur­gency he felt, why the in­tru­sion of ‘‘ the Lit­tle Pic­ture’’ was such an im­po­si­tion. He was 82 — even if he kept do­ing yoga ev­ery day and kept his mind straight, no one lived for­ever. The phys­i­cal body was a fleet­ing thing. It was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the de­cay. At a re­cent show in Detroit, Sonny couldn’t play the way he wanted be­cause his teeth were both­er­ing him. A few days later in San Fran­cisco, he had a cold, again keep­ing him from achiev­ing what he set out to do.

‘‘ I don’t know if the au­di­ence no­ticed. But I did,’’ Sonny re­ported. ‘‘ Oth­ers might say, ‘ Poor old guy; he’s do­ing his best.’ But I can’t cut my­self that slack.’’

Soon there would be more un­set­tling news. A few weeks af­ter my visit, Sonny was di­ag­nosed as ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what he called ‘‘ some pul­monary dis­tress.’’ It was sug­gested he stop play­ing for a while, which caused him to can­cel some gigs, which he ab­so­lutely hates to do. In a way it made sense. Af­ter all, there weren’t many hu­man be­ings who have ever blown for as long and as hard as Sonny Rollins. In jazz there was Wayne Shorter, 80 last year, and the 87-year-old Jimmy Heath. Both of those guys were great mu­si­cians, Sonny al­lowed, but nei­ther of them blew with ‘‘ my ve­loc­ity.’’ He joked about per­haps do­nat­ing his lungs to med­i­cal sci­ence: ‘‘ Sonny Rollins’ lungs, the most blown lungs in jazz.’’ Still, re­tain­ing his cus­tom­ary long view, Sonny chose to re­main up­beat. Cer­tainly it was hard to leave his horn in the case, but things hap­pened, and then you lived through them. Soon he’d be back. This was just a bump in the road.

The drive he felt, the des­per­ate need to get bet­ter, was no less at 82 than when he went up on the Wil­liams­burg Bridge, Sonny said. ‘‘ You see, I’m go­ing to­ward this break­through, this piece of mu­sic that is go­ing to ex­plain it all to me,’’ he de­clared. It could be a sin­gle note or new com­po­si­tion, but it was there, Sonny knew, in­side of him. When he played the mu­sic, ‘‘ it will mat­ter,’’ he said.

‘‘ You mean, like you’re go­ing to play this mu­sic and the rivers are sud­denly go­ing to run back­ward?’’ I asked, try­ing to be funny. Af­ter all, he was al­ready per­haps the great­est sin­gle im­pro­viser in the his­tory of jazz. No one had his emo­tional range, the abil­ity to one mo­ment be riff­ing like a mu­si­cal stand-up co­me­dian and then, abruptly, be tear­ing your heart out with the ab­ject blues of the hu­man con­di­tion. What about that fab­u­lous open­ing to Monk’s Mis­te­rioso? How about that spec­tac­u­lar end­ing to God Bless the Child?

This made Sonny laugh. When Sonny laughs, you know it. He bends his neck back nearly 45 de­grees, casts his eyes sky­ward, and his mouth be­comes a widen­ing cir­cle. Ha-haha, he goes, loudly, like howl­ing at the moon, al­beit with per­fect breath con­trol.

‘‘ Don’t you see, that’s ex­actly the point,’’ Sonny chor­tled as he clamped his skull­cap onto to his head. ‘‘ Those notes you men­tion, those notes have al­ready been blown.’’

Sonny lev­elled his gaze, sud­denly deadly se­ri­ous. ‘‘ Peo­ple say, ‘ Sonny, take it easy, lean back. Your place is se­cure. You’re the great Sonny Rollins; you’ve got it made.’ I hear that and I think, ‘ Well, screw Sonny Rollins. Where I want to go is be­yond Sonny Rollins. Way be­yond.’ ’’

Be­fore he be­came the Sax­o­phone Colos­sus, Sonny was known to many in the 1950s jazz

scene as Newk. This owed mostly to the mu­si­cian’s sup­posed fa­cial re­sem­blance to then Brook­lyn Dodger ace Don New­combe, the first black pitcher to win 20 games in a sea­son. New­combe was also a huge, even scary­look­ing, man, stand­ing on the mound, star­ing down a bat­ter. Sonny, who keeps a framed Fifties-era base­ball card of New­combe on his book­case, has al­ways given the same im­pres­sion: broad-shoul­dered, with the arms of a power for­ward, a mus­cu­lar train com­ing right at you. It didn’t mat­ter how he dressed, whether he was seen in the one-size-too-small suits he wore in his youth­ful be­bop days, the wild Mo­hawk and dashiki he sported dur­ing the 1960s, or in the Nehru coat and cool sun­glasses getup of to­day — Sonny has al­ways looked like a gi­ant.

Up close in Ger­man­town, how­ever, it was ap­par­ent that even ac­count­ing for be­ing markedly bent at the waist, part of what he calls ‘‘ the de­crease in my phys­i­cal­ity,’’ Sonny isn’t all that big. Yet on this for­lorn late-fall af­ter­noon, sur­rounded by a pile of hap­haz­ardly folded sheets and pil­low­cases, his co­pi­ous mane of grey hair combed out to ap­pear as if fly­ing elec­tri­cally away from his out­size, cof­fee-light-coloured skull, Sonny looked like noth­ing less than a madly hip Moses, fresh down from Si­nai, for­ever larger than life.

We got to talk­ing about Sonny’s boy­hood in Har­lem, where he be­gan life on Septem­ber 7, 1930, as Wal­ter Theodore Rollins, in hon­our of Theodore Roo­sevelt.

‘‘ To me, jazz has al­ways been about pol­i­tics,’’ Sonny said. ‘‘ You can read phi­los­o­phy — and, be­lieve me, I have — but no mat­ter what you do, you can’t take the mu­sic out of life in the street.’’ This was why Har­lem in the 1930s and 40s was such a spe­cial place, Sonny said, fondly re­call­ing when his grand­mother used to take him on marches down Lenox Av­enue. ‘‘ She was from the is­lands and was a Gar­veyite,’’ Sonny said, al­lud­ing to Ja­maican-born Pan-African­ist and prophet of the Rasta­far­ian move­ment Mar­cus Gar­vey, who en­vi­sioned the ‘‘ Black Star Line,’’ a flotilla of ships that would take the stranded Ne­gro mul­ti­tudes back to the moth­er­land where they be­longed. ‘‘ I’d walk down the street hold­ing my granny’s hand, chant­ing, ‘ Free Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Boys!’ I couldn’t have been more than eight,’’ Sonny re­called. A cou­ple years later, like a num­ber of Har­lem youths, he was sent to the left­ist Camp Unity in Wing­dale, New York, which billed it­self as Amer­ica’s ‘‘ first pro­le­tar­ian sum­mer colony.’’ One of Sonny’s camp coun­sel­lors was Abel Meeropol, who would later adopt the or­phaned chil­dren of the ex­e­cuted Rosen­bergs and write the lyrics for the wrench­ing an­ti­lynch­ing song Strange Fruit.

‘‘ Later on, when I first heard Bil­lie Hol­i­day sing that song, it re­ally tore me up,’’ said Sonny, adding that he and Lady Day ‘‘ were close, you know.’’

It was a con­ver­sa­tion for any jazz nut to trea­sure, and soon the topic of Th­elo­nious Monk, the all-time-great pian­ist, came up. ‘‘ Monk was my guide, my guru, the one who made me un­der­stand what it meant to be a true mu­si­cian,’’ said Sonny. ‘‘ Monk al­ways told me that with­out mu­sic, life wouldn’t be shit. Out­side of his fam­ily, mu­sic was all he cared about. That’s how he was, to­tally pure. I al­ways hated the way they de­meaned him, made him out to be some high-pri­est weirdo, like he just hap­pened to play th­ese beau­ti­ful things by voodoo or putting his fin­gers on the keys by ac­ci­dent.’’ The fact was, Sonny said, Monk was ac­tu­ally ‘‘ a com­pletely nor­mal, down-to-earth guy’’ once you got to know him.

‘‘ I would drop in on him, and we’d talk. He was 13 years older than me, but we had a very sim­i­lar way of look­ing at things.’’ It was Monk who taught him about ‘‘ the ge­om­e­try of mu­si­cal time and space,’’ Sonny said. This seemed odd be­cause — mu­si­cally, at least — Sonny has al­ways had a fraught re­la­tion­ship with the pi­ano, of­ten ex­clud­ing the in­stru­ment from his var­i­ous bands. It was a mat­ter of too many notes in too small a space. ‘‘ Pi­ano play­ers have those 88 keys, and they’ve got to play them; know what I mean?’’ Sonny said. ‘‘ Even with some­one as great as Bud Pow­ell, I felt he was tak­ing me places I didn’t want to go . . . but Monk kept things open, al­ways gave you room . . . He was also the sin­gle most hon­est man I ever met in my life.’’

Asked what he meant by that, Sonny said, ‘‘ Well . . . let me put it like this: At that time, we were all us­ing dope. And Monk, he would never take more than his fair share. He never cheated any­one. Maybe he could have, but he didn’t. He was straight, no chaser. In the sit­u­a­tion, that’s say­ing some­thing.’’

An ad­dict from his late teens, Sonny said there was a time he thought he’d never stop do­ing junk. ‘‘ It gave me that ce­les­tial feel­ing, like be­ing at­tached to ev­ery­thing in the universe. So why would I stop? All my idols were us­ing it, so it seemed the nor­mal thing to do. All we did was play and get high: ex­is­tence bro­ken down to the ba­sics.’’

The heroin life had ‘‘ neg­a­tive life­style as­pects,’’ Sonny rue­fully ac­knowl­edged. ‘‘ I stole, I lied. I did things I will al­ways re­gret.’’ In 1949, on the verge of join­ing Miles Davis’ band, Sonny was busted for armed rob­bery and wound up do­ing 10 months on Rik­ers Is­land. Later, al­ready a star, he found him­self broke and home­less, liv­ing on the street in Chicago. Maybe the worst of it was when Sonny swore to Char­lie Parker, des­per­ate to kick his own habit, that he was clean. ‘‘ I saw Bird smile when I said that, and I could see how much he cared about me. But I wasn’t clean . . . I lied to Bird. That’s when I knew I had to stop.’’

Many jazz fans have al­ways sus­pected that Sonny’s sab­bat­i­cal on the Wil­liams­burg Bridge was all about kick­ing drugs, but the mu­si­cian says that’s not so. ‘‘ I wasn’t us­ing then. That was only about the mu­sic. Th­ese young guys like Or­nette Cole­man and Coltrane were com­ing up. I told my­self, ‘ Sonny, you bet­ter get your shit to­gether, be­cause th­ese cats have some­thing to say.’ ’’ When Sonny came back from the bridge, the ex­pec­ta­tion among the ever-mes­sianic-minded jazz com­mu­nity was that he would re­turn, like Ae­neas from the pit, bear­ing a hith­erto wholly un­heard sound­scape, a wig-stretch­ing con­cept that might push the so-called new thing ‘‘ free jazz’’ into the strato­sphere. As it was, his first post-hia­tus record, The Bridge — a lus­trous, di­a­mond-like piece of work now re­garded as among his finest ef­forts — sounded re­mark­ably like the Sonny Rollins ev­ery­one knew. Once the

lead­ing-edge hero, now Sonny was be­ing called con­ven­tional, even old-fash­ioned. At 32, he seemed a relic of a by­gone era. Many con­jec­tured that the ad­vent of Coltrane’s ‘‘ sheets of sound’’ had got­ten into Sonny’s head, messed with his ever-present in­se­cu­ri­ties about where he stood in jazz’s eter­nal cut­ting con­test.

Seen in hind­sight, the sit­u­a­tion is galling from Sonny’s point of view. Here he was: Newk, the ballsy, urbane player, the voice of the street, full of sly hu­mour and light­ningquick ref­er­ences to ev­ery tune in the song­book, some­one who had no prob­lem ad­mit­ting more than a pass­ing affin­ity for Bing Crosby. Then, sud­denly, none of this seemed to mat­ter. The Six­ties were times of the bared soul, the mys­tic dec­la­ra­tion of faith, when it was be­lieved that a sin­gle rev­o­lu­tion­ary, sal­va­tion-pro­vid­ing act would change the hu­man cal­cu­lus for all time. Asked about this, Sonny is fairly ret­i­cent, say­ing only that he ‘‘ en­joyed the stuff he was hear­ing, but that just wasn’t me.’’

You weren’t about to hear him, the self­de­scribed ‘‘ reg­u­lar Joe,’’ a guy who even to­day keeps up his sub­scrip­tion to Mad Mag­a­zine, start chant­ing ‘‘ a love supreme, a love supreme.’’ Coltrane was a min­is­ter’s son: Full-scale cos­mo­log­i­cal re­arrange­ment was his metier. Sonny, for all his loner idio­syn­cra­sies, re­mained very much the jazzman, in­ven­tively ne­go­ti­at­ing within the more or less es­tab­lished bound­aries of a genre. Or­bit­ing on a whole other plane, Coltrane was blow­ing the mu­sic up from in­side, much as Ser­gio Leone’s Man with No Name spaghetti west­erns shat­tered the time-hon­oured or­tho­dox­ies of the cow­boy movies Sonny so loved watch­ing as a kid.

Whether or not he was un­nerved by Coltrane’s as­cen­dancy (‘‘John Coltrane was my great friend and my great ri­val’’ re­mains his ba­sic com­ment on the topic), there can be no doubt the 1960s were a mixed bag for the Sax­o­phone Colos­sus. Non­pareil mo­ments like the score from the film Al­fie and the pi­ano-less ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on discs like East Broad­way Run Down were off­set by his seem­ing in­abil­ity to keep any sta­ble group to­gether. His post-bop records were an un­even bunch, and high­pro­file con­tracts with RCA Vic­tor and the jazz la­bel Im­pulse! ended un­sat­is­fac­to­rily. A spate of heavy am­phet­a­mine use led to much self­con­fessed ‘‘ para­noia.’’

Times had changed. Rock & roll, once con­sid­ered noth­ing that any se­ri­ous jazzman need trou­ble him­self about, was in­creas­ingly seen as the lin­gua franca of the cul­ture, high and low. A per­for­mance at the Both/And club in San Fran­cisco shortly af­ter the Sum­mer of Love seemed in­dica­tive of the Colos­sus’ mood at the time. In front of a house of Sonny-lovers, my­self in­cluded, the mu­si­cian started sev­eral tunes, played a few bars as his side­men sat silent, but soon stopped. Af­ter about six of th­ese false starts, Sonny stared at the au­di­ence. ‘‘ Maybe you have an idea,’’ he said, grumpily.

By the end of the decade, Sonny had said, ‘‘ For the first time I didn’t care about mu­sic . . . I’d had it; I didn’t want to play.’’ So he took another sab­bat­i­cal, but not on the Wil­liams­burg Bridge. Putting down his horn, Sonny spent sev­eral months study­ing Zen at the foot of Mount Fuji and con­cen­trated on Vedic phi­los­o­phy in an In­dian ashram.

‘‘ I think he was re­ally lost there for a while,’’ said the es­teemed jazz critic Gary Gid­dins about the work Sonny did in the early to mid 1970s, an ex­ceed­ingly strange time to be a jazz mu­si­cian of the tra­di­tion­al­ist bent. In what ap­peared to be an ill-con­sid­ered at­tempt to keep up, Sonny made a few ‘‘ fu­sion’’ records with Bob Cran­shaw’s elec­tric bass, a num­ber of jazz-rock guitarists, and the crim­i­nally for­got­ten kilt-wear­ing, bag­pipe-play­ing Ru­fus Har­ley, but noth­ing took off.

By the late 1970s, how­ever, things be­gan to look up. ‘‘ Sonny seemed to re­lax,’’ Gid­dins said. ‘‘ It was as if he re­alised that he was pri­mar­ily a con­cert artist and didn’t have to spend all that time in the record­ing stu­dio. His live so­los be­came th­ese great med­i­ta­tive, play­ful, stream-of-con­scious­ness things. It was like the whole his­tory of the mu­sic was just pour­ing out of him on any given night. The au­di­ence un­der­stands the process, waits for him to find his groove, then the whole place ex­plodes, be­cause when he’s on, there’s noth­ing else like it in this world. The fact that he has con­tin­ued to play as well as he has for so long is a real bless­ing. I never thought I’d say this, but Sonny’s re­ally great pe­riod might be 1978 to now.’’

This view is sec­onded by Jack De­Johnette, the drum­mer who played on Miles Davis’ cat­a­clysmic Bitches Brew and with Keith Jar­rett and Sonny. ‘‘ He’s got­ten to such a deep, spir­i­tual place, lis­ten­ing to him is like hear­ing some­one speak­ing in tongues. He’s oth­er­worldly. That is very in­spir­ing to other mu­si­cians. Sonny might be older, but he doesn’t sound old. That is for sure.’’ THE fa­mous Hud­son Val­ley light was be­gin­ning to wane when Sonny started talk­ing about an epiphany he’d had a cou­ple years ago in France. ‘‘ We were on tour. We lost some­thing we re­ally needed. It seemed like a real catas­tro­phe, and I was re­spon­si­ble. I was go­ing crazy, imag­in­ing the worst. Then this feel­ing came over me. I’d never felt any­thing like it be­fore, some­thing with so much clar­ity, that pro­found. Maybe it sounds silly, but when I look back on it, I think this was re­ally the high point of my en­tire life. Be­cause I just felt: ‘ It’s all good, man.’ I mean, I’d been say­ing that phrase for years, like off­hand, when some­one asks, ‘ Hey, Sonny, what’s up?’ I’d say, ‘ It’s all good.’ But now I re­ally felt it, what I call the Big Pic­ture, and I un­der­stood it to be true. ‘ It’s all good.’ ’’

Since then, Sonny, so of­ten tor­mented in his early years, has felt rel­a­tively serene. The new­found tran­quil­lity has helped him deal with his unique po­si­tion in the jazz world. Asked about his rep­u­ta­tion for fir­ing drum­mers back in the 1970s and 80s, Sonny shook his head in ac­knowl­edge­ment and said, ‘‘ The kind of mu­sic I play, the horn and the drum have to be re­ally tight. Th­ese younger mu­si­cians, they’re great. They can play any­thing. But I have played with some good drum­mers in my time. Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes. Th­ese are some good drum­mers, man. I’m not look­ing for some­one who can play what Max played in 1956, be­cause it isn’t 1956 any­more. I am look­ing for some­one who can play what Max would play in 2013. That’s a lot to ask from a young drum­mer.’’

Then Sonny laughed. ‘‘ I don’t want to say things have been easy for me, be­cause I’ve put a lot of work in. But I knew who I was from very early on. From the first mo­ment I started to blow a horn, with my alto when I was seven, I knew I would be­come a prom­i­nent mu­si­cian. Don’t ask me how, but I knew it. When I started play­ing with Miles and Monk, th­ese were peo­ple I re­ally looked up to. They were ge­niuses. I fig­ured th­ese guys have been around, they knew more than me, had a more so­phis­ti­cated point of view. But I never felt in­tim­i­dated. I never felt like, ‘ Wow, I don’t be­long here, th­ese guys are just be­ing nice to me,’ be­cause I knew if I couldn’t keep up, they would have let me know about it right away.

‘‘ It is true that when you get older you can’t do ev­ery­thing you used to do. I re­mem­ber one time, I was play­ing with Dizzy, late in his ca­reer. He said, ‘ Just don’t play any­thing too fast.’ I couldn’t be­lieve it: Dizzy Gille­spie is say­ing don’t play too fast! Now I know what he meant. Be­lieve me, I know. It bal­ances out, though. I may not phys­i­cally be able to play what I did in 1957, but there are things I couldn’t think of play­ing in 1957 that I play now. I’m not mak­ing more of my­self than I am, but an artist has pe­ri­ods. Pi­casso had pe­ri­ods. Things evolve. You can’t play what you played when you were 25 just be­cause that’s what you’re ex­pected to play. Those same notes? I can’t do it.’’

Then we were talk­ing about death. When it came to the Lit­tle Pic­ture and the Big, death was a ma­jor di­vid­ing line, Sonny said. For years he kept a small apart­ment in New York’s fi­nan­cial dis­trict, six blocks from the World Trade Cen­tre. On the morn­ing of 9/11, he heard the planes hit the build­ings. ‘‘ I went down­stairs and saw one tower on fire. The other tower came down, and a lot of peo­ple — my­self in­cluded — pan­icked and started run­ning up the street.’’ A decade later, he still won­dered about the dead. In the long run, did it mat­ter how you died, if it was in some hor­rific in­ci­dent or not? ‘‘ You think, ‘ I don’t want to go like that.’ But what do we know? Those peo­ple might have ended up in a re­ally beau­ti­ful place.’’

We talked about David S. Ware, the wellloved sax­o­phon­ist who had re­cently died at 62. ‘‘ David was kind of a pro­tege of mine. He used to fol­low me around like I used to fol­low Cole­man Hawkins. I re­ally liked him a lot as a per­son and a mu­si­cian,’’ said Sonny, who taught Ware the value of cir­cu­lar breath­ing in the 1970s. ‘‘ Well, he did what he came to do,’’ Sonny said with a sigh, adding, with­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity, that death no longer up­set him.

‘‘ Al­most ev­ery­one I know is dead!’’ he said al­most gid­dily, fol­lowed by one of his yo­delling laughs. ‘‘ Death!’’ Sonny shouted, as if to un­der­score that if there was a life ex­pectancy for strung-out bop mu­si­cians, he, by what­ever quirk of fate, had cer­tainly ex­ceeded it. ‘‘ What can I tell you,’’ he added with a show­man’s wink, ‘‘ death just ain’t what it used to be, to me.’’

I asked Sonny if he ever got lonely up here in the for­est by him­self since his wife died. ‘‘ Some­times,’’ Sonny said as he squinted out the back door and into the leaden skies. ‘‘ When it gets dark early, like around this time of the year. That’s when you feel like you want some­one.’’

Then Sonny shook his head as if to ac­com­mo­date what he’d just said. ‘‘ But I’m good. Like I said, ‘ It’s all good.’ ’’

The next time I saw Sonny, he’d al­ready moved. The Wood­stock house, not far from where Jack De­Johnette lives, was more spa­cious than the one in Ger­man­town. A ranch-type deal, it was equipped with a mod­ern kitchen, a nice fire­place, and many sky­lights, most of which Sonny had cov­ered up. Out in the back was a lit­tle pond. Asked if the pond had fish in it, Sonny said he didn’t know. He hadn’t re­ally been back there much.

‘‘ I mostly stay in,’’ Sonny said, sit­ting in his leather chair with his now fa­mil­iar blood­or­ange skull­cap on his head. He had a bunch of tests sched­uled to check on his lungs, which he said had got­ten ‘‘ a lit­tle worse.’’ He be­lieved that the prob­lem had been build­ing for some time, per­haps back to 9/11. ‘‘ I was liv­ing so close to the Tow­ers, and when they fell down, we had to stay there,’’ he said. ‘‘ It was such an up­set­ting time, I re­ally felt like play­ing. I took out my horn and took this deep breath, some­thing I’ve done a mil­lion times. But I im­me­di­ately felt sick, like I’d gulped down some­thing bad. Some poi­son. It was just in the air.’’

Sonny looked wist­fully at his sainted ax sit­ting on a brick shelf be­side the fire­place. He hadn’t played for months, the long­est pe­riod since he re­turned from In­dia in 1971.

But he wasn’t feel­ing sorry for him­self. In­deed, he ap­peared in good spir­its, even jolly. It was dif­fi­cult in the be­gin­ning, he said, not be­ing able to prac­tise. It was some­thing he feared. ‘‘ I re­ally felt that would be the end of me, not be­ing able to play. But I’m com­ing to terms with it. We’re here for such a short time, you have to make the most of it. I’ve been lucky, get­ting to spend my life play­ing this horn. So how can I com­plain?’’

Be­sides, Sonny said, it wasn’t like the verdict was in for sure. There was ev­ery chance he’d play again. This was a good thing, Sonny said, be­cause ‘‘ I haven’t re­ally met my goals. I haven’t made my full state­ment yet.’’

He asked if I re­mem­bered what he’d said back in Ger­man­town, about those tran­scen­dent notes, the notes that hadn’t yet been blown, the ones that were go­ing to take him ‘‘ past Sonny Rollins, way past.’’ Of course I did, I said. ‘‘ Well, keep your ears open,’’ Sonny said. ‘‘ They’re com­ing.’’

Sonny Rollins, left and op­po­site page

Sonny Rollins, above; left, from top, jazz greats Miles Davis, Th­elo­nious Monk and John Coltrane

Sonny Rollins

in con­cert

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