Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Fresh Air' Celebrates The 90th Birthday Of Jazz Improviser Sonny Rollins


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we celebrate the 90th birthday of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. He's long been hailed as our greatest living jazz improviser and continues to inspire generations of musicians. Rollins recorded his first sessions as a sideman at age 18 in 1949 and played his last live shows in 2012. In a few minutes, we'll listen back to an interview with Rollins from our archive, which I recorded in 1994. But first, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead delivers a birthday toast, featuring music from five decades of Sonny Rollins' long career.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sonny Rollins in 1989 playing "Tennessee Waltz," one of those oddball selections Rollins is known for. He plays unlikely or uncool tunes, not to be arch, but because he likes them. Like so many good things in Rollins' music, you can trace such choices back to the later 1950s, when he knocked out a slew of classic albums, including "Work Time," "Saxophone Colossus," "A Night At The Village Vanguard," "Freedom Suite" and "Way Out West."


WHITEHEAD: "I'm An Old Cowhand," 1957. Sonny Rollins' first idol was saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, with his big imposing tenor sound and sophisticated soloing. And Rollins was a protege of Thelonious Monk, who sounded like no one else, made generous use of space and minded the melody while improvising. Rollins embraced all those qualities just mentioned. His rhythm could be slippery, and his solos were praised for their exceptional coherence. He's a thinking person's improviser. This is "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star."


WHITEHEAD: For Rollins, early or late, his striking solos aren't just about the notes and rhythms he chooses but also his sometimes eccentric sound. As a kid in Harlem, he was into drawing and painting, and his music has a strong sense of design. His garish tone is crucial to the overall effect, part of a complete artistic statement.


WHITEHEAD: In the late '50s, Rollins established the tenor, bass and drums trio in jazz. That open environment gave him lots of elbow room. Thereafter, dozens of tenor trio records would nod to Sonny some kind of way. He fronted more hard-charging trios in the 1960s when he branched out in other directions, flirting with the avant-garde and squaring off on record against old hero Coleman Hawkins. Sonny threw Hawkins some curves but didn't throw him off.


WHITEHEAD: In 1959, Sonny Rollins had famously dropped out for a couple of years, practicing on New York's Williamsburg Bridge. In the late '60s, he dropped out again to reevaluate, spending time in India. When he reemerged in the early '70s, there were striking changes. His tone was now more braying and metallic, and he gave more room to other soloists so he didn't have to blow all the time. His new bands were more groove-oriented, using electric bass and guitar, a format he stuck with pretty much ever after. There was less space and more riffing in his solos but no loss of momentum. Here's Rollins in 1996, ricocheting off Harold Summey's drums.


WHITEHEAD: There is an ecstatic side to Sonny Rollins' playing in his long late period, the sense of controlled abandon akin to raspy gospel saxophonists. Sonny Rollins' people came from the West Indies, and he loves calypsos, such as his 1956 classic "St. Thomas." In his later phase, he wrote a bunch of calypsos, putting island bounce in a band's rhythm. This is "Global Warming," recorded in 2001.


WHITEHEAD: Sonny Rollins stopped playing in 2014 for health reasons. As recent interviews show, his mind remains sharp. Rollins has always been self-critical and not much interested in reliving old glories. He believes in reincarnation and aspires to do better in his next life. That would be something to hear. For all Sonny Rollins has accomplished and all the pleasure he's given us listeners, there isn't a 90th birthday cake big enough.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film."

Coming up, my 1994 interview with Sonny Rollins - that's after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the 90th birthday of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Rollins started recording in the late '40s and early in his career, played with musicians who were in the pantheon of modern jazz - Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Max Roach and Clifford Brown.

I interviewed Rollins in 1994. We began by listening to his tenor saxophone solo from his 1972 recording of the Hoagy Carmichael song "Skylark."


SONNY ROLLINS: Monk said to me one time that if it wasn't for music, life wouldn't be worthwhile living. I mean, I'm sort of paraphrasing what he said.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

ROLLINS: But, you know, if I don't play for a little while, I get physically sick. You know, if I don't play my horn for a while - for a few days or whatever, I actually begin to get sick. And I wonder, well, gee, what's the matter with me? Then I realize, well, I haven't played my horn for a few days.

GROSS: When you're performing and your improvising, are you thinking?

ROLLINS: Well, no, not really. No. No, I don't think. That's why I really practice and I keep these exercises and so on because when I'm actually on the stage and performing, the optimum condition is not to think. I just want the music to play itself. I don't want to have to think about it. If I have to think about what I'm doing, then the moment is already gone, you know?

GROSS: Mm hmm, mm hmm.

ROLLINS: So there's certain times when I actually - it's an out-of-body experience, so to speak.

GROSS: What do you do when you practice now? I mean, you're a brilliant player. You're a veteran player. I think a lot of people of your stature would probably just perform and not exactly practice anymore.

ROLLINS: Well, you know, when you play a reed instrument - and this might be true with other instruments as well. But when you play a reed instrument, you have to deal with your embouchure, which is the position of your lips around your teeth and the instrument - and the mouthpiece of the instrument. And this has to form a sort of a cushion. And if you don't play for a while, what will happen is that your lips would bleed when you play and even split. Your lip might split. It's happened to me when I've had to lay off for a period of time. For other things, I'm not certain. I practice a lot of things, but I read once where my friend Max Roach said that a lot of musicians shouldn't really practice. Practicing is cheating after a certain - after you reach a certain point.

So that may be right. But in the case of just keeping my embouchure from bleeding and my lip from splitting, I like to play a certain amount every day, you know?

GROSS: One of the things that I love about your playing is your repertoire - the songs that you choose to play. And you have a really diverse repertoire, and you play a lot of old pop songs that many people don't know or have forgotten as well as some songs that are, like, novelty songs - like, you know, "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" and "I'm An Old Cowhand" and Noel Coward songs. Are a lot of these songs songs you grew up with?

ROLLINS: Yeah. A lot of them are songs that I heard when I was a youngster. When I was growing up, the big thing to do every week was go to the movies on Saturday. And on Saturday, we used to see a lot of these movies that had this - scores that had - you know, by some of the composers. And we'd see Louis Armstrong in pictures and different musical personalities that I enjoyed. A lot of - of course, I also heard music around the house and so on. But the movies did provide a certain - large part, I think, of some of the things that I play today, you know?

GROSS: When you started performing, was it hard to find other musicians who liked the same songs you did and who wanted to play them? And even back in the days when you were playing with Miles Davis or with Clifford Brown, did they share your musical taste?

ROLLINS: I would say basically, yes. People like Coltrane and Clifford Brown, we all had an appreciation of what they would call today the standard songs. In my case, I might have found some more obscure songs.

GROSS: Did you ever, like, propose playing something like "Toot Toot Tootsie" and have other musicians look at you like you were crazy?

ROLLINS: Well, they might have thought so. But they wouldn't dare to say it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Why don't we pause here and...

ROLLINS: It was my gig, you know?

GROSS: Right. Right. Why don't we pause here and play your recording of "There's No Business Like Show Business." I love what you do with it. This is Sonny Rollins' "There's No Business Like Show Business."


GROSS: Sonny Rollins is my guest. You grew up in Harlem, in New York. And your parents - I believe both of your parents were from the Virgin Islands?

ROLLINS: That's right.

GROSS: What were your parents' ambitions for you? Did they push you to excel when you were young?

ROLLINS: Yeah. Well, I was the youngest child. I have a older brother, who was a very fine classical violinist. He ended up being a physician. Then I had an older sister who was also - sang a lot in church and everything. And so I was supposed to follow in their footsteps. Of course, I didn't because I was somewhat of a black sheep. They were much more studious than I. And I wanted to hang out and play ball. And as the years went on, I was really the guy that was out going to jazz clubs and all that. These things were frowned on at that time.

GROSS: The jazz life when you started to play actually had a lot of heroin involved with it.


GROSS: And you got involved with that for a while when you were young. Do you think you would have tried something like that if it weren't for it being such a part of the jazz world in the '50s?

ROLLINS: I don't think I would have, actually. There would really have been no reason, I don't think, to get involved with that. I got involved with it because a lot of my idols were doing it and so on. So we thought that using drugs was sort of the thing to do. But that's just something like asking whether Billie Holiday would be the singer she is if she didn't use drugs. I've had this discussion often with people. And my answer is that, yes, I think Billie Holiday would be the singer she is regardless of what happened to her. I mean, even though she may sing about hard times and all that, she was a consummate musician and beautiful singer. So yes, I think that she would sing the way she did. Charlie Parker would play the way he did. Everybody would do what they did.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1994 interview with Sonny Rollins. Today is his 90th birthday. We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. And later, we'll hear my interview with Octavia Spencer, who's nominated for an Emmy for her role in the Netflix series "Self Made," based on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, whose line of hair and cosmetic products for Black women made her the first American female self-made millionaire. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're celebrating the 90th birthday of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins by listening back to an interview from our archive recorded in 1994. Rollins, who has not performed in public since 2012, is recorded as one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz. When we left off, we were talking about how heroin was part of the jazz scene when Rollins was starting out as a teenager and how he started using.


GROSS: It must have been your parents' worst nightmare when you entered the jazz world and then started using.

ROLLINS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, you know, my mother was pretty - since I was a baby, my mother really - she stuck by me regardless of what I did. She was really in my corner. But I had a lot of problems some of the rest of my family. My father, my grandmother, they really were pretty down on me. And the - and my siblings, they didn't really understand where I was coming from anyway. So - but I have to say that my mother really believed in me all the way. And I'm really happy that I was able to get myself together before she left the scene. So she kind of saw me make - sought to make records and so on like that. So I sort of made her feel that her trust wasn't exactly all in vain, you know?

GROSS: Were you ever arrested?

ROLLINS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I was arrested, unfortunately. I had to get involved with the justice system and all of this stuff, you know? But I was always lucky because I was able to get involved with music programs. And in those...

GROSS: In the prison?

ROLLINS: Right. And in those days, there were other musicians there, you know? So...

GROSS: Did it scare you when you were in prison? Did you say to yourself, like, what am I doing here?

ROLLINS: Yeah. It scared me a lot. It scared me a lot. But again, I was lucky because I could play an instrument.

GROSS: Right.

ROLLINS: And a lot of the other prisoners knew of me. So I immediately had respect from them. But of course, you know, being locked up is no joyride.

GROSS: How did you straighten out?

ROLLINS: Well, it took a little while. But, you know, I slid back a couple of times and everything. But I eventually had gotten down to the complete bottom. So I couldn't have gotten any worse, you know? I mean, I was really in a complete...

GROSS: What was the bottom?

ROLLINS: Well, the bottom was sleeping in parked cars in garages and all that stuff, you know, and what we used to call in those days carrying the stick. Carrying the stick meant that you were homeless. I guess today they would just say guy is homeless. But I did this mainly when I was in Chicago. Chicago was where I was sort of - was out there on my own. In New York, even though I was persona non grata at home, I could always, perhaps, get by or sneak in the house or something. But when I was really away from home, I really had to pay a lot of dues, as we used to say.

GROSS: How would you protect your horn during the periods when you were homeless?

ROLLINS: Well, I didn't protect my horn. I mean, I didn't have a horn, really.

GROSS: Were you borrowing other people's horns then?

ROLLINS: I was borrowing other people's horns.

GROSS: Yeah.

ROLLINS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: What did you learn about yourself during that period?

ROLLINS: Well, what did I learn about myself? Well, I learned that I had the strength to get over something which was really deep. And I think one of the things that I'm always - that I always feel good about in myself was that I was able to overcome that because I really had to struggle, you know? When I came away from the hospital one time and I went back to the nightclub, it was really the classic scene of the old drug pusher standing there saying, come on, man. Come on, you know? And this is good.

And I really went through the classic scene of fighting myself, you know, saying, well, gee, if I go with them, it wouldn't be so bad. It's just one time. And maybe I should do it. And why not? And this and that. And then, the other part of me saying, no, don't do it, you know? I mean, the real classic battle between good and evil, right and wrong - whatever you want to call it. But anyway, I won out, you know? And that's one thing that I really feel good about in myself, you know? I really went into the lion's den and came out alive. And then after that, it increasingly got easier and easier to say no to drugs, which were really a debilitating thing for people to do.

GROSS: Once you found that strength and knew that you had it, how else were you able to use it in your life?

ROLLINS: Well, then I felt that I could do anything, you know, and I could get back to what I really wanted to do, which was my music.

GROSS: So how'd you use that strength in your music?

ROLLINS: Well, I don't know. I think - actually, I think I always had strength in my music even when I was a kid and I used to practice for hours and hours and hours at a time. I mean, I always had something within myself which enabled me to be alone and play and get into what I'm doing and not think about anything else and really get into this stuff myself. So actually, by getting rid of these negative elements, I was just able, really, to return to what I had in the beginning, you know?

GROSS: Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is my guest. Over the years, you've taken several hiatuses. There have been several periods where you haven't performed. And I think one period like that lasted - was it five years? Was that the longest you stayed away from performing?

ROLLINS: I think about - I think the - well, it's hard to say. I took a hiatus on the bridge, which was pretty well-documented.

GROSS: Right. This is during the period when you were practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York because it was too loud for you to practice in your apartment.


GROSS: So when you take a hiatus, when do you know it's time to get back to performing?

ROLLINS: Well, when I took my hiatus on the bridge, it became apparent because I had sort of gotten what I wanted to do. I was trying to really accomplish something musically. And I'd sort of gotten close enough to what I was doing that I felt if I stayed there, it might have turned into a self-indulgence, and that's not what it was about. So I'd sort of gotten to that point when I realized, well, it's time to come back. I didn't accomplish everything that I wanted to, but I felt I accomplished enough that I proved the point to myself.

GROSS: I'd love to know what it feels like to play your horn on the Williamsburg Bridge. And this was the period when you weren't performing, but you were practicing a lot on the bridge - I guess in the middle of the night?

ROLLINS: Well, yeah, we played in the night and the daytime, any time. It was actually a beautiful place to play because it was a nice space up there. You were really on top of the subway. The trains that came across the bridge would run underneath you.

GROSS: You were on the pedestrian walk?

ROLLINS: Yeah, the pedestrian walk. So it's really a nice space up there. And you're sort of right in the middle of everything. You can see the Manhattan and, on the other side, Brooklyn. And the boats would be coming by at night, and you could blow as loud as you want and nobody would even look at you. You know, every now and then, people would walk by, but nobody would even look. You know what I mean? This was the sophistication of New Yorkers.

GROSS: Yeah, New Yorkers are immune to everything (laughter). It's just been a pleasure to talk with you. We've been wanting to talk with you on the show for so long.

ROLLINS: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you so much for doing it. It's been wonderful.

ROLLINS: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Sonny Rollins was recorded in 1994. Today is his 90th birthday. I send my best birthday wishes to Sonny Rollins and thank him for our interview and for so much great music - his improvisations, his love of melody and his choice of such varied and wonderful songs.

Coming up, my interview with Octavia Spencer, who's nominated for an Emmy for her role in the Netflix series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.