Your first time seeing Sonny Rollins perform is almost like going to watch a chained magician try to escape from a submerged chest. One question will pop up over and over again in your mind: Can he do it?
Reputation has it that Rollins is jazz's greatest living improviser and soloist. So when the houselights go down and Rollins warms up his keys, you wonder if he's going to live up to the talk, if he's going to solidify that place in the jazz pantheon with lightning-hot licks on this very night, your first. If anything can be said about Rollins, it's that the stars are aligned with him almost perpetually.
Chances are, when the spotlight gleams off his tenor sax, he will definitely deliver.
Everybody has listened to the records, viewed the videos and heard the stories, even the one about a time when hot, young lions of the '80s (including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, to name two) would join Rollins on stage only to realize they needed to go back to the woodshed. But when Rollins is seen live, on stage, with no official recording equipment around, the chance to observe pure, undiluted, unrehearsed magic keeps audiences literally on the edges of their bar stools or theater seats. As Rollins tries exiting a solo, club cats and virgins will actually scream, "Don't stop!"
That Sonny Rollins, at 68, can blow most folk off the stage and through the club roof during warm-ups isn't difficult to fathom when his history is considered. Rollins paid his dues in a different era. He was playing when the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon were tearing up the scene. Yet even with that competition Rollins stood out as something special. Born into a musical family, Rollins grew up in Harlem during the '30s and '40s, when the streets were filled with jazz and such masters as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Young, Hawkins and Louis Jordan were expanding the music. Free-spirited, seat-of-the-pants performance was bred into him.
"Something about jazz," Rollins says. "It just seemed so perfect. I didn't realized this, I guess, unless I grasped it intuitively, but it's such a free music with a possibility of creating. To me, this is really the highest thing to be able to create, improvise logically and make sense; this is really like our God creating the world. I don't know if I thought that at that age, but it's certainly what I feel about it now."
By 1949 Rollins was making his own records at the age of 18. That same year he hooked up with J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Fats Waller. At a time when hot, young bebop players were popping up everywhere, Rollins stood out as an aggressive, innovative player with fresh musical ideas. Some even dared to compare him favorably to Charlie Parker. Strong praise for a kid. In the early '50s Rollins participated on landmark sessions with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet, and led his own dates. It was a revolutionary time for music, and just about any session Rollins participated in during the '50s can be recommended highly. He was that hot, the musicians of the era that good and the music that important. Still, after all these years.
"In context to how it would be viewed and how it would be accepted," Rollins says of the music's lasting impact, "it was something which was not really on my radar screen, because we had no idea of how it would be accepted. In those days most guys played in small nightclubs, and so you had a dedicated group of jazz fans that came around. It was a relatively small group of people, so one really had no idea. The guys I knew -- great people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and all those guys -- they were too busy playing the music. I don't think anybody was really thinking too much about, 'Gee, what is this going to be like in the future?' No one had time for that.
"Also I might add," Rollins says, "it was difficult living in those days. There wasn't a great amount of money that guys were paid. So guys had pretty hard lives. Then, with all the scourges of alcohol and drugs and things that came in and became fashionable, it made life hard. A lot of the great people that I was around were just really struggling to live and do their music."
Rollins ran into hard times himself and in late 1954 dropped out of the scene, in part to kick a drug habit. When he returned a year later, with renewed intensity, he unleashed a series of albums that established him as the most potent tenor player on the scene. But in 1959 Rollins, dissatisfied with his work and unable to accept the critical and popular acclaim he was receiving, took another hiatus. Had he never returned from that retreat, his output from 1949 to 1959 alone would still merit jazz hall-of-fame status. But fortunately Rollins returned from self-imposed exile and in 1962 cut another landmark album, The Bridge. Throughout the '60s Rollins made a number of excellent recordings (a personal favorite is the soundtrack to Alfie) and integrated some of the free-jazz experimentation pioneered by Ornette Coleman. Yet even when Rollins played on the fringes of free jazz, his music never lost its melodic touch. He left the industry again in 1968 after he had become disgusted with the business as a whole. During that period he worked in Japan and later studied yoga in India.
In 1971 Rollins returned, this time mellower and interested in exploring less-conventional jazz directions. Interestingly, his recordings from the '70s onward have been a source of controversy. Those who want Rollins to sound like he did when he made Saxophone Colossus in 1956 have been disappointed. Those who have accepted Rollins's desire and ultimately his need to move forward and onto different avenues -- be it incorporating electric sounds or using Latin and Caribbean rhythms -- have enjoyed following him. But while critics and listeners may whine over Rollins's work on tape, no one can dispute his impact live.
"That is the pinnacle of what jazz is," Rollins says of improvisation. "I hate to do anything the same way twice. It's a challenge, and there's so many aspects to it. You have to have certain rudiments under control. Your mind has to be in a certain place. There's a lot of things you can do with jazz, and the basic thing is that it's up to you. I'm playing my best when I get into a trance when I'm playing. It's sort of like Zen, and I'm not thinking anymore. When you begin playing, you're thinking about the chords and the chord changes and the melodies, but after a while you don't think anymore. You let the music come into you and play you. That's the point when I'm really playing. But to get there, you have to be prepared. You have to really have your rudiments. Everything has to be proper and in place, and hopefully that can happen. When it happens it kind of illustrates the enormous spiritual part of the music, the creative power."
One could write a book dissecting Sonny Rollins solos. His musical vocabulary is astounding, and because of that his solos are rarely predictable. His pacing is brilliant, and the detours he takes are places most players couldn't imagine pursuing. He's notorious for throwing melodies from popular standards and show tunes into the middle of a solo, and his playing is harmonically adventurous. But as learned as his solos are, they never sound contrived. His melodic flow is too natural. Then there's his big tone. Since Dexter Gordon passed away, there isn't a prominent tenor player whose sound is close to being as fat and immediate as Rollins's. He is, after all, from another generation of players.
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Rollins rarely plays nightclubs, choosing concert halls instead. He also limits his dates to about 40 a year. He says both decisions put a certain amount of pressure on him.
"I always felt jazz should have more respect, and be honored a little more, just like classical music," he says. "So I thought it was a good idea if jazz was presented in other venues besides these smoke-filled nightclubs. Since I don't perform so much, there's such a tremendous amount of anticipation when I do perform, that it's got to be A-1 all the time. We do our best. We hope that we can meet these challenges."
Despite the accolades he has received over the past half-century, Rollins is a gracious and even humble man. He is probably his own worst critic. When talking about his upcoming performance in Houston, he was quick to say, " I hope it's a nice show," but then added, "We'll be trying, but remember: Jazz is something you never know what's going to happen. So if you go, 'Oh, that guy stinks,' at least you know he's trying." It's hard to imagine a man at that level worrying about stinking up a joint. Then again, maybe that's why he has been so sweet for so long.
Sonny Rollins performs Friday, March 26, at 8 p.m. at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center. Call Da Camera of Houston at (713)524-5050 for ticket information.