Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins (born September 7, 1930) is an American jazz tenor saxophonist. Rollins is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. A number of his compositions, including "St. Thomas", "Oleo", "Doxy", and "Airegin", have become jazz standards.
Early life and education
Rollins was born in New York City, to parents who were born in the United States Virgin Islands. Rollins received his first alto saxophone at age seven or eight. He attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High School and Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. He said that a concert by Frank Sinatra there, accompanied by a plea for racial harmony, changed his life.
Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high-school years, he played in a band with other future jazz legends Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor. He was first recorded in 1949 with Babs Gonzales (J. J. Johnson was the arranger of the group). In his recordings through 1954, he played with performers such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R&B sounds of performers like Louis Jordan, but soon became drawn into the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition. Joachim Berendt has described this tradition as sitting between the two poles of the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the light flexible phrasing of Lester Young, which did so much to inspire the fleet improvisation of bebop in the 1950s.
Rollins began to make a name for himself in 1949 as he recorded with Johnson and Bud Powell what would later be called "hard bop", with Davis in 1951, with the Modern Jazz Quartet and with Monk in 1953, but the breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions "Oleo", "Airegin" and "Doxy" with a quintet led by Davis. Rollins then joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955, but left after a short stay to deal with his drug problems.
In 1950, Rollins had been arrested for armed robbery and given a sentence of three years. He spent 10 months in Rikers Island jail before he was released on parole. In 1952 he was arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using heroin. In 1955, Rollins was assigned to the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, at the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While there he was a volunteer for then-experimental methadone therapy and was able to break his heroin habit, after which he moved to Chicago. Rollins himself initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went on to greater success, inspired by the example of Clifford Brown.
Rollins was invited later in 1955 to join the Clifford Brownâ"Max Roach quintet; studio recordings documenting his time in the band are the albums Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4. After Brown's death in 1956 Rollins continued to play with Roach, and released his own albums on Prestige Records, Blue Note, Riverside, and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.
His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins, and his favorite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins' sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition "St. Thomas", a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number "Strode Rode", and "Moritat" (the Kurt Weill composition also known as "Mack the Knife").
In the solo for St. Thomas, Rollins uses repetition of a rhythmic pattern, and variations of that pattern, covering only a few tones in a tight range, and employing staccato and semi-detached notes. This is interrupted by a sudden flourish, utilizing a much wider range before returning to the former pattern. (Listen to the music sample.) David N. Baker describes this in his book The Jazz Style of Sonny Rollins explaining that he: "very often uses rhythm for its own sake. He will sometimes improvise on a rhythmic pattern instead of on the melody or changes".
In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Davis' group â" pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also in Davis' group.
At the end of the year Rollins recorded a set for Blue Note with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Gene Ramey on bass, and Roach on drums. This has been released as Sonny Rollins, Volume One (the Volume Two session, recorded the following year, has consistently outsold it).
The pianoless trio
In 1957 he pioneered the use of bass and drums (without piano) as accompaniment for his saxophone solos. This texture came to be known as "strolling". Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957) and A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957). Rollins used the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section instrument during bass and drum solos. Way Out West was so named because it was recorded for a California-based record label (with Los Angeles drummer Shelly Manne), and because the record included country and western songs such as "Wagon Wheels" and "I'm an Old Cowhand". The Village Vanguard CD consists of two sets, a matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete LaRoca and then the evening set with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones.
By this time, Rollins had become well known for taking relatively banal or unconventional material (such as "There's No Business Like Show Business" on Work Time, "I'm an Old Cowhand", and later "Sweet Leilani" on the Grammy-winning CD This Is What I Do) and turning it into a vehicle for improvisation.
1957's Newk's Time saw him working with a piano again, in this case Kelly, but one of the most highly regarded tracks is a saxophone/drum duet, "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" with Philly Joe Jones. Also that year he recorded for Blue Note with Johnson on trombone, Horace Silver or Monk on piano and drummer Art Blakey (released as Sonny Rollins, Volume Two).
In 1958 Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums trio: Freedom Suite. His original sleeve notes said, "How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity."
The title track is a 19-minute improvised bluesy suite, some of it very tense. However, the album was not all politics â" the other side featured hard bop workouts of popular show tunes. Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach provided bass and drums, respectively. The LP was available only briefly in its original form, before the record company repackaged it as Shadow Waltz, the title of another piece on the record.
Lew Tabackin cited Rollins' pianoless trio as an inspiration to lead his own. Joe Henderson, David S. Ware, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman have also led pianoless sax trios.
Following Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass, Rollins made one more studio album in 1958, Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, before taking a three-year break from recording. This was a session for Contemporary Records and saw Rollins recording an esoteric mixture of tunes including "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" with a West Coast group made up of pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Manne.
1959-1971: Musical explorations
By 1959, Rollins was frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations and took the first â" and most famous â" of his musical sabbaticals. To spare a neighboring expectant mother the sound of his practice routine, Rollins ventured to the Williamsburg Bridge to practice. Upon his return to the jazz scene in 1961 he named his "comeback" album The Bridge at the start of a contract with RCA Records, recorded with a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall and still no piano. The rhythm section was Ben Riley on drums and bassist Bob Cranshaw. This became one of Rollins' best-selling records; in 2015 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The contract with RCA lasted until 1964 and saw Rollins remain one of the most adventurous musicians around. Each album he recorded differed radically from the previous one. Rollins explored Latin rhythms on What's New; tackled the avant-garde on Our Man in Jazz featuring Cranshaw on bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Don Cherry on cornet; played with a tenor saxophone hero, Coleman Hawkins, on Sonny Meets Hawk!, re-examined jazz standards on Now's the Time and some Great American Songbook standards on The Standard Sonny Rollins.
His 1965 residency at Ronnie Scott's jazz club has recently emerged on CD as Live in London, a series of releases from the Harkit label; they offer a very different picture of his playing from the studio albums of the period. (These are unauthorized releases, and Rollins has responded by "bootlegging" them himself and releasing them on his website.) He then provided the soundtrack to the 1966 film Alfie while recording for Impulse! records, which also produced East Broadway Run Down, There Will Never Be Another You, and Sonny Rollins on Impulse!
In 1968 he was the subject of a television documentary, directed by Dick Fontaine, entitled "Who is Sonny Rollins?"
Rollins took a sabbatical to study yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophies. When he returned in 1971, it was clear that he had become enamored of R&B, pop, and funk rhythms. His bands throughout the 1970s and 1980s featured electric guitar, electric bass, and usually more pop- or funk-oriented drummers. For most of this period he recorded for Milestone Records (The compilation Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on Milestone contains a selection from these years.) The 1970s and 1980s were not all disco though and it was during this period that Rollins' passion for unaccompanied saxophone solos came to the forefront. In 1985 he released The Solo Album,' recorded live at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1981, Rollins was asked to play uncredited on three tracks by The Rolling Stones for their album Tattoo You, including the single, "Waiting on a Friend".
In 1986 documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge released a film titled Saxophone Colossus. It featured two Rollins performances: a quintet in upstate New York and his Concerto for Saxophone and Symphony in Japan.
Critics such as Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch have noted the disparity between Rollins the recording artist, and Rollins the concert artist. In a May 2005 New Yorker profile, Crouch wrote of Rollins the concert artist:
"Over and over, decade after decade, from the late seventies through the eighties and nineties, there he is, Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, playing somewhere in the world, some afternoon or some eight o'clock somewhere, pursuing the combination of emotion, memory, thought, and aesthetic design with a command that allows him to achieve spontaneous grandiloquence. With its brass body, its pearl-button keys, its mouthpiece, and its cane reed, the horn becomes the vessel for the epic of Rollins' talent and the undimmed power and lore of his jazz ancestors."
Rollins won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for This Is What I Do (2000). On September 11, 2001, the 71-year-old Rollins, who lived several blocks away, heard the World Trade Center collapse, and was forced to evacuate his apartment, with only his saxophone in hand. Although he was shaken, he traveled to Boston five days later to play a concert at the Berklee School of Music. The live recording of that performance was released on CD in 2005 as Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, which won the 2006 Grammy for Jazz Instrumental Solo for Rollins' performance of "Why Was I Born?" Rollins was presented with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004; that year also saw the death of his wife, Lucille.
In 2006, Rollins went on to complete a Down Beat Readers Poll triple win for: "Jazzman of the Year", "#1 Tenor Sax Player", and "Recording of the Year" for the CD Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. The band that year was led by his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and included bassist Cranshaw, pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummer Perry Wilson.
After a highly successful Japanese tour Rollins returned to the recording studio for the first time in five years to record the Grammy-nominated CD Sonny, Please (2006). The CD title is derived from one of his wife's favorite phrases. The album was released on Rollins' own label, Doxy Records, following his departure from Milestone Records after many years and was produced by Anderson. Rollins' band at this time, and on this album, included Cranshaw, guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Steve Jordan and Dinizulu.
Rollins performed at Carnegie Hall on September 18, 2007, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his first performance there. Appearing with him were Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Cranshaw (bass), Dinizulu (percussion), Roy Haynes (drums) and Christian McBride (bass).
He also released, on Doxy Records, two albums from his archives: Road Shows, Vol. 1 and Road Shows, Vol. 2 (with four tracks documenting his 80th birthday concert, which included Rollins' first ever appearance with Ornette Coleman on the 20-minute "Sonnymoon for Two").
In 2010 Rollins was awarded the National Medal of the Arts and the Edward MacDowell Medal.
In May 2013, Rollins received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Juilliard School in New York City.
In popular culture
The cover of Donald Fagen's 1982 LP The Nightfly depicts Fagen playing Rollins' 1958 LP Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders. The cover of Joe Jackson's 1984 A&M album Body and Soul is closely based on Rollins' 1957 Blue Note album Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2.
In The Simpsons Episode 6 Season 1, jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy plays the saxophone on a bridge in the middle of the night, a reference to Rollins playing alone on the Williamsburg Bridge.
Decorations and awards
- Elected to the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame (1973)
- Minneapolis, Minnesota officially named October 31, 2006 after Rollins in honor of his achievements and contributions to the world of jazz
- Grammy Award for lifetime achievement (2004)
- Polar Music Prize "for over 50 years one of the most powerful and personal voices in jazz" (2007)
- Honorary Doctor of Music from Colby College, for his contributions to jazz
- Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class (2009)
- National Medal of Arts (2010)
- Miles Davis Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival (2010)
- Kennedy Center Honors on his 81st birthday (September 7, 2011)
- Honorary Doctor of Music from the Juilliard School (May 2013)
- Honorary Doctor of Music from the University of Hartford (2015)
- Blancq, Charles (1983). Sonny Rollins: The journey of a jazzman. Boston: Twayne.
- Broecking, Christian (2010). Sonny Rollins â" Improvisation und Protest. Creative People Books / Broecking Verlag, ISBN 978-3-938763-29-2
- Nisenson, Eric (2000). Open Sky, Sonny Rollins and his world of Improvisation. Da Capo Books: Printing Press.Â
- Wilson, Peter Niklas. "Sonny Rollins: The Definitive Musical Guide." Berkeley: Berkley Hills Books, 2001.
- Palmer, Richard. "Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge." Bloomsbury, 2004.
- Sonny Rollins Official Website