Sonny Rollins Interview


So much to love about Sonny Rollins
By Richard Scheinin
Mercury News

There's not much controversy in saying that Sonny Rollins is the greatest living jazz musician, a peerless improviser with a boundless imagination. His music makes you feel on top of the world. Everybody loves Sonny Rollins.

The sound of his tenor saxophone is explosive, incredibly spontaneous, full of invention and good humor and, above all, exuberant. Where did that sound come from?

On his most famous early recording, with Bud Powell in 1949, it was already there, bursting out of the gates. And it's still there. You can hear Rollins, now 76, on Friday at the Masonic Center in San Francisco, where he and his band will kick off the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Earlier this month, I spoke to him by phone. He was at his home in Germantown, N.Y., about two hours north of Manhattan, where he was getting over a flu and itching to get back on the road.

To mark his birthday last month, nine remarkable videos of Rollins in performance, going back to 1957, were posted on his web site, www.sonnyrollins.com. I asked if he had watched the videos. He had not. I asked if he was curious to see them. Here is his answer, along with a big chunk of our conversation.

Curious? I mean, not really. When I listen to myself play on old records, I occasionally find something informative on there, and that's good. But I'm also a person that's very very critical of my own work, so it's very painful, listening to myself. So weighing those two things up against each other, I usually come down on the side of not

Sonny, you have a state-of-the-art Web site. You've got your own record company. It seems like you're always in some state of change.

Well, that's good. Life is change, you know. My music, I like to think, is always in a state of change, improving; at least that's what my intention is. I'm certainly not a person that wants to live in the past. Plus, i'm not that good a musician to be able to live in the
past. I mean, some guys are really superior musicians that can find something (they've played years ago) and be able to do it again. I can't do that. I mean, whatever I play, I'm really barely able to get it out on that occasion. And trying to reproduce it, it doesn't work
for me.

That's why I think my career has been one of change. I consider myself a work in progress. I'm always falling a little short of what I want to do. And it's always a little difficult. You have to deal with the physical elements and all of these things to play music. It's a
difficult thing, playing a horn. Even when you get certain things together, then something else might not work. So it's a big puzzle. You've got to put it all together every time you play.

So you don't consider yourelf a superior musician?

Well, let me strike that. What I mean to say is that I'm not a type of musician that can sort of really get into one style (from the past) and be there. That's not me. I can't recreate, if I ever had a particular period of having a style, it's un-recreatable, anyway.

I'm a guy tht's kind of unsatisfied with my own work. I'm not really satisfied with what I get. That's why I practice every day. I'm still into it. I'm very flattered that people would think that, ``Oh, gee, this guy has really made it.'' But that's far from my own way that I
approach my craft.

So how much do you practice every day?

As much as possible. Nowadays, I would say if i can get two hours in, I would feel content.

What about when you were 16? Were you just playing all the time?

Oh, yeah. I'm a big practicer. I love practicing. When I got my first horn and I used to practice in the house, I'd practice and I'd just be in there playing, playing, playing. I mean, I'd be in there in my revery. And my mother had to call me for dinner. And I'd just be in my
own world and I've always been like that. I just enjoy playing.

So your mom would have to call you more than once to dinner.

Oh, yeah. I'd be in my own world.

Harlem. Ellington living a round the corner, and was W.E.B. Dubois in the neighborhood, too? Would you spend just a minute describing what it was like?

Well, one of the good things about segregation in those days was that there was a community that developed, and so you had the best and the brightest; there was no place else where that ethnic group could really live. So they were confined, as it were, to the Harlem community. So within the community, you had all the great people.

Now, I was born in Harlem proper. But then we were able to move up to the more elite section called Sugar Hill, and then on Sugar HIll is where all these luminaries resided. And W.E.B. DuBois, I remember I was a little kid playing what we would call stoop ball, and it'd  be hitting the ball up against the side of the building.

So here comes W.E.B. Dubois, walking down the avenue there. He'd sort of be looking at us in a disdainful way, like, ``Here are these little ruffians.'' I'll always remember that. He was sort of a strict-looking guy, you know.

There were a lot of people up there. Thurgood Marshall. Whitney Young.

Did they know you as kids in the neighborhood? Did you have a kind of ``Hi, Duke'' thing going on with Ellington?

No, but as I was getting older and we were hanging out, the guys in my group -- Lowell Louis??? and Jackie McLean and Art Taylor and Kenny Drew, all these guys -- we'd know where to sit down in the park and we'd sort of watch these guys, these older guys, like Denzel Best and Sid Catlett and John Kirby and Don Redman and Andy Kirk and Coleman
Hawkins, of course. All of the big names lived up there. We were too young to really approach them in any way. We'd just watch them.

How old were you?

I would say we were 13, 14, 15. Eventually some of the guys began, as we got better, I think Kenny Drew might have been one of the first guys to start playing with the established artists. Then I started playing with some of the guys. So then we just got into the group, into the heavier cats.

So when you were kids, all this seemed normal, right?

Right. We didn't think about it that much.

But when you look back on it, do you have a sense of having lived through an important time of history? When you were little, it was still the Harlem Rennaissance and all this music was just blossoming around you.

I think I was born at a fortuitous time, to be born in Harlem and there was a lot of music and then the bebop fever came just when we were coming of age. I consdier myself very very fortunate to be born right at that time, which I consider the right place at the right
time. So I am eternally grateful. Some way in my karma, it made it possible for me to be born right right at a time in a profession I wanted to get into and right around such a fertile environment. I'm sure it's something I did right in one of my past lives.

Do you have a sense of having made history yourself?

(Pause) I? No! No!. Not at all. I don't like to think of myself in those terms, because as I indicated I'm a work in progress. If I started thinking of myself as some historical person, it would be counterproductive.

Of course, I know I've been around and I've played with a lot of these great musicians. You can look at it that way; I'm involved in jazz history to a certain extent. But no, I don't look at myself like that, no. Because I'm too involved in trying to make history now.

What are your goals?

Every time I play, I do something different that opens up some new vistas for me. So my goal is to reach a point where I can realize some of these indications that I sometimes arrive at. My goal is to just keep trying to attain some of these things I want to attain. I know you never learn everything, you never get everything. With something
like music, creative music, I'm never going to be able to hold it in my hand like that.

But the quest is what's exhilarating and what keeps me going. So that serves as a goal.

What's your spiritual practice, Sonny? I know you've studied Hatha yoga, Zen Buddhism.

I was raised as a Christian, and then as I got older I began learning and getting involved,, finding out in one way or another about different spiritual pursuits, besides the formal Christianity. So I've examined a lot of things. I used to be in the Rosicrucians, and they
were very good for me because they taught a lot of different things about various religions, a little bit about Judaism and Islam and Zoroaster.

And I read about a lot of these things and to one degree or another I sort of got to the point where I felt I had a synthesis of them. I did study Vedanta also, when I was in India, and Buddhism, of course, and yoga.

You've talked about having a blank mind when you improvise, which sounds almost Buddhist.

Right. You can look at it that way. But i didn't approach that as a Buddhist. I just realized one time, when people kept asking what am I thinking about when I'm improvising, ``Well, I don't think about anything.'' I try to get to the point where I don't have to think and
the music plays itself.

Do you meditate?

I could never still my mind to meditate. However, when I was in India, one of my teachers over there told me, ``Well, Sonny, you're meditating when you're playing your horn.'' He said, ``That's meditation.''

You always call yourself an intuitive player, right?


What do you think of changes in the way jazz musicians have been coming up in recent years? Pretty much all the young players now come out of conservatories. Does it make the music less intuitive, too schooled?

Well, that's a tough one.

Before I started playing the saxophone, I had an opportunity to study piano. My older siblings were all trained in music and my mother wanted me to do it too, but I preferred to hang out on the street with my friends, playing ball, etc.

And then when I started playing I was a very intuititive musician. But later on, I wished I could have studied music formally when I was younger, like my parents wanted me to do. Because I could be scoring large orchestral works. It just seems I could've been doing much more than I've been doing. So I've always been loathe to put down musicians
that are trying to get a formal study of music. If you're young, just like learning languages, you should try to learn it all.

So, it's a positive.

A lot of people say that jazz was created sort of in an atmosphere of abandon. In other words, people would be drinking and you'd have that high-life type of activity going on, and jazz became part of that. So to play jazz you've got to recreate that kind of atmosphere. I'm not sure i agree with that.

For instance, they used to say, ``Well, look at Billie Holiday. She was a drug addict and this is part of why she sings like that.'' I don't believe that. I mean, Billie Holiday would saing like she sang, anyway.

As far as intuitive playing... music is endless and if you want to play jazz, yeah, you're going to be involved with a very free style of music and the question then is, ``Will your education help that or hurt that?'' Well, i think it would help that.

That's interesting. You feel there are things you would have done that you haven't done, if you had been more formally schooled?

Oh, yeah, like scoring for large orchestras, a lot of things like that. In fact, there were several times I went to classes for orchestration. Then when everybody found out I was Sonny Rollins, I had to leave the class. They wanted to learn me from me.

So once I was found out I had to leave.

You're a pretty private guy, arent't you?

Well, I live up here, 150 miles from New York City. Small town. One stop light. And my wife and I were very happy and content not to be part of any scene. I guess you can say ``private.''

How do you feel about being famous? Is it sort of a pain in the neck? You want to take an orchestration class, but you can't?

Yeah, well that happened a while ago. Being ``famous,'' in quotes -- for one thing, I'll never accept that, because I don't want to accept it. And mainly, I'm not that famous. Any time you begin thinking you're famous, then you find someone who goes, ``Oh, Sonny Rollins?
Who's that?''

I don't look at myself as being famous. I don't get hassled by anybody or anything. and actually it works in my favor when people do know who I am, because in this society sometimes it helps for people to know you're accomplished in something.

Do you consider your music political? You've attached titles to your music, going back to ``Freedom Suite'' and, more recently, ``Global Warming.''

Political? Well, I used to be much more. I grew up in a political family. And my grandmother was very political and I used to go with her to a lot of rallies when I was a little boy.

What sort of rallies?

Rallies, let's say, for Paul Robeson and rallies against discrimination. My grandmother was involved with the Marcus Garvey movement. Social justice marches and things like that that would be going on in Harlem. So I grew up in that very activist milieu.

A nd at one time did you consider yourself an activist?

Well, I sort of always consider myself an activist. It's just a matter of becoming aware... I just believe in certain things which would be controversial, I'm sure, to other people. It sort of makes you an activist. Being black in America, you're sort of automatically a
political person, even though you might not want to be, because often you're viewed as the other. And you have to get mature enough to know how to deal with that.

Sonny, do you ever miss playing in clubs?

Yeah, I do.

But you can't do it anymore, because too many people would show up?

Well, I never want to say that, to utter those words, because the next time I play, nobody will show up! But in a club, you have to play two or three sets in a night, because of the size of the club, right? And that's problematical for me at this point. I don't think I can handle that. And I play too hard, and I'm used to playing hard for one concert. So I could never sort of fix a way to play two or three sets in a club.

I bet you could find someone who would let you play only one set, Sonny.

Maybe, but then it would be a matter of a club owner wanting to get enough people in there, you know? Like they do with concerts. They would probably feel it wouldn't be cost-effective.

What do you miss about it?

I miss the intimacy. It's great to be close to people and play and let them react. It's really wonderful. And the band really plays close together. They really get a good sound together, when you're playing in an intimate setting. All of those things I miss.

What's coming up with your record label? Are you going to reissue stuff out of your archives, old live recordings?

I've got some things that have been amassed by a friend of mine. But I also would like to do some more live playing before I release any of that, so I probably will try to do something live.

A new live recording?

Yes. New live. Or new studio. But new. Rather than going back.

Was it your idea to start your own label? That's quite an endeavor.

Well, it seemed to me that the music business was heading in that direction. A lot of the big record companies were merging, as things do in our corporate society. And jazz is a subculture; I mean, there's only so much of the pie to distribute. And it seeemed like it was the time for musicians to have their own companies and realize a little more of the profits, if possible, from their work.

So it was the right time to make that move.

I'd just gotten out of my contract. I'd just made my last record with Milestone records over at Fantasy, so it was just happening at the right time to make that move.

23:00 Gepost door Lexman in Muziek | Permalink | Commentaren (0) |  Facebook |

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