17-10-06

Sonny Rollins Article

San Francisco Chronicle

Sonny Rollins: HERO of jazz
David Rubien
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sonny Rollins used to rent an apartment in New York on Greenwich and  Duane streets, six blocks from the World Trade Center, and he was in the apartment, up on the 40th floor, when the planes hit. After hearing the first "POW," as he describes it, "I pulled out this old black and white television set that I hadn't used in years. I got it to work and I saw the other plane hit the other tower. I went 'WHOA.' Lemme go downstairs.

"So I went downstairs. I saw the tower on fire. Women were running in the streets. People were crying. People were hysterical. While we were standing there, they said 'The other building is coming down.' So we started to run north because, of course, if that building had fallen over, it would've been curtains for everybody. But it imploded."

Eventually, Rollins realized, "There was nothing else I could do. So I went back upstairs. And like a fool I picked up my horn and started practicing, you know, until my stomach began feeling kinda funny."

What dawned on the tenor saxophonist later, he says, was that "I was gulping down all this toxic poison. I wasn't thinking. I didn't realize the enormity, the toxicity. I mean, it was such a catastrophic event, who would think about these things?"

Toxicity aside, another question springs to mind. Why, during an event as catastrophic as this, would someone decide to practice his horn in the first place? Answering by phone from his home in Germantown, in New York's Hudson Valley, north of Manhattan, Rollins snaps back.

"Well, that's always my impulse, to pick up my horn. That's how I've gotten through this life, by picking up my horn. I mean, seriously. That's my refuge, you know? It was a normal thing for me to do. ... But it was a stupid thing. It wasn't the best time to play a wind
instrument."

Rollins, 76, is considered by many to be the greatest living jazz improviser. Even in his 30s, when the country teemed with brilliant saxophonists -- from Coleman Hawkins to Ben Webster to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane -- Rollins was in a class by himself. Now, when
virtually no contemporary of his stature is still active, he stands alone, towering over a jazz scene in which geniuses are dying off faster than they are being replaced.

And so each new Rollins performance -- including his headlining gig for the San Francisco Jazz Festival at the Masonic Center on Friday -- becomes a truly special event, a chance to experience a musicmaker with a limitless imagination and a sound so cogent and down to earth that every note becomes a cliffhanger.

James Carter, 37, a thrilling tenor player who has his own gig at the jazz festival on Nov. 3, is almost at a loss for words when asked to talk about Rollins. "Sonny represents the epitome of logic, humor, gentleness -- all the things that make up a divine being," he says.
"He is a consistent hero to me."

There is nothing in jazz like the narrative force of a Rollins solo.  The evidence exists on dozens of albums going back to 1949, but there's no better example than his response to the Sept. 11 attacks -- his live album "Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert."

Recorded at Boston's Berklee Performance Center four days after the attacks, the CD seems on the surface no different from many other Rollins albums, a collection of standards. But in Rollins' hands, a standard -- even something as seemingly banal as "I'm an Old Cowhand" -- can become a vehicle for transcendence. In his extended soloing on
two tunes from the 9/11 disc, "Without a Song" and "Why Was I Born" -- both hoary chestnuts from early Broadway musicals -- Rollins applies a breathtaking, transformative energy that takes the audience from trauma to catharsis.

Born to parents who came to the United States from the Virgin Islands, Theodore Walter Rollins grew up in Harlem, where he started playing piano early, then switched to saxophone after hearing Louis Jordan. As a teen he fell into a fast crowd of precocious players that included Jackie McClean and Kenny Drew, and quickly got noticed by the New York elite. Singer Babs Gonzalez hired Rollins in 1949, and from there he graduated to gigs with all the top players, including Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk.

"I was like a jazz prodigy in a way," Rollins says. "There was a period when I had a big head and I thought that I was really great. That was sort of my musical adolescent period."

Rollins proceeded to record several albums in the 1950s and '60s that have since entered the tenor saxophone pantheon, including "Saxophone Colossus," "Tenor Madness" (with Coltrane), "Way Out West" and a series of "A Night at the Village Vanguard" discs that rivals Coltrane's storied output from that club. Coltrane, in fact, was the only post-bop tenor player in Rollins' class, and Rollins says there were more similarities between the two than differences. Both were musical seekers.

"In those days, John Coltrane and myself, they used to call us, 'oh, those guys from Birdland that play a long time' in a disparaging way. But there was a different reason why we were playing in the first place. We were trying to reach a different level, trying to get to one of those places you could call enlightened."

He's still on that quest. In fact, Rollins is the only jazz musician who is known as much for the breaks he's taken from the music scene as for the actual music he's made. He dropped out three times, each to figure things out.

"The first time was when I was involved with drugs, and I had to get my act cleaned up," Rollins says. That was between 1949 and 1955 and involved a stint in prison. The second hiatus is the really legendary one, the "bridge period" of 1959, when Rollins spent days and nights practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects the Lower East Side of Manhattan with Brooklyn.

"It's become a folklorish thing, but it's really a very prosaic story," Rollins says. "I was living on the Lower East Side in a little apartment. And I loved to practice. And you know, practicing your horn is kind of hard on your neighbors. So I was out walking one day. And I saw some steps, and my mind was focusing on nothing in particular. And
I walked up these steps and -- boom -- I was in another world. Because I had this huge expanse and no one else up there. So I walked across the bridge. And I said, 'Wow. I can be up here with my horn, and practice.' Every now and then somebody walks by, but there's not that many people. And there's the boats below. It was perfect."

Rollins made a few records after that, including "The Bridge" with guitarist Jim Hall, but became disillusioned. "By the end of the '60s I began to feel that there just was not enough happening business-wise for jazz artists, me included. We weren't getting enough gigs and I felt I was being exploited by the agents, and so on. Meanwhile, I was very much getting into yoga. So I felt, to heck with this scene. It was just a rough scene. And I went to India for a while."

He practiced hatha yoga at an Ashram near Bombay for four months, and contemplated staying there for the rest of his life. "But my yoga teacher told me, 'Well, Sonny, you should be working. Your task is to do your music. It's not about coming over here or going up to a mountaintop and sitting and meditating.' He said that was my karma yoga."

Rollins returned to the States, signed a contract with Milestone, and has released an album every year since 1972. "Without a Song" was his last for that label, and now he's joined the cadre of jazz (and rock) artists who are running their own imprints and trying out new Internet-driven modes of distribution. He has a new CD, "Sonny, Please," on his Doxy label, available on his Web site, www.sonnyrollins.com, and soon to be in stores via Universal Records.

And so Rollins' quest persists. "I still feel like I have a lot music to play," the saxophonist says. "And there's a lot to learn. There's a whole lot of stuff I practice regularly, working on things all the time. There's a lot things I haven't gotten to yet."

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