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King Sonny 

Jazz great Sonny Rollins talks about old songs, speaking in tongues, and 40 years of spiritual intensity

Wednesday, Oct 22 1997
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Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is arguably the greatest living jazz musician. Over the course of his long and illustrious career, he has worked with most of the seminal figures of modern jazz, often leading the way to the next step in the evolution of the music. He was a central figure in the creation of hard bop, the dominant form of jazz in the '50s. Hard bop turned bebop on its head by giving equal play to both the melody and the chords of improvisational vehicles. Many of his compositions, going all the way back to such early pieces as "Oleo," "Airegin" (read it backward), and "Doxy," have become jazz standards. Where earlier jazz had been overwhelmingly in 4/4 time, he composed hot waltzes. He drew attention to calypso rhythms, not as a gimmick, but as a profound rhythmic choice. He performed without piano accompaniment and later went even further by playing extended unaccompanied sax solos. Yet for all of his technical ability and innovation, the guiding force in Rollins' music has always been his underlying spiritual and social beliefs.

Rollins, who plays Davies Symphony Hall as part of the S.F. Jazz Fest this weekend, talked about the sources of his inspiration when I called him in New York recently. "I find it difficult when asked to make a correlation between my personal life and spiritual endeavors and my music because generally I try not to mix the two," he said. "There are occasions when I have done so, [but] the music that I play for myself is just a reflection of who I am."

When I tried to make specific connections between his music and either Eastern spirituality or Western esotericism, he was wary of drawing direct lines: "My being interested in the golden rule and things like that is just who I am as a person. That somehow comes out in some kind of way when I play; the music is a result of that. [But] I've done no real source gathering and then tried to turn it into some musical piece or anything like that -- it's very dangerous to try that."

As hard as it may be to get Rollins to discuss his muse, the facts of his life are easy enough to state. Born in New York City in 1930, his high school buddies were pianist Kenny Drew and drummer Art Taylor. While still in his teens, he was playing with the likes of Thelonious Monk, at that time bop's gray eminence; Bud Powell, piano virtuoso and tortured poete maudit of modern jazz; Fats Navarro, the shy, feminine, introverted trumpeter; J.J. Johnson, trombonist extraordinaire; and Miles Davis, his longtime friend and musical compatriot. By the early 1950s, he was working with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and even Charlie Parker, Bird himself.

When he, along with trumpeter Clifford Brown and pianist Richie Powell (Bud's brother), joined up with drummer Max Roach in 1955, a new school of jazz was spawned: hard bop. Earlier bop soloists had gone off on personal tangents via the chord structures of songs. These solos often seemed unconnected to one another and to the original melody lines of the songs. Hard bop linked the sequence of solos by encouraging players to use thematic material derived from the melodies of compositions. As played by these masters, the music reached a new level of coherence, complexity, and accessibility. The Roach group took its place as one of the all-time great combinations in jazz history along with the likes of King Oliver and Louis, Lester and Billie, or Bird and Diz.

Critics, though, were already labeling Rollins' style and sound as mocking. His barbaric yawp, with its muscular, exuberant, big tone -- combined with what in others would be noises, mistakes, and choked mutterings -- was heard as disingenuous and faked; in this way it was similar to the critical reaction pop art received as it followed on the heels of abstraction.

Critic Leonard Feather heard elements of sarcasm, cynicism, harshness, and unsentimentality. He thought Rollins was putting him on. Lacking a sense of humor themselves, critics like Feather failed to see the complex web of emotions Rollins brought to popular American songs. More perceptive critics came closer when they caught the irony and wit in his playing: Rollins was like the John Donne of the saxophone, metaphysical and combining elements of sarcasm and romance. Rollins is also one of jazz's great romantic players, but in a complex way: He feels he needs to purge the songs of their superficial romantic dross in order to arrive at what Noel Coward called the strange potency of cheap music. His oxymoronic method allowed him to "by contraries execute all things."

If he was both cynical and innocent, harsh and tender, a trusting fool and a wary skeptic, it was only the better to reflect the realities of our jumbled emotional lives. Just as Fats Waller was able to reinfuse seemingly corny ballads with honest emotion through campy humor and breathtaking technique, Rollins could retrieve the sparks of genuineness in the most unlikely material. Besides his own waltzes and calypsos, like "Valse Hot" and "St. Thomas," he had an odd penchant for retrieving more bizarre material from the trash heap of music: MacDowell's art song "To a Wild Rose," Johnny Mercer's "I'm an Old Cowhand," or Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Rollins' affection for these tunes remains. "When I think back about those songs," he said, "they seem to have a certain warm, positive glow about them. It was so strong and so everlasting that they defied time -- and we know that good music is timeless. The sound was such that it reminded me of something beautiful, and I am able to take [off from] that feeling."

How much of this is in the mechanics of the song? "Of course, it's the song with the chord patterns and the melody, all these things; but the song generates a certain beautiful feeling, a heavenly feeling almost. That's what I'm going for. It's something that I've felt and I want to re-create. Hopefully it's something beautiful, something to be re-created and created and re-created. It was created and re-created all over again. I want to share that glow beyond even the music itself. It's just the glow about it."

When Rollins plays a familiar standard like Rodgers & Hart's "Where or When" or Berlin's "Count Your Blessings," this process of creation and re-creation is audible as he works his way through chorus after chorus of the song. Without losing the melody, he, like his old teacher and master Monk, constantly plays with that melody with odd shifts of accent, quirky barks, and surprising inversions. The effect is not unlike what Louis Armstrong sounded like to a listener in 1930 -- slightly wrong, strange, and exquisitely beautiful. As the performance goes on, the impact of the melody -- sometimes clearly present, sometimes hidden, now bold and brazen, then again coy and evasive -- becomes stronger and stronger until it begins to sound virtually archetypal. The song is itself and more itself than it has ever been before.

Rollins is able to bring this incredible authority to bear on a song because of the spiritual intensity of his playing. Music is more than a set of rules, mathematical relationships between notes and chords and scales and keys; it's a spiritual discipline that he approaches through the act of playing the saxophone. "I try not to think. The way I'm getting it, what I'm doing, the less I think about what I'm doing, the more it happens. That's when the music is more on target."

What about his current direction? "Somebody a long time ago described something I was doing and said, 'Sonny was doing this and he was doing that and then he did some playing and then he was speaking in tongues for a while.' I'm trying to get into something akin to speaking in tongues. It's anti-technical in a way, hard to describe, but I'm trying to play something that's more expressive because that's what music is. As far as the method and the style, I'm reaching for something less technical."

Has he attained his original goals? "I still have the hope that jazz and the music that I'm playing, hopefully I can call it jazz, can even reach more people and do things that fight the established norm out here. I still have a little grain of optimism that I can reach more people in a real way, not by trying to jump off the bandstand or turn flips -- in a profound musical way. Every now and then I get a glimpse of that when I'm playing. I'm just trying to get to it more often."

Since the middle 1950s, Rollins has taken time-out periods to recharge his psychic battery. From 1959 to 1961, though he stopped playing commercially, he was constantly seen practicing on New York's Williamsburg Bridge. He studied Rosicrucianism, went to India for half a year in 1968, and took another two-year hiatus from 1969 to 1971. The 1970s and '80s saw him working with more pop-oriented groups, often playing brilliantly, but weighed down by inappropriate side players.

In the last few years, he and his wife, Lucille, have taken over the production tasks on his albums and the music has regained that combination of strength and tenderness so intrinsic to Rollins' nature. His newest album, Sonny Rollins + 3, reveals the same startling song choices ("Mona Lisa"), gorgeous lyricism, and powerful sound that have earned him the title of Saxophone Colossus.

At 67, Rollins still bestrides the narrow jazz world. After half a century as a jazz master he has attained a personal combination of skepticism, innocence, and wisdom that perfectly reflects the complex mix of his music. "I fear that the overtechnologicalized world that we live in is going to play against our getting the message across," he said. "Though perhaps it's going to get so technicalized that people will turn to the more basic things like music."

Does he think the day has passed when, just as Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" did in the 1890s, jazz could shake the world's foundations? "Jazz has been so demonized," he replied. "There was a group of us who hoped that jazz music through its strength and power and honesty and beauty and truthfulness would be able to break down the walls. It hasn't happened and it's made me somewhat disillusioned about the big battle. In the meantime I still have to hope that maybe I can win some little battles and some fans along the way or make some people happy."

Sonny Rollins plays as part of the 15th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival on Thursday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall, 401 Van Ness (at Hayes). Tickets are $18-48; call 788-7353.

About The Author

Ira Steingroot

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