King Sonny

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

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."

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