Long celebrated as one of the greatest tenor players in the history of jazz, saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins has been refining the art of creative improvisation for almost seven decades. A precocious youth growing up in Harlem during the golden age of jazz, a teenage Rollins led a band that included such future heavyweights as alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, drummer Art Taylor, and pianist Kenny Drew.
The spark apparent in his playing would lead to a mentorship by iconic composer Thelonious Monk and early work with such pioneering figures as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Rollins would go on to collaborate with a literal who's-who of jazz greats, recording some of the classic albums of the '50s with Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Sonny Rollins +4 and At Basin Street), John Coltrane (Tenor Madness) and Monk (Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins).
Despite earning many accolades, Rollins would step away from music for an extended sabbatical in the late '50s, famously woodshedding for countless on the Williamsburg Bridge and honing his craft until his triumphant return in 1962. The now 82-year-old Rollins has remained a prolific performer and recording artist, earning every imaginable honor -- the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, the NEA Jazz Master title, and the National Medal of Arts, to name a few recent awards -- while continuing to push himself to new creative heights. We spoke to Rollins at his home ahead of his upcoming concert at Davies Symphony Hall this Sunday as part of the 30th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival presented by SFJAZZ.
You initially played piano and alto saxophone before settling on tenor, but from what I gather, that was because an alto horn just ended up in your household?
No, my mother bought me an alto. I was an aficionado of the rhythm and blues band of Louis Jordan, and he played alto. He played tenor too, but mainly he played alto. So at that time I just wanted a saxophone, and it didn't really matter until a few years later when Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" was the big sensation. Then I wanted to play like Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to get that tenor sound.
Had you played piano much before you got your first horn?
No, my older brother and sister, they were classically trained. I was the baby, and when I didn't want to play piano and wanted to play stickball in the street, my mother kind of let me get away with it. So I never really did get into the piano. I use the piano now to compose and just play around with, but I never really studied piano.
In one interview I came across, you referred to yourself as "a primitive" in terms of being a self-taught musician, or at least that you didn't study music academically. Do you still feel that way after so many years of playing?
Well, all these years I've been fortunate enough to be taught, so to speak, by a lot of great musicians I came in contact with and play with. They all showed me their tricks and everything. So I wouldn't say that I'm self-taught. That would be deceptive. What I mean when I say I'm a primitive, I'm looking for music which is not the norm. It doesn't always come out that way, I know, but I'm still searching. I still practice every day. I'm a guy that's still writing music. I'm changing my band. So I'm a guy who is still searching for something.
So you'd say primitive as opposed to refined?
I found it really interesting in some interviews where you discuss your approach to live performance that you said it was best to work from as much of a blank slate as possible to open yourself up to what comes to mind and what comes out of your horn naturally...
Absolutely. That's exactly the way I try to operate. As a musician, there's a lot that you learn. You've got to learn your materials, your songs, harmonics. There's a lot that you have to know. But after knowing that, then you leave that. You've learned it; you've assimilated that. Then you let your subconscious take over. I surprise myself when that happens. I never know what I'm going to play. I'm not a musician that can sort of play the same thing every night the same way. It's great to be able to do that, but I'm not that kind of a musician. That's not my talent. My stuff is completely spontaneous. Well, mainly spontaneous. Like I said, you do have to know the materials that you're working with, and then it's spontaneous.
You've referred to jazz as the "king of all musics." Is that sort of what you're speaking of as far as what your knowledge base has to be in order to be able to execute it properly?
Well I think that, especially in our world, we have so many kinds of music now. There's your so-called popular music and all these offshoots and world musics. But jazz is somehow the tops. And I don't mean this in a way to sound like I'm putting other music down. I'm not. Everybody loves jazz music. I find guys who play all styles of music and when they talk about jazz music, they speak in a very reverential way. They know how difficult it is to play. It's very technical music, but at the same time it's a very free music, like I was just describing to you. And musicians realize this. All these styles of music that you hear, like reggae and hip hop, they owe a lot to jazz. They owe a lot to jazz.
Next: Rollins on playing live with Ornette Coleman