Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins (born September 7, 1930) is an American jazz tenor saxophonist, widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. A number of his compositions, including “St. Thomas“, “Oleo“, “Doxy“, “Pent-Up House”, and “Airegin“, have become jazz standards.
Rollins was born in New York City to parents from the United States Virgin Islands. The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in central Harlem and on Sugar Hill, Harlem, receiving his first alto saxophone at the age of seven or eight. He attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High School and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. He has said that a concert by Frank Sinatra at his high school, accompanied by a plea for racial harmony, changed his life. Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high school years, he played in a band with other future jazz legends Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor.
Later life and career
After graduating from high school in 1947, Rollins began performing professionally and made his first recordings in early 1949, as a sideman with the bebop singer Babs Gonzales (J. J. Johnson was the arranger of the group). Within the next few months, he began to make a name for himself, recording with Johnson and appearing under the leadership of pianist Bud Powell on a seminal “hard bop” session. Between 1951 and 1953, he recorded with Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. The breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions “Oleo,” “Airegin,” and “Doxy” with a quintet led by Davis that also featured pianist Horace Silver.
In early 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and given a sentence of one-to-three years. He spent ten months in Rikers Island jail before being released on parole. In 1952, he was arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using heroin. In 1955, Rollins was assigned to the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, at the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While there, he volunteered for then-experimental methadone therapy and was able to break his heroin habit, after which he lived for a time in Chicago, briefly rooming with the trumpeter Booker Little. Rollins initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went on to greater success, inspired by the example of Clifford Brown.
Rollins briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955. Later that year, he joined the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet; studio albums documenting his time in the band are “Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4“. After the deaths of Brown and the band’s pianist, Richie Powell, in a June, 1956, automobile accident, Rollins continued playing with Roach and began releasing albums under his own name on Prestige Records, Blue Note, Riverside, and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.
His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder‘s studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins, and his favorite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins’s sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition “St. Thomas,” a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number “Strode Rode,” and “Moritat” (the Kurt Weill composition also known as “Mack the Knife“).
In 1956 he married the actress and model Dawn Finney.In the solo for “St. Thomas,” Rollins uses repetition of a rhythmic pattern, and variations of that pattern, covering only a few tones in a tight range, and employing staccato and semi-detached notes. This is interrupted by a sudden flourish, utilizing a much wider range before returning to the former pattern. (Listen to the music sample.) David N. Baker describes this in his book The Jazz Style of Sonny Rollins, explaining that Rollins “very often uses rhythm for its own sake. He will sometimes improvise on a rhythmic pattern instead of on the melody or changes.” Another solo on Saxophone Colossus, “Blue 7”, was analyzed in depth by Gunther Schuller in a 1958 article.
In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Davis’ group – pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also in Davis’ group.
In 1957, Rollins pioneered the use of bass and drums, without piano, as accompaniment for his saxophone solos, a texture that came to be known as “strolling.” Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957) and A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957).
While in Los Angeles in 1957, Rollins met alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the two of them practiced together. Coleman, a pioneer of free jazz, stopped using a pianist in his own band two years later.
Rollins used the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section instrument during bass and drum solos. Way Out West was so named because it was recorded for a California-based record label (with Los Angeles drummer Shelly Manne), and because the record included country and western songs such as “Wagon Wheels” and “I’m an Old Cowhand“. The Village Vanguard CD consists of two sets, a matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete LaRoca and then the evening set with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones.
By this time, Rollins had become well known for taking relatively banal or unconventional material (such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business” on Work Time, “I’m an Old Cowhand”, and later “Sweet Leilani” on the Grammy-winning CD This Is What I Do) and turning it into a vehicle for improvisation.
1957’s Newk’s Time saw him working with a piano again, in this case Kelly, but one of the most highly regarded tracks is a saxophone/drum duet, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” with Philly Joe Jones. Also that year he made his Carnegie Hall debut and recorded again for Blue Note with Johnson on trombone, Horace Silver or Monk on piano and drummer Art Blakey (released as Sonny Rollins, Volume Two).
In 1958 he appeared in Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem photograph of jazz musicians in New York; as of 2015, he is one of only two surviving musicians from the photo (the other being Benny Golson). The same year, Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums trio: Freedom Suite. His original sleeve notes said, “How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”
The title track is a 19-minute improvised bluesy suite, some of it very tense. However, the album was not all politics – the other side featured hard bop workouts of popular show tunes. Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach provided bass and drums, respectively. The LP was available only briefly in its original form, before the record company repackaged it as Shadow Waltz, the title of another piece on the record.
Following Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass (Sonny Rollins Brass/Sonny Rollins Trio), Rollins made one more studio album in 1958, Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, before taking a three-year break from recording. This was a session for Contemporary Records and saw Rollins recording an esoteric mixture of tunes including “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” with a West Coast group made up of pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Manne.
In 1959 he toured Europe for the first time, performing in Sweden, Holland, Germany, and France.
Summer 1959–fall 1961: The Bridge
By 1959, Rollins was frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations and took the first – and most famous – of his musical sabbaticals. While living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Rollins ventured to the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge to practice, in order to avoid disturbing a neighboring expectant mother. In the summer of 1961, the journalist Ralph Berton happened to pass by Rollins on the bridge one day and published an article in Metronome magazine about the occurrence. During this period, Rollins became a dedicated practitioner of yoga.
Winter 1961–1969: Musical explorations
In November 1961, Rollins returned to the jazz scene with a residency at the Jazz Gallery in Greenwich Village; in March, 1962, he appeared on Ralph Gleason‘s television series, Jazz Casual. During the 1960s, he lived in Brooklyn, New York.
He named his 1962 “comeback” album The Bridge at the start of a contract with RCA Records. Produced by George Avakian, the disc was recorded with a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall, Ben Riley on drums, and bassist Bob Cranshaw. This became one of Rollins’s best-selling records; in 2015 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Rollins’s contract with RCA lasted through 1964 and saw him remain one of the most adventurous musicians around. Each album he recorded differed radically from the previous one. The 1962 disc “What’s New” explored Latin rhythms. On the album Our Man in Jazz, recorded live at The Village Gate, he explored avant-garde playing with a quartet that featured Cranshaw on bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Don Cherry on cornet. He also played with a tenor saxophone hero, Coleman Hawkins, on Sonny Meets Hawk!, and he re-examined jazz standards and Great American Songbook melodies on Now’s the Time and The Standard Sonny Rollins (which featured pianist Herbie Hancock).
In 1963, he made the first of many tours of Japan.
In 2007, recordings from a 1965 residency at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club were released by the Harkit label as Live in London; they offer a very different picture of Rollins’ playing from the studio albums of the period. (These are unauthorized releases, and Rollins has responded by “bootlegging” them himself and releasing them on his website.)
After signing with Impulse! Records, he released a soundtrack to the 1966 film Alfie, as well as There Will Never Be Another You and Sonny Rollins on Impulse!. After East Broadway Run Down (1966), which featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, Rollins did not release another studio album for six years.
In 1968, he was the subject of a television documentary, directed by Dick Fontaine, entitled “Who is Sonny Rollins?”
1969–71: Second sabbatical
In 1969, Rollins took another two-year sabbatical from public performance. During this hiatus period, he visited Jamaica for the first time and spent several months studying yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophies at an ashram in Powai, India, a district of Mumbai.
He returned from his second sabbatical with a performance in Kongsberg, Norway, in 1971. Reviewing a March 1972 performance at New York’s Village Vanguard night club, the New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett wrote that Rollins “had changed again. He had become a whirlwind. His runs roared, and there were jarring staccato passages and furious double-time spurts. He seemed to be shouting and gesticulating on his horn, as if he were waving his audience into battle.” The same year, he released Next Album and moved to Germantown, New York. Also in 1972, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he also became drawn to R&B, pop, and funk rhythms. Some of his bands during this period featured electric guitar, electric bass, and usually more pop- or funk-oriented drummers.
In 1974, Rollins added jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley to his band; the group was filmed performing live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. For most of this period he was recorded by producer Orrin Keepnews for Milestone Records (the compilation Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on Milestone contains a selection from these years). In 1978 he, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Al Foster toured together as the Milestone Jazzstars.
It was also during this period that Rollins’ passion for unaccompanied saxophone solos came to the forefront. In 1979 he played unaccompanied on The Tonight Show and in 1985 he released The Solo Album, recorded live at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also frequently played long, extemporaneous unaccompanied cadenzas during performances with his band.
By the 1980s, Rollins had stopped playing small nightclubs and was appearing mainly in concert halls or outdoor arenas; through the late 1990s he occasionally performed at large New York rock clubs such as Tramps and The Bottom Line. In 1981, he was asked to play uncredited on three tracks by the Rolling Stones for their album Tattoo You, including the single, “Waiting on a Friend“. That November, he led a saxophone masterclass on French television. In 1983, he was honored as a “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1986, documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge released a film titled Saxophone Colossus. It featured two Rollins performances: a quintet performance at Opus 40 in upstate New York and his Concerto for Saxophone and Symphony with the Yomiuri Shimbun Orchestra in Japan.
New York City Hall proclaimed November 13, 1995, to be “Sonny Rollins Day.”
In 1997, he was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” in the Down Beat magazine critics’ poll.
Critics such as Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch have noted the disparity between Rollins the recording artist, and Rollins the concert artist. In a May 2005 New Yorker profile, Crouch wrote of Rollins the concert artist:
“Over and over, decade after decade, from the late seventies through the eighties and nineties, there he is, Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, playing somewhere in the world, some afternoon or some eight o’clock somewhere, pursuing the combination of emotion, memory, thought, and aesthetic design with a command that allows him to achieve spontaneous grandiloquence. With its brass body, its pearl-button keys, its mouthpiece, and its cane reed, the horn becomes the vessel for the epic of Rollins’ talent and the undimmed power and lore of his jazz ancestors.”
Rollins won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for This Is What I Do (2000). On September 11, 2001, the 71-year-old Rollins, who lived several blocks away, heard the World Trade Center collapse, and was forced to evacuate his apartment, with only his saxophone in hand. Although he was shaken, he traveled to Boston five days later to play a concert at the Berklee School of Music. The live recording of that performance was released on CD in 2005 as Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, which won the 2006 Grammy for Jazz Instrumental Solo for Rollins’ performance of “Why Was I Born?” Rollins was presented with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004; that year also saw the death of his wife, Lucille.
In 2006, Rollins went on to complete a Down Beat Readers Poll triple win for: “Jazzman of the Year”, “#1 Tenor Sax Player”, and “Recording of the Year” for the CD Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. The band that year featured his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and included bassist Cranshaw, pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummer Perry Wilson.
During these years, Rollins regularly toured worldwide, playing major venues throughout Europe, South America, the Far East, and Australasia. On September 18, 2007, he performed at Carnegie Hall in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his first performance there. Appearing with him were Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Cranshaw (bass), Dinizulu (percussion), Roy Haynes (drums) and Christian McBride (bass).
Around 2000, Rollins began recording many of his live performances; since then, he has archived recordings of over two hundred and fifty concerts. To date, three albums have been released from these archives on Doxy Records and Okeh Records: Road Shows, Vol. 1, Road Shows, Vol. 2 (with four tracks documenting his 80th birthday concert, which included Rollins’ first ever appearance with Ornette Coleman on the 20-minute “Sonnymoon for Two”), and Road Shows, Vol. 3. A fourth volume is scheduled for release in April 2016.
In 2013, Rollins moved to Woodstock, New York. That spring, he made a guest television appearance on The Simpsons. That May, he received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Juilliard School in New York City.
In 2014 he was the subject of a Dutch television documentary entitled “Sonny Rollins-Morgen Speel ik beter” and in October 2015, he received the Jazz Foundation of America‘s lifetime achievement award.
Rollins has not performed in public since 2012.
As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R&B sounds of performers like Louis Jordan, but soon became drawn into the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition. Joachim Berendt has described this tradition as sitting between the two poles of the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the light flexible phrasing of Lester Young, which did so much to inspire the fleet improvisation of bebop in the 1950s. Other tenor saxophone influences include Ben Webster and Don Byas. By his mid-teens, Rollins became heavily influenced by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. During his high school years, he was mentored by the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, often rehearsing at Monk’s house.
Rollins has played, at various times, a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone and a Buescher Aristocrat. During the 1970s he recorded on soprano saxophone for the album Easy Living. His preferred mouthpieces are made by Otto Link and Berg Larsen. He uses Frederick Hemke medium reeds.