A Fireside Chat with Sonny Rollins (2001)
“ I have recorded a lot of music, so any album I make, I try to do something, which is to some extent fresh in approach and has something different to say. ”
All that has been written and all that has been said about Sonny Rollins certainly has more wealth than anything I could scribe. I am only a fan of Rollins and on most days, I need not be more. His albums are a part of the lore of jazz and his legacy historical and he has won more awards than I have fingers and toes.
This is the latest of many sittings I have been privileged enough to have with Rollins. He spoke at length about just that legacy and it was my honor to be graced with his time. As always, I bring it to you in its entirety, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Sonny Rollins: I think I was musically inclined. I grew up in a musical household with older brothers and sisters that were into music. I heard a lot of music around the house. I grew up in Harlem. There was a lot of music around where we grew up. I heard a lot of guys, Fats Waller, all these people. So I was born at the right time, in the right place, really.
FJ: It was the golden age of jazz.
SR: Oh, yeah, Fred. I think so. There were a lot of great jazz musicians playing at that time and I quickly chose the saxophone. I had the people I liked like Coleman Hawkins and all those guys who I was able to follow and listen to their records. They lived, actually lived close by me in the community in those days. So I think I was really fortunate to be interested in music and to be born and to grow up in that sort of atmosphere.
There was so much jazz music around me and so much culture that was happening in that part of the city, in that community uptown we used to call Sugar Hill. It was great. I knew I wanted to play soon when I was about six, seven years old. I liked the way the saxophone looked and I was beginning to recognize guys that played. Everything just sort of came in together just at the right time.
FJ: For those not fortunate enough to have heard your playing, how would you describe the sound of your tenor saxophone?
SR: I think it's a very humanistic sound. It's sort of the sound of a person, probably very masculine, male sound. It has so many expressions. So many different artists can sound different on the same instrument. As you know, Fred, we have Coleman Hawkins. We have... everybody that's anybody had their own sound, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Don Byas. All of these people had, all great musicians had different sounds so that you could recognize them as soon as you heard them.
So even though it's an instrument which does have a certain characteristic, as I said, it's a very humanistic, expressive instrument. I think it sounds like a man. It still can't be played in a manner that allows individual characteristics to come out. I don't know if I am explaining it well enough, Fred. But it allows for individuality even though it's an instrument which has a very distinctive sound and you know a tenor saxophone when you hear it. But still, you can hear different people when they pick it up. Each person is able to express himself through the instrument.
FJ: I can name Sonny Rollins in four notes.
SR: Well, that took a while because as a youngster starting out I tried to emulate people that I looked up to and I tried to play, there was one song, “Body and Soul,” by Coleman Hawkins, I always had to play. It's one of his best records. It's one of his most popular records I should say. And all the saxophonists tried to play that, so I tried to play that. You try to copy the people that you look up to, these icons of the music. Invariably, if you have anything to offer at all, your own style will come through.
So it's not a good idea to copy, to try to copy too closely, anyone because if you'll excuse the current expression, Fred, you're just a clone. We don't want to be clones. You find out that you gravitate to a sound that ends up being yourself. Now everybody, you have to have a certain talent. You have to be, a lot of kids come to me and ask me about jazz and playing jazz and playing music and I'm not going to lie about it. You have to have a certain talent. Music is wonderful. Jazz is wonderful. It's wonderful to listen to if you want to play it just for your enjoyment, OK. But if you really have aspirations to get into the business, you have to be blessed with a certain talent and there's not much that's going to move you from that spot.
Of course, you can be a good musician that just plays in an orchestra, but if you have aspirations of being an individualist and being well known and so on, that's going to be circumscribed by the amount of natural talent, God given talent, that you happen to be born with. There's no way around that, so this is what I tell people. Sure you can play. You can enjoy it and all that stuff, but you want to be like some of your idols, you're going to have to be born with a certain talent. Then comes the work of course. You're born with the talent, but then comes the blood, sweat, and tears. You at least have to have that gift.
FJ: There was a period when your playing was more free, was that a casual interest and why did you not pursue it?
SR: Well, I like all sorts of music. For my own convergence of things that just happened to come in my career at a particular time, I just didn't get into it on the level that a lot of people might have felt you had to. You had to go all the way and be all the way into a certain type of music. I don't feel wedded to any particular style. I like to incorporate things that I can, my own personal expressions.
I like free jazz. I like all kinds of music. Once I get to a style, which I am hoping I will one day before I leave the planet, I will be able to make a breakthrough in my own playing, then I will incorporate all sorts of styles. It will come out Sonny Rollins. Other than that, I think free jazz is fine. I have no problem with it.
FJ: The knock on Sonny Rollins has not been your playing but rather your supporting cast not playing to your level.
SR: In the past few years, people have spoken pretty well about my band. They've been saying that I have the best traveling band that I've had and so on. At least that's what I've seen when Lucille has shown me different reviews. So I think there was a general consensus over the years that this might have been true. Sometimes I would play as a single. I would go up and I'd get musicians from different places that I was at. I would pick up musicians and I didn't really keep a band with me to get really a tight band like MJQ or Coltrane's band or one of Miles' bands. I was a guy that kept different guys, so I could see where that might be a criticism that might have some validity. But I think that is not a comment anymore. My band gets fairly good notices now, much more so than years ago. That was true years ago, but I think that's changing now.
FJ: During the better part of the Fifties, your recording output was bordering on unimaginable. Why don't you record more now?
SR: Because it's much harder to get into the studio and play now. I'm a lot older. I have more physical things that I have to deal with. I have to deal with all the informalities that age brings on a person. I have recorded a lot of music, so any album I make, I try to do something, which is to some extent fresh in approach and has something different to say. I just don't want to make a lot of Sonny Rollins records although people say that I can do that, to just make a record with Sonny Rollins and you have documented the work. But I hate going into recording studios.
FJ: Why is that?
SR: Because I'm very conscious about how I sound and I'm one of these super-conscious people that everything I play, I want to listen to it back and I'm never satisfied. Recording has become a hard thing for me because of the modern technology, which allows you to listen back and try to make it better. That's sort of a hard deal for me.
Sometimes you can just do it. It comes out better the first or second take, but I'm a guy that likes to do more takes than that just because I like to have what is for posterity to be the best that I can be. It's just like me. I'm just a guy. I'm still practicing. Recording is something that catches you right then and puts it down forever, so I don't record more because I am more self-conscious in wanting to be more perfect or as perfect as it can be.
FJ: With success comes expectations and expectations tend to lean more towards the unreasonable, to counter that, why not do a live record and circumvent the studio altogether?
SR: I've thought about that. Maybe one of these days. I do record everything that I do, so maybe when I have the time, I'll look through and listen to some of the things that I've done and maybe if they sound worthwhile I will put it out.
FJ: Your demanding practice regimen was legendary at that time.
SR: Well, that was kind of easy for me, Fred, because I was always a person that considered myself in the learning process. I kind of got serious about music and didn't go to music school like my older brother and sister, so I always thought that I should catch up. So all my career, I've been a person that's trying to learn. I've always been trying to study and learn more.
So the period that I took off during my career too to regroup and go in the woodshed as that expression goes, which is to practice in a room, those periods were part of who I am. I was just a person who wanted to improve himself and felt that I had a long way to go and that I was not quite a finished musician, so all my career, I was always trying to learn more and get to that point where I felt a little more worthy of being on the stand and playing for people and so on. So my hiatus and my practice times when I left music were all part of me.
FJ: Have you learned enough?
SR: (Laughing) I'm afraid the quest goes on, Fred. It's a good thing, but you never learn enough in music, no. You never learn enough. The only thing that could deter me is age and these things, time, that's a better way to put it, time. But, no, I don't think you ever learn everything that there is to learn, so I'm constantly learning.
I practice my horn everyday. I try to be involved in music. I try to find different ways of playing and approaching things. So that goes on. I never, I haven't reached a point where I thought that. That point, gratefully, hasn't come because I think if that did come, I think it would be a giant letdown.
FJ: Are you still keeping a rigorous touring schedule?
SR: I've been pulling back all along. Now I end up doing thirty dates a year. I will go to Europe and did seven concerts and next time I go next year, I am only doing five, so I am pulling back. Walking through airports and the rigors of hotel food and all this stuff, they can be pretty hard on a person of dare I say it, advanced age.
FJ: How do you decide?
SR: It's got to be a prestigious date. I wouldn't want to play in Joe's Saloon around the corner. It would have to be a date that has some kind of visibility. It has to be a good venue and things of that sort. That's what we look for. We play concert halls generally. Those are the things that I look for. We want to do some kind of dignified performance. I don't want to play in Joe's Saloon around the corner.
FJ: Your various playing periods with Jim Hall and Max Roach have been so lauded that I am certain some witty festival organizer has called to book a reunion.
SR: Oh, I hear that all the time, sure. I hear that all the time. As I said, human nature says that if you're not available then everybody wants you. So this is where it is. I didn't plan it this way. If you say that now I won't do that, the promoters want you more. It's a nice position to be in. Knowing show business to be as it is, you never know how long it's going to last. Let's assume that I'm at the dovetail, at the end of my journey on this planet, so that it is a good position to be in career-wise. Let's hope it stays that way.
I don't want to make a lot of money. I'm not trying to have all these cars that these rap guys have. It works perfect. I'm trying to get a spiritual understanding and get some contentment out of life. I think I've made some contributions to this music and I'm doing as much as I can handle at this time.
FJ: For the betterment of jazz, time hasn't caught up with Sonny Rollins.
SR: Well, I'm sort of a superstitious person in a way. That's the only way that I can describe it. I'm not really superstitious, but that's sort of a term I can use that most people would understand. It's a little bit more involved than superstition, but every time I read and somebody says, “Oh, gee, look at Sonny. He's still playing and he still sounds fresh. Wow, he's still playing and he still sounds youthful.” I always hate to hear that because I think it's sort of like a bugaboo, where it's a thing that people say and it's sort of like a jinx. So I hate to hear people say that.
I was playing a concert one night at a place, I forget where it was, but it was recently, this summer, and we got people clapping and everything and the MC kept saying, he kept referring to my age. He's so and so years old as if this was an achievement, the fact that I had reached that age, which of course is ridiculous. It is to me because I'm not trying to be a guy that you look at and say, “Wow, he can still play. He's ninety-five years old. Isn't that amazing.”
FJ: Like some bizarre version of Darwin's survival of the fittest, age is celebrated in this country. Morning show weathermen applaud people who have surpassed the century mark.
SR: It's sort of embarrassing to me to be hailed as somebody who is playing even though he's past thirty years old. Wow, he's still playing. This isn't the point of my playing at all. I'm trying to make music. So it's sort of a funny thing, but like you said I guess there is nothing you can do about it because people don't try to, well, I shouldn't say that because a lot of musicians, unfortunately, didn't have the longevity that I have, so I wouldn't say that I don't want to be hear. That's not true. A lot of people were unfortunate with accidents and lifestyles, and a lot of things that happened that has decimated a lot of my generation unfortunately.
FJ: Doc Cheatham comes to mind. Before any review, “the greatest 90-year-old trumpeter” was the preface.
SR: Right. Fortunately, this trend is something that I'm just beginning to notice. I would say the last couple of years, I'd say when I turned seventy years old, now, I'm beginning to notice this happening more and more. It didn't happen so much to any extent that it became noticeable to me, but recently, it's happened since I turned seventy. Everyone says, “Wow, for a seventy-year-old.” Now it's happening more.
At any rate, what are you going to do, Fred? There is no way that I can go back to twenty years old. And by the way, I don't want to go back to twenty years old. I hope I don't have to go back to twenty years old. One life is enough. Believe me.
FJ: You mentioned the lifestyle of your peers got the better of them, how did you avoid such trappings?
SR: I was fortunate to a great extent. I did indulge in all the things that all of my peers indulged in and a lot of guys do today. We all did the same thing, drank a lot of whiskey. We did a lot of drugs, stayed up all night long, etcetera, etcetera. So I did the same things, but there were other things. I said I was fortunate.
And there were also other things. There was a certain social degradation that came with being too liberal with your life and being a life of a musician and if you wanted to just feel good and play. There was something that I didn't like about being, I wanted to break that mold. I didn't want to be a person that you saw a guy up there and he's half juiced and he's playing.
Even if you're playing good, I wanted to have some dignity about me. I wanted to be, I wanted the musicians to have some kind of dignity, jazz musicians. Heaven knows, we've had to fight for every little bit of respect that we've gotten from this society. So I wanted to emulate. My idol, Coleman Hawkins, was like that. He was a guy that was a very proud man. He accomplished a lot. He was a great musician, respected by everybody, always carried himself well, dressed impeccably, this type of thing.
I noticed that if I was going to be a person that just indulged myself and thought that it feels good and I can still play while doing all of these things, there's a big thing here between writers and artists who feel as long as I'm painting and I'm writing, I can drink as much as I want. As long I'm producing my books, I can smoke all the hash I want because it's helping me to get in the place where I want to be at to do my work.
That is true to a point. I didn't want to go to that point. Not only that, but I began seeing that if I had to depend on some kind of substance outside of myself to play my instrument, then there is something wrong with that. I didn't want to be there. I'm not putting down anybody else who feels differently, but I didn't want to be that type of, live that type of a life. I have to be more in control of myself. And a lot of times, if you get high, you get drunk and even if you're a great musician, you lose control of yourself. You lose control of your life in other ways. I didn't want anything to have control of my life.
I wanted to know what I was doing. I wanted to really be able to engage by being in good mental and physical condition.
FJ: In memory of Billy Higgins, any lasting impressions of the late drummer whom you played with?
SR: Well, Billy was a great musician. He was a really fine musician. As a matter of fact, Fred, I hadn't seen Billy for many, many years and I happened to see him, I played out at Royce Auditorium out at UCLA, a little more than a year ago. Anyway, it was the first time I had seen Billy in many years. It was great to see him. It turned out to be the last time that I saw him in the flesh. But, he was a fine musician and a real natural drummer. He had a real natural feeling. If you play the drums, you have to have a good beat. You have to have good rhythm and Billy had that. He had a good beat and a good rhythmic concept. He was one of the premier jazz drummers that we had. So it was fun playing with him and I loved him.
FJ: One “golden age” of jazz has come and gone. Will there be another?
SR: I don't see any reason why not. One of my famous sayings is “music is an open sky.” Plus, music is a gift of our makers. Music doesn't belong to any one person, any one group, any one anything. It's a gift to everybody. So there will always be people coming up, contributing to music in ways that we probably can't envision at this time.
But I certainly feel that sure, I lived through a golden age in music, which was very nice. I'm quite happy that I was able to be, as a mentioned before, alive in the time I was. But there is no reason why there shouldn't be other great periods in music.
The music is going to be there, but if our world, that is we as people are able to make some kind of human breakthrough so that we're able to maintain the planet in some way, that we're all still alive on this planet. That's the question, not whether there's any new musical innovations. I'm sure there will be.
What I'm not so sure about is whether mankind will be able to find ways to resist things like greed and selfishness. These are things which are within everybody. Every groups has these traits. It is basically a spiritual problem and this is what we have to work on. We have to get together and find some way to protect our planet and be better people and get rid of bloodlust and the greed. That's what we have to concern ourselves with. Musically, no, I have no, I'm sure there will always be great people coming up playing music.
Music is a gift to mankind like pets and animals. If you don't like pets and animals, maybe you don't think they are gifts, but if you like flowers, if you like the forest and the beautiful trees. That's the kind of thing music is. As long as we have somewhere to enjoy these things, yeah, these things will be there.
FJ: Having been the social conscious for jazz, is it disheartening that the current generation revels in a bling-bling mentality?
SR: Well, I believe that technology, there is one thing that is bad about technology, if I can borrow a phrase from a great writer, he made a statement which rang true to me. He said, “Technology enables man to go backwards faster.” I think that's true.
It's not so much that the rappers and these people that live ostentatiously are any different than the people that lived in Eighteenth Century or Sixteenth Century, it is that we have developed technology now. We have developed the technology, which makes it easier to have lots of automobiles and to have lots of homes, which be the way are destructive to our natural environment. As you know, Fred, automobiles, they destroy the ozone layer. They cause pollution and a whole myriad of things, which flow from driving automobiles. I don't have to tell you that. Everybody knows that. Basically, it is not a good thing to do.
Sure, we have to do it. We have to drive, but we have to try to realize that we should try to keep it to a minimum and that we should think more about the planet and what we'll be leaving for our children. Sure these guys are big movie stars. It's like the other day, today, my wife was showing me something in the paper about this actor, Alec Baldwin. He's an actor and he lives on the East Coast and he's supposed to be a very, so called liberal and he drives an SUV. This tells you that he's not so enlightened. He got into a road rage situation with someone else on the road and it mentioned that he was driving an SUV.
Now a person of his... who is supposed to support all these so called Democrat and liberal and environmental causes, to see a person like that driving an SUV shows you what's wrong with society. SUVs are one of the most harmful automobiles that we can ever have. They're very bad. They burn a lot of gas, fossil fuels. It's just, it just shows how ignorant people are and how much they're effected by television commercials and all this.
There is just a lack of awareness, to get back to your basic question, Fred. There will be many musical innovations if we people get our act together and that we realize that everything isn't here for us to use and abuse. There's a limit to how much garbage we can dump in the ocean. There's a limit to how much fossil fuel we can burn with our wonderful SUVs riding around the shopping mall. So we have to think about what we're doing.
These are basic, basic things that, unfortunately, not enough people think about. I think about these things. Since you mentioned my social conscious, yeah, I think about these things and I'm glad I do because I don't want to be one of these people that goes into the gas chamber smiling and laughing. If I go into the gas chamber of life after the neutron bomb or the hydrogen bomb or whatever, I want to know.
I have a feeling about the meaning of life and things beyond this particular world. So I want to know what's happening. I'm happy that I had this social conscious as you put it, Fred, so I know what's going on. No, it is awful, terrible, some of these things, but I'd rather know about them than not know about them.
FJ: There is a growing segment of society that believes global warming is a he cried wolf phenomenon.
SR: It is not frustrating to me. I'll tell you why, Fred. I'm not interested in the results of what happened. I just want to know and understand what's going on. As far as partisan politics and what the Republicans think and what Dick Chaney thinks and what Hillary Clinton does, all that stuff is way down on the totem pole.
What's important is that we individually try to do something ourselves. If people feel that global warming is just a plot by some people that want to make us feel bad that we have so much money and we have so much goods, more than any other country in the world and the richest nation in the world, so don't worry about global warming. Don't worry about the environment. It's all a lot of crock to make you feel bad. Let's see, who's the enemy these days? It's the communists or is it the Arabs? Who is it today? Whoever it is, some people think that it is just those people trying to make us feel bad about having fun.
OK, if people feel that way, it's OK. So what I'm saying is that no, I don't care because there is only so much an individual can do. We can do things individuals. If everybody did unto others as you'd have done to you, it would take care of all that stuff about global warming and things to do with the environment. Unfortunately, the people that don't believe in the golden rule are also the people that tell you that it is OK to buy an SUV and it is OK to buy a huge home. It's OK to use up a lot of electricity. It's OK to buy a lot of consumer goods with a lot of packaging that has to be disposed of and dumped some place. It's the same mentality.
So what I'm saying is that mentality is here and it doesn't make me feel terrible to know that. I know that these people are here. Believe me, Fred. I've seen it all my life. I don't think any things have shifted. Things are no better really. It is the same human condition. I've finally got to the point now where I can say what I'm saying to you now. It's part of life and it's part of what each individual has to go through. It's not a big deal. It doesn't distract me in other words.
Yes, I wish we could have a more perfect world. I wish people would do things to make it a better world and all that. But I'm not surprised. I think it's an individual thing. So it's not a matter of my being depressed. If I was depressed about this, I would be in a constant state of depression. I wouldn't say just Americans, the rest of the world because the world wants to be like Americans. Most people want to be able to have stuff and throw it away and to race cars and drive fast and have materials.
I'm not dumping on America here. It's unfortunately a worldwide problem. I feel bad up to a point. This war is being lost anyway because there are too many people that don't care about doing unto others as they would have others do unto them.
FJ: What is the golden rule?
SR: The golden rule is do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That means that, well, it means just what it says, but it implies to everything you do everyday you wake up in life. That's it. It's very simple.
FJ: I would hate to break it to you, Sonny, but you are a superstar.
SR: You mean in like my own mind.
FJ: In everyone's.
SR: Well, if it means what it's supposed to mean, I would be too afraid to walk out of the house.
FJ: You seem at peace with it all.
SR: Well, as much as a person can be. I'm still trying to improve my work. I'm still trying to be a better human being. I'm trying to be a better, responsible person on the planet. I'm still trying to live the golden rule.