A Fireside Chat with Sonny Rollins (2001)
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.