Has the world forgotten Sonny Rollins? In jazz it always seems that the focus is on the new and up-to-date. Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell and Coleman Hawkins managed to stay relevant by keeping up to date on the latest trends in jazz; the early avant-gardists like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry kept pushing the envelope as they aged while retaining elements of what made them different to start with. But Sonny Rollins, who was considered in the jazz Zeitgeist from the mid-1950s through at least the late 1960s, somehow became an icon without going much further, like Bill Evans or Lee Konitz.
What jazz aficionado doesn’t have his Saxophone Colossus? Or The Bridge? Or at least a couple of his great RCA Victor albums of the 1960s, when he pushed the envelope and expanded on the solo saxophone lexicon with astounding, extended a cappella solos? Rollins was so good that it was almost scary; only late-period Hawk and Coltrane were really on his level, or close to it. Everyone else was playing some form of bebop or squealing nonsense through their horn.
This is going to sound crazy, but I’ve always felt that the three great legends of jazz—Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker and Coltrane—achieved that distinction by dying young. Coltrane made it the furthest, to age 40, and he was the only one of the three who was not self-destructive; he just had the misfortune to have bad genes and his body gave out at the wrong time. Yet a lot of jazz fans either seem to forget or gloss over the fact that in his last two years, Coltrane went so far off the deep end that no one else was following him there. His “sheets of sound” had become confused knots of sound, with no cohesion or meaning in them, and Beiderbecke’s last two years were so spotty that his colleagues couldn’t even be sure if he’d show up for recording dates or, if he did, if he wouldn’t be sitting in a dark corner of the studio, talking under his breath, asking his cornet not to fail him because his brain was fried. Parker has some deterioration of quality towards the end, but not as bad as the other two, and in my view he was the most original and innovative of the three. But why weren’t other great pioneers of jazz considered legends? Why not Earl Hines, a man who so revolutionized jazz piano that it took more than a decade for someone else (Art Tatum) to catch up to him? And why not Tatum, the greatest soloist in the history of jazz? Or Joe Venuti, Lester Young, Ken Kersey (one of the most original jazz pianists I’ve ever heard in my life), Charlie Christian, or Thelonious Monk? Possibly because, except for Christian, none of them died before they were 40. There’s something to be said for dying young in the jazz world, particularly if you have a load of talent.
But to return to Rollins: he was actually the one who pioneered the flat, vibratoless yet powerful sound on the tenor sax that we now associate with modern players of that instrument. He was also a relentless pursuer of high quality in his performances, extremely self-critical, thoughtful and yet always one who played from the heart as well as from the mind. Gunther Schuller once broke down and analyzed Rollins’ solo on Blue Seven in 1958 (“sonny rollins and challenge of thematic improv”), but Rollins didn’t like the article; he thought it was fine so far as it went in terms of notation, but missed the emotional point of his playing. And, as in the case of late-period Coltrane, some jazz critics bristled against Rollins’ half-hour-long a cappella solos. Personally, I like several of them. I think they are real manifestations of genius, but I hold in reserve my right to criticize parts of them because, after all, when one is opening several different doors at the same time, not all of them lead to a clear route or an exit.
Above all else, Sonny Rollins is a very human jazz improviser. By that I mean, whenever and whatever he plays is completely him, without filters, without artifice. Who can ever forget the time he was in the midst of one of his long solos when he inadvertently walked off the stage, breaking his leg—and yet kept on playing? It wasn’t just a show of macho-ism. It wasn’t egotism. Sonny just really wanted to finish that solo because he wasn’t finished yet!!
One could go on and on ad infinitum about Rollins and his commitment to music, and it’s a shame that he has somehow been shuffled out of the deck in favor of hot young bucks who also play tenor. Among the many treasures I have by Rollins in my collection, two of my favorites are the albums he made during his brief tenure as Harold Land’s successor in the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. I don’t think Sonny ever sounded more utterly joyous than when he was playing with Brownie, who he idolized. Rollins was personally devastated by Brown’s death, so much so that he couldn’t bring himself to play with another trumpeter for a few years, and when the live set recorded at the Bee Hive was released on LP in the early 1970s, Rollins couldn’t even bring himself to listen to it. That’s how deeply this man feels about his music and his friends.
You may find other saxists besides Sonny Rollins whose playing you like more, but you’ll never find one whose playing is more committed, more real, more human. Sonny Rollins is one of jazz’s great gentlemen in both the general and specific definitions of that word. I’m not generally the kind of woman who celebrates artists’ birthdays—I don’t even celebrate my own, so why should I?—but in this case I wish a very happy birthday to “Newk,” as he was known (due to his close resemblance to the great Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe), because he has, and will always have, a very special place in my heart.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley