Jazz for the Ages

According to most music historians, saxophonist Sonny Rollins made his first trip to a studio on January 20, 1949, in support of vocalist Babs Gonzales. He was only eighteen years old at the time, but by all accounts, the talent that made him one of the top instrumentalists in jazz's history were already in full flower.

Cut to late January 1999--almost fifty years to the day after that inaugural session. Rollins is sitting in his comfortable home in the Hudson Valley section of New York State, and when he's asked about having just marked a half-century as a recording artist, he's momentarily caught off guard. After a pause, he says, "I believe you're right about that. I think the first one was with Babs Gonzales, and it would have been around that period--if not 1949, then 1948, because I got out of high school in 1948, and it wouldn't have been any earlier than that for a commercial recording."

The follow-up question is obvious: Does reaching this benchmark have any special significance? He responds with a good-humored chuckle. "Never crossed my mind until you just said it...I'm still a performing artist. I still have to compete with people out here--young kids out here today. I still have to write music that is relevant, and I still use young people to help me make it. So I'm still very much involved with today. And I really don't look back too much."

If he did, he'd have plenty to peruse. Rollins is arguably jazz's greatest living icon, a performer whose finest work deserves to be stacked alongside that of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis--all of whom collaborated with him at one time or another. Albums such as A Night at the Village Vanguard, Freedom Suite, Tenor Madness and (especially) Saxophone Colossus are high-water marks in American music, but they're also something more. Simply put, these platters contain the roots of practically all the wonderful jazz that's followed. Today artists such as Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman routinely win praise for their saxophone acumen even though most of their techniques were established and all but perfected by Rollins and a bare handful of others many decades ago.

Unlike some of his contemporaries (which are fewer and fewer), Rollins doesn't belittle the efforts of his Nineties acolytes. But neither does he pretend that they're plowing new ground. "I feel that the era in which I started playing was kind of a golden era," he says. "We had all these incredible musicians who were around and playing--Basie and Billie Holiday--and people from the older era were still around, too. So the Forties and the Fifties and into the Sixties was a golden period, and you can't expect the young kids coming up today to still be making that much good music. And that's why I'm not that critical of young people who might sound as if they're aping the sound of the past. I think that it's perfectly understandable and apropos for them to retrench and listen to some of the older stuff and try to absorb some of the music from back then.

"I don't expect every generation to reach that level," he goes on. "You're not going to have John Coltrane and Bud Powell and Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins playing all at the same time, as we had in the Fifties. So let these young guys learn the music, and I'm sure there'll be another golden age eventually."

Until then, those wishing to experience the thrill of jazz at its most invigorating would do well to trace the life of Rollins, a man whose unstoppable drive and bottomless integrity have helped him overcome his flaws, doubts and weaknesses. He was born in New York City in 1930, and although his parents were of Caribbean descent, most of the music he heard was classical, thanks to older siblings who'd been trained in the genre. (The influence of such music on Rollins is seldom cited, but the structural solidity of even his most far-out solos has a corollary in the carefully crafted compositions of the classical masters.) He began his training on piano, but a visit to a horn-playing uncle changed all that. By his high-school years, he was a strong enough saxophonist to more than hold his own with Monk and other cats he encountered at Harlem jazz joints. His 1949 turn with singer Gonzales was quickly followed by studio visits under the tutelage of the aforementioned pianist Bud Powell and trumpeter Fats Navarro, frequently cited by Davis as a key inspiration.

The company Rollins kept during the next several years was just as impressive: He performed with Parker and alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean (a pal since high school), and he can be heard throughout the Davis LPs Dig and Bags' Groove, as well as on Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins, one of jazz's more timeless pairings. But the early albums made under his own name--specifically Sonny Rollins With the Modern Jazz Quartet and Moving Out, featuring the incredible drumming of Art Blakey and a cameo by Monk--only hinted at the marvelous sounds he would begin making in 1956, the year of his commercial and critical breakthrough. He made Sonny Rollins Plus 4, Tenor Madness, Saxophone Colossus, Tour De Force and Sonny Rollins Vol. 1 over the course of just nine months, a stunning blast of creativity so hot that the music has hardly aged since. The songs Rollins was writing were becoming more and more interesting, but what made them indelible were solos that exhibited strength, smarts and an unmatched ability to move abruptly from calm to rage, sadness to bliss, seriousness to humor. In a minute or two, he was capable of constructing a road map of human emotion out of thin air.

The next three years produced more tremendous accomplishments, including 1957's astonishing Village Vanguard efforts and 1958's Freedom Suite, a full-length whose sweeping title cut dealt explicitly with the burgeoning civil-rights movement. But as the Fifties were coming to an end, Rollins did the unthinkable--he left the jazz scene for the better part of two years. The reasons for this decision had much to do with Rollins's growing fear that the lifestyle's drugs and liquor would kill him if he didn't abandon them. "When I was coming up, all the guys used to drink a lot of whiskey and smoke a lot of cigarettes," he notes. "That was the way, the sort of macho way to do it, and since I wanted to be like my idol, [saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins, I did that, too. But in the 1950s, I began reading a lot of spiritual books and I got into yoga and Zen and all of these things. And I began to realize that the mind has to be housed in a good body and that taking care of the body is all part of the picture. So I started doing a lot of physical exercises, and I began eating right and trying to eliminate bad habits like smoking and so forth."

This ascetic regimen was coupled with Rollins's effort to deepen his playing skills via regular trips to the Williamsburg Bridge, where he would allow his gorgeous tone to fill the night. Today Rollins says his twilight excursions were dictated primarily by practical concerns: "I'm a city boy, and I was always living in small apartments where I was never able to do my thing whenever I wanted to do it. I always felt constricted." But the image of one of jazz's most gifted performers standing alone on a bridge and making beautiful noises for no one other than the passing birds is an undeniably romantic one. A barely fictionalized story by writer Ralph Berton eventually blew Rollins's cover, but it also inspired him to emerge from self-imposed exile and sign with a new label, RCA. The first album he made following his return is called The Bridge, and the music on it proved that those solitary nights had not been spent in vain.

Several of the long-players Rollins made during the Sixties are on par with his peak performances: Sonny Meets Hawk, in which Rollins jousts with his mentor, Hawkins, and The Standard Sonny Rollins are cases in point. Both of these efforts can be heard in their entirety on The Complete Sonny Rollins RCA Victor Recordings, a welcome supplement to the Rollins catalogue that hit stores in 1997. Rollins participated in the assembling of the set to some degree, thanks to the persistence of compiler Orrin Keepnews, who produced many of his recordings. But Rollins's enthusiasm for such projects is notably muted.

"It's flattering to a certain extent," he says, "and if I get compensated adequately--which is not the case with bootlegs--then there's something to be said for reissues. But when I wake up, is the first thing I do is turn on a 1950s Sonny Rollins record? No. There's just not enough time to get really involved in things from the past."

The music Rollins made immediately following the end of his association with RCA, in 1964, is a bit spotty. He never truly warmed up to either the free jazz introduced by Ornette Coleman or the late-period experimentation of Coltrane, and as the decade was winding down, he took another extended sabbatical instead of coming to terms with these developments in public. Upon his return, in the early Seventies, he sounded as energetic as ever, but a certain air of caution was present. More often than not, he focused on polishing and refining his style rather than attempting to break new ground--and this pattern has continued into the Nineties. There's much to recommend on 1993's lovely Old Flames, on which Rollins consorts with a brass choir headed by flugelhornist Jon Faddis, and 1996's Sonny Rollins + 3, a solid series of quartet offerings supplemented by gifted accompanists like pianists Stephen Scott and Tommy Flanagan and drummer Jack DeJohnette, but mind-blowing they aren't. His performances can be erratic as well. During a 1991 appearance at the Boulder Theater, for instance, he spent most of the set conserving his energy for a breathtaking ten-minute solo that he delivered on stage by himself. Fortunately, this last display more than justified the price of admission as well as the occasional tedium that preceded it.

Global Warming, Rollins's latest CD for the Fantasy imprint, is a more recent example of what he can do when his attention is fully engaged. The disc is concerned with what Rollins calls "the moral, spiritual issue involved in the despoliation of the natural environment, which I tried to get at through instrumental music." This was a daunting task, Rollins concedes, and when he completed the album, worried representatives from Fantasy urged him to be more literal about the ideas at the heart of tracks such as "Mother Nature's Blues." But beyond speaking the words "And then there were no more" at the conclusion of "Clear-Cut Boogie" and penning a brief poem ("Live light on the planet, sister and brother/'Cause if we kill it, there ain't no other/Not that much time left neither") for the album's jacket, he resisted the temptation to be explicit.

"I wanted to do this instrumentally, because that's who I am," he says. "I do everything through that prism. Now, it's quite possible that adding lyrics in some places may have been effective, but there's a danger in doing that. Things can get too preachy, and you don't want to preach at people. It's a very dangerous line to tread. When the record-label people asked me to write a little something for the cover, I did it, because I'd done something like that on Freedom Suite, and there was a precedent. But I want to make sure that I don't become an orator. I'm not interested in talking to people in that way, and lyrics, in my view, can be a way of cheating. I like to feel that in jazz improvisation, a very special space is created where you can get your message across within that. That was my challenge."

In some regards, Rollins doesn't quite achieve this goal: It's entirely possible to listen to the disc and not pick up the themes underlying it. But the CD as a whole is as consistently engaging as any that Rollins has produced during the Nineties. "Island Lady" turns on one of Rollins's brighter melodies, "Echo-Side Blue" is mournful in a singularly ravishing way, the title cut sports merrily dancing verses and a touch of kalimba, and "Change Partners" swings effortlessly enough to entertain strip-miners and Green Party members alike.

Rollins is modest about his ambitions for Global Warming: He characterizes the recording as "my little contribution to the cause." But he gets downright passionate when discussing the need to put preservation ahead of development. "There are two different ways of thinking and two different ways of reading the Bible," he says. "One group of people can read the Bible and think that it says that the earth is ours to exploit and to use. And another can read the same passage and think that it says the earth is here to take care of and not to ravage. These are fundamental differences that we need to discuss, but we're not discussing them, because the voices that can speak to these things are being blotted out by TV and all of the stupidness that passes for modern-day life. But I still have hope that grassroots people will eventually make politicians do something. And if I'm part of that, I'm happy."

In the meantime, Rollins is intent upon pushing himself for as long as he can. At an age when most musicians give themselves a break, he practices every day, even when he isn't planning to tour or record anytime soon. "I'm not setting out to come up with some specific thing when I'm practicing," he insists. "I'm just trying to have a facility over the instrument--to get really at home and have a general familiarity with the instrument to the extent that I'm able to do whatever comes into my mind. Well, you might say, 'Gee, you've been playing all your life. You ought to be familiar with it by now.' But that's the way it is. You never get complete mastery over an instrument. People like Segovia, they practiced every day. Musicians still have to bend the physical body and the mind to these rudimentary things every day to keep them in place. So practice is very necesary--and since I love to practice, it's no problem for me."

By keeping his chops up, Rollins hopes that he will be able to perform at a high level for years to come--and that's important to him for reasons that go well beyond vanity. "I want to represent myself well, but I also want to represent the period that I come from. I know that I have gotten a very formidable reputation over the years, so I feel I have to play for that. But I'm also playing for Monk and all those guys who aren't around to play for themselves anymore. When people see me, they expect to hear something good, and I feel an obligation to do that for them. But it's not a lot of pressure. I'm trying to be good anyway, so it's nothing outside of what I'm already doing. And performance is the pinnacle. That's where it all comes together. I can learn in one second on the stage what it might take me six months of practicing in the studio to do."

Many fledgling performers who've seen Rollins in concert over the years write to him for advice, and he tries to provide them with practical suggestions--"mainly about practicing a lot," he admits. But while he hasn't heard anything by such admirers to suggest that a new jazz day is just around the corner, he isn't concerned.

"I think that the whole concept of jazz is so vital that it will always be with us," he says. "The very idea of spontaneous improvisation is as young as a baby and as old as Methuselah. It's everything in one. Jazz has within it the seeds of eternity."

Sonny Rollins. 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 24, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $26.25-$36.50, 303-786-7030.


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