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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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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