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Sonny Rollins Honored at the Whitehouse

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The Man, who personified art, gets a medal for it. At last.

“Jazz is life," the legend, Sonny Rollins, told me a couple of years back. “It's what happens every minute of every day. It's fresh and new. Creative, just like life itself."

It's kind of a summary, and yet the tip of the iceberg with Sonny, who at age 80 is still going strong. Breathing fire. Shaking tree limbs to see what falls. Taking what comes through his head and heart—and soul—and shaping it into beautiful and astounding sounds that spring from the bell of his tenor saxophone. Joyous. Dark. Expressive. Exploring.

Sonny Rollins is still the man. The grand master of all the genre, bar none. The reigning shaman. He's got legions of fans around the globe. He's revered in the jazz world.

And today he was honored at the White House when he was bestowed with the National Medal of Arts.

There were others, of course, a group of 10 that included the very deserving Quincy Jones and James Taylor. Actress Meryl Streep. Some other cats.

But my bow goes to Sonny. He's above them all (even though media accounts will list him among “others awarded..." What the fuck is that? Ok...ok...I know what that is.)

No one is more deserving. He's our kind and he's still going strong. No figurehead, he.

Last year pianist Mark Soskin related to me how he on the phone with Sonny at about 11:30 at night, discussing an upcoming gig he was to play with the sax titan. Sonny was practicing his horn.

On top of being a great musician, he's a highly evolved man. Great guy. My encounters with him are always warm and he always has a personal touch, usually asking about Saratoga Springs and the Albany area (he doesn't live all that far away). In fact, he can talk about anything, pretty much, and isn't shy with his opinions. (Nor is he pushy with them).

He takes life as it comes and tries to help people deal with its vagaries through his music.

On his website appears one short stateme4nt “I'm very happy that jazz, the greatest American music, is being recognized through this honor, and I'm grateful to accept this award on behalf of the gods of our music."

He's able to speak on behalf of the gods because he's one of them. Has been for a long time. That's my opinion (and the opinion of MANY), not Sonny's. if, down in his heart, he knows that to be true, you won't hear him say it. But I feel he knows his place. He walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Monk and Miles and Mingus and Coltrane and Blakey and Hawk. Bird and Diz. He and Trane shook up the world around the same time and they admired each other, the rivalry, he states, “more from our fans. We were good friends. Hanging out. Coltrane used to come by my house a lot. We were good, good personal friends. In fact, him and Monk, I think, were my closest friends, personal friends off the bandstand. Just as friends that I had in the music business."

Sonny was one of those with the biggest stride, biggest footprint the golden age of jazz but has never stopped. “I don't miss it," he told me. “It's just, that was the way it was. It was sort of the golden age. I was very fortunate to be alive in the golden age of music."

I could write a lot more about the man, but rather than drag up our old conversations, I re-submit a story I wrote on the Man for All About Jazz not long ago, in 2009.

Congratulations, Sonny. Bravo.

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This story appears courtesy of RJ on Jazz by R.J. DeLuke.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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