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Born in 1930, Sonny Rollins grew up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem and has been at the center of the jazz universe ever since. The saxophonist fell in love with the playing of Coleman Hawkins (who lived in his neighborhood) and Charlie Parker and came to be tutored by the great Thelonious Monk. He played with legends like Miles Davis and Bud Powell before he was 20, and went on to become a legend himself, recording such classic albums as 'Way Out West' and 'Saxophone Colossus' in the '50s. Not only did he record as a leader but appeared on landmark albums from the Modern Jazz Quartet, Monk, Davis and Max Roach/Clifford Brown.
After taking a legendary sabbatical from 1959-61 during which he woodshedded on the Williamsburg Bridge, he returned with breakthrough album 'The Bridge' and subsequently went on to release such landmark efforts as the soundtrack to the film 'Alfie' and 'East Broadway Run Down.' He took another break in the late '60s before returning to recording in 1972 as one of the few sure things in jazz, playing forward-thinking bebop with the same power he had as a youth, even as everyone else seemed to go electric. These days, he's one of the few jazz musicians who plays theaters around the worldbut even more than that, Rollins, along with his friend Ornette Coleman and very few others, are bone fide jazz legends that are still with us today. We recently caught up with Rollins at his farm in the Hudson River Valley to discuss his relentless perfectionism, his approach to composing and improvisation and his time spent practicing on the Bridge.
You are famous for being critical of yourself. If you don't like what you hear, why keep doing it?
Why do I keep hitting my head against the wall? I have an ideal, a certain vision that I feel I can get closer to. I realize that I'm never going to be perfect, but I feel that I can get better, that I am progressing toward the light at the end of the tunnel. Recently, I've gotten close enough that I'm a little more satisfied with my work. That's one thing: I'm making progress. The other thing is I love playing my horn. Right now I have a sore lip and I have not been able to play in four nights, so I'm about to go crazy. I just like playing and can't conceive of life without blowing my horn.
Sonny Rollins Performs 'St. Thomas'
What was your routine when you took time off from performing in the late-'50s and early-'60s?
I was talking to a friend the other day who came with me to practice on the Williamsburg Bridge sometimes. We were up there one day in the winter for a few hours, and then we walked down off the bridge to warm up. We went and got some cognac and he thought, Gee, we've had a nice day." I said to him, Now let's go back." He couldn't say no at the time, but he was freezing. He tells me this now. [Laughs] I love playing and I love practicing.
Some musicians practice less as they get older.
It's a spiritual thing to me, practicing. It's a way of communicating. Back when I was studying in India, I was talking to my guru one day and I said to him, Swami, I have a lot of trouble sitting down and concentrating to get into a meditative place," and he tells me, When you play your horn you are meditating." And that's true because when I play I am in a meditative state. Fortunately, it's something that comes naturally to me.
What about composing? It's obviously a different thing, but is it an outgrowth of your playing?
I used to go to the piano and work out a song when I was on deadline, but I don't do that much anymore. I'm a horn player and an improviser, so I go by the melody that I hear in my head. Then I try and write things down. They'll keep going around in my head, jumping around up there until they work out into something. That comes out when I'm playingideas will come to me and I figure it will be a nice motif. Then I'll turn it into a nice composition.
When you bring a new tune to the band, what is your approach?
I familiarize myself with the material. Say if I'm improvising on something like 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'I'll know the melody and have the harmonic progressions. Once I absorb that, I go completely into the blank slate and let whatever happens happen.
That's the way I did it when I was a little boy. When I had my first saxophone, I used to go into the bedroom and I'd be in there for hours and hoursI didn't know what the heck I was doing with the horn. There was a sort of stream of consciousness even back then. The only thing that's changed is that over the years I was forced to learn different rudimentary thingsI had to read a little music and learn how to recognize chord patterns and all these things. Really, I'm playing the way I was as a little boy when I got my first alto saxophone. I go in the closet and play and my mom would have to call me for dinner because I would be in my reverie.
Your last album, 'Road Shows, Vol. 1,' came out in 2008. Can we expect to see a new album from you this year?
I'm working on 'Road Shows, Volume 2.' I'm a little behind schedule because of this bad weather we've had this year, but I sort of have an idea of where we are going to go so it shouldn't take long to get it all together. I'm planning to have it done so it can have a fall release. I'll take stuff from this year and maybe previous years. Anything I feel is up to standard. I have a lot of material from prior years, but I'll try and really be focusing on this year just because I want to showcase some things I'm doing now not what I was doing five years ago.
I love jazz because it is a pure American music and can be expressed in different ways depending upon the artist.
I was first exposed to jazz while as a teenager I listened to Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong, on a jazz
radio station in New York City.