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Why Sonny Rollins Matters


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Last Sunday, Sonny Rollins was at the White House to receive the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors from President Obama and then at the annual Kennedy Center gala, which will be broadcast on Dec. 27 on CBS. Sonny must be on a first-name basis with front-gate guards by now, since he was just at the White House in March to receive a National Medal of Arts award.

Such recognition is important. After a lifetime spent toiling in the arts, Sonny was being honored for his accomplishments and contributions.But these awards also recognize jazz as an American art form and, more subtly, they celebrate jazz's pivotal role in uniting blacks and whites in the '50s, and paving the way for the civil rights movement of the '60s.

Jazz fans know that Sonny dramatically changed the sound of the tenor sax. Before Sonny, the two dominant saxophonists were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Hawkins had a more aggressive attack that filled every inch of space with improvisational courage while Young had a softer, more luxurious feel that used space and notes strategically.

By the time Sonny began recording steadily as a leader in 1954 (Movin' Out), the market was saturated with saxophonists who had deftly incorporated Young's style. Many of these saxophonists were such skilled swingers that they wound up eclipsing Young himself. Many black jazz artists at the time viewed this bitterly as esthetic piracy—similar to how the Delta blues were lifted by white record labels and bands of the '20s and '30s for mass-market commercial gain.

For black musicians of Sonny's generation, jazz wasn't performance art, the way it was for intellectual white, bohemian audiences. Instead, it was socio-political music that was intertwined with the early struggles for racial equality and an end to separate societies and social services. Jazz was, of course, art first and foremost. But it also was a means of black expression, a language that enabled black artists to say things about injustice, freedom and oppression that they couldn't say with words for fear of facing physical harm or commercial blacklisting. There's a reason Airegin is Nigeria spelled backward.

By 1955 (Worktime), Sonny's sound is distinctly different than Hawkins' or Young's. Actually, it's less of a style and more of a statement. But beyond Sonny's bossy, commanding and eely attack, his saxophone statement couldn't be imitated. It was moving too fast, too smart and too creatively. There was no formula to be cloned, no mouthpiece setting, no special reed. Which was important. When Sonny practiced as often as he did (and still does), part of the unintended reflex was to ensure that no one could come close to mirroring his instrumental voice.

By listening to Sonny, John Coltrane and several other black saxophonists of that generation understood why it was so important to sound different and impossible to copy. This desire transcended art and individualism. The sound and technique needed to be so special that they would not be able to be duplicated. 

That was Sonny in the '50s. So when Sonny says in the video clip below that he was accepting the Kennedy Center award for all of jazz, there's really a subtext. He's accepting it for all the jazz musicians who invented a sound and were able to protect what was theirs from cloning and exploitation. 

Sonny Rollins still prides himself on being one of kind. As history shows us, it's not especially easy being one of a kind, particularly if everyone wants what you have. Congratulations Sonny! Probably even sweeter than roofing the Spaldine on Edgecombe Ave.

JazzWax clip: Here's Sonny being celebrated at the White House and hitting the red carpet after. Listen how the reporters ask great questions but then grow quiet as Sonny explains in beautiful terms why the honor is special...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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