Courtesy of Sonny Rollins
copyright Mike Perry




Sonny Rollins is one of the most heralded jazz musicians of our time. His style has influenced a countless number of musicians and his music has entertained a generation. Yet, this man is often times misrepresented as being ambiguous or involved. It may be because he prefers to stay away from "jazz" clubs and only ventures on stage for festivals or concert halls. It may be because he is not the prolific recorder he once was. Whatever the reasons may be, Rollins is still one of the most influential jazz figures of our time and there is no denying that he is indeed a superstar. From his home in New York, Rollins spoke candidly about his career, his thoughts, his future, and his upcoming return to Los Angeles. I did this Fireside in October of '98 and this was my second interview on record (my first was with Horace Tapscott). I was in awe of the man and still am today. Rollins has always been gracious to me and my respect for the artist and the man has grown through the years. I am honored to give you a glimpse into one of my favorites, Sonny Rollins, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Do you feel that major record labels are neglecting jazz and often times do not promote jazz artists and their music nearly as well as they should?

SONNY ROLLINS: I think the problem starts with the general appreciation of the music in the larger society. So in a sense a record company is just doing what they are capable of doing, which is to sell records. So in a way, yes, to that they don't do enough and, no, that it's only their fault.

FJ: So do you feel jazz should try and change its content then, to gain a broader audience?

SONNY ROLLINS: No, I don't think it is should at all. I think all that's really necessary for a wider audience is, well, first, let me say that it has a wide audience. Jazz has an audience all around the globe and has had for many decades, I think speaking of the United States, let's say that what we need is more of an official recognition. You know I would like to see something like a weekly radio show, a jazz show, a regular jazz show on the air. So I don't think there is a need to change. I don't think jazz should try to change. I think jazz is varied enough and there is so many different kinds of jazz. So jazz doesn't need to change. I think what we need is a more welcoming mode from the people who put on a hundred million country-western shows on television. How about a monthly jazz show?

FJ: You often perform in the Bay Area and in New York, and the public in those cities respond accordingly. Do you fell Los Angeles lacks that same response and is that why you rarely perform here?

SONNY ROLLINS: I feel that L.A. has not always been my strongest base for support. That can be for various reasons. If I wanted to be self-congratulatory, I guess I could say people in L.A. are shallow or something like this. I mean it's certainly been said often enough. And that the people in L.A. like glitz more than they like depth. But that sounds kind of trite to say that and even though there may be a grain of truth there, it's a difficult place. It's a difficult place for jazz as a rule. I don't know all of the reasons why. Maybe it's too spread out. I have been received there well at times over the years, so I shouldn't make a blanket statement about myself and L.A. But it's true, Fred, that the Bay Area and other parts of the world seem to be more responsive to jazz in general. It maybe not necessarily myself, but I think to many jazz artists. Many jazz artists go to L.A. seeking a more comfortable life and then they really stop playing. I can name a lot of people whose productive, whose creativity dies when they got L.A. Maybe it's too laid back. It's too comfortable. Whatever it is, it is always an occasion when I come to L.A. because it's always another chance to confront the ogre.

FJ: When was the last time you played in Los Angeles?

SONNY ROLLINS: I think the last time I came to L.A., I performed at the Hollywood Bowl. No, I think the first time I was in the L.A. area was, as a matter of fact, I played at a place which is now defunct, the Ambassador College, which is near Pasadena and they had a jazz series over there but I understand the college is now defunct. That was the last time I played there and I had a very nice show that time, a very nice sold out show. And the show at the Hollywood Bowl, I was not there by myself. It was a few other people on that show. It was a part of giant festival, but I wasn't too happy with that. But I was a little bit more pleased with the other performance that we had the Ambassador College. I don't want to appear hostile, like I'm hostile to L.A. or that I feel that the people don't appreciate jazz. I don't think it's that. I think it's something more. It's something a little bit more complicated than that.

FJ: Steve Lacy once referred to your knowledge of the horn as "he loves the horn and very few people know the horn inside out like Sonny." Can you describe your relationship with the tenor saxophone?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, that's very nice of him to say that. I'm a person who might be described as in a perfect marriage in that I enjoy playing my instrument whether or not I am working and whether or not I am making money. I usually enjoy just practicing and playing in my own den, in my own studio at home. However, as we know that's not the point and if you get any kind of reaction from your friends, why then you have to really go out to play. So it's not just about playing for myself, but I can, and I could do that cause I enjoy it very much. It's an integral part of my life. I have to practice and if I am not playing I have got to always practice a little bit or else I begin to feel ill and I wonder what's wrong with me and I realize I haven't practiced in a couple of days and something is wrong. So it's very much a part of me, therefore, I really shouldn't care about the monetary things as long as I can play my horn, but as you know we're living in an economic system, so we have to make money so to speak, and therefore, we are in that bind. But if I didn't have to make money, I would still play my horn.

FJ: Do you feel that jazz has reached its peak? If so, in what period of jazz history did that peak occur in? Do you think it is possible to reach those heights again?

SONNY ROLLINS: There was a period which I refer to as the "Golden Age of Jazz," which sort of encompasses the middle Thirties through the Sixties, right around the middle of the century when we had a lot of great innovators, all creating things which will last the world for a long, long time. We will always have people that will be playing like Erroll Garner coming up, to name one example, but there's so many. This sort of happened right around the middle of the century. At the moment there are still people playing, young musicians trying to create and carry on the tradition. There is just not as many and there is not as many varied ways, as say there was in the middle century when you had Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. You had all of those people active around that period. All were active, so you had a great golden age. We don't have that many people playing at the moment, so I would say we are not in the midst of a golden age right now, but these things go in cycles and I have every reason to believe that if the planet can survive for the next generation, we will see some more wonderful things happen in jazz, because jazz is a music that is open ended. It's all about creation and surprise. It just needs to be appreciated and watered like flowers. You have to water flowers. These peaks will come again. I am sure, Fred. What I am more concerned about is whether our whole civilization will be around in the next 25 years. I think we are in the midst of this period where we are committing this suicide on the planet and everybody is just using up all of our natural resources like a bunch of insane people. That's what I worry about more than I worry about jazz. I think as long as people are around and can hear a record and hear people like Lester Young on a recording, there will always be a great inspiration for somebody to try to create jazz.

FJ: You have had a long-standing relationship with Milestone. How have the two, artist and label, been able to coexist so well?

SONNY ROLLINS: My relationship with Milestone came out of the fact that I had sort of gotten out of the recoding business during the latter part of the Sixties. I had some problems with some of the recording companies at that time, who were very commercially minded and not really very receptive towards jazz. So I sort of got out of recording. Then I was lured back into it around 1971 by a fellow that used to have Riverside Records. I recorded with him in the Fifties. He went with Milestone eventually and transferred my contract with him over to Milestone. Milestone seemed to be a label which was very laid back. Nobody told me what to do, what to record, when to record, and I missed that, which was precisely what I wanted. As I have indicated before, I am a person who thinks about the music first in trying to achieve something musically valid. So that's what I'm concerned about and Milestone seemed to be a company which was immutable to my irregular recording production. That's why I have been with them all this time and we seem to have a good relationship, precisely because of that reason.

FJ: And how about RCA?

SONNY ROLLINS: When I went with RCA, that was sort of a break-through of sorts. I received a large monetary contract over there, which was pretty high at that time for a jazz artist. That happened after I had went into a sight sabbatical, practicing on the bridge, and that got a lot of attention from the press and built up this sort of a legend, which I guess will never die, a musician practicing on the bridge at night. Probably because of that and the media attention, I received this nice contract with RCA, and they were OK. I stayed with them and fulfilled my contract. I had about six made at that time. I did about six albums with them. I did try to work with them more in a way, although I am always my own producer because I am not that type of musician that can do what somebody else wants me to do. There's a lot of other musicians who can do things better than I can, so I have to be an individualistic player. People that want me have to want me. We had a nice relationship. I don't think I really had any big problems over there. The two situations in a way are both similar. In other words, I had a certain amount of autonomy over there, actually quite similar. I have autonomy now with Milestone and I had autonomy with RCA. One of the things in my RCA contract that I specified was that I would have free run of the RCA studios in New York. That I could go up there any time I wanted and practice, any hour of the night and any time of the day. They had recording studios in New York and I was living a little small apartment. So I said I will sign the contract but I have to be able to practice any time I want to. They had all these big studios and they were sitting there all hours of the day and I am sure some of them are empty. So they said OK, good enough. It was one of the things I enjoyed while I was with RCA.

FJ: "St. Thomas" has become one of your most classic tunes. How did the composition come about?

SONNY ROLLINS: "St. Thomas" is actually an island melody, sort of a traditional island melody, so all I did was sort of make my arrangement on it. My mother came from St. Thomas. She was born there and she used to sing that to me when I was a little boy. I heard that melody and all I did was actually adapt it. I made my adaptation of sort of an island traditional melody. It did become sort of my trademark tune.

FJ: Earlier in your career you played the club scene. Now, you seem to have a preference for the larger concert or festival environment. Do you feel more at home now in the concern environment? What was the catalyst that made you prefer one over the other?

SONNY ROLLINS: I enjoy playing clubs. I still enjoy the closeness of the nightclub venue. I enjoy clubs. However, after a certain period of time and after playing around some of the clubs in New York, different places I've played, Vanguard and some of these clubs. I felt that jazz should be presented in a more prestigious atmosphere and also I felt that it was more prestigious for me as an artist to appear at Carnegie Hall than to appear at the Downbeat Club or whatever. And it is. I have always been a person who is concerned with the dignity of jazz music and the way jazz musicians have been treated and are treated, and the fact that the music has not been given the kind of due that it deserves. I have seen great jazz musicians die obscure and drinking themselves to death and not really being able to get any work and working in small, funky jazz clubs. So I myself said well this shouldn't be. So at a certain point when I began to command a flowing, I started accepting only jobs in concert halls. Now this was good for the prestige of jazz and it was good for my prestige. So I was thinking of myself, but also of the music in general, the fact that a jazz artist, a jazz saxophone player like myself could go into concert halls all over the world and perform there, just like you would have your famous opera stars and concert artists. I guess I felt what jazz was due, jazz music should get. So it was quite a career decision for me to do this. This is what I am going to do and this is how I want to be presented. I do feel nightclubs present a very congenial atmosphere for playing jazz and they're very nice and I get a nice feeling playing clubs, but over all I am happy with my decision to play in larger venues. Occasionally, we play in showcase clubs, on occasion. So occasionally, we play larger clubs called showcase clubs. There's a club in New York called Tramps that we played in that is not a jazz club. It's bigger and sometimes we've played at the Bottom Line, but those would be the exceptions. So this is the reason why I decided to go the concert hall route and I hope that I've done some good and I think I have because I have seen other artists playing concerts in Europe and different places.

FJ: Do you find that European and Japanese audiences are different from the audiences you play for in the United States?

SONNY ROLLINS: I have to be careful how I answer this because my wife is here and every time somebody says that European audiences are so great and American audiences are so backwards, she always defends Americans. She's a real America's first person. What I can say is that for may years jazz musicians had to go to Europe, for instance, to be respected and to be sort of treated not in a discriminatory way. I don't think there is anything controversial about me saying that. This is just a fact. You had many jazz musicians who lived in the United States, who had a hard time being accepted over here and had to play in sort of these inferior type dives. So they ended up going to Europe, where the people in Europe have a much more tradition of music appreciation in general. Even the most jingoistic person would have to admit that even American cultural music comes from Europe. That's what classical music is, real European music. So the people over there have a very advanced appreciation of music and they recognize the power and the beauty and the wonderfulness of jazz. They really provided many venues over there and hailed the jazz artists, and a lot of musicians went over there and stayed over there for a long time. A lot of them moved over there, lived over there, and died over there. That is changing to some extent in more recent times. I have just as enthusiastic audiences here as I have in Europe. That has changed. I can't say you only have to go to Europe. I'm fortunate in that respect. There are a lot of jazz musicians, however, who do have to go to Europe and most of their work is in Europe. That's not true for me. I work in the United States as much as I work in Europe. I go to Europe and maybe once every eighteen months. I go to Japan once very eighteen months. And I am appreciated there, but I am also appreciated here. So I don't want to perpetuate this myth that only the people in Europe understand jazz. No, the people all over understand jazz. It is just a matter as I've said before, that we have to have some kind of official recognition, which gets into social issues and questions again. I have many fans here in the United States and I work here and I am appreciated here, I think, as well as I am over there really. The Japanese fans are nice but Japanese fans, as you know like to copy things that are American, and Europeans also. They appreciate jazz and they appreciate a lot of things, but there is a large American following for jazz. I am fortunate that I am able to work in the United States and pick certain times when we want to go to Europe and we will go then when we feel it is time for us to over there and in Japan. I certainly feel that American audiences have caught up to a great extent in their appreciation of jazz. My wife will be happy to hear me say that.

FJ: You have recorded nearly fifty albums. Is there any one album or albums that have a special significance to you?

SONNY ROLLINS: No, not really. I am very much a perfectionist and I am not very interested in self-aggrandizement. There's no one album, no. There's certain pieces on various albums that if I had to put together an album or something I might come up with a few pieces on there that I'm reasonably satisfied with. No, I'm not ready yet to pick out a favorite album. I still find it excruciating to listen to my own work.

FJ: Are there any musicians that you have worked with in the past that you would like to work with again?

SONNY ROLLINS: There's a lot of musicians I miss working with from the past because fortunately, I have played with so many of these guys. I've played with Monk. I've played with Miles. I've played with Trane. I've played with Bud Powell. I've played with Dizzy Gillespie. I've played with Clifford Brown. I've played with all of the heavyweights in the modern jazz, progressive jazz movement. I've been fortunate enough to play with them, a who's who. All of those guys, I've been fortunate enough to have performed with. So those that aren't here, I can certainly say that yes, I miss playing with them. I miss playing with Miles. I did play with him a little while before he left the planet, but even at that time I longed to maybe do some things together. So all of those guys, I, in a way, miss playing with them. I just happen to be, I guess fortunate that I'm still around and I emphasize I guess because you never can tell what musicians would be playing had they been around as long as I have. There have been many great musicians that, Clifford Brown is one great example, I mean he died very early, 25. A lot of guys died very early. Very few guys, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, very few of those guys reached my age of 67, which I am at the present. Sure there are always exceptions, but as a rule, the innovators, most of these guys aren't around. So who knows what they would sound like if they were around as long as I am. I don't know. But if I think back, yeah, I can think back on playing with them on some great musical experiences I had with them, sure.

FJ: Are there any musicians today that have caught your eye?

SONNY ROLLINS: Yeah, I like James Carter, the saxophonist. I like Kenny Garrett, the saxophonist. I like, there's another couple of saxophonists I like. I like this fellow, Ron Holloway, who used to be with Dizzy. I like this fellow, David S. Ware, who is sort of on the avant-garde end of the spectrum. So those are the young guys that I like that I've heard out here. I don't get a chance to hear everybody because my lifestyle now has changed so that I don't really frequent the clubs and places where the guys play at. But I can name those people with pride.

FJ: Who were your influences, both in playing the tenor saxophone and also in choosing to play jazz?

SONNY ROLLINS: I grew up in a very musical household. My older brother played classical violin and my older sister played piano. So I had a lot of opportunities to go into different forms of music. I heard a lot of different kinds of music when I was growing up. I really, when I heard jazz, that was it for me. My uncle used to play me these blues records, these county-blues artists. So when I heard that was it, I said, yeah, that was it for me. So I like all kinds of music, but my favorite people that got me really into saxophone playing would be great rhythm and blues musician and singer, Louis Jordan and then later on I got into the great Coleman Hawkins, who was one of my prime idols. After that there was a long fist of people. I liked Ben Webster a lot, of course Lester Young. And all those people were sort of in the next generation ahead of me, so that I had a chance actually to even play with some of those people. Those were some of the people I really liked. Don Byas, another fine saxophonist at the time. Lucky Thompson, another fellow that played sort of Coleman Hawkins' style. There is a great tradition here, and I was hooked when I heard that music. When I was a kid, I used to hear people like Fats Waller, the great pianist because he sang a lot and he was really great. He was a great musician and he had this great talent to reach people and he was very humorous. He was really great, but I heard a lot of his record and that also was something in his playing, his music, so that his singing was great of course but I think underlying it was this great playing. This the same with Louis Armstrong. When I first heard Louis Armstrong in the movies, I might have seen him playing, but I saw him in The Entertainer. There a lot of those early movies he made. He was in The Entertainer and he was mugging for the camera and all these things, but there was something that I sensed beneath all of this. This gigantic musical talent that impressed me deeply. So being around all these people really got my career straight. I knew what I wanted to do as soon I began seeing and hearing these people. There was no doubt in my mind and I am still trying to do that to this day.

FJ: You referred to classical music. Is there any one particular classical composer that you admire?

SONNY ROLLINS: I like several. Of course, I like Beethoven. Of course, I like Bach. I like some of the Romantic composers. I like Rachmaninoff I like the Impressionists, Satie and Debussy, Ravel. I like that style. I like some of the other Russian people. I like Borodin. I like so many different people. I have never studied music formally or been at a university. So I have never taken a course on all of these great European composers. I just know different people that I have heard over the years and at different times and I recognize their particular art, but those are some of the people that I like. And I like opera.

FJ: What is your favorite opera?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I like Puccini a lot and some of his things. Which might be considered lightweight by some people, mainly operate lovers, I don't know. I have heard some Verdi and I like it a lot. I just didn't get a chance really to appreciate a lot of these men like Verdi and some of the real people I guess who were really more into opera. But when I've heard some of their work, I've liked it. I got an opportunity to hear Puccini of course because it's so popular. Most of the good music I can relate to and listen to. Maybe some day when I can't play I will really get my record library together and sit down and really enjoy all of these things.

FJ: Is there one instrument you would like to play?

SONNY ROLLINS: I like the trombone and I like the xylophone. As a matter of fact, Fred, the xylophone was my first instrument. When I was a small kid, we had a xylophone in the house. I remember playing with it and I really liked it. Funny you should ask me about that because today, I was thinking about getting a xylophone or getting a marimba or something. I have always liked those instruments. I like the xylophone.

FJ: What are some of your future recording plans?

SONNY ROLLINS: After our season ends, which I think will end after I go out to Los Angeles, I think our season is through then for the year and I will be then going into the recording studio. Hopefully, before the year is out you will have some things. I'm a little overdue actually to make a studio album. As far as the material, I would rather not say exactly what it's going to be because it is something that I am sort of working out in my head now. I have got several different directions I can go. I have some larger band work that was done for me a while back that is a possibility that I could do a CD like that or I could do something more Sonny Rollins elemental and I'm sort of leaning towards doing that. As to what it will be I can't really say. I just have a general good outline about the concepts, other than that I think you will have to hear it. I'll have to hear it to be able to describe it.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and has a $200,000,000 payroll. Email Him.