Courtesy of Sonny Rollins
copyright Mike Perry
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH SONNY ROLLINS
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.
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
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.
So do you feel jazz should try and change its content then, to gain a
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
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?
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.
When was the last time you played in Los Angeles?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
You have had a long-standing relationship with Milestone. How have the
two, artist and label, been able to coexist so well?
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.
And how about RCA?
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.
"St. Thomas" has become one of your most classic tunes. How
did the composition come about?
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.
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?
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.
Do you find that European and Japanese audiences are different from the
audiences you play for in the United States?
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.
You have recorded nearly fifty albums. Is there any one album or albums
that have a special significance to you?
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.
Are there any musicians that you have worked with in the past that you
would like to work with again?
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.
Are there any musicians today that have caught your eye?
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.
Who were your influences, both in playing the tenor saxophone and also
in choosing to play jazz?
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
You referred to classical music. Is there any one particular classical
composer that you admire?
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.
What is your favorite opera?
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
Is there one instrument you would like to play?
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.
What are some of your future recording plans?
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.
Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and has a $200,000,000 payroll.