Courtesy of Sonny Rollins
CHAT WITH SONNY ROLLINS
(August 21, 2001)
that has been written and all that has been said about Sonny Rollins certainly
has more wealth than anything I could scribe. I am only a fan of Rollins
and on most days, I need not be more. His albums are a part of the lore
of jazz and his legacy historical and he has won more awards than I have
fingers and toes. This is the latest of many sittings I have been privileged
enough to have with Rollins. He spoke at length about just that legacy
and it was my honor to be graced with his time. As always, I bring it
to you in its entirety, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
SONNY ROLLINS: I think I was musically inclined. I grew up in a musical
household with older brothers and sisters that were into music. I heard
a lot of music around the house. I grew up in Harlem. There was a lot
of music around where we grew up. I heard a lot of guys, Fats Waller,
all these people. So I was born at the right time, in the right place,
FJ: It was the golden age of jazz.
SONNY ROLLINS: Oh, yeah, Fred. I think so. There were a lot of great jazz
musicians playing at that time and I quickly chose the saxophone. I had
the people I liked like Coleman Hawkins and all those guys who I was able
to follow and listen to their records. They lived, actually lived close
by me in the community in those days. So I think I was really fortunate
to be interested in music and to be born and to grow up in that sort of
atmosphere. There was so much jazz music around me and so much culture
that was happening in that part of the city, in that community uptown
we used to call Sugar Hill. It was great. I knew I wanted to play soon
when I was about six, seven years old. I liked the way the saxophone looked
and I was beginning to recognize guys that played. Everything just sort
of came in together just at the right time.
FJ: For those not fortunate enough to have heard your playing, how would
you describe the sound of your tenor saxophone?
SONNY ROLLINS: I think it's a very humanistic sound. It's sort of the
sound of a person, probably very masculine, male sound. It has so many
expressions. So many different artists can sound different on the same
instrument. As you know, Fred, we have Coleman Hawkins. We have, everybody
that's anybody had their own sound, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Don Byas.
All of these people had, all great musicians had different sounds so that
you could recognize them as soon as you heard them. So even though it's
an instrument which does have a certain characteristic, as I said, it's
a very humanistic, expressive instrument. I think it sounds like a man.
It still can't be played in a manner that allows individual characteristics
to come out. I don't know if I am explaining it well enough, Fred. But
it allows for individuality even though it's an instrument which has a
very distinctive sound and you know a tenor saxophone when you hear it.
But still, you can hear different people when they pick it up. Each person
is able to express himself through the instrument.
FJ: I can name Sonny Rollins in four notes.
SONNY ROLLINS: Well, that took a while because as a youngster starting
out I tried to emulate people that I looked up to and I tried to play,
there was one song, "Body and Soul," by Coleman Hawkins, I always
had to play. It's one of his best records. It's one of his most popular
records I should say. And all the saxophonists tried to play that, so
I tried to play that. You try to copy the people that you look up to,
these icons of the music. Invariably, if you have anything to offer at
all, your own style will come through. So it's not a good idea to copy,
to try to copy too closely anyone because if you'll excuse the current
expression, Fred, you're just a clone. We don't want to be clones. You
find out that you gravitate to a sound that ends up being yourself. Now
everybody, you have to have a certain talent. You have to be, a lot of
kids come to me and ask me about jazz and playing jazz and playing music
and I'm not going to lie about it. You have to have a certain talent.
Music is wonderful. Jazz is wonderful. It's wonderful to listen to if
you want to play it just for your enjoyment, OK. But if you really have
aspirations to get into the business, you have to be blessed with a certain
talent and there's not much that's going to move you from that spot. Of
course, you can be a good musicians that just plays in an orchestra, but
if you have aspirations of being an individualist and being well known
and so on, that's going to be circumscribed by the amount of natural talent,
God given talent, that you happen to be born with. There's no way around
that, so this is what I tell people. Sure you can play. You can enjoy
it and all that stuff, but you want to be like some of your idols, you're
going to have to be born with a certain talent. Then comes the work of
course. You're born with the talent, but then comes the blood, sweat,
and tears. You at least have to have that gift.
FJ: There was a period when your playing was more free, was that a casual
interest and why did you not pursue it?
SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I like all sorts of music. For my own convergence
of things that just happened to come in my career at a particular time,
I just didn't get into it on the level that a lot of people might have
felt you had to. You had to go all the way and be all the way into a certain
type of music. I don't feel wedded to any particular style. I like to
incorporate things that I can, my own personal expressions. I like free
jazz. I like all kinds of music. Once I get to a style, which I am hoping
I will one day before I leave the planet, I will be able to make a breakthrough
in my own playing, then I will incorporate all sorts of styles. It will
come out Sonny Rollins. Other than that, I think free jazz is fine. I
have no problem with it.
FJ: The knock on Sonny Rollins has not been your playing but rather your
supporting cast not playing to your level.
SONNY ROLLINS: In the past few years, people have spoken pretty well about
my band. They've been saying that I have the best traveling band that
I've had and so on. At least that's what I've seen when Lucille has shown
me different reviews. So I think there was a general consensus over the
years that this might have been true. Sometimes I would play as a single.
I would go up and I'd get musicians from different places that I was at.
I would pick up musicians and I didn't really keep a band with me to get
really a tight band like MJQ or Coltrane's band or one of Miles' bands.
I was a guy that kept different guys, so I could see where that might
be a criticism that might have some validity. But I think that is not
a comment anymore. My band gets fairly good notices now, much more so
than years ago. That was true years ago, but I think that's changing now.
FJ: During the better part of the Fifties, your recording output was bordering
on unimaginable. Why don't you record more now?
SONNY ROLLINS: Because it's much harder to get into the studio and play
now. I'm a lot older. I have more physical things that I have to deal
with. I have to deal with all the informalities that age brings on a person.
I have recorded a lot of music, so any album I make, I try to do something,
which is to some extent fresh in approach and has something different
to say. I just don't want to make a lot of Sonny Rollins records although
people say that I can do that, to just make a record with Sonny Rollins
and you have documented the work. But I hate going into recording studios.
FJ: Why is that?
SONNY ROLLINS: Because I'm very conscious about how I sound and I'm one
of these super-conscious people that everything I play, I want to listen
to it back and I'm never satisfied. Recording has become a hard thing
for me because of the modern technology, which allows you to listen back
and try to make it better. That's sort of a hard deal for me. Sometimes
you can just do it. It comes out better the first or second take, but
I'm a guy that likes to do more takes than that just because I like to
have what is for posterity to be the best that I can be. It's just like
me. I'm just a guy. I'm still practicing. Recording is something that
catches you right then and puts it down forever, so I don't record more
because I am more self-conscious in wanting to be more perfect or as perfect
as it can be.
FJ: With success comes expectations and expectations tend to lean more
towards the unreasonable, to counter that, why not do a live record and
circumvent the studio altogether?
SONNY ROLLINS: I've thought about that. Maybe one of these days. I do
record everything that I do, so maybe when I have the time, I'll look
through and listen to some of the things that I've done and maybe if they
sound worthwhile I will put it out.
FJ: Your demanding practice regimen was legendary at that time.
SONNY ROLLINS: Well, that was kind of easy for me, Fred, because I was
always a person that considered myself in the learning process. I kind
of got serious about music and didn't go to music school like my older
brother and sister, so I always thought that I should catch up. So all
my career, I've been a person that's trying to learn. I've always been
trying to study and learn more. So the period that I took off during my
career too to regroup and go in the woodshed as that expression goes,
which is to practice in a room, those periods were part of who I am. I
was just a person who wanted to improve himself and felt that I had a
long way to go and that I was not quite a finished musician, so all my
career, I was always trying to learn more and get to that point where
I felt a little more worthy of being on the stand and playing for people
and so on. So my hiatus and my practice times when I left music were all
part of me.
FJ: Have you learned enough?
SONNY ROLLINS: (Laughing) I'm afraid the quest goes on, Fred. It's a good
thing, but you never learn enough in music, no. You never learn enough.
The only thing that could deter me is age and these things, time, that's
a better way to put it, time. But, no, I don't think you ever learn everything
that there is to learn, so I'm constantly learning. I practice my horn
everyday. I try to be involved in music. I try to find different ways
of playing and approaching things. So that goes on. I never, I haven't
reached a point where I thought that. That point, gratefully, hasn't come
because I think if that did come, I think it would be a giant letdown.
FJ: Are you still keeping a rigorous touring schedule?
SONNY ROLLINS: I've been pulling back all along. Now I end up doing thirty
dates a year. I will go to Europe and did seven concerts and next time
I go next year, I am only doing five, so I am pulling back. Walking through
airports and the rigors of hotel food and all this stuff, they can be
pretty hard on a person of dare I say it, advanced age.
FJ: How do you decide?
SONNY ROLLINS: It's got to be a prestigious date. I wouldn't want to play
in Joe's Saloon around the corner. It would have to be a date that has
some kind of visibility. It has to be a good venue and things of that
sort. That's what we look for. We play concert halls generally. Those
are the things that I look for. We want to do some kind of dignified performance.
I don't want to play in Joe's Saloon around the corner.
FJ: Your various playing periods with Jim Hall and Max Roach have been
so lauded that I am certain some witty festival organizer has called to
book a reunion.
SONNY ROLLINS: Oh, I hear that all the time, sure. I hear that all the
time. As I said, human nature says that if you're not available then everybody
wants you. So this is where it is. I didn't plan it this way. If you say
that now I won't do that, the promoters want you more. It's a nice position
to be in. Knowing show business to be as it is, you never know how long
it's going to last. Let's assume that I'm at the dovetail, at the end
of my journey on this planet, so that it is a good position to be in career-wise.
Let's hope it stays that way. I don't want to make a lot of money. I'm
not trying to have all these cars that these rap guys have. It works perfect.
I'm trying to get a spiritual understanding and get some contentment out
of life. I think I've made some contributions to this music and I'm doing
as much as I can handle at this time.
FJ: For the betterment of jazz, time hasn't caught up with Sonny Rollins.
SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I'm sort of a superstitious person in a way. That's
the only way that I can describe it. I'm not really superstitious, but
that's sort of a term I can use that most people would understand. It's
a little bit more involved than superstition, but every time I read and
somebody says, "Oh, gee, look at Sonny. He's still playing and he
still sounds fresh. Wow, he's still playing and he still sounds youthful."
I always hate to hear that because I think it's sort of like a bugaboo,
where it's a thing that people say and it's sort of like a jinx. So I
hate to hear people say that. I was playing a concert one night at a place,
I forget where it was, but it was recently, this summer and we got people
clapping and everything and the MC kept saying, he kept referring to my
age. He's so and so years old as if this was an achievement, the fact
that I had reached that age, which of course is ridiculous. It is to me
because I'm not trying to be a guy that you look at and say, "Wow,
he can still play. He's ninety-five years old. Isn't that amazing."
FJ: Like some bizarre version of Darwin's survival of the fittest, age
is celebrated in this country. Morning show weathermen applaud people
who have surpassed the century mark.
SONNY ROLLINS: It's sort of embarrassing to me to be hailed as somebody
who is playing even though he's past thirty years old. Wow, he's still
playing. This isn't the point of my playing at all. I'm trying to make
music. So it's sort of a funny thing, but like you said I guess there
is nothing you can do about it because people don't try to, well, I shouldn't
say that because a lot of musicians, unfortunately, didn't have the longevity
that I have, so I wouldn't say that I don't want to be hear. That's not
true. A lot of people were unfortunate with accidents and lifestyles and
a lot of things that happened that has decimated a lot of my generation
FJ: Doc Cheatham comes to mind. Before any review, "the greatest
90-year-old trumpeter" was the preface.
SONNY ROLLINS: Right. Fortunately, this trend is something that I'm just
beginning to notice. I would say the last couple of years, I'd say when
I turned seventy years old, now, I'm beginning to notice this happening
more and more. It didn't happen so much to any extent that it became noticeable
to me, but recently, it's happened since I turned seventy. Everyone says,
"Wow, for a seventy-year-old." Know it's happening more. At
any rate, what are you going to do, Fred. There is no way that I can go
back to twenty years old. And by the way, I don't want to go back to twenty
years old. I hope I don't have to go back to twenty years old. One life
is enough. Believe me.
FJ: You mentioned the lifestyle of your peers got the better of them,
how did you avoid such trappings?
SONNY ROLLINS: I was fortunate to a great extent. I did indulge in all
the things that all of my peers indulged in and a lot of guys do today.
We all did the same thing, drank a lot of whiskey. We did a lot of drugs,
stayed up all night long, etcetera, etcetera. So I did the same things,
but there were other things. I said I was fortunate. And there were also
other things. There was a certain social degradation that came with being
too liberal with your life and being a life of a musician and if you wanted
to just feel good and play. There was something that I didn't like about
being, I wanted to break that mold. I didn't want to be a person that
you saw a guy up there and he's half juiced and he's playing. Even if
you're playing good, I wanted to have some dignity about me. I wanted
to be, I wanted the musicians to have some kind of dignity, jazz musicians.
Heaven knows, we've had to fight for every little bit of respect that
we've gotten from this society. So I wanted to emulate, my idol, Coleman
Hawkins was like that. He was a guy that was a very proud man. He accomplished
a lot. He was a great musician, respected by everybody, always carried
himself well, dressed impeccably, this type of thing. I noticed that if
I was going to be a person that just indulged myself and thought that
it feels good and I can still play while doing all of these things, there's
a big thing here between writers and artists who feel as long as I'm painting
and I'm writing, I can drink as much as I want. As long I'm producing
my books, I can smoke all the hash I want because it's helping me to get
in the place where I want to be at to do my work. That is true to a point.
I didn't want to go to that point. Not only that, but I began seeing that
if I had to depend on some kind of substance outside of myself to play
my instrument, then there is something wrong with that. I didn't want
to be there. I'm not putting down anybody else who feels differently,
but I didn't want to be that type of, live that type of a life. I have
to be more in control of myself. And a lot of times, if you get high,
you get drunk and even if you're a great musician, you lose control of
yourself. You lose control of your life in other ways. I didn't want anything
to have control of my life. I wanted to know what I was doing. I wanted
to really be able to engage by being in good mental and physical condition.
FJ: In memory of Billy Higgins, any lasting impressions of the late drummer
whom you played with?
SONNY ROLLINS: Well, Billy was a great musician. He was a really fine
musician. As a matter of fact, Fred, I hadn't seen Billy for many, many
years and I happened to see him, I played out at Royce Auditorium out
at UCLA, a little more than a year ago. Anyway, it was the first time
I had seen Billy in many years. It was great to see him. It turned out
to be the last time that I saw him in the flesh. But, he was a fine musician
and a real natural drummer. He had a real natural feeling. If you play
the drums, you have to have a good beat. You have to have good rhythm
and Billy had that. He had a good beat and a good rhythmic concept. He
was one of the premier jazz drummers that we had. So it was fun playing
with him and I loved him.
FJ: One "golden age" of jazz has come and gone. Will there be
SONNY ROLLINS: I don't see any reason why not. One of my famous saying
is, "music is an open sky." Plus, music is a gift of our makers.
Music doesn't belong to any one person, any one group, any one anything.
It's a gift to everybody. So there will always be people coming up, contributing
to music in ways that we probably can't envision at this time. But I certainly
feel that sure, I lived through a golden age in music, which was very
nice. I'm quite happy that I was able to be, as a mentioned before, alive
in the time I was. But there is no reason why there shouldn't be other
great periods in music. The music is going to be there, but if our world,
that is we as people are able to make some kind of human breakthrough
so that we're able to maintain the planet in some way, that we're all
still alive on this planet. That's the question, not whether there's any
new musical innovations. I'm sure there will be. What I'm not so sure
about is whether mankind will be able to find ways to resist things like
greed and selfishness. These are things which are within everybody. Every
groups has these traits. It is basically a spiritual problem and this
is what we have to work on. We have to get together and find some way
to protect our planet and be better people and get rid of bloodlust and
the greed. That's what we have to concern ourselves with. Musically, no,
I have no, I'm sure there will always be great people coming up playing
music. Music is a gift to mankind like pets and animals. If you don't
like pets and animals, maybe you don't think they are gifts, but if you
like flowers, if you like the forest and the beautiful trees. That's the
kind of thing music is. As long as we have somewhere to enjoy these things,
yeah, these things will be there.
FJ: Having been the social conscious for jazz, is it disheartening that
the current generation revels in a bling-bling mentality?
SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I believe that technology, there is one thing that
is bad about technology, if I can borrow a phrase from a great writer,
he made a statement which rang true to me. He said, "Technology enables
man to go backwards faster." I think that's true. It's not so much
that the rappers and these people that live ostentatiously are any different
than the people that lived in Eighteenth Century or Sixteenth Century,
it is that we have developed technology now. We have developed the technology,
which makes it easier to have lots of automobiles and to have lots of
homes, which be the way are destructive to our natural environment. As
you know, Fred, automobiles, they destroy the ozone layer. They cause
pollution and a whole myriad of things, which flow from driving automobiles.
I don't have to tell you that. Everybody knows that. Basically, it is
not a good thing to do. Sure we have to do it. We have to drive, but we
have to try to realize that we should try to keep it to a minimum and
that we should think more about the planet and what we'll be leaving for
our children. Sure these guys are big movie stars. It's like the other
day, today, my wife was showing me something in the paper about this actor,
Alec Baldwin. He's an actor and he lives on the East Coast and he's supposed
to be a very, so called liberal and he drives an SUV. This tells you that
he's not so enlightened. He got into a road rage situation with someone
else on the road and it mentioned that he was driving an SUV. Now a person
of his, who is supposed to support all these so called Democrat and liberal
and environmental causes, to see a person like that driving an SUV shows
you what's wrong with society. SUVs are one of the most harmful automobiles
that we can ever have. They're very bad. They burn a lot of gas, fossil
fuels. It's just, it just shows how ignorant people are and how much they're
effected by television commercials and all this. There is just a lack
of awareness, to get back to your basic question, Fred. There will be
many musical innovations if we people get our act together and that we
realize that everything isn't here for us to use and abuse. There's a
limit to how much garbage we can dump in the ocean. There's a limit to
how much fossil fuel we can burn with our wonderful SUVs riding around
the shopping mall. So we have to think about what we're doing. These are
basic, basic things that, unfortunately, not enough people think about.
I think about these things. Since you mentioned my social conscious, yeah,
I think about these things and I'm glad I do because I don't want to be
one of these people that goes into the gas chamber smiling and laughing.
If I go into the gas chamber of life after the neutron bomb or the hydrogen
bomb or whatever, I want to know. I have a feeling about the meaning of
life and things beyond this particular world. So I want to know what's
happening. I'm happy that I had this social conscious as you put it, Fred,
so I know what's going on. No, it is awful, terrible, some of these things,
but I'd rather know about them than not know about them.
FJ: There is a growing segment of society that believes global warming
is a he cried wolf phenomenon.
SONNY ROLLINS: It is not frustrating to me. I'll tell you why, Fred. I'm
not interested in the results of what happened. I just want to know and
understand what's going on. As far as partisan politics and what the Republicans
think and what Dick Chaney thinks and what Hillary Clinton does, all that
stuff is way down on the totem pole. What's important is that we individually
try to do something ourselves. If people feel that global warming is just
a plot by some people that want to make us feel bad that we have so much
money and we have so much goods, more than any other country in the world
and the richest nation in the world, so don't worry about global warming.
Don't worry about the environment. It's all a lot of crock to make you
feel bad. Let's see, who's the enemy these days? It's the communists or
is it the Arabs? Who is it today? Whoever it is, some people think that
it is just those people trying to make us feel bad about having fun. OK,
if people feel that way, it's OK. So what I'm saying is that no, I don't
care because there is only so much an individual can do. We can do things
individuals. If everybody did unto others as you'd have done to you, it
would take care of all that stuff about global warming and things to do
with the environment. Unfortunately, the people that don't believe in
the golden rule are also the people that tell you that it is OK to buy
an SUV and it is OK to buy a huge home. It's OK to use up a lot of electricity.
It's OK to buy a lot of consumer goods with a lot of packaging that has
to be disposed of and dumped some place. It's the same mentality. So what
I'm saying is that mentality is here and it doesn't make me feel terrible
to know that. I know that these people are here. Believe me, Fred. I've
seen it all my life. I don't think any things have shifted. Things are
no better really. It is the same human condition. I've finally got to
the point now where I can say what I'm saying to you now. It's part of
life and it's part of what each individual has to go through. It's not
a big deal. It doesn't distract me in other words. Yes, I wish we could
have a more perfect world. I wish people would do things to make it a
better world and all that. But I'm not surprised. I think it's an individual
thing. So it's not a matter of my being depressed. If I was depressed
about this, I would be in a constant state of depression. I wouldn't say
just Americans, the rest of the world because the world wants to be like
Americans. Most people want to be able to have stuff and throw it away
and to race cars and drive fast and have materials. I'm not dumping on
America here. It's unfortunately a worldwide problem. I feel bad up to
a point. This war is being lost anyway because there are too many people
that don't care about doing unto others as they would have others do unto
is the golden rule?
ROLLINS: The golden rule is do unto others as you would have others do
unto you. That means that, well, it means just what it says, but it implies
to everything you do everyday you wake up in life. That's it. It's very
I would hate to break it to you, Sonny, but you are a superstar.
ROLLINS: You mean in like my own mind.
ROLLINS: Well, if it means what it's supposed to mean, I would be too
afraid to walk out of the house.
You seem at peace with it all.
ROLLINS: Well, as much as a person can be. I'm still trying to improve
my work. I'm still trying to be a better human being. I'm trying to be
a better, responsible person on the planet. I'm still trying to live the
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and baseball sucks. Comments? Email