|Sonny Rollins DownBeat Interview @ IAJE--Complete text|
January 12, 2006
By Ira Gitler
Ira: First, I must tell you that it’s an honor to be with Sonny Rollins anytime and to be on this stage makes this a great day, because he’s a great artist. A man who truly cares about the environment and who wonders where this planet is going. So besides the music he’s given us, he’s a great human being all around. Sonny, I know you grew up in Harlem, and your parents were from the Indies, so tell me a little about your early years—up until the time you started playing music.
Sonny: First, I’d like to apologize. I have a head cold, so I can’t speak very loudly. I apologize for that, but I hope I can give you some answers. Now, what was the question?
Ira: Growing up in Harlem, the earliest years.
Sonny: Well, I was born in Harlem on 137th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. Harlem was a very vibrant place at that time. There was a lot of music, a lot of clubs, a lot of speakeasies, after-hours clubs. It was a perfect environment for someone like me who wanted to be a musician. So I was really blessed to have been born there. Because everything was there. All my idols lived nearby, and so on and so forth. So Harlem was a very propitious place for Sonny Rollins to be born in.
Ira: Now at that time, radio and the movies were the two great media of communication and a lot of people here know that your ability to limn old tunes from that era, some that a lot of other musicians forgot, you have that great faculty and I’m sure that going to movies and listening to the radio put these tunes in your mind early on.
Sonny: Yeah, I remember listening to my favorites, the great Fats Waller, I used to hear him on the radio when I was a very small child. So, as you said, there was just movies and radio at that time. So we had our music from the radio, and going to the movies once a week and occasionally seeing musicals, for example, jazz people, like Louis Armstrong would be in those movies in those days, the 1930s. That was my exposure to them at that time.
Ira: Your brother and sister played music, your brother was a violinist and your sister played piano. How did you come to take up the piano at nine?
Sonny: Well, my brother was a very good musician, classically trained. I think was going to be invited to join the Pittsburgh orchestra at that time. My sister was a fine pianist, sang at church and everything. They were both good musicians. Since I was a baby, I didn’t want to sit down and play scales, I wanted to go out and play on the street and all this stuff, and my mother let me do that. In some ways, I regret that, because I did not have the formal training that my brother and sister had. But you know a mother’s love is a mother’s love and, in a sense, it was good, because I got a lot of—if I can use a current expression—street cred.
Ira: Now, at 9, you took up the piano.
Sonny: Well, I started, but I didn’t really—
Ira: You were like me, you’d rather be in the street, playing ball. Sonny: Right.
Ira: But now, your family background, your heritage, was from St. Croix and St. Thomas. I remember reading that your mother used to take you to dances, where you heard calypso.
Sonny: Yeah, she would sing some songs around the house. There used to be a few places around New York that would have all sorts of music: calypso, jazz, dance music. The famous place was the Renaissance Ballroom. There was another place (Park Palace) in what later became Spanish Harlem. I heard some calypso people there. In between that time, I was spending my time in the Apollo Theater after I got home from school, and all day Saturday and Sunday.
Ira: When did the family move to Sugar Hill?
Sonny: Sugar Hill, for those who might not know, is an area of Harlem, Washington Heights now, it was sort of a more affluent part of the black community at that time. I was born in the lowlands, we were living in the lowlands, so to speak. It was sort of a step up, economically. It was a big deal to move up on the hill. So the family moved up on the hill, although I had a good time. I was already into jazz when we moved up on the hill. We moved up on the hill in 1939 and I was already playing saxophone, I had lessons, I had my idols, the r&b guy, Louis Jordan. That happened through my uncle and his girlfriend. They used to have a lot of blues records, country blues guys like Lonnie Johnson, Arthur Crudup. Those guys were strumming the guitar and really singing those country style blues. She also had some Louis Jordan records, small band with a saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums, which is sort of the model for a lot of jazz, almost to this day, instrumental small band jazz. So, when I heard Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five, Louis was also playing at a club right next door to my elementary school on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. He was playing at a club the Elks Rendezvous, so when I came out of school every day, I’d see the nice picture of him in the window and he had on his tuxedo, tails and bowtie, and this beautiful shiny saxophone. All of this stuff coalesced, and I said, “I know this is going to be my destiny. This is what I want to do.” So, anyway, by the time I moved up on the hill in 1939, I was already into jazz. I heard Louis Jordan, and I had Coleman Hawkins, also.
Ira: I want to read a quote from Jackie McLean.
Sonny: OK, make it decent, now.
Ira: OK, I’ll keep it clean. “When Sonny was in high school, I’d see him with his horn. he had an alto, but he played with a tenor reed, like Coleman Hawkins.” How did you decide to do that?
Sonny: Well, I wanted to sound like Coleman and my mother could only afford to get me one horn at a time, so I had an alto that one of my uncles, who used to play saxophone, had. It was a second-hand alto. So I wanted to try and sound like a tenor with an alto, so I thought that by playing a tenor reed, it would help. Strange thinking, I know.
Ira: At 16, you got a tenor.
Ira: Well, talk to us about your neighborhood cohorts, like Jackie McLean, Arthur Taylor, Lowell Lewis, and Andy Kirk Jr., who I never heard, but everybody told me was a real comer on the tenor sax.
Sonny: Yes, he was. In case anybody here doesn’t know, Andy Kirk had a great, great jazz band and a lot of great jazz musicians played in Andy Kirk’s band, including Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, and many others. Those are two very prominent musicians who played with Andy Kirk’s band. Andy lived up on Sugar Hill and his son, Andy Kirk Jr., played saxophone and got very good teaching from his father and being around a really good jazz environment, so Andy Kirk Jr. was one of the very promising young players. Unfortunately, like so many of us, he got involved with bad habits, and in so doing, it cut short any promise that he had. And cut short his career—cut short his life, as a matter of fact.
This was a very painful episode for myself and my contemporaries, like Kenny Drew, Walter Bishop, Lowell Lewis. A lot of us went through a difficult, difficult period. A lot of people in the jazz community got involved with drugs because some of our idols did. We knew that Billie Holiday did, because she was always getting arrested and it was getting played up in the papers. A lot of other people did, but they made a big federal case out of Billie Holiday. But anyway, we figured, “Gee, if they do it, it’s OK for us to do it.” So, we started doing some of these detrimental things. It’s a very tricky subject. For a long time, I would rather not talk about it, but then my wife told me, “Well, Sonny, don’t be ashamed to talk about it, because that’s a period of your life that you dealt with and overcame.” But I was reticent to talk about it. I wanted to put it in the back. But by 2006, there’s so many people who use all sorts of drugs. Big name people. Even Rush Limbaugh uses drugs. At any rate, we overcame that. It was a struggle, but a lot of us came through it. Andy Kirk didn’t come through it.
Ira: But a lot of your cohorts and yourself were talented and yourself had groups and you once said that, for some reason, you were always the leader. You were a little older, or a little more advanced. I remember Jackie said something about playing what were designated as cocktail shifts.
Sonny: Yes, but we also called them functions in the community. Dances and a bunch of young kids playing in little bands. Some of these functions weren’t so prestigous because they sort of ended up with a free fall. I remember I was playing a place in the New York area—I won’t mention the place—and my mother had gotten me a beautiful herring-bone overcoat from Barney’s in New York. I went out on my little gig there and had on my sharp coat and by the time we got through the first set, somebody called somebody something and the next thing the whole place was ... everybody was throwing something at everybody else. So I went back to get my coat, and, of course, it was gone. And that taught me a good lesson—always keep your eye on your coat.
Ira: Now, in this period, you were going to clubs like Minton’s and drawing on little moustaches so you could get into the 52nd Street clubs—
Sonny: Yeah, that’s right. Well, 52nd Street, what we called Swing Street, this is where Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, would play in little clubs—the bottoms of brownstones, really. All up and down this street. So we were a little underage, so I had to take a woman’s eyebrow penci ...(makes drawing motion). I don’t know how old you had to be to get in there, so I tried to get the right swagger.
Ira: You mentioned that you had a big hat.
Sonny: Yeah, right, a big hat, too. It usually worked. I think the people who ran the clubs were more interested in the money than who was standing at the bar. So they let us in and I had the experience to hear my idols up close and in person. Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. At the Apollo Theater in Harlem, it was a big theater, so you had to see them from the audience. On 52nd Street, you could be right close to them. So it was great.
Ira: A writer on the West Coast asked me to ask you about Kermit Scott. In my book Swing To Bop, Dexter Gordon talks about him and says, “That’s where Lockjaw Davis was coming from.” What do you think of that assessment?
Sonny: Well, I don’t know ... it could be true. But when I found out about Kermit Scott, Monk and those guys knew him well, because they were the original people who made the transition from swing to bebop. In fact, there’s a record where you can really hear some of the change coming, you probably know it...
Ira: With Charlie Christian and Dizzy ...
Sonny: Right, so there’s a little change coming in the way the rhythm section is playing. It’s the beginning of the change from swing to bebop. And Kermit Scott was one of the saxophone players—he played with Earl Hines, all those guys played with Earl Hines, that’s why they used to call him “Fatha Hines”—but Kermit Scott was a very well credentialed tenor player. And somehow he didn’t get as much fame as he should have gotten. I’m sure personal issues might have come up, or he left the scene. He also played a lot with Billie Holiday. I saw a beautiful picture of Billie Holiday at a recording section and Kermit Scott was there. So he was there, playing with everybody. As a jazz musician, I feel bad, because some of these people should be more well known for what they contributed to our art and Kermit Scott is one of them. But, in general, this is life. There is not enough history, so the relationship between what came before and what is, is blurred. So, in other fields, I’m sure there are unsung people who never get their due. As well as music. But these are some of the people who I personally know of. Kermit Scott was also a very beautiful human being, he was very nice to me, he taught me a lot of things, saxophone techniques, and he was really a nice person and that means something. Maybe somebody else will keep passing on the tradition, a personal philosophy. I don’t want to get too deep now, but, anyway, Kermit Scott was a very nice individual. He was generous with a youngster like myself and we became friends. I can say that about a lot of the other jazz greats who I was fortunate enough to come into contact with.
Ira: Well, you’ve talked about going to Coleman Hawkins’ house and waiting for him to sign a picture, you’ve talked about how someone pulled your coat to Lester Young, and of course, Charlie Parker had a tremendous impact on all musicians when he came on the scene. I’m sure he influenced you when he was playing alto, but when he made those records with Miles Davis in 1947, his playing tenor really affected your interest in his playing. Would you say that hearing him playing tenor was a revelation?
Sonny: Well, it was a revelation in that he had a mastery of it. But, to me, he was two different people; Charlie Parker alto and Charlie Parker tenor. So I didn’t draw a direct source of inspiration from his tenor playing, whereas if you listen to his playing on alto, I can see where I was more inspired by his alto playing. His tenor playing was nonpareil, also. He was playing a lot of things that he was playing on alto, but on a different horn, it sounded different.
Ira: To get back to Lowell Lewis for a minute, who was a very fine young trumpet player who fell into the same trap as Andy Kirk Jr., was instrumental in introducing you to Thelonious Monk. Could you tell us about that?
Sonny: Well, Lowell Lewis and I went to high school together, practiced together after school. We had our little band, The Counts of Bebop. We were just tight. And while we were still in high school, Thelonious Monk somehow found out about Lowell and gave him a job to go to Chicago. So Lowell went with Thelonious to Chicago for a week while we were still in high school. And after that, he said, “Come on, I’m going to get you in Monk’s band.” Anyway, I eventually worked with Monk and so on and so forth and the rest is history. I’m joking.
Ira: Well, there was a long association between you and Monk.
Ira: The first time I heard about you was in a record store on 47th Street called Jazzman Joe’s that had a big sign and said, “Everything from Bunk to Monk”—from Bunk Johnson to Thelonious. Bob Weinstock, who was selling and trading records out of his parents’ apartment, rented us the counter from Joe and started selling records there. All kinds of jazzheads would go up there, buy records, and talk about jazz and we had these informal discussion groups—not chatgroups. And one day we were talking and somebody said, “Hey, did you hear about this tenor player from Harlem, Sonny Rollins? He’s really saying something.” That was 1949 and I was unaware that you recorded already with Babs Gonzales and J.J. Johnson, but in May, I guess, J.J. had you come with his group to record for Prestige. And I was around Prestige, doing all kinds of odd jobs. I wasn’t at the date, but a friend of mine was and described your stance, your playing in a positive way. But I didn’t get to hear you until you played with Miles Davis. I know the story that you were playing at the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx with a pianoless trio—a format you used a lot later on—and that’s where Miles heard you. Do you remember that?
Sonny: We were the intermission band, the opening act you’d call today. So Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, who had big names in the jazz world, were the big acts. So we opened for those guys. After we played, Miles came up to me and said, “Come on, join my band.” It was great, because Lowell Lewis was a Miles fan. Everybody loved Dizzy, but we heard something in Miles Davis and that was the direction he was playing. So that was great.
Ira: Before we talk about getting together with Miles in the recording studio, 1949 was a key year for you, becuase you recorded twice with Babs Gonzales, twice with J.J. Johnson, and with Bud Powell for Blue Note. So you were really establishing yourself in jazz because people realized that here was this new voice on tenor.
Sonny: Right, I was fortunate to play with the great Bud Powell and that was a great learning experience. And I was very fortunate to play with these people. I have some natural talent, and that enabled me to play with all these great people. I say this to everybody out there—I can’t really take credit...of course I worked, practiced, studied, but I just had a natural ability, and that’s what got me inot the position that I was in. I’m humbled because it was a gift that came. I was fortunately able to use it and, as you mentioned, went through difficult times, but I was fortunate enough to survive, I guess you could put it that way. So that’s why I’m here now. But Bud Powell was a real genius and the fact that he wanted me—I think I was 18 or 19—was a real affirmation and I’m very happy that these people are remembered by all of you today and their names will live on. These people brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. Plus, jazz is not just joy, it’s intellectual, it makes you use your mind. Yeah, it’s great, you can dance to it, but it’s also an intellectual...and everybody needs that, you need to think. That’s why music lessons are great for children, because children need to activate that part of their minds. So this, in my opinion, is what makes jazz a very important social force, as well as the music itself. Bud Powell is one of those people, when you heard him play, it was great and joyful, but a lot of deep thinking went into his playing. There was a lot of thought into what hewas playing and that added another level of enjoyment.
Ira: An unofficial thing I did back then was to name some of the songs that didn’t have titles ...
Sonny: You mean, besides sweeping floors.
Ira: So at the end of the session, Miles had been talking to Bob Weinstock,saying you’ve got to sign Sonny. He had talked Bob into letting Sonny be featured. And John Lewis, who was Mr. Punctuality, had to hit at 10 p.m. at Birdland with Lester young, so he was gone. Miles played piano and Sonny played the changes on “Confirmation,” no head, and so “Confirmation,” I called, “I Know,” and that was his first recording as a leader, but it was a Miles Davis session.
Sonny: Look at the piano player I had, Miles Davis ...
Ira: I know we can’t cover your whole career, so I’m going to jump around, but, in October, you went into the studio again with Miles with Jackie McLean and it was the first time that the long playing record was used consciously. Before that, Zoot Simms had done some ten-minute recordings, but those were because he had his eyes closed and couldn’t see people waving at him to stop. But this Miles Davis session, it was pre-arranged to have four, six, seven minutes, whatever. And that was the first time it was done. I wasn’t at the session, but Charlie Parker was there, which may or may have not made Jackie McLean nervous. I don’t know what it did to you, you were having trouble with your reed, but you played solos that were so beautiful and soulful, the aficionados didn’t mind the solos that had the occasional squeak. What do you remember about that date?
Sonny: I recall that date, but something you just said was very telling to me. You said that Zoot Simms was playing, had his eyes closed and didn’t know when to stop. That’s very interesting to me, because people ask me, “Sonny, what do you think about when you’re soloing?” I relate to them, that when I’m playing at my best—which is not often—my mind is blank. There’s nothing in my mind at all. It’s like being in a sort of trance. Often when I’m playing, the guys in my band have to remind me that it’s time to get off the stage. I never knew that about Zoot. Zoot’s a beautiful guy, lovely player, good friend of mine, but he just rose up another step in my estimation.
Ira: But the Miles date was a historic date because of the extended time, and time to stretch out.
Sonny: I don’t remember that, I remember Bird was there and I remember that part.
Ira: Well, I don’t know if it was that session that convinced Bob Weinstock to sign you to a contract. And as we mentioned before, on Dec. 17, 1951, Sonny was to do his first date as a leader and it was dropped on me by Bob who was suffering from anxieties and whatever. He didn’t want to go into the studio anymore and said, “You do the date.” This was quite a bombshell for someone in his early 20s who idolized these musicians, but here I was. The keystone for these sessions was “Mambo Bounce,” because there was a mambo craze at that time and Bob wanted to cash in on it, so he had Sonny write a mambo. And Sonny wrote this piece. We were in the studio and it was a sleet storm and Sabu Martinez was the conga player and was stuck in the Bronx, so he never got down there. But Art Blakey, Kenny Drew, Percy Heath, and Sonny started to try to accomplish “Mambo Bounce.” And Prestige rarely had rehearsals for their record dates, so in essence, they were rehearsing “Mambo Bounce.” And it had a tricky heading and I was getting coming out of the head, because after the mambo beat, it went into 4/4, so they were having difficulty adjusting. I was getting nervous. Sonny was there, but he didn’t have a neckstrap, so he made one out of a wire hanger and a piece of rope. Eventually, he made some adjustment and they were able to smooth out the ending of “Mambo Bounce,” and record it. And he did some beautiful ballads and upbeat numbers and we got through the night. And that was the beginning of our time at Prestige. Later, in 1953, we did a very famous date with yourself and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Percy Heath. That was a chaotic date for a number of reasons, and I think that was the day that Bird took you aside and talked to you.
Sonny: You want me to tell that story? Well, we had touched on this earlier, because it involved the use of drugs and whiskey. It’s a very tricky subject, because artists, writers, and musicians are famous for using some kind of a stimulant to help them create. This goes all the way back. And, so in a sense, I’m very much anti these things, becuase a lot of them can be dertimental physically, mentally, and tear you down quickly. It’s better to be able to write, get up on the bandstand and play, and not depend on any stimulant at all. That’s the way it should be. But life is not always the way it should be. So people use drugs, use things to make them feel good, it’s normal. Now, Charlie Parker was my idol, and he had been using drugs, and knew that his disciples, like myself, had been using drugs because of him. And there were some incidents that happened on that record date, where I was fortunate and blessed to play with him, and I lied to him, I told him I was straight and cool and actually I wasn’t. So when he found out, the way he looked when he found out I was doing the things that he was really against—he wasn’t strong enough to stop right at that point, but he knew he didn’t want to create a whole generation of narcotic zombies. I realized that at that moment. So that was a very important moment in my life and I was able to parlay that into the determination to not let anything, any extraneous matter interfere with what I wanted to do, which was to play music. That went a long way to help me make that decisioin. So that’s what happened that day.
Ira: I think the session you did with Miles in the spring of 1954, when three of your compositions were recorded—”Oleo,” “Airegin,” and “Dotsy,” which have become jazz standards—that was a very important time in your career. And then, when you joined Max Roach’s band in 1955, it really launched you into the public eye, and you were writing more originals and you and Clifford Brown made such an incredible team, and you went on to make a record that’s revered to this day, Saxophone Colossus, that had so many tracks that were influential for so many different reasons, you once said, you didn’t know you were doing this kind of playing until Gunther Schuller wrote an article about “Blue Seven,” called, “Thematic Improvisation,” you had to read his article to know that you were doing this. And the calypso “St. Thomas,” which began a whole tradition of you playing calypso numbers for some of your most important playing. And “Mack The Knife” showing your Lester Young influence. But touching on the calypso and the way you could go on at length, reinvent, and go back to a theme, and reinvigorate a theme and what comes out of it, brings me to what you do on other numbers—you’ve done it on “Three Little Words,” “Autumn Nocturne,” and an underrated original of yours called “Silver City,” in which you go back to the theme and take off again, can you talk about this mode of playing?
Sonny: No, I can’t really. Because it’s a very natural thing. It’s probably important to musicologists to examine it, but for me, it’s just natural. There’s nothing I can say about it. Like I was saying earlier, it’s a natural gift, so I have no way of explaining it.
By the way, everybody has a gift in the world. Everybody has something that they can do that is deeply appreciated by somebody else. So, I don’t mind saying I have a gift, because we all have gifts. All of us have them.
Ira: In these pieces where you become inspired and kind of rev yourself up by going back to the theme and taking off again. I’ve seen you so many times in festivals, but at one time that epitomizes this, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, and myself were up at Buffalo State University, and you were playing in the student union and you started to play, “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” you were really inspired and I was dancing in my seat. That was one example where you would give of yourself to the audience, just gave to the people and I think this is part of your gift as a person, to be so generous with your music.
Sonny: In other words, I’m a big ham!
Ira: Yes, but a very tasty ham! Can we talk about your spiritual side? Once when I went to interview you when you were living on the Lower East Side, it was a very spare apartment. You had a board for sit ups, you had barbells, you were drinking orange juice, and I noticed on one of the tables was a Rosicrucian creed. Later on you became involved in Zen and other religious traditions in Japan and India.
Sonny: At a very early age, I realized that there was a greater force doing things that I couldn’t do myself. There was a force that was greater than myself. So, like a lot of people, you wonder about it, and try to find ways to relate to it. I’m still involved with the Rosicrucians and yoga, because these are timeless things that you learn and keep with you all of your life and they helped me to survive. You can’t preach to people, you have to do what you feel that you can do. My only point is that in my life, it helped me survive. Having some values outside of materialism. Having some thought of something besides putting ice cream in my mouth. That there was something else out there, beside that. I think everybody feels that way, and your individual religions will at least help you get there, hopefully. I would hate to think is I lived all this time and all I had to show for it was I had a lot of cars, ate a lot of good food—if that’s what you want out of life, fine, but you’re asking me to explain my interests. And my interests are that at an early age, I realized there’s something more that I wanted to get to. And that’s what I’ve done. But I wouldn’t attempt to try to convince anybody of anything. If they don’t believe it, you may wind up losing your own beliefs. I’m not here to say that my way is the best way. I just felt that there was something more concrete in helping me realize who I wanted to be.
Ira: You once said, that jazz has always been a music of integration. There were times where blacks would be and whites would begin to mix a little bit. Jazz was not just a music, it was a social force in this country and talked about freedom and people enjoying things for what they are and not worrying if they were white or black. Jazz has always beent he music that had this kind of spirit.
Growing up, the ambassadors to me were Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Benny Carter, the same people you listened to and heard. This music meant something to me and you continue this line and you are one of the great ambassadors for the human race and I thank you for being Sonny Rollins.