Sonny Rollins, Take One
By ISHMAEL REED
Bebop was my generation’s hip-hop. It was more than a pastime; it was an obsession. I used to play trombone with bebop groups. When I turned sixty, I enrolled in Berkeley’s Jazz School, where I studied with jazz pianist Susan Muscarella for nearly five years. I’ve continued with jazz pianist Mary Watkins. When I met Max Roach, I thanked him for keeping me out of reform school; we were too busy listening to bop to get into trouble. We’d spend hours at each others’ homes listening to the latest recordings. We dressed like beboppers. We were clean. We went around looking like Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Our idea of a party was where they’d play “Moody’s Mood for Love.” We knew all the words.
Bebop musicians didn’t walk. They came at you, dancing. When Sonny Rollins descended from his studio after our interview, he was wearing this great greenish raincoat that hit him near the ankles. Rollins, who had turned sixty-six when this interview took place, said that when he was a teenager, he was impressed with the way an older trumpet player shined his shoes. Beboppers were sharp, and we were their acolytes.
Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins first picked up the sax in 1944 as a sophomore in high school. By the 1950s he had come into his own, playing tenor with a variety of all-time jazz greats, including Art Blakey, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. When he left the Max Roach Quintet in 1957, Rollins created his own unique trio (sax, bass and drums) that spotlighted the versatility of his solos and hard bop style. Several years later, in an attempt to regain inspiration in his playing, he stopped recording and began practicing regularly while walking along New York’s Williamsburg Bridge; his triumphant return took place in 1962 with an album titled simply The Bridge.
Rollins’ early recording styles show him developing what would become the Rollins style: a broad repertoire including blues, standards and even spirituals and an intense devotion to melody. No matter how abstract his solos become, one is always mindful of the tune with which he started out—a trait he shares with Thelonious Monk.
Though jazz solos may sound spontaneous, many are rehearsed and memorized. Some musicians are still recycling solos originated by Charlie “Bird” Parker. Rollins, on the other hand, is known for pure improvisation. He has a dedicated following but fame in the United States has been slow to come. For some of the white critics, who form the largest segment of the fraternity of jazz critics, Rollins has an attitude. He is recognized as one of the first artists to make reference to the growing militancy of the 1960s with his Freedom Suite.
Both the Yoruba and biblical traditions hold that sometimes your worst adversary is inside your family—in this case, American fans and critics. The prophet is no honored in his own country. Abroad, though, it’s different. Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus is a best-seller in Japan, which he has visited nineteen times and where he has appeared in computer commercials. At seventy-six, he still continues his vigorous touring.
But Rollins doesn’t have to go anywhere, if he doesn’t want to. He’s come a long way since his mother bought him that first Zephyr tenor. He can kick around his Germantown, New York farm and continue to develop his music.
Rollins has accumulated a catalogue of close to fifty albums. More importantly, he’s one of the only surviving icons left from an era in jazz when genius was the norm and musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were not only changing music but also affecting black culture and American society. When members of my generation tried to break away from the linear forms of novel writing, we did so because we were trying to keep up with the musicians and painters. How would it look if I did some refried Faulkner and Hemingway, when I lived in a community on the Lower East Side that included Joe Overstreet, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor? Kenny Dorham and I used to drink together at a dive named the Port of Call, and Albert Ayler and his brother were guests in my home. It’s appropriate that the central image of associated with Rollins is a bridge, because the beboppers, like the hip-hoppers, those who are not pushed into music that degrades by avaricious record producers, have established a bridge that reaches back thousands of years to the sound of the mother drum, the root of all black music. But sometimes it seems that in a white supremacist society, constantly on guard against minorities gaining the upper hand, even the creators of one form of homegrown music are denied credit for their invention. American Experience, on PBS, ran a program about the history of New Orleans. Based on the visuals, one would gain the impression that whites invented jazz. Photos of great black musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis and Lil Armstrong, King Oliver and others roll by without the musicians being identified. All one has to do is notice the names associated with the production to realize the problem.
Reed: There aren't many survivors from the great bebop revolution. Who is still left?
Rollins: Well, J.J. Johnson [who, since this interview, has died], Milt Jackson [died], Percy Heath [died], and his little brother Jimmy. There’s not many of us left. Art Farmer, who I guess would be about my age. Johnny Griffin. [Since the interview was conducted, bop pioneer Jackie MacLean also died.]
Reed: Do you guys have a survivor’s guild? (Laughter)
Rollins: No, we don’t have one. We should have something like that, ‘cause in the old days in Harlem, they used to have all these clubs and everyone would be together, to help guys. There should really be some kind of federation. But people just see each other now and then, you know.
Reed: You’ve said your mind is like a computer—you have different programs and you snatch from everyplace. Tin Pan Alley, country and western—very eclectic. Do you consider your music to be at all political or satirical, like poking fun at institutions that take themselves too seriously?
Rollins: Yeah, oh sure. Of course. I got a lot of criticism for The Freedom Suite, especially when I went down South on tour and we were playing mainly white colleges. A lot of people had me against the wall, asking, “What did you mean by that?”
Reed: We still get that with gangsta rap, and I remember the horrible things they used to say about bebop. When middle-class black people listened to bebop, they said the music was strange. They didn’t like the culture, they didn’t like the style; just a lot of hate.
Rollins: In a way, because of the guys in that day using drugs and stuff, they might have associated the music with that culture. So maybe I can cut them a little slack.
Reed: Let’s talk about the music here. One critic, Gunther Schuller, said that your method of playing, through melody rather than running harmonic changes, was a radical concept. What did he mean by that?
Rollins: I guess what he’s talking about is thematic improvisation. In other words, if I played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” [sings the melody], I might play for two hours from that same song, variations on that theme. What he meant was that I didn’t just play the melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and go into the chord changes. I kept it as a theme. I think that’s what he meant. But at the time he wrote that, I didn’t know what he meant. I might have understood it, but it was so strange to have someone tell me what I was doing that it sort of tricked me for a minute.
Reed: Describe your apprenticeship with Coleman Hawkins. I know he influenced you a great deal.
Rollins: I would say Monk was more like that. Coleman, he was sort of—I didn’t really work with him. He was just my adult. But I actually used to go to Monk’s house after school and rehearse with his band and stuff, so with him I would say it was more of a real apprenticeship. He was like my guru. Monk would say, “Yeah, man, Sonny is bad. Cats have to work out what they play; Sonny just plays that shit out of the top of his head.”
Reed: In the old days, the players and the gangsters were the real patrons of the art. And if you had talent, they would get you gigs in their clubs. Then a new kind of drug came on the scene. What was the impact of heroin on the jazz scene?
Rollins: Devastating. Devastating.
Reed: When you got in trouble, was that peer group stuff?
Rollins: To an extent, but you know, Bird [Charlie Parker] was doing it, Billie Holiday was doing it, but especially Bird. That’s why Bird was such a distraught figure. Because cats were copying him, and he knew it was wrong but he couldn’t stop. So we figured, Yeah, man, Bird is doing it, let’s go and get high. And I got strung out. I got fucked up. I mean, that’s normal when you don’t know better.
Reed: But you overcame it.
Rollins: That was a rough one. The person that gave me pride to overcome it—besides Bird—was my mother, who stood by me after I had nobody. After I had ripped everybody off. People would see me coming down the street, they’d run. But my mother stayed with me all the way. And Charlie Parker.
Reed: You had a great reputation, but you went to Chicago and worked as a laborer. How did you feel about that?
Rollins: Well, I had messed myself up so bad and burned all these bridges, so when I went to Chicago, I went there to kick my habit.
Reed: And then you went to the government rehab center in Lexington, Kentucky. And afterward made your comeback.
Rollins: I came out and I was thinking about Bird, and what happened when I was in there. I thought, boy, wait till I come out. I’ma show Bird that I’m cool. And then he died while I was still in there. But anyway, I came out and still had to struggle with cats saying, “Hey, man, come on, let’s step out.” But I won that struggle. I wanted to work, and I had to come all the way back out myself. I knew how far down I’d been; I did janitor work and all of this—well, what else was there to really do?
Reed: What about your relationship with club owners?
Rollins: I was blackballed by a lot of these people.
Rollins: Because I was what you would call an uppity nigger or whatever. So a lot of these cats were keeping me from playing festivals and shit. This was for acting up and asking for money. Some cats be so glad to play that they don’t say nothing.
Reed: People are so happy to play that they lower the standards?
Rollins: It’s not just in the past, either. I’m going through this shit all the time. They just called me to do a commercial for this car, Infiniti. They wanted us to go to Czechoslovakia to shoot it. There were no speaking parts. It would be this actor and myself sitting down in a jazz club at a table, and there’ll be some Czech jazz musicians up there playing and then a voice-over about Infiniti. Something like that. So naturally I didn’t do it. I mean, for me to just be validating white jazz music. I’m not going to put myself in that position. I’m glad they still think I’m viable, but I’m not gonna do that shit, man.
I did one commercial some time ago, where I was playing on the bridge for Pioneer. They said, “Sonny Rollins really went to practice on the bridge and became excellent, like our product.” Something like that was cool, where I’m identified and the people know it’s me playing. But to sit down and validate someone else’s shit, it’s just not right. It would get me a lot of exposure, it would be cash, of course, but I reached the conclusion a long time ago that I’m not rich. I’m not going to get rich, I just want to make enough to make it. Fuck trying to get into that race. I don’t want it; I don’t even want to speak to those people about it ‘cause I don’t like them.
Reed: Was that like a revelation—some sort of spiritual thing that led you to do that?
Rollins: It happened because I was getting a lot of publicity at the time. I had a band with Elvin Jones and I was playing these places, and I remember the place I played in Baltimore and people really didn’t get it, so I said, “Man, I’m not really doing it. I got to get myself together. First of all, I’ma go back to the woodshed.” That’s why I went on the bridge. Some cat, a writer, was up across the bridge one day and saw me playing, but nobody would have even known it if it hadn’t been for him. That’s how it happened. It didn’t have anything to do with trying to make it public.
Reed: Why are you so hard on yourself?
Rollins: I’m hard on myself because maybe I been around a lot great musicians, and I don’t think I’ll ever be at the level of some of the people I been around. So I’m trying to reach that level. I’m trying to reach a level of performance, and that’s what it’s about.
Reed: They used to hose something called the “Pat Juba” in slavery days: the white slave owners made two black guys beat each other up and one survives, and the masters stand around and watch. I think that still goes on. When it comes to blacks it always seems to be a competition, fighting to see who’s going to be the diva, like they’re having a diva war to see who’s going to be accepted. There can only be one dancer, one writer, one musician. They tried to do that with you and Coltrane, to play you against each other.
Rollins: We didn’t react to it. Coltrane was beautiful, a very spiritual person. He was like a minister. We were thinking about music. It was the writers who influenced the friends who….
Reed: Was it just a few writers who did this?
Rollins: Probably. Remember when Coltrane and I came out. I was popular before Coltrane. We used to be referred to as the angry young tenors—we were against, like, the Stan Getzes, the Birth of the Cool; we were sort of a reaction against that. That was still going on at that time, so we were the angry tenors and nobody was thinking about that shit. But I noticed that without even realizing that’s what they were doing in slavery days. I noticed that you could never have more than one person up there at a time.
Reed: Let me ask you about gangsta rap.
Rollins: I like the content of rap because it’s the black experience; what they’re saying is the truth. Not everything—I’m talking about the political stuff, of course. We have to accept that ‘cause that’s what’s happening.
Reed: What about the style, all this mixing and sampling and stuff they do?
Rollins: Well, they sampled some of my stuff. This group Digable Planets did some of my stuff. I heard it in a store. I heard somebody playing some of my stuff.
Reed: How do you feel about that?
Rollins: It’s okay, it’s alright. I just don’t want to be ripped off. I need my money. So I like the political thing and I like some of the rhythms them cats are playing. I can use it. I’m not an old fogy. I think jazz has done so much to bring people together, but jazz is only an art form. You can’t change a society with jazz. The society is still backward on racial matters. I like to be democratic; I have a white boy playing in my band right at the moment. But it’s not a personal thing. I find people personally who are great, but the oppressive society just makes it impossible to be real with people. It always fucks everything up.
This essay is excerpted from Ishmael Reed's new collection, Mixing It Up: Taking On the Media Bullies and Other Reflections. It is reprinted with permission of the author.