Rollins, Sonny (Theodore Walter)

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Rollins, Sonny (Theodore Walter)

Rollins, Sonny (Theodore Walter) , one of the greatest and most respected tenor (and soprano) saxophonists, often called the greatest living jazz musician; b. N.Y., Sept. 7, 1930. He used a 1929 birth year for many years in order to join the union when he was underaged. His mother was from the Virgin Islands. He began on piano, but after hearing his aunt’s collections of Louis Jordan records, he decided to take up the saxophone. Though his mother was supportive of his decision to be a musician, his father and grandmother were initially against it. As a teen, he would visit such players as Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Lockjaw Davis after school to get pointers on the saxophone. He first recorded in 1948 with Babs Gonzales, then in 1949 with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro; he then went to Chicago, where he studied with Ike Day. Rollins was featured in a Chicago concert with Bruz Freeman in 1950 and won the Metronome award that year. He also worked with Miles Davis, recording his now-standard “Oleo” and “Airegin” (1954), and Thelonious Monk in the early 1950s. He considered Monk an especially important mentor. The album Tenor Madness (1956) has both Rollins and Coltrane on the title track, the only recording of them together. Rollins took a break from performing in (September 1955 in Chicago through late 1956) to rid himself of his heroin habit at a Chicago clinic, then joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet in December 1955 until autumn 1957. He has led his own groups ever since to almost instant acclaim. His “St. Thomas,” recorded in 1956, has become a standard and was the first of several calypsos he has recorded. He first met Omette Coleman in Los Angeles in 1957, whose new, freer style of playing would have a great impact on Rollins’s style in the early 1960s. He rejoined Monk briefly at the Five Spot in September 1958, after Griffin had quit, demanding more money. He toured Europe in May 1959 with his regular trio of Pete LaRoca and Henry Grimes. Rollins took another sabbatical (around June 1959) to work on ideas about the new free-jazz and about composition; he lived in Greenwich Village, N.Y. and sometimes practiced on the walkway of the Wil-iamsburg Bridge, in order not to bother his neighbors. He said he was preparing to unveil a new direction in jazz in the fall of 1960, but did not do so until November 1961 when he opened at the Village Vanguard with Jim Hall. (Many musicians have drawn inspiration from his work of the 1960s.) Rollins toured the U.S. and Europe (1962-63) with Omette Coleman’s colleagues Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, and also that year recorded What’s New, an album of Brazilian and Latin performances that featured some of the most astounding improvisations ever recorded. He toured Japan in 1963 with Paul Bley, another Coleman associate. He wrote/improvised solo saxophone music for parts of the film score to Alfle (1966), including “Alfie’s Theme” (not the Bacharach-David title song). However, his behavior in the 1960s was unpredictable; during 1963, he appeared with a Mohawk haircut; for a Boston TV appearance, he let the rhythm section walk for most of the first number, playing only a few notes here and there; at Lincoln Center’s famous Titans of the Tenor concert on February 1966, he played a set of only a few minutes, announced he’d be back, but never returned. In 1968, he began another period of retirement by spending three months at an ashram near Bombay to study the holy Hindu books, the Gita and Vedantas. Later his guru revealed that he was a highly spiritual person, gifted with special attributes. He continued to work on personal health, yoga, and new ideas about fusion, and returned to performing in 1972, showing some fusion influences on his albums but for the most part playing acoustic jazz in concert at first. He appeared at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1972 Newport in N.Y. Festival with Al Dailey, and also was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that year. Rollins toured Tokyo and was videotaped there in 1973. He continued to tour through the 1970s and 1980s; in the early 1980s, he played a series of concerts with younger musicians in N.Y., including a famous appearance with Wynton Marsalis in April 1983 at Town Hall, during which he collapsed from exhaustion while playing; by June of that year, he was working again. His concerto for Saxophone and Orch. was premiered in Japan in 1986. Gradually, over the next decade, he cut back on performing, eliminating club work altogether, and playing only about 40–50 major concerts a year. Since the mid-1990s, he has toured with Clifton Anderson, Bob Cranshaw, and various drummers, guitarists or keyboardists. His bands often lack cohesion and his own performances, while always played with a hoarse, passionate sound, range from crowd-pleasing repetition to some of the most ecstatic flights that jazz has ever known.


Sonny and the Stars (1951); Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet (1951); Sonny Rollins Quartet (1951); Sonny Rollins Quintet (1954); Moving Out (1954); Work Time (1955); Three Giants (1956); Tenor Madness (1956); Sonny Rollins, Vol. 1 (1956); Sonny Rollins Plus 4 (1956); Saxophone Colossus (1956); Plays for Bird (1956); Way Out West (1957); Sound of Sonny (1957); Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 (1957); Night at the Village Vanguard (1957); More from the Vanguard (1957); Newk’s Time (1957); Brass &Trio (1958); Modern Jazz Quartet with Sonny Rollins (1958); Freedom Suite (1958); Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (1958); Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass (1958); In Stockholm (1959); Aix-En-Provence (1959); Complete RCA Victor Recordings (ree. 1962-64; rel.1997); What’s New? (1962); Our Man in Jazz (1962); The Bridge (1962); Stuttgart (1963); Sonny Meets Hawk! (1963); Live in Paris (1963); All the Things You Are (1963); Three in Jazz (1964); Standard Sonny Rollins (1964); Sonny Rollins &Co. (1964); Now’s the Time (1964); There Will Never Be Another You (1965); Sonny Rollins on Impulse! (1965); Live in Europe (1965); East Broadway Run Down (1966); Alpe (1966); Next Album (1972); In Japan (1973); Horn Culture (1973); Cutting Edge (1974); Nucleus (1975); Way I Feel (1976); Easy Living (1977); Milestone Jazzstars in Concert (1978); Don’t Stop the Carnival (1978); Don’t Ask (1979); Solo Album (1985); G-Man (1986); Dancing in the Dark (1988); Fallin’ in Love with Jazz (1989); Old Flames (1993); Plus 3 (1996).


T. Sjorgren, Sonny Rollins Discography (Copenhagen); D. Baker, The Jazz Style of S. R. (Lebanon, Ind., 1980); C. Blancq, S. R., The Journey of a Jazzman (Boston, 1983); C. Gerard, Jazz Masters: Sonny Rollins (N.Y. 1980); E. Nisenson, Open Sky: Sonny Rollins’s World of Improvisation (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

—Lewis Porter