Rollins, Sonny

views updated May 21 2018

Sonny Rollins

Saxophonist, composer

Jammed With Miles Davis

Embarked on Self-Exploratory Sabbaticals

Incorporated the Sounds of Fusion

Selected discography


Rollins played with a vivacity and amplitude so far beyond the ken of most musicians, wrote Gary Giddins in the Village Voice about tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollinss 1988 Town Hall concert, that it might shame many into another line of work. Revered as a jazz master whose improvisational work has made him one of the most influential musicians in the genre, Rollins is a complex performer. He has remained popular over four decades, despite periodically dropping out of the jazz scene, and is often considered one of the greatest saxophonists in the music industry.

Rollins was born Theodore Walter Rollins on September 7, 1930, in New York City. The year was 1930, but I had to put my age up when it came time to get working papers, so some of the books say 1929, Rollins explained to Bob Blumenthal in Rolling Stone. Located in Harlem, his familys first apartment was within walking distance of such popular jazz hangouts as the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club. The young Rollins dreamed of visiting both night spots, but contented himself at the Apollo Theater. I went down there at least once a week and caught practically everybodyLionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Rollins recounted to Blumenthal.

At home, Rollinss parents expected him to study piano like his sister, but the eight-year-old rebelled. He preferred the baseball field, where he acquired the nickname Newk because he idolized Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe. Two years passed before Rollins, struck by the sight of a saxophone in its case, discovered his instrument. He began taking lessons on an alto while spending his time listening to Louis Jordan records.

Jammed With Miles Davis

In the early 1940s, Rollinss family moved to a new neighborhood further uptown, which was home to numerous well-known musicians. Proximity to the post-World War II Harlem jazz world made introductions easy for Rollins and, entranced by the music of Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins, he bought his first tenor sax in 1946. In 1948 when he was 18 years old, Rollins began recording on the tenor sax with trombonist J. J. Johnson and vocalist Babs Gonzales. He soon made contact with pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and trumpeter Miles Davis; in 1951 Davis asked Rollins to join his band.

Critical and popular acclaim came easily while Rollins jammed with Davis during the early 1950s, but the saxophonists personal life was overshadowed by his

For the Record

Born Theodore Walter Rollins, September 7, 1930, in New York, NY; married; wifes name, Lucille.

Saxophonist and composer. Began playing in jazz combos in Harlem, NY; performed with Miles Davis, 1951-57; joined Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet, 1955; played and recorded with numerous other jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock; led own groups, beginning in 1957. Wrote film scores, including Alfie and Saxophone Colossus. Guest on television programs, including The Tonight Show. Performed in concert at Carnegie Hall and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.

Selected awards: Guggenheim fellow, 1972.

Addresses: Record company Fantasy Inc., 10th and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710.

addiction to heroin. Charlie Parker, his mentor at the time, urged Rollins to get away from drugs, which were prevalent among jazzmen. Rollins recalled to Blumenthal, Charlie Parker told me I could be a great musician if I didnt mess around, and that stayed on my mind. In 1954 Rollins finally gave up his habit at a federal drug facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Parker, himself an addict, died without knowing about Rollinss recovery.

While continuing his work with Davis, Rollins joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet in 1955. Rollinss career soared with the group, which is considered one of the outstanding combos in the history of jazz. Landmark albums, including Saxophone Colossus and Worktime, appeared in 1956 and secured Rollinss standing as a premier saxophonist. New Leader contributor Bruce Cook had nothing but praise for Rollinss sound, which he felt accelerated, if it did not start, the very healthy shift away from the cool school of the West Coast that had come to dominate jazz. In 1957 Rollins left Roach and Davis to lead his own group after Clifford Brown and pianist Richie Powell were killed in an automobile accident.

Embarked on Self-Exploratory Sabbaticals

Rollins subsequently entered an intensely productive period, during which he defined his own style as a leader by omitting the customary piano player. Forming trios with only tenor sax, bass, and drums, Rollins made three more landmark albums: Way Out West with Ray Brown and Shelley Manne and A Night at the Village Vanguard with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones appeared in 1957, and Freedom Suite with Oscar Pettiford and Roach followed in 1958.

Rollins quit performing in 1959 in order to practice his sax alone on a walkway over New York Citys Williamsburg bridge. His woodshedding in Manhattan meant to other musicians that Rollins was taking time to turn inward in a solitary exploration of his craft. Writer Ralph Burton even penned a short story in 1961 entitled Metronome, which was inspired by Rollinss romantic vigil. Rollins, however, called this and future exits from the music business sabbaticals, explaining to Blumenthal, Ive always been about getting my own self together.

In 1961 Rollins reappeared on the jazz scene and was labeled by the New Yorker the most influential practitioner on his instrument to come along since Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. The hero of the hard-bop school, Rollins experimented, making several albums with a young Jim Hall and using a piano anew, but his composing for the soundtrack to the 1966 film Alfie was his major success of the decade. In 1968 Rollins took another sabbaticalthis time to Indiaafter becoming disillusioned by a growing preoccupation with finances rather than quality in the recording industry.

Incorporated the Sounds of Fusion

The appointment of his wife, Lucille, as his manager in the 1970s initiated Rollinss return to jazz at a time when less emphasis was on the player than on the instrument. In New Leader Bruce Cook described Rollinss sound as an increasingly coarser and rougher tone, influenced by the variety possible with fusion. He applauded the saxophonists push further in a new direction and increased use of electronics and rock, demonstrated in the 1978 album Dont Stop the Carnival and in the recordings of the 1980s. The artist, awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972, told Blumenthal, You have to change as you hear different sounds. I like to think of myself as relating to all these things, not just as some guy who made great records in the Fifties.

In a Down Beat interview at the close of the 1980s, Gene Kalbacher designated Rollins the worlds greatest living improvisor, paying tribute to the musicians ability to take a tune like Theres No Business Like Show Business and tenderize the unlikely song into a jazz vehicle. In 1986, G-Man a compilation of the music Rollins mixed for Robert Mugges movie Saxophone Colossus and The Solo Album won Rollins further praise, and the nearly 60-year-old saxophonist expressed to Kalbacher that he was ready for more risks.

Though critics reactions to Rollinss albums of the late 1980s and early 1990s were mixed, the musician continues to stun fans with his live performances. People contributor David Grogan watched Rollins nearly blow Branford Marsalis off the Carnegie Hall stage at a live concert. And when Grogan reviewed the album Falling in Love With Jazz, he concluded, No one is better than Rollins when it comes to transforming a familiar melody into an occasion for utter astonishment.

Selected discography

Sonny Rollins, Vol. 1, Blue Note, 1956.

More From the Vanguard, Blue Note, 1957.

Bass and Trio, Verve, 1958.

Tenor Titan, Verve, 1958.

Whats New, 1962.

The Bridge, RCA, 1962.

Sonny Meets Hawk, 1963.

East Broadway Rundown, Impulse, 1966.

(With Herbie Hancock and Coleman Hawkins) All the Things You Are (recorded 1963-64), Bluebird, 1990.

The Way I Feel, Milestone, 1976.

Dont Ask, Milestone, 1979.

Love at First Sight, Milestone, 1980.

No Problem, Milestone, 1981.

Reel Life, Milestone, 1982.

Sunny Days, Starry Nights, Milestone, 1984.

(With Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk) Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 (recorded mid-1950s), Blue Note, 1985.

The Solo Album, Milestone, 1985.

Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra, 1986.

On Impulse (recorded 1965), reissue, MCA/Impulse, 1986.

Alternate Takes (recorded 1957), Contemporary, 1986.

G-Man (recorded 1986-87), Milestone, 1987.

Plus Four (recorded 1956), reissue, Fantasy/OJC, 1987.

A Night at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, 1987.

Next Album (recorded 1972), Fantasy/OJC, 1988.

Dancing in the Dark (recorded 1987), Milestone, 1988.

The Best of Sonny Rollins, Blue Note, 1989.

Quintet (recorded 1957), Zeta, 1989.

Dont Stop the Carnival (recorded 1978) Milestone, 1989.

East Broadway Rundown, MCA, 1990.

Falling in Love With Jazz, Milestone, 1990.

Heres to the People, Milestone, 1991.

Nucleus (recorded 1975), Fantasy/OJC, 1991.

On the Outside, Bluebird, 1991.

(With Wynton Kelly, Doug Watkins, and Philly Joe Jones) Newks Time (recorded 1958), Blue Note.

Easy Living, Milestone.

The Essential Sonny Rollins on Riverside, Riverside.

Plays for Bird, Fantasy/OJC. & the Contemporary Leaders, Fantasy/OJC.

Cutting Edge, Fantasy/OJC.

Live in Paris, 1963, Magnetic.

Scandinavian Concerts, 1965, Magnetic.

With Modern Jazz Quintet (recorded 1951 and 1953), Fantasy/OJC.

Vintage Sessions (recorded 1951, 1953, and 1954), Prestige.

Moving Out (recorded 1954), Fantasy/OJC.

Worktime (recorded 1955), Fantasy/OJC.

Tenor Madness (recorded 1956), Fantasy/OJC.

The Sound of Sonny (recorded 1957), Fantasy/OJC.

Tour de Force (recorded 1957), Fantasy/OJC.

Freedom Suite (recorded 1958), Fantasy/OJC.

Horn Culture (recorded 1973), Fantasy/OJC.

(With Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, and Max Roach) Saxophone Colossus, Fantasy/OJC.

Sonny Boy, Fantasy/OJC.

(With Ray Brown and Shelley Manne) Way Out West, Fantasy/OJC.

Sonny Rollins Plays, Fresh Sound.

Taking Care of Business (recorded 1956), Prestige.

Great Moments With , MCA.

There Will Never Be Another You, Impulse.

Pure Gold, RCA.

Green Dolphin Street, Quintessence.


Down Beat, November 16, 1978; January 25, 1979; July 1988; June 1990; October 1990; July 1991.

Harpers, November 1962.

High Fidelity, April 1989.

New Leader, November 6, 1978.

New Republic, April 1, 1978.

Newsweek, December 4, 1961.

New Yorker, November 18, 1961; April 1, 1972.

People, April 30, 1990.

Rolling Stone, November 16, 1978; July 12, 1979; December 13, 1990.

Saturday Review, October 30, 1965.

Stereo Review, October 1990.

Marjorie Burgess

Rollins, Sonny 1930–

views updated May 14 2018

Sonny Rollins 1930


Started Professional Life Early

Emerged as a Tenor Saxophonist

Went On Self-Imposed Sabbatical

Established as Jazz Icon

Selected discography


In 1997 Down Beat critics named Sonny Rollins as both jazz artist and tenor saxophonist of the year. He had recorded major albums like Saxophone Colossus by the time he was 26, and had also recorded with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and J. J. Johnson. But throughout his career, Rollins has continued to pursue a questa journey that can best be described as spiritualfor new ways to approach jazz. Now in his sixth decade as a jazz performer, the 72-year-old saxophonist continues to play 40 dates per year and record new material. He is also one of the few remaining active players from the 1950s jazz scene. Scott Yanow wrote in All Music Guide, Rollins has for over 40 years been one of the true jazz giants, ranking up there with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and John Coltrane as one of the all-time great tenor saxophonists. Although he no longer practices 9 to 10 hours a day, Rollins remains committed to his art. I dont smoke, I dont drink, I dont have hobbies, Rollins told George Goodman in the Atlantic Monthly, because music is everything for the remaining time I have on this earth.

Started Professional Life Early

Theodore Walter Rollins was born in New York City on September 7, 1930. His mother, Valborg Rollins, had emigrated from St. Thomas and worked as a domestic; his father, Walter William Rollins, had emigrated from St. Croix and rose to the rank of chief petty officer during his Naval career. Although his father was seldom home during the 1930s and 1940s, Rollins spent summers with him at the naval base in Annapolis. Theirs was a musical family. Rollinss father played clarinet, his sister piano, and his brother violin. When he was eight, his parents encouraged him to play the piano, but he preferred baseball. All West Indian parents wanted children who could entertain by playing something at teatime on Sundays, Rollinss sister, Gloria Anderson, told Goodman, but no one wanted them to think of becoming a jazz musician. Rollins was exposed to politics at an early age by his activist grandmother, Miriam Solomon, who took him along to protest the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the incarceration of the Scottsboro boys, and the harassment of singer Paul Robeson.

Rollins became interested in the saxophone after listening to recordings of Louis Jordan playing with the Tympany Five. That began my liking the saxophone, Rollins told Bob Belden in Down Beat. I had always

At a Glance

Born Theodore Walter Rollins on September 7, 1930, in New York City; son of Valborg Rollins and Walter William Rollins; married Lucille Pearson Rollins Williams. Religion : Zen Buddhism

Career: Recorded with Babs Gonzales, 1949; performed with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, early-to-mid 1950s; joined Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet, 1955; led own groups, beginning in 1957; withdrew from jazz world, 1959-61; returned to performing with guitarist Jim Hall, 1961; composed film score for Alfie, 1966; withdrew from jazz world, 1968-72; returned with Next Album, 1972; toured with Milestone Jazzstars, 1978; performed at Great American Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Museum of Modern Art; continued to record a series of albums for Milestone including Sonny Rollins Plus Three, 1996; Global Warming, 1998; This is What I Do, 2000.

Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, 1972; Down Beat, jazz Artist and Tenor Saxophonist of the Year, 1997.

Address: Record Company Fantasy Inc., 10th and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710.

liked music, but I think that kind of made me conscious of that particular instrument, and I began to recognize that instrument when I heard it. He listened to recordings by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but his most important musical education came from other musicians. When he was nine years old, his family moved to the Sugar Hill district of Harlem, a prominent African-American neighborhood where Hawkins, Don Redman, Cy Oliver, and a number of other jazz musicians lived. When he reached the age of 13, his mother bought him his first saxophone, an alto, and gave him the 25 cents needed for lessons at the New York Academy of Music. Twenty-five cents didnt get very much, he told Goodman. I consider myself largely self-taught, but not well enough. Ive always tried to push myself to make up for it.

When Rollins graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in 1947, he already belonged to the musicians union and had begun to work as a professional. He made his first recording in 1949 with singer Babs Gonzales, and completed The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 with the young pianist the same year. While working on Mad Bebop with J.J. Johnson, he also received the opportunity to record one of his own compositions, Audubon. Remembering these early recordings, Rollins told Belden, I was just so much in heaven to be there just playing with these guys. I was just trying to represent myself in a good way. The atmosphere was also competitive, leading the in crowd to exclude anyone who was perceived as lacking. Rollins explained to Goodman, You were asked to come back, or you werent. If you were playing a gig and werent cutting it, they might leave you alone on the bandstand.

Emerged as a Tenor Saxophonist

In 1951 Miles Davis invited Rollins to join his band and Rollins subsequently played on Miles and Horns, Dig, and Conception. His association with Davis led to his first contract with Prestige Records, where he recorded Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet, an album that gave notice to the jazz world: a new tenor had arrived. The program overall shows that, even in his formative stage, Sonny Rollins was near the top of his field, wrote Yanow. Many musicians, however, made the mistake of emulating their bandstand idols. Goodman wrote, Rollins and Coltrane were unmatched in their worship of Parker, which led them nearly to self-destruction as they fell into some of the excesses of Parkers personal life. Although the young saxophonist seemed on his way to a brilliant career, he had developed a heroin habit after finishing high school. Rollins told Goodman, After the war, the streets of Harlem were flooded with heroin. I thought at first that it helped me focus on music, but then I realized it was a trick bag.

Rollins struck bottom in 1955. He was living on the streets in the Chicago subway system, addicted to heroin and homeless. Finally realizing that he needed to clean up his life, he traveled to Kentucky and checked into the Public Service Hospital in Lexington, where he remained for the next four months. Rollins went the full term and was clinically cured, wrote Charles Blancq in Sonni; Rollins: The Journey of a Jazzman, but his return to professional music was necessarily slow and cautious. Rollins returned to Chicago, got a job as a janitor, and began practicing the saxophone again. He re-emerged when the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet came to Chicago. When Harold Land, the groups saxophonist, had to return to California (for the birth of his child), Roach asked Rollins to sit in. The Brown/Roach Quintet was among the top two or three jazz combos of the 1950s, noted Blancq. The band recorded the hard-bop classic At Basin Street, and the association lasted 19 months, until the time of Browns tragic early death in an automobile accident. Members of the band also joined Rollins for Saxophone Colossus, a two-LP set that Blancq called the most critically discussed and analyzed recording of his career.

In May of 1957 Rollins left the Max Roach Quintet, played at the Café Bohemia with Miles Davis, and then formed his own band for a date at the Village Vanguard. He recorded with Thelonious Monk and completed Tenor Madness with John Coltrane. During this time he also dropped the piano and trumpet from his quintet, and for the next two years he performed exclusively with bass and drum accompaniment. Rollins then recorded another landmark album in 1957, Way Out West, and showed his sense of humor by appearing on the cover dressed in western clothing, standing next to a cactus. This timeless recording, noted Yanow, established Sonny Rollins as jazzs top tenor saxophonist. Recorded with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, the album included such unlikely jazz pieces as Im an Old Cowhand and the title cut. By 1958, Goodman wrote, Rollins was at the peak of his powers and reaping the rewards.

Went On Self-Imposed Sabbatical

The success, artistically and monetarily, was shortlived. When Rollinss mother died in 1959, he became emotionally distraught. A year later, following a tour in Europe, he went into seclusion for two years. The reasons for his sabbatical, however, ran deeper than personal problems. What does a jazzman do when he feels like he is losing contact with his audience? When he senses that his creative powers are gradually ebbing away? Blancq asked. He retires; at least that is what Sonny Rollins did. Rollins studied musical theory and composition, and began a physical fitness program. His Lower East Side apartment, however, was too cramped for his new regimen. He found the space he needed by practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge walkway against a backdrop of cars, boats, and subways, his horn drowned out by the noise.

During Rollins absence, the jazz world experienced a revolution in sound, represented by the experiments of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Whereas be-bop had combined complex chord patterns with breakneck pacing, free jazz allowed players to build compositions without the constrictions of traditional structures. The public, however, quickly grew tired of the new style and jazz clubs began drying up.

In the fall of 1961 Rollins performed at New Yorks Jazz Gallery, re-entering the quickly evolving scene. Gradually, he hired Coleman sidemen like trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, and began to play free jazz on albums like On the Outside (1963) and Stuttgart (1963). Critics, however, were divided on the saxophonists new direction, and Rollins himself vacillated between traditional and avant-garde approaches. He toured Germany and Austria, and while he continued to record, he did so less frequently than in the 1950s. Like many jazz musicians of this period who were searching for a deeper meaning in their music and life, wrote Blancq, Rollins sought to enrich his through a new physical and spiritual awakening. In 1965 he toured England, which led to composing the film score for the movie Alfie, and in 1966, he recorded East Broadway Rundown, his last album before beginning another, lengthier retirement.

In 1963 and 1968, Rollins visited Japan and became interested in Zen Buddhism. He continued to explore his spirituality during his second sabbatical, and escaped from the music business, with which he had become dissatisfied. He told Belden, As most musicians are, I was at the mercy of these unscrupulous agents. In 1968 Rollins departed for India. Taking his horn and little else, Goodman wrote, he spent four months in the Powaii Ashram in the Bombay suburbs, meditating on his lifes mission and practicing hatha yoga. During his lengthy absence from jazz, Rollins even ceased playing his saxophone for 20 months.

Established as Jazz Icon

Rollins returned to the jazz scene in 1972, signing with Milestone Records and releasing Next Album. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972 and was elected as the 38th member of the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1973. His music continued to evolve, this time absorbing pop influences without flirting with the more experimental fusion of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Weather Report. Goodman noted that his work for the next two decades left much of his original following behind and failed to draw the critical acclaim of his earlier years. Rollins, however, continued unperturbed. His wife, Lucille, was now managing his career and he enjoyed his widest popularity to date, a mainstream acceptance that included an appearance on the Tonight Show. There are people, he told Goodman, who want to hear the way I sounded on Saxophone Colossus. You dont go back over the same ground and stay creative. Rollins also began playing in concert halls, as opposed to clubs, in the late 1970s. He told Belden, Jazz needs some dignity. It needs to be looked at as a serious, important art form. And if youre going to be playing in nightclubs youre not going to get that kind of respect for it.

Rollinss work returned to critical favor in the 1990s when he recorded a series of well-received albums, including Sonny Rollins Plus Three and Global Warming. This Is What I Do, a mellow, reflective recital, caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan confronts his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history, wrote Ted Panken in Down Beat. In 2001 Rollins celebrated his 70th birthday as well as his 50th year as a professional jazz musician, making him one of the few remaining giants from the 1950s. When I think about my departed colleagues, he told Michael Anthony in the Star Tribune, I never think of them as departed, because their music is alive within me. Despite his multiple achievements, Rollins remains a perfectionist and refuses to rest on his laurels. Rollins told Anthony, Theres still a lot of things Im not satisfied with in my playing, and Im trying to get to these things before I leave this planet.

Selected discography

Sonni; Rollins Plus Four, Original Jazz Classics, 1956.

Tenor Madness, Original Jazz Classics, 1956.

Way Out West, Original Jazz Classics, 1957.

A Night at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1, Blue Note, 1957.

Freedom Suite, Original Jazz Classics, 1958.

The Bridge, Bluebird, 1962.

Alfie (film score), Impulse!, 1966.

East Broadway Rundown, Impulse!, 1966.

Next Album, Original Jazz Classics, 1972.

Sonny Rollins Plus Three, Milestone, 1996.

Global Warming, Milestone, 1998.

This Is What I Do, Milestone, 2000.



Blancq, Charles, Sonny Rollins: The Journey of a Jazzman, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 6-13.


Atlantic Monthly, July 1999, p. 82.

Billboard, June 10, 2000.

Down Beat, August 1997, p. 18; February 2001, p. 22.

Star Tribune, March 23, 2001, p. 22.


All Music Guide, (September 1, 2002).

Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002,

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Rollins, Sonny

views updated Jun 08 2018


Born: Theodore Walter; New York, New York, 7 September 1930

Genre: Jazz

Best-selling album since 1990: Saxophone Colossus (1991)

Sonny Rollins is universally acclaimed as a jazz icon, one of few vital elders of an uncompromising modern musical tradition still active early in the twenty-first century. A formidable physical presence, he is as vigorous and incisive a melodic improviser in his seventh decade as he was in the late 1940s when he apprenticed among the first generation of be-boppers, musicians reacting against the complacency of the big swing dance bands by introducing new harmonic and melodic complications in small combos. Rollins is a survivor of the era of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, a man who had played as an equal with deceased heroes such as Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. But he belies his age. In live performance, especially, he outshines the most promising and/or accomplished younger jazz stars with whom he appears.

Rollins was born and raised in Harlem, the African-American neighborhood of Manhattan that was a cultural hothouse during his childhood and youth. Rollins's family was steeped in music: His father was a career navy man, often at sea or living in Annapolis, Maryland, but as an amateur clarinetist he may have encouraged his children's musical interests; his mother bought Rollins his first instrument, an alto sax. Rollins was also influenced by his uncle, who played saxophone and listened to jazz, his older sister who was a church singer and pianist, and his older brother, a violinist who became a physician rather than pursue symphonic opportunities.

Rollins studied piano at age eight, took private saxophone lessons on Manhattan's 48th Street Music Row, and harmony classes in grammar school but was essentially self-taught. He absorbed the jazz language of neighbors such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and pianist Bud Powell, with whom he made one of his first recordings, The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1 (1949). He became a professional musician after playing tenor sax for two years. His initial coterie included drummers Arthur Taylor, Art Blakey, and Max Roach, trombonist J. J. Johnson, trumpeter Miles Davis, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and vibist Milt Jacksonall of whom went on to establish high standards of jazz excellence and dedication.

From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Rollins had a roller-coaster career, marked by memorable recordings with all-star ensembles, triumph over heroin addiction, assiduous practice of his instrument, investigation of extended harmonies and the far reaches of thematic development as well as mastery of the American popular songbook. Rollins ceaselessly challenged himself, several times retreating from public activity to hone his style (he was discovered during one hiatus practicing in seclusion at night on the Williamsburg Bridge) and/or undertake spiritual disciplines including Rosicrucianism, zen, yoga, and Buddhism. Originally identified with the be-bop process of inventing new songs by extending basic blues and familiar chord progressions into atypical shapes, Rollins experimented with free-form jazz, pianoless combos, and Caribbean dance rhythms (he's especially fond of calypsos; his mother was born in the Virgin Islands). He took up soprano saxophone, worked with electric guitarists, recorded Tattoo You (1980) with the Rolling Stones, and engaged in lengthy, unaccompanied introductions and codas, climaxing in a full length a capella concert at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art (The Solo Album, 1985).

Leading a small ensemble for the past thirty years whose personnel, instrumentation, format, and repertoire has remained consistent though not static, Rollins was renowned in the 1990s for the extraordinary immediacy of his concerts (he preferred brief engagements to week-long club bookings). He was antipathetic toward studio recording, though his twenty-one albums since 1972 were all issued by the Milestone label, and since 1980 he co-produced them with his wife, Lucille. Rollins's most recent albums represent him realistically, but only occasionally generate the unbound excitement of his live performances. Critics and fans agree Plus Three (1995) is one of the most satisfying of his 1990s recordings. On the album, veteran pianist Tommy Flanagan collaborates on quartet revisions of the Dinah Washington hit "What a Difference a Day Makes" and Nat "King" Cole's "Mona Lisa."

Rollins won his first Grammy Award, in the Jazz Instrumental Album category, in 2002 for This Is What I Do. It was his first time as a Grammy nominee in any performance category; he was previously nominated as a composer for his soundtrack to Alfie (1966) and as a liner note writer in 1994. Rollins's The Complete Prestige Recordings (1992), comprising sessions recorded from 1949 through 1956, were reissued as a seven-CD boxed set in 1992, and many of his older albumsincluding Tenor Madness (1956) in which he battles his saxophone colleague John Coltranemaintain steady sales as single-disc reissues.


Here's to the People (Milestone, 1991); Saxophone Colossus (Original Jazz Classics, 1991); The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige, 1992); Old Flames (Milestone, 1993); Plus Three (Milestone, 1995); Global Warming (1998); This Is What I Do (2000).


E. Nisenson, Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation (New York, 2001).


howard mandel

Rollins, ‘Sonny’

views updated Jun 27 2018

Rollins, ‘Sonny’ ( Theodore Walter) (1930– ) US jazz saxophonist. Influenced by Charlie Parker, Rollins played with many of the be-bop greats, including Max Roach, ‘Bud’ Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis.