Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins, born September 7, 1930, is an American jazz tenor saxophonist, widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. In a seven-decade career, he has recorded at least sixty albums as leader and a number of his compositions, including “St. Thomas”, “Oleo”, “Doxy”, “Pent-Up House”, and “Airegin”, have become jazz standards. Rollins has been called “the greatest living improviser”.
Rollins was born in Harlem, New York to parents from the United States Virgin Islands. The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in central Harlem and on Sugar Hill, receiving his first alto saxophone at the age of seven or eight. He attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High School and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem.
Rollins was born in Harlem, New York to parents from the United States Virgin Islands. The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in central Harlem and on Sugar Hill, receiving his first alto saxophone at the age of seven or eight. He attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High School and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high school years, he played in a band with other future jazz legends Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor.
After graduating from high school in 1947, Rollins began performing professionally; he made his first recordings in early 1949 as a sideman with the bebop singer Babs Gonzales (J. J. Johnson was the arranger of the group). Within the next few months, he began to make a name for himself, recording with Johnson and appearing under the leadership of pianist Bud Powell, alongside trumpeter Fats Navarro and drummer Roy Haynes, on a seminal “hard bop” session.
In early 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and spent ten months in Rikers Island jail before being released on parole; in 1952, he was re-arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using heroin. Between 1951 and 1953, he recorded with Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. A breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions “Oleo”, “Airegin”, and “Doxy” with a quintet led by Davis that also featured pianist Horace Silver.
In 1955, Rollins entered the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, at the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While there, he volunteered for then-experimental methadone therapy and was able to break his heroin habit, after which he lived for a time in Chicago, briefly rooming with the trumpeter Booker Little. Rollins initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went on to greater success.
Rollins briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955. Later that year, he joined the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet; studio albums documenting his time in the band are Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4. After the deaths of Brown and the band’s pianist, Richie Powell, in a June 1956 automobile accident, Rollins continued playing with Roach and began releasing albums under his own name on Prestige Records, Blue Note, Riverside, and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.
His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956, at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins, and his favorite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins’s sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition “St. Thomas”, a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number “Strode Rode”, and “Moritat” (the Kurt Weill composition also known as “Mack the Knife”). A long blues solo on Saxophone Colossus, “Blue 7”, was analyzed in depth by the composer and critic Gunther Schuller in a 1958 article.
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Here’s the St. Thomas video:
In the solo for “St. Thomas”, Rollins uses repetition of a rhythmic pattern, and variations of that pattern, covering only a few tones in a tight range, and employing staccato and semi-detached notes. This is interrupted by a sudden flourish, utilizing a much wider range before returning to the former pattern. In his book The Jazz Style of Sonny Rollins, David N. Baker explains that Rollins “very often uses rhythm for its own sake. He will sometimes improvise on a rhythmic pattern instead of on the melody or changes.” Ever since recording “St. Thomas”, Rollins’s use of calypso rhythms has been one of his signature contributions to jazz; he often performs traditional Caribbean tunes such as “Hold ‘Em Joe” and “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” and he has written many original calypso-influenced compositions, such as “Duke of Iron,” “The Everywhere Calypso,” and “Global Warming.”
In 1956 he married the actress and model Dawn Finney.
In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Davis’s group – pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also a member of Davis’s group.
At the end of the year Rollins appeared as a sideman on Thelonious Monk’s album Brilliant Corners and also recorded his own first album for Blue Note Records, entitled Sonny Rollins, Volume One, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Gene Ramey on bass, and Roach on drums.
In 1957, Rollins pioneered the use of bass and drums, without piano, as accompaniment for his saxophone solos, a texture that came to be known as “strolling.” Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard. Way Out West was so named because it was recorded for California-based Contemporary Records (with Los Angeles drummer Shelly Manne), and because it included country and western songs such as “Wagon Wheels” and “I’m an Old Cowhand”. The Village Vanguard album consists of two sets, a matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete LaRoca and an evening set with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones. Rollins used the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section instrument during bass and drum solos. Lew Tabackin cited Rollins’s pianoless trio as an inspiration to lead his own. Joe Henderson, David S. Ware, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman have also led pianoless sax trios.
While in Los Angeles in 1957, Rollins met alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the two of them practiced together. Coleman, a pioneer of free jazz, stopped using a pianist in his own band two years later.
By this time, Rollins had become well known for taking relatively banal or unconventional songs (such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business” on Work Time, “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye” on The Sound of Sonny, and later “Sweet Leilani” on the Grammy-winning album This Is What I Do) and using them as vehicles for improvisation.
Rollins acquired the nickname “Newk” because of his facial resemblance to Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher Don Newcombe.
1957’s Newk’s Time saw him working with a piano again, in this case Kelly, but one of the most highly regarded tracks is a saxophone/drum duet, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” with Philly Joe Jones. Later in the same year he made his Carnegie Hall debut and recorded again for Blue Note with Johnson on trombone, Horace Silver or Monk on piano and drummer Art Blakey (released as Sonny Rollins, Volume Two). That December, he and fellow tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt were featured together on Dizzy Gillespie’s album Sonny Side Up.
In 1958, he appeared in Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem photograph of jazz musicians in New York; as of 2017, he is one of only two surviving musicians from the photo (the other being Benny Golson).
The same year, Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums trio: Freedom Suite. His original sleeve notes said, “How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.” The title track is a nineteen-minute improvised bluesy suite; the other side of the album features hard bop workouts of popular show tunes. Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach provided bass and drums, respectively. The LP was available only briefly in its original form, before the record company repackaged it as Shadow Waltz, the title of another piece on the record.
Following Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass (Sonny Rollins Brass/Sonny Rollins Trio), Rollins made one more studio album in 1958, Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, before taking a three-year break from recording. This was a session for Contemporary Records and saw Rollins recording an esoteric mixture of tunes including “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” with a West Coast group made up of pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Manne.
In 1959 he toured Europe for the first time, performing in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and France.
By 1959, Rollins had become frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations and took the first – and most famous – of his musical sabbaticals. While living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he ventured to the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge to practice, in order to avoid disturbing a neighboring expectant mother. Today, a fifteen-story apartment building named “The Rollins” stands on the Grand Street site where he lived. Almost every day from the summer of 1959 through the end of 1961, Rollins practiced on the bridge, next to the subway tracks. In the summer of 1961, the journalist Ralph Berton happened to pass by the saxophonist on the bridge one day and published an article in Metronome magazine about the occurrence. During this period, Rollins became a dedicated practitioner of yoga. Rollins ended his sabbatical in 1962. He later said “I could have probably spent the rest of my life just going up on the bridge. I realized, no, I have to get back into the real world.” In 2016, a campaign was initiated that seeks to have the bridge renamed in Rollins’s honor.
In November 1961, Rollins returned to the jazz scene with a residency at the Jazz Gallery in Greenwich Village; in March, 1962, he appeared on Ralph Gleason’s television series Jazz Casual. During the 1960s, he lived in Brooklyn, New York.
He named his 1962 “comeback” album The Bridge at the start of a contract with RCA Victor. Produced by George Avakian, the disc was recorded with a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall, Ben Riley on drums, and bassist Bob Cranshaw. This became one of Rollins’s best-selling records; in 2015 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Rollins’s contract with RCA Victor lasted through 1964 and saw him remain one of the most adventurous musicians around. Each album he recorded differed radically from the previous one. The 1962 disc What’s New? explored Latin rhythms. On the album Our Man in Jazz, recorded live at The Village Gate, he explored avant-garde playing with a quartet that featured Cranshaw on bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Don Cherry on cornet. He also played with a tenor saxophone hero, Coleman Hawkins, and free jazz pianist Paul Bley on Sonny Meets Hawk!, and he re-examined jazz standards and Great American Songbook melodies on Now’s the Time and The Standard Sonny Rollins (which featured pianist Herbie Hancock).
In 1963, he made the first of many tours of Japan.
In 2007, recordings from a 1965 residency at Ronnie Scott’s were released by the Harkit label as Live in London; they offer a very different picture of Rollins’ playing from the studio albums of the period. (These are unauthorized releases, and Rollins has responded by “bootlegging” them himself and releasing them on his website.)
Upon signing with Impulse! Records, he released a soundtrack to the 1966 film Alfie, as well as There Will Never Be Another You and Sonny Rollins on Impulse! After East Broadway Run Down (1966), which featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, Rollins did not release another studio album for six years.
In 1968, he was the subject of a television documentary, directed by Dick Fontaine, entitled Who is Sonny Rollins?
In 1969, Rollins took another two-year sabbatical from public performance. During this hiatus period, he visited Jamaica for the first time and spent several months studying yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophies at an ashram in Powai, India, a district of Mumbai.
He returned from his second sabbatical with a performance in Kongsberg, Norway, in 1971. Reviewing a March 1972 performance at New York’s Village Vanguard night club, The New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett wrote that Rollins “had changed again. He had become a whirlwind. His runs roared, and there were jarring staccato passages and furious double-time spurts. He seemed to be shouting and gesticulating on his horn, as if he were waving his audience into battle.” The same year, he released Next Album and moved to Germantown, New York. Also in 1972, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he also became drawn to R&B, pop, and funk rhythms. Some of his bands during this period featured electric guitar, electric bass, and usually more pop- or funk-oriented drummers.
In 1974, Rollins added jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley to his band; the group was filmed performing live at Ronnie Scott’s in London. For most of this period Rollins was recorded by producer Orrin Keepnews for Milestone Records (the compilation Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on Milestone contains a selection from these years). In 1978 he, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Al Foster toured together as the Milestone Jazzstars.
It was also during this period that Rollins’ passion for unaccompanied saxophone solos came to the forefront. In 1979 he played unaccompanied on The Tonight Show and in 1985 he released The Solo Album, recorded live at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also frequently played long, extemporaneous unaccompanied cadenzas during performances with his band; a prime example is his introduction to the tune “Autumn Nocturne” on the 1978 album Don’t Stop the Carnival.
By the 1980s, Rollins had stopped playing small nightclubs and was appearing mainly in concert halls or outdoor arenas; through the late 1990s he occasionally performed at large New York rock clubs such as Tramps and The Bottom Line. In 1981, he was asked to play uncredited on three tracks by the Rolling Stones for their album Tattoo You, including the single, “Waiting on a Friend”. That November, he led a saxophone masterclass on French television. In 1983, he was honored as a “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1986, documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge released a film titled Saxophone Colossus. It featured two Rollins performances: a quintet performance at Opus 40 in upstate New York and his Concerto for Saxophone and Symphony with the Yomiuri Shimbun Orchestra in Japan.
In 1993, the Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives opened at the University of Pittsburgh.
New York City Hall proclaimed November 13, 1995, to be “Sonny Rollins Day.”
In 1997, he was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” in the Down Beat magazine critics’ poll. The following year, Rollins, a dedicated advocate of environmentalism, released an album entitled Global Warming.
Critics such as Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch have noted the disparity between Rollins the recording artist, and Rollins the concert artist. In a May 2005 New Yorker profile, Crouch wrote of Rollins the concert artist:
Over and over, decade after decade, from the late seventies through the eighties and nineties, there he is, Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, playing somewhere in the world, some afternoon or some eight o’clock somewhere, pursuing the combination of emotion, memory, thought, and aesthetic design with a command that allows him to achieve spontaneous grandiloquence. With its brass body, its pearl-button keys, its mouthpiece, and its cane reed, the horn becomes the vessel for the epic of Rollins’ talent and the undimmed power and lore of his jazz ancestors.
Rollins won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for This Is What I Do (2000). On September 11, 2001, the 71-year-old Rollins, who lived several blocks away, heard the World Trade Center collapse, and was forced to evacuate his apartment, with only his saxophone in hand. Although he was shaken, he traveled to Boston five days later to play a concert at the Berklee School of Music. The live recording of that performance was released on CD in 2005 as Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, which won the 2006 Grammy for Jazz Instrumental Solo for Rollins’ performance of “Why Was I Born?”
Rollins was presented with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004; that year also saw the death of his wife, Lucille.
In 2006, Rollins went on to complete a Down Beat Readers Poll triple win for: “Jazzman of the Year”, “#1 Tenor Sax Player”, and “Recording of the Year” for the CD Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. The band that year featured his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and included bassist Cranshaw, pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummer Perry Wilson.
After a successful Japanese tour Rollins returned to the recording studio for the first time in five years to record the Grammy-nominated CD Sonny, Please (2006). The CD title is derived from one of his wife’s favorite phrases. The album was released on Rollins’ own label, Doxy Records, following his departure from Milestone Records after many years and was produced by Anderson. Rollins’ band at this time, and on this album, included Cranshaw, guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Steve Jordan and Dinizulu.
During these years, Rollins regularly toured worldwide, playing major venues throughout Europe, South America, the Far East, and Australasia. On September 18, 2007, he performed at Carnegie Hall in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his first performance there. Appearing with him were Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Cranshaw (bass), Dinizulu (percussion), Roy Haynes (drums) and Christian McBride (bass).
Around 2000, Rollins began recording many of his live performances; since then, he has archived recordings of over two hundred and fifty concerts. To date, four albums have been released from these archives on Doxy Records and Okeh Records: Road Shows, Vol. 1; Road Shows, Vol. 2 (with four tracks documenting his 80th birthday concert, which included Rollins’s first ever recorded appearance with Ornette Coleman on the twenty-minute “Sonnymoon for Two”); Road Shows, Vol. 3; and Holding the Stage, released in April 2016.
In 2010 Rollins was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Edward MacDowell Medal. The following year he was the subject of another documentary by Dick Fontaine, entitled Beyond the Notes.
Rollins has not performed in public since 2012, due to recurring respiratory issues.
In 2013, Rollins moved to Woodstock, New York. That spring, he made a guest television appearance on The Simpsons and received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Juilliard School in New York City.
In 2014 he was the subject of a Dutch television documentary entitled Sonny Rollins-Morgen Speel ik Beter and in October 2015, he received the Jazz Foundation of America’s lifetime achievement award.
In the spring of 2017, Rollins donated his personal archive to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library. Later that year, he endowed the “Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund” at Oberlin College, in “recognition of the institution’s long legacy of access and social justice advocacy.
As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R&B sounds of performers like Louis Jordan, but soon became drawn into the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition. The German critic Joachim Berendt described this tradition as sitting between the two poles of the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the light flexible phrasing of Lester Young, which did so much to inspire the fleet improvisation of bebop in the 1950s. Other tenor saxophone influences include Ben Webster and Don Byas. By his mid-teens, Rollins became heavily influenced by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. During his high school years, he was mentored by the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, often rehearsing at Monk’s apartment.
Rollins has played, at various times, a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone and a Buescher Aristocrat. During the 1970s he recorded on soprano saxophone for the album Easy Living. His preferred mouthpieces are made by Otto Link and Berg Larsen. He uses Frederick Hemke medium reeds.