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Sonny Rollins

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Theodore Walter; Newk (1930-) Tenor saxophonist

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Sonny Rollins
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend the Rollins album Freedom Suite (Fantasy).

Sonny Rollins
Image courtesy of Chuck Stewart
Sonny Rollins began his musical studies on piano, studied alto saxophone from about the age of 11, and then took up the tenor saxophone in 1946. In high school he led a group with Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor. He rehearsed with Thelonious Monk for several months in 1948, and from 1949 to 1954 recorded intermittently with a number of leading bop musicians and groups, including J. J. Johnson, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Monk, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. His most frequent associate during these early years was Miles Davis, with whom he performed in clubs from 1949 and recorded from 1951. In one of these recording sessions with Davis, in 1954, he introduced three compositions of his own which later became jazz standards: Airegin, Doxy, and Oleo. In 1955, while overcoming his dependence on drugs, he worked in Chicago and, in December, joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. He remained with Roach until May 1957, then performed briefly in Davis's quintet; thereafter, however, he has led his own groups.

In 1956 came the first of a series of landmark recordings issued under Rollins's own name: Valse Hot introduced the practice, now common, of playing bop in 3/4 meter; St. Thomas initiated his explorations of calypso patterns; and Blue 7 was hailed by Gunther Schuller as demonstrating a new manner of "thematic improvisation," in which the soloist develops motifs extracted from his theme. Way Out West (1957), Rollins's first album using a trio of saxophone, double bass, and drums, offered a solution to his longstanding difficulties with incompatible pianists, and exemplified his witty ability to improvise on hackneyed material (Wagon Wheels, I'm an Old Cowhand). It Could Happen to You (also 1957) was the first in a long series of unaccompanied solo recordings, and The Freedom Suite (1958) foreshadowed the political stances taken in jazz in the 1960s. During the years 1956 to 1958 Rollins was widely regarded as the most talented and innovative tenor saxophonist in jazz. Nevertheless, he was discontented: he could not find compatible sidemen, saw shortcomings in his own playing, and suffered from poor health. For these reasons he voluntarily withdrew from public life from August 1959 to November 1961. During this period of retirement his habit of practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York became legendary.

On resuming his career Rollins had improved his already prodigious skills, but his style was now considered conservative. In an effort to rejoin the vanguard of jazz fashion he began, in mid-1962, collaborating with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and other musicians playing free jazz; East Broadway Run Down (1966) illustrates the furthest extent to which he incorporated noise elements into his playing. During these years, as Rollins continued to struggle with changing personnel and instrumentation, he focused increasingly on unaccompanied playing, and by the end of the decade he had become famous for his extended, "stream-of-consciousness" extemporizations on traditional tunes and on his own calypso songs.

In 1965 Rollins wrote the film score for Alfie (apart from the title song, which is by Burt Bacharach). He pursued spiritual interests in India for five months in 1968, and abandoned music altogether from September 1969 to November 1971. From 1972, when he resumed playing once more, he has led various groups of young, lesser-known musicians, performing in a commercial vein and making use of electronic instruments and African-American dance rhythms; a film made the following year, Sonny Rollins Live, captures the exuberance of a concert performance. Rollins has continued to experiment, recording on soprano saxophone in 1972 and on lyricon in 1979. However, touring the USA in 1978 as a member of the Milestone Jazzstars (with McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Al Foster), he demonstrated that, as an individual, he remained essentially true to the bop tradition, an aspect of his playing that was again especially apparent in an acclaimed solo performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985. Except for a six-month hiatus in 1983, after he collapsed from exhaustion, Rollins remained active through the late 1980s, touring the USA, Europe, and Japan, and recording a fusion of bop and soul music with his quintet.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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