Legendary Saxophonist Sonny Rollins on His Enduring Love for Jazz

November 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
On Saturday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., will bestow its Kennedy Center Honors on five of the nation's leading artists. One is legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins, who is still performing at age 81. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Rollins to discuss his life's work.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will bestow its Kennedy Center Honors on five of the nation’s leading artists this coming weekend.

Jeffrey Brown recently had a chance to sit down with one of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s known as the Saxophone Colossus, a name that dates to a 1956 recording Sonny Rollins made when he was 26 and a title he continues to hold as one of the all-time greats of jazz.

At 81, Rollins is a living link to giants like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, all of whom he knew and played with, and to the Harlem neighborhood where he grew up, where jazz was everywhere.

SONNY ROLLINS, musician: So there’s music all over. When I went to public school, we used to pass by the famous Cotton Club. You used to — you remember the Cotton Club.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sure, of course.

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SONNY ROLLINS: And we walked by it going to school. So, I was just immersed in it from the beginning, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was everywhere, but you’re essentially self-taught, right?

SONNY ROLLINS: I consider myself a primitive because…

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?


SONNY ROLLINS: I have had to explain that a lot.

It means sort of that when I got — when my mother brought me the secondhand alto saxophone, I went into the bedroom, you know, and I just started playing. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was in a zone. I was already doing something.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Rollins was a sensation even as a teenager. He performed and recorded with leading players of the day. His first album as a band leader came in 1951, and many more followed.

SONNY ROLLINS: Playing with those great people like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and all those giants, I wasn’t afraid, because I felt that I belonged there.

JEFFREY BROWN: You felt you belonged with them?

SONNY ROLLINS: Yes. But I was still in awe of them. And it was — I mean, I didn’t feel I was equal to them. I’m not saying that. But I felt that — especially they accepted me. But I felt that I was where I was supposed to be at. So it was quite a wonderful experience in a way.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that people have long admired you for is the ability to — I always hear this phrase find fresh musical ideas. What does that mean? What does — how do you define a musical idea in jazz?


Well, jazz, as you know, is an endless source of ideas, because you can use anything. You can play operatic arias. You can incorporate them into jazz. You can play gypsy music and incorporate it into jazz. You can European classical and you can incorporate it into jazz. You can use anything and jazz it up, as they used to say.

JEFFREY BROWN: Show tunes and…

SONNY ROLLINS: Show tunes.


SONNY ROLLINS: I know all these show tunes.

And it’s great because they’re still there. And I just — they come out at strange times. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Where does the improvisation come in?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, Jeffrey, improvisation is something which is highly misunderstood these days.

Improvisation — I think my friend Branford Marsalis, saxophonist, he explained it very good. Improvisation is really not so much remembering things. And this is what I do when I play. I forget things. When I go on the stage, I want my mind to be a blank, so that I can — things can come into me without my knowing where they came from.

JEFFREY BROWN: So are you surprised by what comes out?

SONNY ROLLINS: Sometimes, I’m surprised by what comes out, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: At several key points in his career, Rollins simply stopped performing and recording. Most famously, he spent one of what he called his sabbaticals practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York. He later released an album titled “The Bridge.”

SONNY ROLLINS: I went away because I was getting too much acclaim. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were getting too much attention?

SONNY ROLLINS: Too much attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you didn’t like that?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, no, I liked it, to a point.

But, you know, Jeffrey, I think the biggest thing that — in my life that I can be proud of, my epitaph is that I knew inside how I was doing, whether I was playing great or whether I wasn’t playing great. And I shut out the people that were telling me, oh, Sonny, don’t go away. You will lose your audience.

And so, I said, no, I want to practice. I want to get better.

JEFFREY BROWN: But here you are still at it, right? Why? Surely you don’t need to be out on the road performing.

SONNY ROLLINS: It’s hard being out on the road. But jazz is kicked around. It’s down. And it’s getting a little bit of appreciation. It’s getting a little bit of respect.

So I feel that I have an obligation to jazz and also to myself to play as good as I can play. I haven’t reached that point yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: You really feel that you haven’t reached your — you’re not satisfied with your…

SONNY ROLLINS: Oh, no, no, no, I’m far from satisfied. I’m far from satisfied. That’s why I’m still practicing.

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Rollins performs about two dozen times a year. His last two albums, titled “Road Shows” volumes one and two, were recorded at concerts from around the world.

And now he’s being honored as one of this nation’s foremost artists, joining other jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck.

We started talking that you’re a — of your childhood in Harlem. You’re one of the last ones left from that great time, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: You must be aware of that. Does it weigh on you?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, it does. All my friends are gone, Miles, Coltrane, Monk. I mean, in a sense, they’re gone, but not really.

I’m the last guy. But, in a way, I’m not, because, when I’m gone, the music — my music is going to be here. So we’re all still here. We’re all still here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still here, still practicing, and still performing.