Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins

Originally aired on September 23, 2011

The jazz great—and recently named 2011 Kennedy Center Honors recipient—talks about his new album “Road Shows, Vol. 2” and explains why, at age 81, he still practices every day.

At age 81, Sonny Rollins is still a powerful jazz presence. The two-time Grammy winner was recently named a 2011 Kennedy Center Honors recipient and, earlier this year, received the Medal of Arts—America's highest honor for artistic excellence. Rollins grew up in Harlem and discovered the sax in his teens. Before age 20, he'd worked and recorded with some of the greats, including Miles Davis, and was mentored by Thelonious Monk. He made his first major recording in '53 and now releases his music on his own label, including his latest, “Road Shows, Vol. 2.”


Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Sonny Rollins to this program. The iconic jazz saxophonist was recently named, as you may know, a Kennedy Center honoree for this year, a much deserved and extremely high honor.

He’s also out with a new project called “Sonny Rollins Road Shows, Vol. 2”. There you see the cover. Sonny Rollins, an honor to have you on this program.

Sonny Rollins: Thank you very much. It’s an honor to finally get a chance to meet you and be on the show. I watch it, so I’m with you.

Tavis: Well, trust me. I’ve been waiting on this a long time, so I’m glad that we finally got a chance to work this out. I want to start with a clip here of something that you said to an interviewer about 20 years ago, maybe 1986, somewhere along there. You may remember this, maybe not. Take a look at this monitor.

Rollins: “I don’t feel I’m the greatest anything. I still feel I’m a developing musician. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m still proving it to myself all the time.”

Tavis: Wow. That was ’86. You still feel that same way?

Rollins: Exactly, exactly the same way.

Tavis: You think at 81 now, you’re still getting better? You’re still trying to prove something to yourself all these years later?

Rollins: Well, you know, music is one of these things which, fortunately, it’s no [unintelligible] music. If you were the driver person that can absorb it, it’s there to keep doing more. I’m that driver person. I wanted to do more. Because, look, I’ve been with some great, great musicians, man, and I know what this greatness is.

I heard great musicians who’ve come and gone. I want to get there. I don’t think I’m there yet, see, so I’m still practicing every day and I’m still composing. I’m in it. I’m not sitting back playing golf, man. That’s not my style.

Tavis: To your point of practicing every day, I believe in practice, but when you’re the master of this, what you practicing for every day? I’m told that you practice for hours, not even for minutes, but for hours every day.

Rollins: I try to at least practice for two hours and more if I have the strength and the stamina.

Tavis: Right.

Rollins: See, jazz is something which is so expansive. You see, this is why I’m so lucky. Jazz is not something that you can put a book, okay, practice, that’s my lesson. No, jazz goes on and on. You learn one thing and then, hey, here’s something else. You get to [unintelligible] and there’s something else. This is why jazz is America’s classical music and the great music that it is because there is no end, see?

Miles used to say about some great musicians, I’d be talking and I’d just say, well, how about this guy? Miles would say, yeah, but he’s cliché. In other words, he’s great, but he plays the same thing all the time. It’s a great thing, but it’s the same. We don’t have to do that. A jazz musician can be different all the time. So that’s the kind of stuff I’m striving for, man.

Tavis: In your grand career, you’ve taken two sabbaticals; one in the late ’50s, one in ’66 or so, but two sabbaticals you’ve taken. The first one really strikes me as interesting because you were at the top of your game. You still are, but at that point being heralded all around the world as the man. And from ’59 to ”61 or so, you just disappear. You take a sabbatical. Why’d you do that?

Rollins: Because, Tavis, I believe in myself inside. I was being told by everybody, oh, Sonny, you the man. Don’t go away. People will forget about you, see? But something inside me was saying, no, Sonny, you got to improve, man. You got Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and these boys coming up. You’ve got to get your stuff together.

I always been a practicer, so I said, look, I’m going to go what I feel I have to do, which is to practice my horn. I’ll get away if that’s what I got to do, which is what I had to do, just get away from the scene completely, and do what something inside of me tell me to do.

See, that’s what I’m most proud of, Tavis, in my whole life, that I did something that something inside of me tell me to do regardless of what everybody was saying. “Oh, he’s great” don’t mean nothing. I have to know that.

Tavis: How difficult, Sonny Rollins, is it to do that, to go your own way, to do something different and better when everybody else says what you’re doing is already okay?

Rollins: It’s not that difficult. You have to do it because, if you don’t do it, your life is going to be shortchanged. You’re shortchanging yourself if you listen to what people are talking about. So, yeah, it might be a little hard.

I was lucky. My old lady was working. She was able to work while I was, you know, on sabbatical. But you got to do it. I don’t care what it takes. Get right with yourself. That’s what life is about. The rest of it don’t mean nothing. Get right with yourself.

Tavis: I like that. I like that, Sonny Rollins. You said your old lady. I will call her your wife [laugh] of 50 years of being together. She passed away, sadly, in 2004.

Rollins: That’s correct.

Tavis: When you said that you took a sabbatical a couple of times and she was the breadwinner then, how important was it for you all those years to have that kind of partner, that kind of helper, that allowed you to pursue your craft and what was it about her that allowed her to be understanding enough to let you go the way that you had to go to get right with yourself?

Rollins: Well, my wife was a brilliant woman. My wife used to actually run the chemistry department at the University of Chicago. She was working for all these professors, sleeping and drunk and stuff, and she had to do the work. But my wife was a brilliant woman, so that’s why she married me. That’s a joke [laugh].

So she knew how to deal in life. She realized, yeah, the man has got to work. Sonny’s got to get himself together for our whole happiness, for our relationship, and she did that and she would have done it. I had to say, okay, it’s time to come back now, Sonny, because actually I was having a ball just practicing, but then I realized, wait a minute. Let me get back out there.

Tavis: What did you learn or what do you recall or take away from both times when you reentered the stage, when you went back on the stage? What do you recall about the reentrance?

Rollins: Well, I’ll tell you this, Tavis. When I came back in 1961, I think, a lot of people said, oh, gee, man, this cat sounds the same way he did before. What’s the difference? Why’d you go away?

Well, part of that was a little bit of truth to that, but it didn’t get to the point that I had to satisfy myself. I had to satisfy myself that I was better, and you can’t prove that you’re better at one night. It’s something that comes as you go through life.

So I knew that I was better. I was able to have the self-confidence to get back out here, see. So I remember that the first time. Cats said, gee, why’d you go to [unintelligible], man? You sounded the same when you went away.

But you have to know yourself. See, this is the whole thing in life. You have to know yourself. Never mind what people say. Do you know what you want? Do you know who you are? Do you know who the man in the mirror is? That’s what it’s about. The rest of it doesn’t mean diddly.

Tavis: I’ll take that. Especially right about now, I’ll take that from Sonny Rollins. You mentioned your friend, Ornette Coleman, a few minutes ago. If ever there were a classic piece on this project, a 21 or 22-minute piece with you and Ornette Coleman, it is, as we say, the bomb diggity. It’s a cool piece.

When you’re in a moment, because jazz is so fluid, to your point earlier, when you’re in a moment and you’re putting down a piece with a guy like Ornette Coleman and the piece is going 20, 21 minutes, I know I can’t inhabit your body or your brain – I wish I could – but what’s happening inside of you in that moment that makes that piece just run and run and run and, when it’s done, you’ve worn the audience out with that?

Rollins: Well, you know, there used to be the great Lionel Hampton. You know Lionel Hampton?

Tavis: Absolutely.

Rollins: Well, I know Hampton when he was in his 80’s or 90’s or whatever. They had to wheel Lionel Hampton up to the bandstand. You know, they’d get him up. Once he got on that stage, he was like 19. He would be up there, man, and the guys would have to say, “Okay, Ham, it’s time to get up” and he’s into it.

So you get consumed with the spirit, man. When I play like that, I got a bass player that used to have to tell me, “Sonny, we’ve been playing three hours, man.”

Tavis: They only paid us for an hour and a half [laugh].

Rollins: Something like that, yeah. So you get consumed with the spirit. Nothing else matters but creating that music, see? That’s a great privilege. That’s a great honor. I mean, it’s prayerful. I get up there and I’m not thinking about no, oh, you got one set and you got 30 minutes. I’m not thinking like that, see.

Tavis: I want to ask how it feels to be one of the last great standing. I was so pleased when I heard the news of the Kennedy Center honor because you so deserve it.

Rollins: Thank you.

Tavis: But you’re one of only four guys still standing who are in that great photo. We all remember the great day in Harlem in 1958, that great jazz photo – We got a copy here – before you all left. How does it feel to be on the last great standing from that photo that had everybody who was anybody in it on the same day in Harlem?

Rollins: Right, right. Well, there was a time, Tavis, when I looked at that photo and thought more like people would think, oh, gee, he’s gone and he’s gone and he’s gone and he’s gone, and, gee, how many are left? I reached 80 years old and this is hard to explain, but you don’t think like that anymore.

In other words, I don’t want to say I believe in life after death because hear, oh, life after, but there’s something bigger than the fact that we were all together on that day and we’re not there now, according to what in this life we look at. There’s something bigger than that.

I’m part of that scene. I’m privileged to be part of that scene with those people. That meant something to be there. It means something now. Those guys supposedly are not here, but the spirit of that picture is here.

The spirit of that picture is there and, like the spirit of jazz, people say, oh, jazz is dead. Every ten years, you hear, oh, jazz is dead. Well, you can’t kill jazz, see? Jazz is not a body. Jazz is a spirit. You can’t kill jazz, see? So that picture, those people, the bodies are dead, but the spirit is there, man.

Tavis: When you’re on stage playing and that spirit hits you, do you feel those guys, their presence with you, the greats you played with, your friend Charlie Parker and Miles Davis? You played with all of them and they had the honor of playing with you. You feel that spirit when you’re on stage?

Rollins: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. In fact, there was one great trumpet player, one of the great musicians that a lot of people don’t know of, Clifford Brown, trumpet player. He died tragically in an accident.

After he died and I’d be playing, I used to channel him. I’d say, “Clifford, where do I go now, man? Come on, help me.” I’d ask him that and he would do it. I’d feel better about what I was playing after I’d call him.

After a while, Tavis, I stopped that because he’s gone on to better things. He’s gone on to a different realm now. Let him bestow his soul life. His soul has to go better places than back here where we are.

So I stopped that, but I did that for a while and I still think about it all. I still think about Coltrane and Monk, all those cats here. I mean, I dream about them cats at times. But as I said, it’s the spirit, man. I’m a blessed cat to have played with these people, man. You know, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell and Monk and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

I mean, these are the real people that were sent here to create this music or keep the music going, see? It’s a great privilege. I’m just trying to make sure that I keep it as much as I can while I’m here. So you say why am I practicing every day? That’s why I’m practicing every day.

Tavis: You’ve been doing this for so long now. Take me back to the very beginning. How did you settle on the sax and you didn’t start on the tenor sax?

Rollins: Well, you know, Tavis, I was born in Harlem and I used to hear all kinds of music in Harlem in 1930, every kind of music. So I became an aficionado of a guy named Lewis Jordan. Now Lewis Jordan was a guy that you could call a rhythm and blues guy, you know.

He was even a guy that was a sort of an entertainer. He used to sort of make jokes on the stage like Fats Waller in a way. But, oh, man, Lewis Jordan was my man, you know. He had a five-piece band and that was really – so I got mother got me a second-hand alto saxophone and, once I got that horn, I’d go in the bedroom and I’d be in there all day.

My mother would have to say, “Come on, Sonny. Come on out and eat supper.” I was in my reverie then, see? That’s from when I was seven or eight years old. But I’ll tell you something, Tavis. At that age, I knew that I would be a prominent musician when I was that young.

Tavis: How’d you know that at so young?

Rollins: I felt it.

Tavis: Right.

Rollins: I felt that this is your life, man. This is you.

Tavis: But you’re basically self-taught, though.

Rollins: Basically self-taught, basically self-taught.

Tavis: That’s a lot of confidence to know at seven when you ain’t got nobody teaching you nothing, I’m gonna be a prominent musician.

Rollins: Well, that’s right.

Tavis: Yeah, I love that.

Rollins: That’s why I call myself a primitive because nobody taught me nothing. I just went in the bedroom and started blowing. I didn’t know what it sounded like. Today, you might say, well, what is that boy doing? [Laugh] But I was content.

I was in my reverie, see? I knew at that time, yeah, man, this is your life. This is what you’re going to do, and it was beautiful because I couldn’t deviate from that, see? I’m still happy today playing just like I was when I was seven.

Tavis: This new project, “Road Shows, Vol. 2”, has some stuff recorded live at The Beacon – of course, one of my favorite venues in New York City – at The Beacon recorded on the occasion of your 80th birthday.

There’s some stuff at the top and at the bottom, though, of the CD recorded in Japan. Your assessment of the appreciation or lack thereof for this American art form around the world that you’ve traveled so many times?

Rollins: Well, you know, Tavis, and I hope your audience knows, that jazz is a world music, see. It’s claimed right out of here, but everybody from Mongolia to Manchuria to Manhattan, I mean, the whole world understands and appreciates jazz as a world music. We didn’t have to make them like they heard and say, yeah, that’s classic, but, yeah, we love that.

It’s taken America a little longer because of social and political reasons and all that to come into jazz the way other people did. They didn’t have no barriers, no reason not to like jazz, so they liked jazz right away. But it’s here now and the whole world likes jazz and no way of denying that. This is a world music.

This is America’s classical music, man. I’m not saying that because of me. I’m just a little part of it. This is America’s classical music and people all over the world understand that this is it. Jazz is the thing, man.

Tavis: That’s because you’re the chief ambassador of it around the world.

Rollins: Well, okay. You’re putting a lot on me there [laugh].

Tavis: Which leads me to ask how it felt for you when you heard the news that you were being honored this year as one of the Kennedy Center honorees? As my grandmother would say, Big Mama, “That’s high cotton.”

Rollins: Yeah, yeah. Well, I know, and a lot of people say, oh, man, he’s in high cotton now. But in a way, it’s not me, Tavis. It’s the people that came before me, see.

When I accept this honor, it’s for Count Basie who got one, it’s for Duke Ellington who didn’t get one, it’s for Lester Young who didn’t get one, it’s for John Coltrane who didn’t get one, Thelonious Monk who didn’t get one.

So I’m standing up there and I say thank you for this honor. Thank you, I appreciate it. But I understand that I’m them. That’s who we’re talking about, this music now, see. And I appreciate it not for me, for everybody that bled and died and suffered and still made this great music come about.

Tavis: You have such a grateful spirit.

Rollins: Well, thank you for saying that.

Tavis: I’m just making an observation. You have a very grateful spirit, a kind and gentle grateful spirit.

Rollins: Thank you, man. Well, I’ve been through a lot, man, you know. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, man. I’m 81. I didn’t know I would get here, but I made it. But thank you for that. I try to be that way. I mean, I try to be.

Tavis: How much of the stuff that you went through, the hard stuff that you endured, going to prison and then the heroin addiction for a while, how much of the hard stuff helped bring about that humanity, that humility, that grateful nature that you have?

Rollins: Well, I’m lucky that I was able to get out of that valley of the shadow of death, you know. I was lucky because there were so many great young guys that couldn’t get through that. So I was lucky.

Again, you ask me how did I know that I was gonna be prominent at seven years old? Well, the same thing said no. Go on, keep going on. But I am grateful, but, yeah, I paid a lot of dues, man. As a matter of fact, I’m still paying dues even though I’m in the high cotton [laugh].

Tavis: Well, I’m glad you paid me a visit tonight. I don’t know about your dues paying, but I’m glad you paid me a visit. I was just sitting here thinking how musical this conversation was and Sonny didn’t play nothing, didn’t pull out a horn to play nothing. Yet the conversation was as musical and as lyrical and as genius as listening to him do a three-hour show on his horn.

I’m just delighted and tickled to be sitting across from this legend, this icon, Sonny Rollins, honored this year – later, that is – with the Kennedy Center Honor for the year 2011. The latest project from this master is called “Sonny Rollins Road Shows, Vol. 2”. Sonny Rollins, my delight, my absolute delight, to have you on this program.

Rollins: It’s my delight. I want to say to you, keep on because I’m a fan of yours too.

Tavis: Yeah, but you can’t tell me nothing now [laugh].

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Last modified: April 26, 2013 at 11:53 am