Every jazz fan has a favourite saxophonist. Mine is Sonny Rollins. 

For me, despite the intense competition at the top of the saxophone universe- Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young from the pre-bebop era, Bird, Trane, Joe Henderson, Branford Marsalis, Paul Gonsalves, Bobby Wellins, Chris Potter – from the bop and post-bop decades-all pose serious claims to number one status. But to my mind Sonny Rollins reigns supreme.

Sonny did not revolutionize our music. He is not responsible for inventing a new jazz language, like Armstrong, Parker, Powell or Coltrane. While he has written some great tunes and many of these have become jazz standards, he is not particularly associated with his original material.  What marks Rollins out is his unique sound, (or sounds, it changes over the decades), his remarkable ear, his deadly seriousness, his playfulness, the sheer scale of his improvisational imagination, his magisterial tone, his inquisitiveness, his presence, and his longevity.

Although Sonny has guarded his privacy throughout his long career what clearly emerges from his interviews, his quoted remarks and the testimony of his colleagues is that Sonny is a thoughtful, deeply spiritual and remarkably humble person. Remarkable given his gifts and the musical world in which he chose to work. Right up until his retirement Sonny was always striving for perfection and, according to his own testimony failing to reach it. Not by a wide margin I would say. In the words of jazz critic John Fordham, “Rollins is that rare thing, a consummate entertainer with a negligible ego”

He is also very conscious of his place in jazz history-from his self-taught apprenticeship, learning and listening to Hawk, Bird and Pres to his early years when the jazz world had to sit up and take notice of him.  To his mature period when he was universally recognized (if not by himself) as a jazz master. I can think of very few contemporary saxophonists who do not acknowledge the pivotal impact on their personal development of Sonny Rollins.

I am sure that I will return to Sonny Rollins many times. For now, I want to focus on his first major sabbatical from jazz in the from 1959 to 1961. His decision to withdraw from performing and the public view at the tender age of 29 came as a total surprise to the jazz world. He had over, the preceding years released a string of stellar recordings and was widely regarded as the rising saxophone star. However, none of this critical acclaim counted for Sonny. He was beginning to feel stale, was conscious of the new and often controversial jazz frontiers being staked out by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and decided to take time out to practice (ferociously) and to reflect on the next steps in his musical journey. So, at the peak of his fame, Sonny Rollins quit the scene. 

Following complaints about the length and intensity of his practice sessions from neighbours at his Lower East side apartment, Sonny took refuge on the Williamsburg Bridge where he played for hours often long into the night. According to legend it was not unheard of for Sonny to spend sixteen continuous hours refining his technique on the bridge. The numerous folk myths of Sonny on the bridge, with reported sightings, whether real or apocryphal, played out across the jazz world. All the while Sonny himself maintained a studious and beguiling silence.

Here’s Sonny’s own recollection of his path to the bridge,

“One day I was on Delancey Street, and I walked up the steps to the Williamsburg Bridge and came to this big expanse. There was nobody up there. So I started walking across the bridge and said, “Wow. This is what I have been looking for. This is a private place. I can blow my horn as loud as I want.” Because the boats are coming under, and the subway is coming across, and cars, and I knew it was perfect, just serendipity. »

And here’s a short documentary devoted to the memory and impact of Sonny on the Bridge.

The covering text references a petition being organised in New York to rename the Williamsburg as the Sonny Rollins bridge. Do consider signing.

Sonny Rollins returned to performing and recording refreshed and renewed and continued with a punishing performance schedule, including long stints in Europe right up to the late 1960’s when he again called a halt on his career to follow his spiritual quest with a long period of study and reflection in India. But that is another story. Sonny finally retired in 2015 suffering from the effects of pulmonary fibrosis which he contracted while stranded in his home in New York after the 9/11 attack. He is still very much with us.

My playlist showcases recorded nuggets taken immediately before and soon after his sabbatical. The Freedom Suite- Sonny Rollin’s personal response to the contemporary civil rights movement still stands as one of his masterpieces. While many of the pre-bridge elements of Sonny’s unique style are still present in the later recordings, he brings a freer, looser, and more challenging set of understandings to his improvisational style. He also teams up with a younger generation of musical collaborators than was the case in his earlier classic recordings. After the bridge Rollins emerges as a leader, a pathfinder in every sense. 

I want to close with a second-hand memory of Sonny from almost ten years after his sabbatical on the bridge. A friend of mine, who at the time was an architecture student became obsessed with Rollins and attended every night of one of his regular residencies at Ronnie Scott’s in the mid 60’s. They got to talking after one set. Sonny noticed that my friend had some architectural drawings and asked to see them. They were of Stonehenge, Sonny asked if my friend could drive him to Stonehenge after the gig. Naturally he agreed. Sonny said very little on the way down and slept on the way back. They arrived at Stonehenge at sunrise. Sonny took his horn out played alone for over an hour as the sun came up. Back in London Sonny thanked my friend and disappeared into his hotel lobby.

That was an experience that my friend never forgot. I wonder what Sonny thinks of it now in his well-earned retirement in upstate New York.

Notes on the episode playlist…

1. Newk’s Time 1957
3 tunes
Asiatic Raes
Surrey With the Fringe on Top
Namely You

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Sax
Wynton Kelly: Piano
Doug Watkins: Bass
Philly Joe Jones: Drums

2. The Freedom Suite 1958

2 tunes
The Freedom Suite
Till There Was You

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Sax
Max Roach: Drums
Oscar Pettiford: Bass

3. The Bridge 1962
3 tunes
Without a Song
The Bridge
God Bless the Child

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Sax
Jim Hall: Guitar
Ben Riley: Drums
Bob Cranshaw: Bass

4. Now’s The Time

3 Tunes
Blue and Boogie
I Remember Clifford

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Sax
Herbie Hancock: Piano
Ron Carter: Bass
Roy McMurdy: Drums