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Sonny Rollins - The Infinite, Tenacious & Humble Pursuit Along The Path of Spiritual & Musical Mastery

Contributors: Eric Nemeyer
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Sonny Rollins - The Infinite, Tenacious & Humble Pursuit Along The Path of Spiritual & Musical Mastery

Sonny Rollins (Photo by Eric Nemeyer)


SR: [laughs] Well, my enthusiasm I am very fortunate to come by. Well let’s see, how do I maintain it? I still feel I have a lot more to accomplish so I practice regularly. Practice every day, and still striving for something - so I guess that’s part of it. I still have the music still. It gives me the same kick it did when I first heard it when I was a little child. So I’m just fortunate to have this great love of music and I enjoy be a performing musician and everything so I just have it. I don’t know, where it comes from, I don’t know. [laughs] That’s like asking me, “Well where do you go after you die?” or “Where did you come from before you were born?” I don’t know where we came from besides our parents. But you know, the bigger questions - I don’t know. It is just something I consider myself very fortunate to still have - that enthusiasm.




JI: One of the concepts I find intriguing is Wayne Dyer’s perspective in The Power of Intention. He references how there are no beginnings and there are no endings. Our lives are these mere parentheses in eternity. We came from some place and this is just some place in that infinite journey -


no beginnings or endings.




SR: Sure. There is no doubt about it. And so I don’t know. It is probably wherever that source is - is where I’ve been blessed with this mild talent that I had. But I still love it, you know.




JI: Wait a minute. You said mild talent. So, you embody this humility about yourself and about this music. Playing, practicing, studying, and creating this music is a lifelong pursuit. The more I learn the more I feel like I don’t know. How have you avoided the tyranny of the go or otherwise overcome it over the years?




SR: Well there have been times that I’ve suffered from too much ego - thankfully, not too many times. So, you know, it is just a matter of maturity, and so on and so forth. But you know, as you stick around a while, you realize how little we know, as you said.




JI: My grandfather used to tell me, “The young man thinks the old man is a fool. And the old man knows that the young man is a fool.” So I was fortunate to have some good, I call it a fault of my quality upbringing.




SR: [laughs heartily] That’s a good one. [laughs]




JI: We touched momentarily on the spiritual nature of what we’re all about. I sense that for you there was a growing spiritual awareness, or  interest, that began to drive your life and music, maybe in the 60’s. Could you talk a little bit about that?




SR: Well, I have just participated in a book about yoga. There is a lady that is writing a book on yoga and she has several subjects in the book and I’m one of the subjects. So I find it a big experience because I never really put everything down in one piece. But, in that I was recanting how I had early experiences with the unknown that sort of bolstered my deep beliefs in existence that it was something else involved besides just the usual material stuff that we do. So anyway, I’m glad I did that. If this book never comes out I’m going to use that segment that I wrote about myself as a springboard to write about it myself later. But yeah, I’ve been involved from a child. I’ve felt I had a guardian angel. I think that’s how my grandmother used to describe it to me, my guardian angel.




JI: Is that something you felt or actually could see?




SR: No, I couldn’t see it. No. No, no - never seen. You know, it is just good enough. I certainly felt it, definitely. I’ve had some experiences which I recanted. I think I might have told her several times I had experiences where I really did something outrageous and then I had to pray hard. And my prayers were answered. So I began to feel a kinship with my guardian angel, a relationship with my guardian angel. You know, that’s more or less been with me all my life.




JI: I’ve been listening recently to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. He talks about how he believes that most people in this world are simply unconscious, or not conscious, and that it takes that being in-the-moment to tap into that. Given your perception of your guardian angel, you obviously had a certain attenuated sensitivity, early on, to be picking up on those energies and frequencies.




SR: Right. Helping me through life. Sure. Well I also believe in after lives and all this stuff. Some of us are just born at different places. We have experienced some of these things. So when we are born in this life we are a little more into guardian angels than some of the others. Some people, if they don’t get it now they’ll have to get it next time around. However, the plan works, I don’t know. I think that for some of us our past lives prepared us for this life. They do that and they’ve got to come back and get it right. You have got to play it correctly the second time. And that’s what makes existences - because life is so short. So there must be a reason for it. I mean, at least we have to try and find a reason for it. That makes a lot of sense to me - that it’s about trying to improve yourself as a human soul and so forth. So I do believe in the after life and so on.




JI: It’s a constant struggle to working on oneself all the time. Could you talk about the 60’s? I had read that times were tough for you then, maybe mid – early 60’s. Could you share what ideas or motivation, or who it was, or more than one person that inspired you to stay on the path, continue and realize you are just three feet from gold, or just at the mine yourself?




SR: In the 60’s you say?




JI: Yeah.




SR: Well, I could say that about my life in the 50’s and the 40’s and the 70’s and the 80’s, 90’s.




JI: I guess different challenges and trials and tribulations.




SR: Always something. There are always these trials, tribulations. Sure.




JI: If in the 60’s those trials and tribulations were related to either financial issues and or of course, civil rights issues, how was it different in the 80’s and 90’s?




SR: Well, there are always battles. I think as Lester Young said, “As long as we’re alive we are going to pay dues.” And I sure I went through stuff in the 60’s. But I go through stuff everyday. I go through stuff when I wake up. I have to try to make sure that I eat correctly, that I do the other things I might need to do that since I know the difference between right and wrong, a great deal of a difference between right and wrong and we are living in this world where it is so easy to do wrong. There is wrong all around you - so you face that everyday. I face that everyday. You might have some other things in mind that happened when we were in the 60’s but as I said … was it Jules Feiffer who wrote “Little Murders”? There is always some little battle that we are fighting all the time.




JI: If this applies, how have other art forms inspired or influenced your music? Paintings or sculpture?




SR: I love art. If I go to a museum I come out tremendously and deeply inspired. And of course, it transforms my life. So going to a museum I am inspired. And I don’t I know some artists, but I mean just seeing a beautiful depiction is very inspiring. And I’m sure that comes out in various ways.




JI: Could you talk a little bit about some of the artists you worked with earlier on who made a significant impact on your growth or your character or your artistry? For example, Dizzy Gillespie?




SR: Well Dizzy Gillespie … I was coming of age in my musical career just about the time the be-bop revolution was breaking. So Dizzy Gillespie was a real seminal figure. My buddy was a trumpet player, so he of course loved him. We all did. He was sort of the guy that personified the guy for the style. Dizzy was a very great musician. You know, I got to know him somewhat more in later years. Of course, I worked with him a little and everything. My real figure, my hero who was a bridge between the styles was Coleman Hawkins. Dizzy Gillespie played with Coleman Hawkins. Monk played with Coleman Hawkins. I heard all those guys by listening to Coleman Hawkins. I heard Dizzy on a record by Coleman Hawkins, “Disorder At The Border.” That was sort of my bridge. Coleman Hawkins was my bridge.




JI: Do you remember any, if there were any words of wisdom or suggestions he gave you when you working with him?




SR: Dizzy?




JI: Either Dizzy or Coleman Hawkins.




SR: Well not so much specific words. I’m not present on the jazz scene but when I was coming up it was all a matter of meritocracy. If you were able to be there, and stand up, and still be there in the jam session if you weren’t booed off of the stand, or just some musicians making things happen so you wouldn’t be there … That’s just the way it was. So I didn’t really get any. I kind of creeped in to understand it, and a couple of people were able to say, “Oh yeah, there is this new young guy uptown who can play. So I got onto the scene. None of these guys gave me too many words of wisdom I don’t think. It was all sort of unspoken - you know, encouragement.




JI: Sure. You could feel it. It was intuitive, just by the way people would treat you and be around you.




SR: Yeah, yeah. It was great being around these guys and although I sought a lot of, not encouragement, but to be around them. I remember as a boy coming up I used to love the drummer Denzil Best. Denzil Best was playing with Coleman Hawkins. A friend of his knew somebody in my family. So anyway I find out he was living all that far from me anyway. So just because I wanted to find out about Coleman Hawkins, and wanted to find out how all this stuff worked, I used to ring Denzil Best’s door bell. It was when the guy was sleeping in the day time, after working downtown all night. So I was a real pest because I wanted to know – and I did that. I remember I did that too with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. He lived up in the Bronx. I remember I used to go up there ring his bell. I probably had my horn with me.




JI: Enthusiastic kid.




SR: Right. Yeah. I was enthusiastic and I’m happy to say that I stuck with music. If I was a pest now there is a reason why the heavens have forgiven me I guess for being a pest.




JI: Rewarded you.




SR: Rewarded me, yeah.




JI: How about any a couple of your perspectives about Miles?




SR: Well Miles is really a great guy. Miles and I had a great relationship. Miles was a great idol of my friend, the trumpet boy we had our band together. When Miles came on the scene he really liked Miles’ style. And of course I did too. We were just getting to listen to all these songs “Billie’s Bounce” and all of this stuff that they were doing. As I began to mature more, I began to really like Miles even more. I liked his approach better than any of the others. Not the approach, I liked his sensitivity - or I don’t know the word, but I liked what he was doing. He was a little different than Dizzy and Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham. I think Miles’ idol was Freddie Webster. And you can hear a lot of that in Miles’ playing - Freddie Webster. But I sort of like that real introspective side of Miles’ playing.




JI: Yeah, I do too. His use of space and not filling every moment up.




SR: Right. Right. And the other guys - Dizzy and all those guys - filling up everything so to speak. Right?




JI: Yeah.




SR: Yeah, you’re a musician. Sometimes I forget who I’m talking to. You are a musician. You understand what I’m talking about. So anyway, I met Miles by opening for Miles’ group. I had been playing Minton’s up in Harlem. The guy that was putting on jam sessions at the 845 Club in the Bronx and he heard me. He said, “Oh son, come up here and you can open up for the All Stars.” The All Star Group included Miles Davis. That’s the first time Miles heard me. I was playing a trio by the way.




JI: Without piano.




SR: No strangely enough I had a piano. I think it was piano, saxophone and something else. But it was a trio - a piano trio … so to confuse matters a little more. Anyway, Miles heard me, said, “Come on man, join my band.” He liked me. So that’s when I started. The relationship began. I started playing with Miles over the years. And we became friends and everything. But I really like his musical sensibility.




JI: One of my heroes is Thad Jones and I know he doesn’t get as much notoriety as a lot of other people but I have to say I always of course when he had the big band I ran out and bought all the scores and studied all the voicings and everything. What I like about Thad is how connected his composing was, in terms of vocabulary, with his playing. What really struck me though is how unpredictable his playing was. He was not as pattern player, but totally spontaneous, with an angular rhythmic approach.  Can you talk a little bit about your association with Thad and when you worked with him?




SR: Well I never really played with Thad a lot. I played on a lot of jam sessions. I played on a jam session in Chicago and probably some other places. But yes, I like Thad. Unfortunately I’m not as familiar with Thad’s playing and writing as I should be. But I think you are more than I am. But I certainly am a big fan of his and you know, appreciate his playing a lot.




JI: When a moment ago I made the presumption that the trio you were discussing that you played was without piano, that is because, of course, your well-known “A Night at the Village Vanguard” was a piano-less trio - with saxophone, bass and drums. Could you talk a little bit about your interest in playing with that instrumentation, without piano?




SR: Well, from the time I got my first saxophone, I would go in my mother’s room there and shut the door. She was in the last room in the house. You couldn’t hear me as well - sort of the back room there, or the front room actually. So I would go up there so I wouldn’t be disturbing people. I might be playing all day and I sort of get into my reverie. And I’ve always been like that. I’ve been able to just play and you know, alone. And it’s I think that carries over into the fact that I’m comfortable playing without a prominent chordal instrument. I’ve always been sort of a stream of consciousness player really.




JI: So to avoid the chord instrument directing and creating any strictures or structures harmonically, that might impose themselves on yourself.




SR:    Precisely. Precisely.




JI: Sonny, when you did the recording at the Vanguard, in the afternoon you used Pete LaRoca on drums and in the evening you used Elvin Jones.


What difference did you discern that prompted you to make that change?




SR: Well at the time that I did that record I was going through a lot of musicians trying to find the correct accompanying musicians for me. So my hiring and firing was sort of a part of what I was known for at that time. I had a whole lot of guys who came down and worked one night - this kind of stuff. I mean, sometimes I felt like one set was enough really. [laughs] I was looking for musicians that could accompany me and inspire me. So I liked Pete LaRoca, and this boy I had, Donald Bailey, and then of course, I played with Wilbur [Ware on bass]. I knew Wilbur and Elvin. I think I had met Elvin. I don’t think I had every played together, not sure. Somebody was asking me that recently. I’m not sure we ever played together before that Vanguard record. But we knew each other. And you know, we all knew the same people and everything. So I think we might have played together. I think this person told me that that was the case - that we had never played together. At any rate, these guys were available, and I took them to try to see if it would release some more creative energy from me. When you are playing in a trio, and I’m doing what I’m doing, I need people that are really grounded and secure in their own work - so that everybody is playing a big part.




Read the complete interview with Sonny Rollins in the February issue of Jazz Inside NY Magazine, available as a FREE download at this website:

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