JJ 05/62: The Return Of Sonny Rollins

Sixty years ago Frank Kofsky interviewed the saxophonist after he returned from a long spell in the ’shed. First published in Jazz Journal May 1962

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The 1962 album that followed Rollins' three-year sabbatical, which was characterised by practice sessions on Williamsburg Bridge

It is highly unusual – especially in a society where financial success often appears to be the supreme achievement – for a young artist who is acknowledged to be both creative and popular to go into temporary retirement at the peak of his career. Nonetheless, that is exactly what tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins did somewhat over two years ago, giv­ing as his reason at that time the need to perfect his art.

Now Sonny has returned. The jazz world, its appetite whetted by regular, if false announcements of his impending reappearance, is eager to see for itself what changes Rollins’ seclusion has wrought – particularly so since any flaws in his playing that Sonny may have detected were obviously less than readily apparent to his large and enthusiastic following.

In any case, the West Coast obtained its first glimpse of the returned Rollins during a ten-day engagement at the Renaissance in Los Angeles. Supporting him were Jim Hall, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, formerly of the MJT plus Three, bass; and Ben Riley, recently one of vocalist Carmen McRae’s accompanists, drums.

Any listener who went along expecting a dramatic departure from Rollins’ earlier style was bound to be disappointed; but Sonny’s more constant admirers were just as certain to be pleased. For there is no “new” Rollins. And, indeed, why should there be? The “old” one was – and emphatic­ally still is – a superb musician.

If there were no radical changes in his style, though, what had Sonny ac­complished by retiring? This was the first query that I put to him.

‘There were just some things . . . I knew I had to go back and work on. It was more a matter of restoring my self-confidence’

“It wasn’t ever a question of making radical changes in my style – I don’t believe a style can change radically any more than a man can. There were just some things, some areas of playing, that I felt I had neglected, that the audience might not have been aware of, but that I knew I had to go back and work on. It was more a matter of restoring my self-confidence.”

Does this mean that there have been no changes at all? Certainly not: as an art must evolve with time, so must a man. But those alterations which have taken place in Rollins’ music are few and relatively minor; the essence re­mains constant.

For instance, his celebrated humorous approach, in large part involving the re-tooling of such unlikely material as Toot-Toot-Tootsie as a basis for jazz improvisation, and a predilection for “corny”, or two-beat phrasing and un­usual tonal effects. Some writers have preferred to view that humour as “sarcastic”, or “sardonic”. After listen­ing to and talking with Sonny, however, I found it more reasonable to conclude that it is the humour of a young man, optimistic without being fatuous, who is aware of life’s absurdities but refuses to bemoan them, holding them up in­stead to the gentler palliative of laughter. In short, it is perhaps “laughin’ to keep from cryin'”: with and for humanity, not at it.

Or, as to essences, take the matter of thematic improvisation: ever since Gunther Schuller wrote an article on Sonny entitled “The Challenge of Thematic Improvisation” for the now defunct Jazz Review, that technique has been considered a hallmark of Rollins’ most impressive work. Now, thematic improvisation is more than ever apparent with Sonny. Typically, his solo may be­gin with a more-or-less verbatim statement of the theme, with further refer­ences to it, or to phrases extracted from it, in the next chorus. As the solo pro­gresses, these become fewer and more oblique, finally vanishing altogether. Then, as Sonny undertakes to work his way out, the process is reversed, until both he and the listener again arrive at the point of departure.

Was this procedure, I wondered aloud to Sonny, perhaps intended to aid the audience in relating to him?

“No, it’s meant to help the soloist relate to himself. It aids him in pulling everything together. If it helps raise the comprehension of the audience at the same time, that’s very good too.”

One of my pet hypotheses has been that thematic improvisation in modern jazz actually reached back beyond Rollins to pianist Thelonious Monk. While on this subject, I took the oppor­tunity to question Sonny directly:

“It may be that I was influenced in that direction by Monk . . . I have al­ways had great admiration for him as an artist, and I used to go over to his house often when I was auditioning for his band, many years ago.”

What of the changes in style that have taken place? For the most part, they seem to be the result of Sonny’s listen­ing to his friend John Coltrane. To men­tion one example. Sonny will sometimes execute a long ascending glissando that may stretch over an octave or more, similar to Coltrane’s famous “sheets of sound” (the description is Ira Gitler’s). Then there is the practice of the playing of two notes simultaneously. When I mentioned this, Sonny replied:

“Yes, I am working on a way of play­ing two notes at once, but not the way Coltrane does it – he uses false fingering. That is, he pushes combinations of keys which don’t actually correspond to any of the 12 tones, and gets two notes that way. My method depends on using the natural overtones of the saxophone. You know, the saxophone and French horn are the only two musical instruments whose overtones are in perfect mathe­matical proportion. Coltrane showed me his way of getting two notes, and I showed him mine. I think he may be using it now . . .”

Of course it’s not surprising that Sonny should have his own way of attacking the problem of producing simultaneous notes, or sheets of sound. Influences there are, as needs must be: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, maybe others; but none so strong as to be capable of overwhelm­ing this tremendously self-determined individual.

‘People say those [freak] notes aren’t on the horn but that’s not really true . . . Classical musicians like Sigmund Rascher and Marcel Mule in France play those high notes all the time’

The discussion of two-notes-at-once led us into the area of high-register effects or so-called “freak” notes:

“People say those notes ‘aren’t on the horn’, or beyond its range, but that’s not really true,” Rollins maintained. “The in­ventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, intended it to be used as a concert in­strument with a full concert range. Classical musicians like Sigmund Rascher and Marcel Mule in France play those high notes all the time, and with a normal sound.

“Rascher was really the first guy to figure out how to play all of those notes – his system is also based on natural overtones. He’s had music written es­pecially for him by many of the modern classical composers, Hindemith, and others . . . As you can see,” here flour­ishing a book of music, “I’m practising with his exercises. He lives in New York too, and I try to see him everytime I’m there.”

Does Sonny study with Rascher?

“Well, in a way. We talk about music – he likes jazz – and if there’s something I want to know, I ask him and he tells me.”

There was another question I was de­termined to put to Sonny, involving what some writers have termed the “new thing”: Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, et al. It was my impression that in introducing certain devices into the mainstream of jazz improvisation – such as the use of so-called “ugly” or “dis­torted” sonorities, the repeated attacking of a single phrase (much as certain painters will portray a single object from many angles simultaneously), pro­longing one or two notes for a chorus or more – he had led the way towards greater freedom for the soloist, and thus given impetus to the “new thing”. I was curious to see if Rollins would share this opinion. To my surprise, he reacted with some slight annoyance when I asked the question, suggesting that he himself originated many of these devices.

“I don’t believe that I was the first to think of these things – I must refuse to take credit for that. There are very few really new things that one person thinks of by himself. That goes even for Bird, whom I respect as a great artist.”

Somewhat abashed, I hastily corrected myself: Not that he had necessarily been the first to play these things, but, after all, he was the first to introduce them to the public as part of a coherent style, was he not . . .

Smiling, the response came:

“Well, I certainly like that way of put­ting it better. It’s never a question of what just one person thinks of. The public likes to think that one person has developed a certain thing, but musicians know that that isn’t true. Those things you mentioned before: they made good musical sense all the time, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first to play them.”

Still on the subject, I asked if he had had time to hear much of that music while woodshedding.

“I didn’t really pay much attention to records during that time. As for Ornette (Coleman), I played with him at the beach here before he went to New York.”

Was he playing the same way then?

“I don’t believe a man can really change his style.”

Didn’t Coltrane, whose style has undergone at least a couple of meta­morphoses, seem to invalidate that rule?

“Well, Coltrane may be the one ex­ception. But he’s been very impressed by Ornette and has tried to integrate some of Ornette into his own playing. Even so, there’s a relationship between what he’s playing now and what has gone before; he’s just approaching it in a different way. You can still hear the older material in what he does now.”

‘There’s too much talk of jazz being a “Negro” art. You yourself know that it all depends on taking the trouble to listen if you want to understand. Certain people are making statements like that for reasons that are neither rational nor honest, and having nothing to do with the music’

Unlike some artists, Sonny Rollins is not at all reticent about answering any serious question put in good faith. Furthermore – as I hope has been thus far apparent – he is both literate and articulate, more than capable of express­ing exactly what he means, even on topics as highly abstruse to the layman as saxophone fingering. Critics in all of the arts have long argued the nature of the connection, if any, between ideas (so-called “propaganda”) and art; Sonny seemed an almost ideal subject to query on this matter, in that, in his choice of material (I have in mind such pieces as Stivers’ Row, The House I Live In, and his own extended composition, The Freedom Suite) he has exhibited his own concern for social problems, especially those of Negro-white relationships in the U.S. Did he think there was any connection between reality, ideas and art?

“Definitely. Jazz must be very closely tied to ideas – actually, they’re almost identical. The artist must be concerned with these questions.

“But, because I did those things earlier (the selections listed above – F.K.) it doesn’t mean that I think jazz is a ‘Negroid’ art. In fact, we’ve seen that jazz is understood around the world . . . I think that this is one of the hopes of mankind, that we can all understand the same things . . . The similarities bet­ween men – we all share the same feel­ings, basically – are more important than the differences . . . I think we should all get behind jazz because of this.

“There’s too much talk of jazz being a ‘Negro’ art. You yourself know that it all depends on taking the trouble to listen if you want to understand. Certain people are making statements like that for reasons that are neither rational nor honest, and having nothing to do with the music. These people are just being plain silly. There’s no other word for it: silly.

“Jazz is universal; it can express many different ideas. They don’t just have to be ‘Negroid’ ideas. If there is any part of jazz that is Negroid, or African, it is the rhythm. You might say that the rhythm is the positive contribution, and harmony, which is European, the nega­tive. And you should know that both are necessary. It’s like matter being one thing, and its opposite, the vital spirit: when you put them together, they form man.”

I commented that this seemed to be a very dialectical point of view. “That’s right,” came Sonny’s answer. “You find these things – man, woman; life, death – these opposites, together, so in a way they are no longer opposites.

“The thing about jazz is that it’s al­ways been able to integrate things from other musics into it.” (As if to empha­sise the point, in the following set Sonny played several choruses of lovely – and pure – calypso on his composition, based on West Indian rhythms, St. Thomas.)

As I was saying goodnight after the final set, Sonny beckoned me to follow him to his dressing room.

“When you write your article, please mention the fraternity that I am affiliated with,” pointing as he said this to his saxophone case, where I saw the emblem of the Order of Rosicrucians. “They helped me in many ways during my isolation, especially in a philoso­phical sense.”

“Sure, I’ll be happy to mention it. But I thought that most musicians liked to keep their private lives to themselves.”

“There’s no such thing as a private life,” Sonny replied unhesitatingly. “That’s something we’ve got to under­stand and get over. No man is an island; any man’s death diminishes me; any­thing that affects any man anywhere in the world affects me.

“It’s not just enough to believe these things – you’ve got to let people know you believe them. That was one of the things I learned from Bird, that he taught me. He was horrified, you know, at the way people imitated certain as­pects of his life. I feel that if there’s a chance that I might be influential the other way, my duty is to speak out, and maybe there will be those who want to emulate me in that respect.”

One can certainly hope so. Artistically or personally, it would be difficult to find a model superior to Sonny Rollins.