The jazz icon Sonny Rollins knows life is a solo trip.
By David MarchesePhotograph by Mamadi Doumbouya
Feb. 21, 2020
Sonny Rollins is, by any reasonable estimation, a genius. He is jazz’s greatest living improviser, able to imbue his solos with wry humor, surprise, brilliant logical form and profound emotion. Time and time again, he created something miraculous out of thin air, and he did it until he could do it no longer. The 89-year-old played his last concert in 2012, and in 2014, he stopped playing saxophone altogether, a result of pulmonary fibrosis. That doesn’t mean we’ll never hear music from him again — Resonance Records will release a set of previously unissued performances this fall — but it does mean that Rollins’s colossal record as a musician is a thing of the past. I wanted to know how a musician whose playing was always attuned to the present has forged a new life in the shadow of that stark fact. “‘Happy’ is not the word,” said Rollins, seated on a couch under a large painting of Buddha at his rambling home in Woodstock, N.Y., “but I am the most content I’ve ever been. I have most things figured out.”
You never made any formal retirement announcement. Did you ever want to say goodbye to the people who made up your audience? Well, no. The reason my retirement happened quietly was because my health problems were gradual. I didn’t expect them. I wasn’t quite sure that I would never be able to play again. It took me a while to realize, Hey, that’s gone now. But the people? I’m glad for their love but I don’t feel that I’m worthy of anyone saying, “Wow, Sonny!” And this is going to sound funny, but my highest place musically was not about playing for a crowd. I played a couple of concerts early on where I was out in the open in the afternoon. I was able to look up in the sky, and I felt a communication; I felt that I was part of something. Not the crowd. Something bigger.
Rollins at age 14 in Harlem. From Sonny Rollins
I only realized when I spoke to you a couple of years ago that you had to give up the saxophone. So much of your life had been about using music to fulfill your potential as a person. Now that you don’t play, is fulfillment still possible? When I had to stop playing it was quite traumatic. But I realized that instead of lamenting and crying, I should be grateful for the fact that I was able to do music all of my life. So I had that realization, plus my spiritual beliefs, which I’ve been cultivating for many years. All that work went into my accepting the fact that I couldn’t play my horn.
Tell me more about that work. I’m working toward why I’m here — what it’s all about. At this point in my life I’m — well, I don’t want to say satisfied, but I feel that I’m closer to an understanding. It’s always been my idea that the golden rule is a good thing, but I wasn’t quite able to understand if the golden rule was possible. If somebody is playing music and I’m playing music and we’re in a saxophone battle, I still have to play my best, regardless of the other guy. It has nothing to do with my trying to make him feel bad because playing music is for a higher cause. So I believe living by the golden rule is possible. Not only possible but the reason we’re here.
Were you playing for a higher cause on something like “The Serpent’s Tooth” with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis? In your solo you quoted the melody of That wasn’t intended as a provocation? If I was so stupid to have to implied that, then I was ignorant. I was in Miles’s band at the time and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” was just one of the riffs that we played. It had nothing to do with my attitude about Charlie Parker. I would never say that to him. But I take your criticism. I might have been a foolish young boy playing that to his guru. If there was a little of that, it was sophomoric. I was ignorant. I am still ignorant about many things.
Rollins, right, and Miles Davis at the New York Jazz Festival in 1957. Bob Parent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I’m also thinking about There’s a part of that performance where you guys were trading fours and he played a lick and in response you played the same lick but with the notes reversed. That wasn’t meant as one-upmanship? David, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this to many people. When I played with Coltrane, I had the impression — and back then it was true — that I was much more popular than him. I remember what Kamasi Washington said about “Tenor Madness”: “Sonny, you weren’t even really playing.” I wasn’t really playing. Coltrane was playing. I was only playing halfway, because I thought that I was the guy and that Coltrane was this young whippersnapper. That was my mind-set. It was immature.
So you were holding back to show your status? Exactly. I don’t want people to think that I’m saying, “Oh, wow, I could have played much better,” but that’s the story of “Tenor Madness.” My attitude on it wasn’t right.
I was poking around and I saw a performance note you wrote for that I thought was interesting. You wrote that when you were playing rubato on a certain song, he shouldn’t look in any direction but yours. Why not? I would’ve said that to him because when I’m playing rubato, which would mean when I’m playing solo, that presents a perfect opportunity for somebody to relax: OK, Sonny’s playing by himself so let me wipe my head or drink water. I wanted the band to be all together even when I was playing by myself because we were all still in the song. People would take their concentration away. I didn’t want that.
I also saw all these very detailed instructional notes you’d written about saxophone technique and harmony. Did you ever consider publishing any of it? I thought about doing things like that but my stuff is unorthodox. I once had a young guy that wanted to study with me. I said, No, man, go to Coltrane. Coltrane will get you on the right course with fingering and technique. All these things that I might have been writing, I didn’t feel they were applicable to other people. So I didn’t pursue them.
One of the most inspiring things about your playing was how alive you were to the possibilities of a given musical moment. Did that openness translate to your life? That’s a very profound question. I can look back and say, “Gee, that was a good solo,” but I don’t know if it had anything to do with a spiritual or ethical thing. I did some bad things when I was playing my horn. We all knew Charlie Parker was using drugs, and we said, “Wow, I’m going to use drugs if I’m going to end up playing like that.” That got and stealing and whatever else drugs made you do. I know great musicians that weren’t trying to be good people. A lot of people wouldn’t think Miles was a very spiritual person — though to me he was — and Coltrane was a very spiritual individual. Does that have to do with their music? Possibly. I don’t want to say that there’s no connection between the way you behave and your music. But it’s something which I haven’t been able to figure out.
Rollins during a “Sonny Rollins Volume II” session at Van Gelder Studio in 1957. Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images
Do you think music has an ethical component? I can hear music that elevates me, but on the other hand there’s martial music that’s made to make people go to war. So music is neutral. It has nothing to do with ethics. Music is not on the same level as trying to understand life. We’re here for 80-something years. One lifetime is not enough to get it right. I’ll be back in another body. I’m not interested in trying to get that technical about that because I don’t need to know. What I need to know is that being a person who understands that giving is better than getting is the proper way to live. Live your life now in a positive way. Help people if you can. Don’t hurt people. That works perfectly for me, man.
Are you ready for your incarnation in this life to be over? You mean do I feel ready to die? Dying, it’s funny. Everybody is afraid to die because it’s the unknown. But my mother died. My father died. My brother died. My sister died. My uncle died. My grandmother died. They’re all great people. If they can die then why can’t I die? I’m better than they are? It’s ridiculous to feel, Oh, gee, Ishouldn’t die. My body is going to turn into dust. But my soul will live forever.
Is there anything you’ll miss about this life? No. There’s a big picture, which is the afterlife, and this life is a little picture. There’s also karma: What you do, you’re going to get it back. So this life is a trip, man, and you’ve got to go through it. I know I’ve done a lot of stupid things and hurt people. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I’m paying for, and I’m trying to get good karma by not trying to hurt somebody or doing things for my own pleasure or aggrandizement.
Does believing in the transience of life mean you’re not nostalgic for jazz’s past? Or your own life in jazz? Wayne Shorter’s still here, but Miles is not here. Max Roach is not here. Trane is not here. Monk is not here. Do I feel nostalgic about that? No. These guys are alive to me. I hear their music. OK, Charlie Parker is not in his body, but everything about Charlie Parker is here to me in spirit. Any time of day, any time of night, I might think of Miles, and the spirit is there. Occasionally I go, Gee, I can’t hang out with Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown after a gig. I think about that, but it’s receding. Those guys — I don’t worry about them not being here in the flesh. I’m not going to be in the flesh, either. You’re not going to be in the flesh, either, David. So what? It’s OK.
Rollins recording at the the Radio House in Copenhagen in 1968. Jan Persson/Getty Images
This is slightly random, but I’ve never seen you talk in much detail about when you played on a How was trying to fit into their music? Mick Jagger, I don’t think he understood what I was doing, and I didn’t understand what he was doing. was the one that persuaded me to do that recording. I said: “Man, the Rolling Stones. I don’t want to do any record with the Rolling Stones.” I’d considered them — and it’s faulty — not on the level of jazz. But my wife said, “No, no, you must do it.” So I said, “OK, let me see if I can relate to what they are doing; let me see if I can make it sound as good as possible.”
Could you? Not really. I know they’re a very popular rock band, but they were derivative of a lot of black bands, right? Isn’t that what they do?
Well, yeah. Right. It might be wrong for me to feel that way because I do like a lot of white artists. I like the Beatles. Paul McCartney is a good tunesmith. But the Rolling Stones, I didn’t relate to them because I thought they were just derivative of black blues. I do remember once I was in the supermarket up in Hudson, New York, and they were playing Top 40 records. I heard this song and thought,Who’s that guy? His playing struck a chord in me. Then I said, “Wait a minute, that’s me!” It was my playing on one of those Rolling Stones records.
Something I’ve heard musicians talk about is losing their sense of self when they’re playing, and how that’s when the best improvisations can happen. What does that say about the true nature of the self? It says that there are divine moments in this world. This world is not what it’s cracked up to be. This world is just a place to pay off our karma. That’s all. There’s something huge happening, and it’s a matter of feeling. It’s different than having book knowledge. The thing I’m talking about is more like intuition. Something is there. I’ve had experiences which have allowed me to know that.
Experiences that happened while you were playing? I’ll tell you one. I was in France playing at a place called Marciac. I was staying at a hotel a little ways out in the country. I liked to stay at nice hotels. The band stayed at another hotel, and if they could afford it, they could stay at this hotel; I’m not trying to be above them. Anyway, the night before the concert I lost I needed it to play. I was very concerned. I didn’t know what to do. I called up the front desk. I said: “Listen, I have a dental partial, which I misplaced. Can you please look through the garbage and find if it’s there?” They said, “We’ll look and see.” So while I was searching, I looked up and I saw a vision of what was like a window opening horizontally. It opened just a bit and there was something I saw; colors behind that little opening. It was such a revelation. I said, “Wow, what was that?” Then I looked down on the floor and there was my partial. I can’t say, “Oh, man, therefore there’s a God.” It’s not about that. But this happened to me and for months, even years, the feeling coming out of my body — I was elevated.
So you took this vision as a confirmation of the existence of something greater? You could call it a confirmation. That was a beautiful thing that happened to me. Something else happened a long time before that, David. When I was about 9 years old I was living up on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. I used to live on the block between 150th and 155th Street. It was one long block of houses and there was a shortcut there from St. Nicholas Place to Edgecombe Avenue. People would walk through the shortcut to get to the subway. So one day I went up on the roof, and there was part of the roof, the mortar, that was loose. I thought it would be a great idea if I dropped the loose part down and scared somebody walking through the shortcut. So I did that and when I dropped it I realized, If this hits somebody, they’re dead — and there was a guy walking through the shortcut. I prayed like I never prayed before. I asked God, Please don’t let it hit this guy. I prayed and I prayed and it didn’t hit him. Somebody could say, “Sonny, you were lucky.” Maybe so. But I knew that I was communicating with something greater and it worked in my favor.
Rollins waiting backstage at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in California in 1979. Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images
This is a crazy thing to bring up but lately I’ve been listening to your music and associating it with the pharaoh Akhenaten. Maybe it’s just because I wanted to see the Met’s production of Philip Glass’s opera about him and everything has gotten jumbled in my mind. But let me just throw it out there: Is Akhenaten significant to you in any way? Oh, very much so. Years ago, I began reading about Egypt. He was a break from some of the other Egyptian theology. He was a maverick, and I felt sympathetic to that. Akhenaten was a guy that influenced me a lot to be serious.
I’m glad my shot in the dark wasn’t useless. No, not at all. I was very much into Egyptology. That was another thing to learn about life, and learning about Akhenaten’s seriousness is another reason why, in a sense, I hate this world. It’s so inconsequential. Sure, there might be a good movie or this or that but we don’t have time for it. Instead we have to try to get some wisdom.
Does that mean your music was inconsequential too? I didn’t say everything was inconsequential. I can listen to some beautiful music, I can see a beautiful painting, and I wouldn’t dare to say they’re inconsequential. But the majority of what you see out here is inconsequential. Eating ice cream, wanting to have sex with some broad — Oh boy, she’s beautiful and all that stuff — the seven deadly sins. You have to get above that. Because if you don’t do it in this life, it’s like “Pay me now or pay me later.”
Have you made plans for what will happen with your unreleased recordings when you’re not around? After I get out of this planet I’m not going to have any say about what’s going on, so I’m not worried about that. And, boy, I agonize over my music; I won’t have to agonize about it anymore. Thank God.
Do you play any other instruments now that you don’t play the horn? The communion I had with my horn, the things I tried to do, I can’t get otherwise. I do have a Fender Rhodes piano upstairs. In fact, I think I should get a piano, a real piano, and play around. I’d probably get something out of it. But it’s not like it would be a continuation of where I was at with my horn. I feel like that thing is broken.
Is your relationship with silence different these days? That’s an excellent question. I used to look at TV a lot. Then I realized, this is very negative. Images and lies and bad for your eyes: I made sure that mantra got in my head, and I stopped looking at TV. I do listen to the radio. I’m trying to get away from that. Silence to me is meditative. To get into that silent space is a huge thing. But even today I’ve had the radio on so much. It’s something I’m working on.
Do you ever get lonely up here in Woodstock? On occasion. Fortunately not too often. I like being alone, actually. I have my yoga books. I have my Buddha books. I have a lot of spiritual material that I need to get with. At my age, all my friends are gone. At one time I began to lament that and then I said, “No, this is good that I have nobody to call and waste time talking.” Every now and then I do go, “Yeah, man, I’m lonely, let me call somebody up,” but to me that’s a weakness. I have to deal with myself. That’s what it gets down to for each of us. Understanding is up to you. It’s up to me. There’s no escape. I got pains and aches all over but spiritually, man, I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I’m on the right course.
David Marchese is a staff writer and the Talk columnist for the magazine.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
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