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Modest Colossus

Modest Colossus

The first full biography of Sonny Rollins uncovers the jazz great's relentless drive for sonic perfection.

Matt Hanson
Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins
by Aiden Levy (Hachette Books, 784 pp., $24.49)

Great artists tend to be perfectionists. This usually goes double for musicians, working as they do within the infinitely malleable medium of sound. Jazz musicians arguably have it the hardest of all because improvisation is at the heart of the medium. It’s not enough to learn the material by note, as with classical music, which is plenty challenging: in jazz one must also be able to add something in the moment that is entirely one’s own: pure, immediate, raw, and when it’s done right nothing else compares.    

Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins is one of the greatest masters of jazz. Having recently turned ninety-three, Rollins has been given the admiring and thorough retrospective he deserves in Aidan Levy’s massive biography Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins

Levy has clearly done an impressive amount of research, offering page after page of detailed information about Rollins’ life and work. It’s engaging reading if you’re a jazz nut, though it must be admitted that the rigorous descriptions of Rollins' hundreds of recording sessions might be a little more information than a casual fan needs. Nevertheless, following the account of Rollins’ extensive career offers valuable lessons about the relationship between art and life whether the reader knows his music well or not. 

Born into a bustling Harlem community and raised by Caribbean immigrants, Rollins was taught to have deep racial pride and understand his unique value in a way that sustained him through difficult times. “St Thomas,” one of his signature songs, is based on the calypso rhythms of his family home. His father was a longtime Navy man and skilled cook who was railroaded and sent to jail for the crime of dancing with a white woman at an afterhours party in his apartment. In his early life, Rollins himself struggled with incarceration along with addiction, which seemed to be a common pitfall for young fellows making their way in the perilous world of New York City jazz. The cabaret card, which permitted a musician to ply their trade in a nightclub, could be revoked for any reason.  

One key musical event that fired his curiosity was jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ epochal 1939 recording of “Body and Soul.” Instead of sticking to the melody, as was common practice when playing a standard, Hawkins played an inventive solo over the chord progressions, exploring the melody’s various nooks and crannies. This helped to set the blueprint for the more frenetic bebop to come. Young Rollins had a front-row seat to the thriving club scene on 52nd Street, which inspired his lifelong habit of practicing alone for hours, honing his craft so that he might stand among heroes such as Hawkins, manic pianist Bud Powell, and the grand but fading Lester “Prez” Young.

Levy’s encyclopedic approach demonstrates that Rollins really is the Zelig of mid-century jazz. He played with everyone who was anyone, and he always held his own. One story I’m glad Levy told is the tragic tale of the brilliant trumpeter Clifford Brown, an early inspiration for Rollins and many others. Rollins honed his chops in Brown’s group, until Brown’s sudden death in a car accident, along with the skilled pianist Richie Powell, at the age of twenty-five. The scintillating Live at Basin Street features young Rollins as he is starting to hit his stride, and has an added pathos as the group’s last recording.       

Another unique aspect of jazz reflected in Rollins’ experiences is how quickly amazing groups are assembled, play some live gigs or record a couple of times, and then dissolve. Jazz musicians don’t have the luxury of spending years working on a record or taking time to “think” about their “sound.” Rollins is always hustling: he accompanies the elegant Modern Jazz Quartet one minute and the volcanic Charles Mingus the next; duels with masters like Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane on one epic record after another; then backs up Thelonious Monk on Brilliant Corners, which many consider to be the master composer’s magnum opus. Later in his career, the likes of Wynton Marsalis jumped at the chance to have Rollins blow them away on stage as a rite of passage.   

It’s intriguing to wonder what might have happened if Rollins hadn’t missed the recording date for Miles Davis’s epochal Kind of Blue due to disputes with his record label. One of the best-selling jazz records of all time might have been drastically different had it featured Rollins instead of Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.  

Levy illustrates how deeply committed Rollins was to challenging himself even when he had nothing left to prove. He was known to perform a marathon three-hour set and still have enough juice to keep playing, long after everyone else had gone home and the doors of the empty club had been locked for the night. He refused to fake it or force it, but when he connected with his music he could blow the roof off the place, leaving audiences dumbfounded.   

It’s not just that Rollins often managed to hang out in the right loft or club at the right time; his many sidemen testify to how he made everyone else around him better because of the standard he set for himself. His peers were respectful of Rollins’ many whims. If he's caught in the spirit, stretching a song to twenty or thirty minutes­–even wandering outside of the club to play to people passing on the street–then so much the better.

Rollins cared very little for the kind of laurels that would satisfy most people, and Levy's account proves that it took a lot of good old-fashioned woodshedding to achieve the level of grace and spontaneity found in Rollins’ work. After intensely honing his craft, both alone and in tandem with different crack bands for years, he won the coveted Down Beat award for best tenor saxophone without any major competition–a couple of times in a row. He’d have ample reason to give himself a break and a pat on the back. But he didn’t. 

Instead, Rollins decided to quit the scene entirely and go into self-imposed exile, practicing all day every day on the Williamsburg Bridge to give his wife and neighbors some peace. It’s the kind of image that would be cliché if it weren’t true: the reclusive jazz genius who installs himself in a spot so intrinsically New York and yet resolutely alone, playing his heart out to nobody but the river, the cars zooming overhead, and the occasional seagull.

It was not without it's own unintended consequences. Rollins discovered that when he played the lower registers of the saxophone from his perch on the bridge, it confused the tugboats floating beneath him that communicate with each other via their own booming horns. So Rollins started to harmonize along with them. 

A moment from the early Eighties explains a lot about Rollins’ way of thinking. The late great Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, was a jazz buff who adored Rollins and wondered if he might be persuaded to contribute something to the album which would eventually become the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You. When Lucille, Rollins’ wife and business manager, informed him of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Rollins not only didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, but he didn’t care. He liked rock and roll just fine but didn’t really think his style fit with the band’s sound. And that, as far as he was concerned, was that.  

Lucille spent some time cajoling Rollins, and he finally contributed memorably to several songs, including the charming hit “Waiting on A Friend.” Mick Jagger cued his solo, at Rollins’ request, by dancing alone in the studio during the recording. When the Stones pleaded with him to join them on tour, he demurred, preferring his normal routine of yoga and gardening in his home in upstate New York. He even shrugged off an all-expense-paid, million-dollar-plus payout for a one-night gig. No one would have called him a sellout for going, but his honest indifference is nothing short of astounding.

Rollins' drive for perfection is part of what makes him worthy of Levy's exhaustive study in Saxophone Colossus. In a culture that treats commercial success as the highest value, Rollins saw it as nothing special. He wanted not just to play music, but to be music. To cut away all extraneous distractions and reach for a state of pure being manifested in sound. Eschewing easy fame, Rollins chose the harder path to creative immortality. A modest colossus, surely, yet a colossus all the same. 

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The BafflerThe GuardianThe Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.

Image: Adapted image from the album cover of Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus.