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Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Profile of Sonny Rollins Biography of Sonny Rollins Interview with Sonny Rollins Sonny Rollins Photo Gallery

Sonny Rollins Biography

Greatest Living Jazz Soloist

Sonny Rollins Date of birth: September 9, 1930

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  Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
Theodore Walter Rollins was born in New York City to a family that had immigrated from the Virgin Islands. He grew up in Harlem at a time when this crowded district at the northern tip of Manhattan was the vital center of African American culture. His politically active grandmother had been a follower of the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, who promoted solidarity among all peoples of African descent. She took a strong role in raising Sonny, as he was known from an early age, along with his older brother and sister, while their father served in the United States Navy.

Harlem in the 1930s and '40s was home to the latest developments in jazz, and jazz musicians were admired members of the community. Music was also an important part of life in the Rollins home; Sonny's brother and sister studied violin and piano. The example of the pioneering rhythm-and-blues star Louis Jordan inspired the young Sonny Rollins to take up the alto saxophone. He switched to tenor sax when he fell under the spell of Coleman Hawkins, a highly sophisticated improviser who first established the tenor saxophone as a lead instrument in American jazz.

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
In the years following World War II, Harlem was the scene of the musical revolution known as be-bop. A new generation of musicians broke with the dance-oriented big band music of the pre-war era to experiment in small groups with a new style of jazz, featuring advanced harmonies drawn from modern symphonic music, and a loose but hard-driving rhythm that provided the perfect setting for the imaginative flights of virtuoso soloists like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The teenage Sonny Rollins and his friends eagerly followed the new music and idolized its players, particularly the high-flying Parker, known as "Bird" to his friends and admirers. Rollins and other young musicians from his Sugar Hill neighborhood formed a band of their own, which included the gifted alto player Jackie McLean.

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
By age 18, Rollins had gained such a reputation that he was joining his heroes on the bandstand and in the recording studio. He made his recording debut in 1949 with vocalist Babs Gonzales. Later that year, he recorded with the great be-bop pianist Bud Powell. He recorded with the great pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and shared the stage with his idol, Charlie Parker. In the early 1950s he joined the band of another rising star, trumpeter Miles Davis.

Rollins's talent was evident to everyone on the scene, but like a number of young musicians of the era, his adulation of the gifted but tragically unstable Charlie Parker had led him to emulate Parker's drug use. Addiction led to petty crime and run-ins with the law. For a time, it appeared that a promising career had come to a premature end, but Sonny's mother refused to give up on him. Charlie Parker himself urged Rollins to seek help before his habit consumed him. Rollins finally entered the federal rehabilitation facility in Lexington, Kentucky, where he found the treatment he needed. Freed of his addiction, he returned to New York City and embarked on a period of staggering productivity.

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
In 1955, Rollins joined a quintet led by pioneering be-bop drummer Max Roach, also featuring the gifted trumpeter Clifford Brown. In addition to recording under Max Roach's name, the quintet produced an album as Sonny Rollins Plus Four, the first collection to feature Rollins as leader. The untimely death of Clifford Brown in a 1956 automobile accident was a blow to the entire jazz world. Rollins stayed with the Roach quintet through this difficult transition, but he was soon producing recordings of his own at an extraordinary pace.

Max Roach supported the younger man's efforts, playing drums on Rollins's album Sonny Rollins, Volume One. In the follow-up collection, Volume Two, Rollins was joined by two great pianists: one of the original architects of be-bop, Thelonious Monk; and the leading proponent of the new "hard bop" style, Horace Silver. Rollins was now a leading jazz star. The album, Saxophone Colossus, introduced his signature composition "St. Thomas," based on a traditional calypso his mother had sung to him in childhood. Major collections from Rollins in this period include the albums Tenor Madness -- featuring him in a duet with an up-and-coming rival on the tenor, John Coltrane -- and Newk's Time. A number of Rollins's friends had taken to calling him "Newk" because of his supposed resemblance to Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe.

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
Two hallmarks of Rollins's career were now well in evidence. One was his penchant for "thematic improvisation," in which the soloist performs a series of spontaneous variations on a single musical idea. Another was his affection for familiar popular songs and show tunes that other young musicians of the day had come to disdain. Rollins seemed to delight in showing that no melody was so shopworn that it could not be mined for new improvisational riches. A number of outstanding live recordings followed these studio sessions, including A Night at the Village Vanguard, which show Rollins in extraordinary form, supported only by bass and drums. This piano-less saxophone trio was a new concept in jazz. With no piano providing harmonic support, Rollins found unexpected melodic byways that lay beyond conventional harmonic structures.

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
As the 1950s drew to a close, Sonny Rollins was the most admired, talked-about, sought-after tenor player in jazz, the biggest sax star since Charlie Parker. But Rollins felt this acclaim was undeserved, that his playing did not meet his own high standards. At the height of his fame, he withdrew from public performance and recording. He remained in New York City, and found a congenial place to practice on the Wiliamsburg Bridge spanning the East River, not far from his home on the Lower East Side. Musicians and neighbors were surprised to find the one-time headliner standing on the bridge at all hours, playing for no one but himself, while he honed his technique and searched for a more spiritually meaningful form of musical expression.

While Sonny Rollins took his sabbatical, revolutionary changes were again shaking the jazz world. He emerged from his three-year exile with a strengthened technique -- demonstrated on his comeback album, The Bridge -- ready to adapt to all of the innovations that had taken place in jazz during his absence. Throughout the 1960s, Rollins met the challenge of every new development head-on, participating in the avant-garde and "free jazz" experiments of younger musicians, and finally recording with his childhood hero Coleman Hawkins. During this eclectic phase of his career he performed Latin jazz, recorded an album of standards and composed a popular soundtrack for the 1966 hit film Alfie, starring Michael Caine.

Sonny Rollins Biography Photo
Toward the end of the '60s, Rollins took another break from his musical career to immerse himself in the study of Eastern religions. For a time he lived in Japan, then traveled to India, where he studied yoga and spent a long retreat meditating in a monastery. By the early '70s, he was ready to return to active recording and performing. His spiritual journey had brought peace to his restless soul, and he addressed his audiences with a new sense of joy and acceptance. He found continued inspiration in traditional Caribbean melodies, and embraced the use of electric instruments and the rhythms of contemporary funk and R&B. These adventures led him into musical territory far from the hard bop of his youth. He startled both jazz and rock fans with an unexpected appearance on the 1981 Rolling Stones album Tattoo You.

In addition to his work with large electric groups, he pursued the opposite extreme, performing as a solo artist without accompaniment of any kind. In this setting, his solos took the form of long, stream-of-consciousness monologues, drawing on his seemingly bottomless repertoire of classic songs. This side of his creative personality was reflected on his 1985 recording, Solo Album. His solo performances scaled heights of inspiration that transcended all considerations of style and genre, and brought him some of the greatest acclaim of his career.

Sonny Rollins performed at the 2006 International Achievement
Summit in Los Angeles to an audience of Academy student delegates
and fellow Golden Plate honorees while the L.A. Philharmonic looks on.

Rollins was at home in Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center, when his native city was attacked on September 11, 2001. Only a few days after the catastrophe, Rollins recorded a live concert, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, as a tribute to his fallen neighbors. Other recent releases include Road Show, Volume 1, a compilation of some of his most dynamic live performances from the last 30 years.

The publication of a new biography of Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, by John Abbott and Bob Blumenthal, was timed to coincide with his 80th birthday. Other celebrations include a gala concert at New York's Beacon Theatre. As he enters his ninth decade, Sonny Rollins is still touring the world, playing with undiminished power and invention, an enduring exemplar of personal and musical integrity.

This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:23 EDT
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