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Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
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Sonny Rollins Interview

Greatest Living Jazz Soloist

June 2, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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  Sonny Rollins

To begin, please tell us what your childhood was like. What was it like to grow up in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s?

Sonny Rollins: I was born in Harlem in 1930, and of course, I don't know how to compare it with anyplace else. I never grew up anyplace else, but it was a nice place. I had a lot of friends. There was a lot of music, a lot of music around. I had music in my home, but there was also music in a lot of after-hour clubs and speakeasies. So it was a place where -- even though I was too young to go into places like the Cotton Club and Elks Rendezvous -- I sort of imbibed all of this black culture which was around me. So I think it was a beautiful place to grow up, especially for a person that wanted to be a musician like myself.

What kind of a kid were you?

Sonny Rollins: I used to make a lot of jokes and play around when I was a kid. They used to call me Jester, that was one of my nicknames. I guess I was a pretty good guy. When I was about 13 or 14, although the guys around me were a little older, they selected me to be the president of our little club on the block we lived on. Years later, that struck me. I said, "Well gee, why did they select me?" Not trying to be, "Gee, what a great guy I am!" but that might have had something to do with the fact that I eventually ended up being a band leader. Anyway, I liked sports. I played a lot of city sports as a youth on the streets of New York. Stickball, boxball, marbles, all of these things that we played in New York City. I guess you could say that I was sort of an athletic person.

Did you like school?

Sonny Rollins: I liked school, but...

I had one teacher in school when I was in elementary school, her name was Mrs. Love, and she was the most wonderful woman. I'll never forget her because she skipped me into a higher grade. I was doing the work, but she inspired me to do good school work, and I will never forget Mrs. Love or Miss Love. I don't know if it was Mrs., you know. But she was the first teacher that really inspired me to excel, and so I guess I began to like school a little better, and then, of course, I had a few other teachers, a few, but Mrs. Love was sort of the one that I always remember.

Because of her, I guess I would have to say that I liked school.

Do you remember any books that you especially liked?

Sonny Rollins Interview Photo
Sonny Rollins: Books? Well, I guess I went to sort of a disadvantaged high school. We did take Macbeth, but I really didn't understand it. It wasn't explained very well. The teachers were a little bit lacking. When I was a kid, there was a book that I got. My father was a career Navy person, he was in the Navy all of his career, so one time they took the children of the Navy families to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he was stationed at the time, and had a Christmas party, and I remember that one of my gifts was a book about Chinese outrigger boats, and I never forget that.

I wasn't a particularly avid reader until later. Later on I became really a voracious reader, and I sort of educated myself, because I just went to high school, you know. I just had a high school education, and probably a sub-par high school really.

Did you have a useful education?

Sonny Rollins: Yes.

My brother was sort of a classical player -- of violin, my older brother -- and he used to practice around the house all the time, and then my sister, my older sister, she played, and they were both classically trained. So I was the youngest kid, and I listened to them playing and I enjoyed it tremendously. So they tried to start me on piano -- about six years old, I guess it was -- but you know, by that time I was more interested in playing in the street. So I never -- it wasn't until I wanted to play the saxophone that I began. So then I had a saxophone teacher, and went to little music schools and stuff like that, not private teachers. But I never had sort of the formal education that my older brother and sister had, so I always felt inferior to them.

Do you remember getting your first saxophone?

Sonny Rollins: Oh yeah. My first saxophone.

I had an uncle that played saxophone, and my mother took me over to see him. I think his name was Hubert, so she said, "Well Hubert, he wants to play saxophone." So anyway, Hubert got me this little used horn, of course. I mean it was okay, but I mean it was a used alto saxophone. And I remember, boy, when I got that horn, I was really happy. I played it, and it was great. I had pictures taken with it and everything. This was, I was about eight years old at that time.

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