Sonny Rollins and the Restorative Power of Music
I thought this would be of interest to some. From yesterday's Wall Street JournalSonny Rollins and the Restorative Power of MusicBy JOE GOLDBERGOctober 19, 2005; Page D17[/b] The late crime novelist John D. MacDonald once wrote, after a major heart attack, that he would spend his remaining time "learning how to do what I do better than I am now doing it." At a point in his life far past where most practitioners of his art are still practicing it, faced last November with the death of his wife of more than 40 years, the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, in his way, says the same thing. Many people consider Mr. Rollins to be the greatest living jazz musician. He is routinely called the greatest jazz saxophonist in the world, and is compared, in the joyous fecundity of his gift for improvisation, with Louis Armstrong. The Village Voice published a special section devoted to him called "The Last Jazz Immortal." That was 10 years ago, and he is still out there, going strong, even though he turned 75 on Sept. 7. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was in his apartment on the 39th floor of a building a few blocks from the World Trade Center when he heard the sound of a low-flying plane. "Even today," he says now, "when I hear a plane flying low, I look up in apprehension. I just heard this plane, and then I heard POW! Women were in the street crying. It was like a war scene from one of those pictures I saw during World War II. I had to walk down 40 flights of steps in the dark. There was a lady and her son, and another lady and myself. I had a flashlight and my horn, and I threw a couple of things in a shopping bag. My legs were stiff and I was sort of traumatized. "I had to give up a lot of papers, books, music -- the building we were in didn't suffer any structural damage; however, it did get contaminated. The media did a great job in playing down the toxic contamination that engulfed the whole area. I was very close to the World Trade Center, about six or seven blocks. Fumes settled into the air-conditioning ducts, and the building was never properly decontaminated. After it happened, my wife and myself, we never slept down there again. I had to get rid of a lot of stuff. Clothes, my piano -- [Thelonious] Monk used to play on that piano, and Al Haig. I had reams of music I had to throw out ??? But it's all just things. It wasn't our primary residence. I felt sorry for our neighbors. They didn't have anyplace else to go." Mr. Rollins had a date to play a concert four days after 9/11, at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. He wanted to cancel, but his wife, who was also his manager, wouldn't let him. "Lucille was the sort of person that always wanted to honor contracts. She also might have realized that my playing a concert under those conditions might even be good for the general populace. There were no planes. We had a van that picked everybody up and took them up to Boston." A CD has just been released of portions of the concert, made with Mr. Rollins's regular working band. It is called "Without a Song," indicating Mr. Rollins's belief in the restorative power of music. It contains another example of his taste for songs other jazz musicians seldom play, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." He also likes to program calypsos and material of the two influential vocalists of his youth, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby. A concert recording is especially welcome from Mr. Rollins because he has long been legendary for in-person flights far beyond what he produces in the studio. That he continues to perform at his age at the level that he does is astonishing, especially when you consider that he makes it up as he goes along, with no set solos -- watch his sidemen, they haven't heard it before, either -- and that he has been doing it every time he stepped onstage for over half a century. And, in a business that caters to young men, he has no plans to quit. "It is a young man's business," he says, "especially if you play a horn. Your body has to be in shape, your teeth have to be in shape, all those things that start to wear down as you get older. But in my case, I have nothing else that I'm qualified to do. Beside that, I'm still on my quest. It's an ongoing thing, you're constantly learning, and I'm trying to get it to a place where I'll be a little more satisfied. You're never going to learn it all, but I'm trying to get a little closer to some of my original aspirations as a musician. I'm still critical of myself. This is the situation that I'm in, and I can finally say that I'm quite happy to be in the state that I'm in. "If I get to the point where I can't hold up my end of the bargain and satisfy my audience, then definitely I'll quit. Then I'll just go home and practice in my own room. Try to find another way to make a living. Your endeavors should be worth your own admiration." Talking to Mr. Rollins can make you feel almost as good as hearing him play. Given the ephemeral nature of improvisation, I decided to find out what he thought of a remark made to me by Percy Heath, bassist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, talking about their gig at the elegant Carlyle Hotel, with no microphones or recording equipment: "If you weren't there, you missed it." "Sounds good to me," Mr. Rollins said. "Sounds very good. For good or bad, that's what I do and I'm not through doing it."Mr. Goldberg is the author of "Jazz Masters of the Fifties," available in paperback from Da Capo, a chapter of which is on Sonny Rollins.