SONNY ROLLINS is the first major influence on a significant number of young tenors since the Stan Getz of the late forties and early fifties. Unlike the mesmeric Getz of that period, Sonny’s approach is far from cool, and he is seldom lyrical. Sonny’s style is hot, driving, deeply pulsating, and is rooted in Charlie Parker and before Bird, Coleman Hawkins.
In an intriguing genealogical chart at the end of an essay on Rollins by Ira Gitler for Prestige, Gitler points out that Charlie Rouse, the contemporary Allen Eager, J.R. Monterose, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Phil Urso have all been shaped in part in the forge of Rollins’ style. Scores of lesser-known tenors throughout the country and now abroad also have been marked by Rollins.
Sonny is currently with Max Roach’s quintet, and is an important factor in the climbing excitement generated by that unit. The position with Roach is Sonny’s first regular gig in some time and represents an important stage in what has been up to now a rather disorganized career.
Theodore Walter Rollins was born in New York on Sept. 7, 1930. He recalls, “There was always some kind of music going on in the house.” An older brother was a violinist good enough to be considered for the Pittsburgh Symphony orchestra, but he finally chose medicine instead.
When he was 8 or 9, Sonny took a few piano lessons at the behest of his parents, but his first self-propelled instrument was the alto on which he took lessons both privately and at Benjamin Franklin High School where drummer Sonny Payne and tenor Percy France were among his contemporaries. Rollins’ first influence was the virile Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. “He opened me up to really listening more and finding out musicians’ names…” he says.
Then there was Coleman Hawkins—“his conception, the way he was able to play changes.” Hearing Hawkins and Lester Young was one factor in Sonny’s switch to tenor in 1946. He had played a few gigs around the city as well as in school on alto, and he found the number of jobs increased after the change of horn.
Sonny finds in retrospect no clash in having been influenced by both Hawkins and Young. “The things that were alike about them were more important than their differences. As for Lester’s tone, I never thought it was a bad tone. The saxophone, after all, is a very young instrument, and people are still finding criteria by which to judge its players. There are still a lot of different ways a person can sound and still have accept-able tone. To me Lester had a very big sound. Hawk’s was different because he played with a bigger vibrato.”
By the time he was graduated from high school where he had majored in music, Sonny had got to the point “where I could handle a gig.” His music major had introduced him to elementary theory, and he first planned to go to the Manhattan School of Music. He didn’t, not yet convinced that music was to be his career.
“I don’t think I ever did decide,” he says. “I seemed to mold myself into it. I’m fortunate that I’m making a living at it now because I’m not equipped to do anything else. As the years went by, music was the only thing I was doing.”
After high school, Rollins gigged around New York and New Jersey. Among the youngsters coming up with him were Jackie McLean and the late Richie Powell. The next and most searing major influence had also struck Sonny by this time.
“I heard Bird first on record and then I began to see him in the early forties at a lot of sessions on 52nd St. and at others around town like the Lincoln Square center on 61st St. Bird seemed to combine all the things I’d heard so far and liked. What he was doing seemed all new when I first heard it because I didn’t really understand it.
“After I under-stood what he was doing, I realized it was a combination of everything up to that point, plus himself. He added something without taking away from what had come before.
“I got to know him, not as well as I would have liked to. We’d talk about music, and he’d always encourage me quite a bit. I remember asking once about some changes, whether they were right for a certain song. Bird answered that whatever I heard was right. What he meant was that if you can hear at all, you should be able to hear what’s right; and if you can’t hear, you won’t make it anyway. He was telling me to keep the freedom to try things and not to limit myself.
“Bird befriended quite a few guys. Sonny Stitt before me. With us and a few other cats, especially saxophone players, it was like a father thing. When we were hung up personally, we went just to talk to him, just to see him. There was one time at a record date for Prestige in 1952 or ’53. It was Miles’ date. Bird and I both played tenor. It’s never been released. It was a great honor to play with him. I was so scared and nervous.
“At that time,” Rollins continues, “I was going through a mixed-up personal period. A lot of things I was doing because I figured they were the things to be done because a lot of my idols did them. But Bird never encouraged me to do anything that would prove wrong for myself. And on that record date, he really told me what to do so far as music and my life was concerned.
“He asked me how I had been doing because he knew I was a young wild kid running around and not knowing what was happening. That day he showed me the thing he wanted me to do and the thing he stood for. The purpose of his whole existence was music and he showed me that music was the paramount thing and anything that interfered with it, I should stay away from. Later on I was able to take advantage of his advice, but he died before I had a chance to see him and tell him I had.
“Bird made a deep impression on me on tenor. I heard him play it very seldom, but his ideas, his drive, the way he could create moved me very much. As soon as he started to play on tenor or alto, he’d create the complete mood and would carry everyone, including the rhythm section, along with him. That’s the mark of a true soloist. He was very sure and definite.”
Sonny cut back to the years just before that key talk with Bird. His first record date had been in 1948 with Babs Gonzales for Capitol. (“I was just a kid. I didn’t know anything.”) There had been the help of Bud Powell. (“I was fortunate in knowing him very well. He lived around the corner from me, and I used to go by his house a lot. He’d show me a lot of things.”) And Sonny recorded with Bud and Fats Navarro on Blue Note.
Thelonious Monk began to be an influence, when Sonny rehearsed with him for a few months in 1948, and he has continued to be. (“Monk is a teacher with a different way of playing and of voicing chords.”) Sonny also is indebted to J.J. Johnson, with whom he had a few record dates on Savoy. (“He, too, was a very great help. He tried to show me how to read, and encouraged me. He was the first to record something I’d written.”)
While leading the intermission trio at the 845 club in New York’s Bronx, Sonny played opposite Davis. Miles was impressed, and for about three years off and on from 1951, Sonny worked with Miles, who turned into another considerable aid and influence. (“Anything I play now which might sound individual is excerpted from what I learned from all those great people. If my mind had been more settled, I would have really gotten serious about music then.”)
Rollins was in Chicago to work at the Beehive in late 1954 and stayed until November, 1955. He was intent then on completing his musical studies and started at the University of Chicago. (“I didn’t have the money for tuition so had to leave. But because I’d made a few records, I was fortunate to come into contact with teachers who were willing to instruct me. I wanted to get a thorough foundation because I was very depressed about the records I’d made. I knew now that music was sacred to me.”)
He took a day job as a manual laborer while studying. Max Roach and Clifford Brown came through a couple of times, and Sonny would go down to see them and sit in.
“I’d always admired the group,” Sonny says, “and what they stood for, not only musically but the personal conduct of the band, too. They were something that was needed at that time. At least I needed to see a group of musicians who could really play and who also could command respect by the way they conducted themselves.”
When Harold Land, the tenor with Max and Clifford, returned to the West Coast, Rollins joined for what was to be only a week or two. Rollins recalls working alongside Brown with wonder:
“It was a pleasure. There was never any kind of conflict at all. In fact, at times I wished there was something I could be mad at him for—he blew so much. But there was nothing. He was perfect all the way around. We were just starting to achieve a sound when the accident happened.” (Rollins was referring to the car crash in which Brown and the group’s pianist, Richie Powell, died.)
“On the last job we played together, all of a sudden we both heard it. We were phrasing, attacking, breathing together. That’s a very difficult thing for two horns to make in unison playing. It’s easier playing harmony. In unison, for one thing, the intonation of both has to be exactly the same. That’s why I really think all groups that are together should stay together. It’s the only way for them to achieve what they want to.”
Rollins said he intends to stay with Roach indefinitely although eventually he’d like a combo of his own. But school still remains an obsession.
“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene completely until I’m finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything. Being considered an influence admittedly is more of a challenge because people look for me to produce. But that bugs me, too, because I really don’t feel I’m as great as they think I am. Being considered that good creates a mental thing, too. Honestly, what I am is because I’ve been lucky enough to have been with the best people. I’ve got a lot of work still to do, a lot of work.
“I’ve been really serious about music for about two years. Music is the main thing now. It’s a commitment—that’s stronger than a decision—to make it a career. I want to learn as much as I can about music and be as sincere as I can be in every respect concerning it.”
Rollins says he doesn’t think he should be “on any kind of a pedestal” because “I don’t have the background to be looked up to.”
He says young musicians should get as much academic knowledge and as much practical experience in sessions and big bands as they can “because all these things will come up later on.
“I didn’t have all that experience and background,” Sonny adds. “I was thrown into making records without the kind of background I should have had. I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to get it.”
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