Review: Documenting Sonny

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Author Aidan Levy was able to pack much detail into his account of Rollins’ rich life and its connection to jazz’s future and past.

(Photo: Courtesy of Hachette)

Clocking in at 700-plus pages, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins (Hachette) is a well-written, comprehensive biography commensurate with its subject’s great stature. Aidan Levy, whose previous books include a biography of Lou Reed, conducted hundreds of interviews with Rollins and others and appears to have scoured everything ever written about him — most importantly, the substantial archive of personal material collected by Rollins himself, acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2017.

A chapter appearing not quite midway through the book provides a taste of how much detail Levy was able to pack into his account of Rollins’ rich life and its connection to jazz’s future and past. The year was 1958. The chapter had begun with Rollins recording his protest album Freedom Suite with Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford before moving on to an account of Rollins joining dozens of fellow jazz greats in front of a Harlem brownstone that August for the photo for Esquire magazine that, many years later, would inspire the documentary A Great Day in Harlem. In between, Rollins had reconnected with one of his tenor sax heroes, Lester Young, who had sunk deep into drink and depression. Rollins, Roach, Papa Jo Jones and Miles Davis paid to rent Young a room at the Alvin Hotel, where, writes Levy, “Pres waxed philosophical.”

“If you can think of a godly person, and you’re drinking some Gordon’s gin, if you could put those two together, then you’ve got Lester Young,” Rollins told Levy, who then splices that quote together with one from a 2007 interview Rollins gave to the Detroit Metro Times: “We would talk about his career and the things that went against him because of his color. I said to myself that I don’t want to end up like Pres, drinking, you know, and have people taking advantage of me — not being able to take care of my affairs. I was determined to do a lot of positive things in life because of being around Lester. I learned life isn’t just about music, that you really have to know what to do when you are off the bandstand. It’s not just about being a gifted artist. It’s also about being a person that stands up.’”

In that same chapter Rollins signals his intention to take what became his famous bridge sabbatical the next year; proposes marriage to Shirley Carter, whom he had recently taken on a boat cruise and dance featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra; performs a concert with the Modern Jazz Quartet and joins Thelonious Monk for a couple of weeks at the Five Spot; overwhelms Gerry Mulligan in a pair of friendly cutting sessions; records the album Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders (which is panned by Amiri Baraka); is discombobulated by Gunther Schuller’s famous analysis “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation” in the debut issue of the Jazz Review; and more.

There is much engrossing material before and after that chapter. Some is well-known — Sonny’s stints in prison and his kicking a heroin addiction — but fleshed out with less familiar detail (it was Kenny Drew’s gun Rollins was carrying when he was arrested and sent to Riker’s Island for the first time). Some is less familiar, such as Rollins’ father being court-martialed, demoted and imprisoned on bogus charges stemming from his having hosted an interracial party in Annapolis in 1946.

The story of Sonny’s relationship with his late wife, Lucille Rollins, is given the importance it deserves. He met her in Chicago in 1957, and they immediately hit it off and began corresponding. But he married and separated from one woman (Dawn Finney) and proposed to another (Shirley Carter) before he and Lucille moved in together in 1959, just ahead of Sonny’s first reclusive period. Sonny and Lucille married soon afterward, then were separated during Sonny’s second reclusive period, which he spent in India and Japan, immersing himself in yoga and Eastern religions. But they reunited, and Lucille transformed herself into Sonny’s trusted business manager and co-producer of his albums. It was Lucille who insisted that Sonny perform in Boston four days after 9/11, which resulted in a great live album.

Lucille’s death in 2004 left Rollins bereft, though he kept performing and releasing albums. In 2012, Rollins was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, possibly caused by his proximity to the toxic dust at Ground Zero on 9/11. He played what proved his final concert in Barcelona that November, and stopped playing entirely in 2014.

The average survival time for someone diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis is three to five years, but this past September Rollins turned 92. He uses a walker to get around and rarely leaves the house he moved to after Lucille’s death. But he doesn’t let his mortality bother him.

“We’re not here to live forever,” Levy quotes Rollins telling the New York Times in a 2020 as-told-to essay. “Humans and materialism die. But there’s no dying in art.”

For most of his book, Levy focuses straightforwardly on the facts he’s accumulated rather than calling attention to his prose. But as the biography nears its end, he permits himself a lyrical flight in summarizing Rollins’s legacy. After noting that Rollins will live on through his recordings, the Schomburg archive and the Rollins-endowed Oberlin Conservatory of Music Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, Levy continues:

“Then there is the legacy of what Sonny Rollins means to American culture and to the global jazz tradition. Sonny was famously known as the architect of thematic improvisation, a concept he did not consciously create but that was thrust upon him. Yet his life was quite deliberately a thematic improvisation. Sonny was a freedom fighter for everyone, but also for himself. He was a ‘second Paul Robeson,’ a calypsonian who could dance around raindrops, a saxophone-toting cowboy chasing the new frontier, a lone figure wailing on the bridge, a Mohawked warrior honoring the past, a yogi in Japan and India, the Saxophone Colossus holding the stage and, finally, a jazz prophet preaching the Golden Rule. It was all a thematic improvisation defined by an enduring quest to find out what it truly meant to be free.” DB



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