January 19
by Fred Shaw

I picked up the remote and powered the television. The channel already selected was CNN Headline News. It was my daily check to see if anything cataclysmic had occurred in the world. I try to do this at the beginning of the hour but I was a little early so some health report was underway; I changed the channel to CNN. Commercial! Reluctantly I tried the Fox Network. Commercial! Back to Headline News! The scroll across the bottom of the screen was moving out of sight but I did see, “Played with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins” and “He was 73.” The scroll disappeared as Headline News also switched to a commercial advertisement. (Do you realize for every hour of television you watch you ‘get’ twenty two minutes of advertising?)

Who died? Someone who played with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins or was it Sonny Rollins himself? Miles was dead. I think Rollins was my age, 73. I switched between the three channels hoping they would scroll past it again, or mention it in their newscast. But they didn’t so I went to my computer. I did several searches but I found no mention of Sonny Rollins’ death. By now I had convinced myself it was Sonny who had died. I went to bed without knowing, but the next morning I searched the papers and the television news again for news of his death but to no avail.

So, some old jazz saxophonist died. So, you’re a rock music fan and there was a car crash in which Michael Jackson, Elton John and Bob Dylan were all killed. Or you’re a country and western fan and Patsy Cline and… You get the idea. If there were a car crash and Sonny Rollins were killed, the music world would have lost more artistic talent than the other crashes combined. Well, maybe I would have to exclude Dylan. What was Sonny Rollins’ genius? He is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the jazz greats, Armstrong, Parker, or even with his contemporaries such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or John Coltrane.

Sonny Rollins played with Miles Davis, Max Roach and Clifford Brown in the early fifties and was recognized immediately as a huge talent. Later in the fifties he played with Thelonious Monk. Before Monk, modern jazz, be-bop if you will, was based on chord changes to tunes. The melody after it was stated initially, if at all, was abandoned and the chord changes were used in solos to improvise, therefore there was little connectivity between the parts of a bebop solo. Monk, a compositional genius, changed that and modern jazz became “modal”; based more on melody.

But the man who played the modal music to perfection was not Monk but Sonny Rollins, although Monk himself was superb. In June of 1956 the Sonny Rollins quartet recorded Blue 7. Here are Martin Williams’ comments from the liner notes of the album Saxophone Colossus.

“Blue 7 is one of those rare improvised performances were every part is related to every other part… with details so subtle and perfectly in place that it might take a composer hours to arrive at—yet Rollins made it all up in a recording studio as he went along…using the melody involves a lot more than simple decorations and embellishments. Almost everything that Rollins plays here is ingeniously based on the opening theme of Blue 7. But Rollins, like Monk, can get inside a melody, elaborate it logically, or reduce it to a tantalizing tissue of notes, an essence, and rebuild it once more from that outline…”

But Sonny Rollins relates to me on a more personal basis: The “best” concert I have attended was one given by Sonny Rollins. His opening solo on the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields tune, “I’m Old Fashioned”, made me a lifetime fan of his. A performance not recorded; never to be heard again; living only in my memory for more then thirty years.

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It was sometime in the mid-seventies and Sonny Rollins was coming to Philadelphia to play. Although I had several of his albums, I had never seen him perform. He was appearing in a club room called, “Curtains”. An ideal venue, not too big; it could seat about 200 people. The room had a low ceiling, good acoustics and a good view from nearly every seat.

During the late fifties and sixties, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane were considered by many to be the best jazz saxophonist of the modern era. Until Coltrane died in the late sixties they had, at least in the minds of their fans, a rivalry. One without rancor, as both were subdued, pious men. Now Coltrane was gone and there was only Sonny Rollins.

Dr. Francis Davis, the music critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote this about Sonny three weeks before his performance. “Sonny Rollins is the finest jazz saxophone player alive today.” About a week later, Davis, on reflection, ‘upped the ante’: “Sonny is not only the greatest jazz soloist today, but of all time, on any instrument, and also the most complete soloist in the world today in any form of music.” Of course the concert was sold out.

One thing is certain; Sonny Rollins read Francis Davis’ comments in the Inquirer. Sonny Rollins is a proud man where it concerns his artistic abilities, and to get such accolades from such a prominent critic must have given him both additional confidence and purpose for this playing date. Rollins is not your ordinary musician; twice in his career he had taken a two year hiatus, not recording or playing in public. For a two year period he practiced on one of New York City’s bridges. He wanted to examine what he was doing with his life, both musically and personally. As music critic Will Thornbury said, “It was, after all, a dramatic event: the most influential tenor of his time, self exiled to the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, had hovered there for two years, angel and gargoyle, soloing to heaven and the river.”

The night of the concert arrived with Nancy and I down front and the Sonny Rollins quintet on stage. Now Rollins is a big man, athletic, with hands, feet and a head too large for his body. His hair was a semi- “afro”; he wore a mustache and a close cropped beard. His tenor saxophone he wielded like a weapon as he paraded around the stage. Not in the style of the macho-male-posing rock and roll stars that fans are accustomed to; Sonny’s attitude was one of serious artistic intentions. The microphone was a cordless pick-up, which allowed him total freedom of movement. If you had to use one word to describe his appearance while playing it would be “muscular”.

He started by playing Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field’s “I’m Old Fashioned”. After a few bars that introduced the tempo and rhythm, he started a solo that lasted over fifteen minutes. It takes about forty five seconds, at normal tempo, to sing the song once, yet the entire fifteen minutes was the excitement of the unexpected, of what would happen next. He used circular breathing to sustain notes. He interrupted the rhythmic and melodic flow many times but always at the right time. He gave his listeners a slue of variations of “I’m Old Fashioned” and the affect was intoxicating. Unlike a composed piece of quality music he did make some excursions which didn’t seem complete but they impressed this listener with the amount of music he must have inside his head. Sonny Rollins loves to insert musical phrases from other ‘standards’ when he’s soloing.

As his long time bassist Bob Crenshaw said, “Sonny articulates the rhythm and melody so strongly that listeners can plug into the groove. Then he reaches a point where he’s feeling the time and harmony so strongly that he’s liberated to free-associate and de-construct the melodic line- a vibrant, impassioned way of soloing. Gradually, as in a room full of mirrors, the song begins to disappear by degrees and the singer [player] comes to the fore—but in a wild series of melodic abstractions. It’s as if there is a basic harmonic structure; then there’s a harmony Sonny superimposes on top of that; and then there’s a harmony he superimposes on top of that…”

One of the most exiting things about Rollins and all the great modern improvisers is their willingness to take chances, which gives great breadth to their playing, but often times results in an unevenness to their performances. Having attended about a half dozen of his concerts I have found this to be true. Only one other concert came close to the one at “Curtains” and another was “excellent”; the rest were merely ‘good’. I have seen Sonny Rollins only once since we moved to Atlanta twelve years ago. That concert convinced me he no longer has the capability to play at the same high level he played at when I first saw him—or did he just have a bad day?

But I was wrong about his death, Sonny Rollins still lives. According to The Jazz Times, Jackie McLean, one hell of a good saxophonist who played with both Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, died this past March. He was 73.

By Fred Shaw
Read about Fred on the Writer’s Bios Page
email: fshaw@bigcanoewriters.org