Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Sonny Rollins!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Sonny Rollins, an influential jazz musician

Sonny Rollins was born on September 7, 1930. Rollins is a tenor saxophone player, and a highly influential jazz musician. Several of his compositions have become jazz standards.

Rollins began playing the alto saxophone when he was seven or eight years old and switched to the tenor in his mid-teens. His talent was apparent at a young age, and before he was out of high school, Rollins was being mentored by pianist Thelonious Monk, often practicing at Monk’s apartment.

He made his first recordings in 1949 as a member of the ensemble backing singer Babs Gonzales; during the same year, he also recorded with trombonist J. J. Johnson, and with pianist Bud Powell. In 1954, he recorded three of his best-known compositions—“Doxy,” “Oleo,” and “Airegin”—as part of Miles Davis’s band.

In 1955, Rollins entered the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky; at the time, it was the only treatment site in the United States for drug addicts. He volunteered for methadone therapy, still an experimental treatment for heroin addiction.

Rollins had worried that sobriety might hinder his creativity, but that didn’t happen. He released two major albums in 1956. The title track of Tenor Madness is a 12-minute duet featuring Rollins and John Coltrane, their only recording together; Saxophone Colossus is considered to be one of the finest jazz albums ever recorded, and was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2016.

That was the start of an astonishingly prolific decade. Between 1956 and 1966, Rollins recorded almost 30 albums. He developed a reputation as a gifted improviser, often working with songs not traditionally thought of as jazz material. The 1957 album Way Out West, for instance, featured country songs among its selections. It was also noteworthy for Rollins’ use of only bass and drums—no piano—as accompaniment.

That enormous output is even more impressive than it first seems because Rollins took a two-year sabbatical from public performing and recording in the middle of it. From 1959 to 1961, Rollins lived in Manhattan. His practice ritual for much of that time was unusual. It began because one of his neighbors was pregnant, and he didn’t want to disturb her rest. He took his saxophone to the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Brooklyn, and practiced there, continuing the routine even after his neighbor’s child was born. Barry Wittenstein and illustrator Keith Mallett tell the story of those practice sessions in their picture book Sonny’s Bridge (e-book | print).

3 albums by Sonny Rollins

When Rollins returned to recording in 1962, nearly every album found him exploring new styles or repertoire—Latin rhythms on What’s New?, avant-garde on Our Man in Jazz, the Great American Songbook on The Standard Sonny Rollins. In 1966, he ventured into movie music, writing the score for Alfie.

Rollins took another long sabbatical from 1969 to 1971, during which he spent several months studying yoga and meditation in India.

When he returned to the studio in 1972, his recordings began leaning towards funk and R&B. His bands more often included electric guitar and bass; he briefly added a jazz bagpiper to the band (he can be heard on the 1974 live album The Cutting Edge). On the 1977 Easy Living, Rollins made a very rare departure from the tenor sax, and played soprano sax on some tracks. In 1981, Rollins played on three tracks of the Rolling Stones album Tattoo You, including the single “Waiting on a Friend.”

During this period, Rollins was developing an interest in the saxophone as a solo instrument. His concerts often included long unaccompanied improvisations. His 1985 The Solo Album is an hour of Rollins improvising alone, recorded during a performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Rollins was still living in Manhattan in 2001, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. After the attacks of September 11, he was forced to evacuate his apartment, carrying only his saxophone. He had a concert scheduled in Boston just a few days later, and the recording of that concert, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, was one of his most praised late albums.

Around 2000, Rollins began recording most of his concerts. Over the last decade, he’s released several Road Show albums drawn from those archives. Rollins retired from public performance in 2012 because of respiratory problems. He’s received several significant honors for his career of more than 60 years. In 1983, Rollins was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and the Kennedy Center Honors on his 81st birthday in 2011.