The Universal Mind of Sonny Rollins

“Music gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict . . . There is a verge of the mind which these things haunt; and whispers therefrom mingle with the operations of our understanding, even as the waters of the infinite ocean send their waves to break among the pebbles that lie upon our shores.”

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

“’Giving style’ to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own natures and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Sonny Rollins on Impulse!

As an undergraduate on the outskirts of Boston many years ago, I would often wander into Harvard Square and rifle through the bins of long-playing records at Harvard’s Coop and elsewhere. It was almost entirely folk and folk-rock in those days, though I found myself acquiring the occasional jazz album as well. I remember purchasing Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, the groundbreaking, rock-influenced jazz fusion recording, and—somewhat more surprising—Sonny Rollins on Impulse! Why I was drawn to that second album I cannot say, for I knew nothing about the man or his music. Perhaps it was the striking cover photo of Rollins blowing his horn; perhaps the informal photos on the back cover of Rollins hauling a couple of saxophone cases out of a Karmann Ghia as he entered into Rudy Van Gelder’s famed recording studio in Hackensack, the place where no small percentage of the 20th century’s seminal jazz recordings had their inception. Perhaps it was the accompanying photo of the session players on the recording that day: Ray Bryant, Walter Booker, and Mickey Roker—seemingly nondescript men who, it turned out, played this avant-garde music like minor gods.

I listened to that Rollins album episodically over many years, returning to it regularly and gradually being drawn into the depth and complexity of what I would later find out was called “hard bop.” Whereas the founding parents of “bebop,” technical wizards like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, played as if to showcase staggering levels of technical dexterity, “hard bop” seemed to counterpose with emotional dimension and nuance. It was as if bebop was could be admired from a little distance, whereas, equipped with a sensitive ear, one might enter into this newer music and endlessly explore. It was that Rollins album that gradually taught me how it goes. When I fell more convincingly into jazz 10 or 15 years on, Rollins became a card-carrying member of my personal pantheon.

There is something infinitely compelling about so many of these seminal jazz figures—

Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and many others: the prodigious talent, the fanatical devotion to craft, the inexorable psycho-spiritual journeys and struggles, the multifaceted dimensions of complicated lives; the streets, the drugs, the astute attendance to life’s ontological emanations, the awe-inspiring growth and many changes over time, the capacity for solitude and riveting ensemble. Bedrock themes of humanistic psychology are borne out here on planes high above what academics are generally able to achieve. Sonny Rollins is one of the most fascinating and venerable figures of all.

The late soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy once remarked on the many-hued reflections of Rollins outward persona: “He went through many different phases and was always very critical of himself. He kept trying to change his sound, his image, even his haircut. He went into the cowboy thing and then he started a thing about the Native Americans, and that got divided into cowboys and Indians at the same time. He had a Mohawk haircut under the cowboy hat and he had everybody cracking up. But when he got up to play, nobody was laughing.” Rollins’s talent and discipline were enormous. On the bandstand, it was said, no one could match the immortal Charlie Parker, whose inventive genius remains the stuff of legend. Even as a teenager, however, an undaunted Sonny Rollins somehow held his own. Parker—like Gillespie, Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and many others—became one of Rollins’s mentors. “Harlem was my conservatory,” Sonny later recalled. “Music, our music, was everywhere.”

The Bridge

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss . . . What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

“Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

In 1959, Rollins was the hottest saxophonist on the scene. He commanded, I have read, $2000 per night for club performances—tenfold what the average jazz musician might be paid. Rollins musical virtuosity and imagination were phenomenal, something that has been recently confirmed by the release of European performances during that year on the CD compilation, Sonny Rollins Trio: Live in Europe. Despite notoriety and arresting achievement, Rollins suddenly disappeared from the scene just about the time a lone sax player began to appear at all hours of the day and night on the pedestrian walk of the Williamsburg Bridge connecting New York City’s Lower East Side with the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Passersby were shocked as they came gradually to understand that the man on the bridge was none other than the eccentric jazz legend himself. Subsequently, Rollins explained it thusly: “In 1959 I had a lot of acclaim—but I wanted to improve my playing. It was that simple. I wanted to get better. I didn’t feel I was playing well enough . . . So I stopped playing live for audiences. I stopped recording. And this is the . . . famous story that people know about me—you know—The Bridge.” It is arguable that it was not quite so simple, though Rollins’s lifelong devotion to his own musical evolution has been well-known from the start. But Rollins felt, too, that his daily ritual of practice at all hours would be unfair to others who lived in his apartment building, one of whom, reportedly, was a woman who was pregnant. For two years, Rollins could be seen and heard only atop of that bridge. Here is the short version rendered as cartoon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6qIzZmOw_g. Sonny, I am told, has always had a terrific sense of humor. By all accounts, the man on the bridge returned to earth a transfigured and even more inspired man.

In truth, it was neither the first nor last time that Rollins disappeared from view in order to engage in an intra-psychic combat that has yielded rich artistic fruit. In youth, Rollins had been a heroin addict, an affliction that was widespread among jazz musicians of that era and not all of them would overcome: the times, the relentless racism, the ongoing quest for dignity in a world gone very obviously wrong. In 1955, Rollins, having already served time at Rikers Island, checked himself into the Unites States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, KY. Rollins later reflected circumspectly on both the perceived powers and patent dangers of chemically altered states of mind: “I thought at first that it helped me focus on music, but then I realized it was a trick bag. Soon I didn’t even own a saxophone anymore . . . Guys I knew were crossing the street when they saw me coming. I was even stealing from my mother.” Rollins had seen firsthand how addiction had destroyed so many of his fellow musicians, indeed taking the life of his friend and mentor Charlie Parker shortly before his own act of seeking help. Upon release from treatment, Rollins moved to Chicago, taking a room at the local YMCA and working as a janitor before word began to circulate that the exalted horn player was in town. Slowly, Rollins returned to music and eventually New York. He had stared down the curse of addiction in dead earnest, doing so on his own terms and in his own way. 

A decade later, Rollins was off to India where he studied yoga and Hinduism with a well-known swami while living in an ashram. He later mused with characteristic insight and largess: “In India, I renewed my commitment to music as my path. Protest is part of this. You can’t have jazz without protest. Protest may be too narrow a word to apply to men like Basie, Ellington, and Hawkins. But by carrying themselves with pride, just by acting like men, the older musicians influenced younger guys like me. So did the Pullman porters, fighting for their dignity. We looked up to those guys and, when we were old enough, went a step further.” In Japan (a country with which Sonny felt immediate simpatico), he apprenticed with a Zen master.

Thus, while existence has advantages,

It is the emptiness that makes it useful.

Tao Te Ching

“He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another.”

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Soul sof Black Folk

“The significance of the pause is that the rigid chain of cause and

effect is broken.”

Rollo May, Freedom and Destiny

Rollins has regularly transcended inner daemons and earthly woes in acts of withdrawal from the world followed by renewal and return. This, I think, is a hallmark of the deeply sensitive and broadly inventive type—shelter from the sturm und drang of daily living and the pressures of living life on such feverish angles of creative pitch. I do not think that those of us with feet more conventionally planted on the surface can easily grasp just what the experience entails or truly is. “The void,” muses Rollo May in Freedom and Destiny, “is the dimension of eternity.” “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness,” Wittgenstein elaborates, “then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” Rollins’s recurring hiatuses have catalyzed the actualizing of soaring aspirations over time. “The ultimate paradox,” observes May with characteristic insight and concision, “is that negation becomes affirmation.”

September 11th

On Friday evening, Sept. 14th, 2001—three days after the dark events that unfolded on 9/11—I received a call from a friend of mine who worked as music critic for the Boston Herald. He had two tickets to listen to Sonny Rollins, who would be performing the following night at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. “Are you kidding?” I said. I was thrilled by the thought. I had scores of recordings documenting the trajectory of Rollins’s extraordinary musical journey over many years. After several days of watching the unrelenting newsfeed coming over the airwaves, it was evident that our own country was rapidly redoubling its own violent propensities in the direction of a Manichaeism not dissimilar to that that had informed the original assault. The writing, sadly, was on the wall; it would be major, tone-deaf chords all the way. Already, one anticipated the uncritical, self-righteous march of retaliatory aggression and a tangle of events and aftershocks from which America has still not fully disengaged. I was at the time living quite like Thoreau in a small cottage in Lexington heated by a single wood stove. I was unfamiliar with Rollins’s more recent music, and the thought of witnessing a master of the form and escaping for awhile the never-ending spate of news and events in which genuine tragedy segued into platitude and vengeance filled me with relief, a more salutary sort of anticipation.

The storied concert is by now part of the overarching legend. Sonny had been at home with his late wife, Lucille, in their longtime flat in Lower Manhattan, only several blocks north of the World Trade Center, when the airplanes struck that morning. Once evacuated, they left for their small farmhouse in upstate New York. Rollins considered cancelling the performance but was persuaded by his wife that the concert should proceed. After a moving introduction that evening, Rollins humbly offered these several conciliatory words: “We’d like to start out with a number that I heard a long time ago when I was growing up—a version of one of my favorites, Paul Robeson. And it’s very appropriate at this time. Of course, it’s appropriate in my life every day, but I think everybody feels this way. It’s called ‘Without a Song.’”

Rollins was surely thinking about the general mayhem of unfolding events, but perhaps he was thinking too about a day in October, 1945 when Frank Sinatra (whose cover of the song was also well-known) and Nat King Cole came to Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem to address the student assembly in the face of escalating tensions between Italian and African American youth that had erupted into riots in the streets. Sinatra and Cole proffered an interracial message of tolerance. “This country was built by many people of many creeds, so it can never be divided,” Sinatra admonished; “No kid is born and two days later says, “I hate Jews or colored people.’ He’s got to be taught.” The wisdom conveyed that day by Sinatra and Cole, no less than Rollins’s invocation of Robeson, was directly relevant to the events of 9/11 and the retaliatory responses they engendered. “Frank was cool,” Rollins later recalled. “He understood what the cats were undertaking culturally . . . Frank had hung out with the brothers and sisters a lot, so he got to understand us more than most other white singers.” Here you will find an audio link to the band’s jubilant opening number on that memorable night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwFOFKpPPLA&list=PL0qKLgjShK-uUNkdl0l0KCk95_sCDjIDF&index=1

As Sonny introduced the members of his band (Robert Cranshaw on electric bass, Stephen Scott on piano, Perry Wilson on drums, Kimatia Dinizulu on percussion, and nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone) later that evening, he offered sage aesthetic counsel: “We must remember that music is one of the beautiful things of life, so we have to try to keep the music alive in some kind of way. And maybe music can help. I don’t know. But we have to try something these days . . .” “Tragic insight,” Nietzsche early on proclaimed, “requires art as protection and remedy.”

The penultimate song performed at Rollins’s historic performance was a gripping adaptation of Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein’s ballad “Why Was I Born?” (Rollins tastes are exceptionally wide-ranging and he has always loved ballads) with fittingly existential lyrics:

Why was I born?

Why am I living? 

What do I get?

What am I giving?

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, Why Was I Born?

Evocative themes upon which the eloquent saxophonist had apparently been meditating for years. The audience was transfixed by the impassioned performance—a witnessing of dialogues, art, and ideals on the most rarified planes, the juxtaposition of humankind’s noblest aspects and possibilities with some of its basest. At the end of it all, I turned to my friend and said, “That has to have been one of the best concerts you have ever heard.” I knew the music critic had attended innumerable live shows as part of his work. He paused only momentarily before affirming my suspicion: “Yes, it was.” 

Global Warming

“Global Warming” is the name of the second song Rollins elected to play with his band at the 9/11 concert. It is, coincidentally, the title song of a 1998 Rollins release on the Milestone label. Counter-intuitively, Global Warming is a joyous expression of life. A pensive musician of extraordinary depth and goodwill urges awareness as a sort of subtext to his recording in the coy titling of tunes. There is a message to be sure, though Rollins doesn’t intend heavy-handedness nor mean to put an unsuspecting audience too quickly off. Concerning the title track, Rollins reflects: “The song was meant to be not necessarily about global warming . . . It wasn’t . . . a sad song.” Another original composition on that album, he continues, “Echo-Side Blue” is, indeed, “more descriptive, more plaintiff” regarding “the destruction of the planet.” Feeling that its original name, “Ecocide Blue,” might have been “a little too stark for the people,” Rollins chose to euphemize somewhat in its final designation. Still, a thematic imperative coalesces, suggestively, around “how we’re trashing the earth.” “It’s good to be enlightened,” the charismatic jazzman wryly observes.

Like Parker, like Coltrane, Rollins is a highly intelligent, well-read man. ”I read a lot of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti,” he says. “They’re all about the environment, this impending disaster we’re heading into . . . Right now, it’s like we’re on the Titanic, but everybody’s just watching Titanic.” (The doomsday clock, set for some time now at two minutes to midnight, becomes, according to a recent Guardian report, the “new abnormal.”) Rollins’s off-the-cuff observations are redolent with Eastern-tinged sagacity: “It is incumbent upon us as sentient beings to do whatever we can do.” Here, too, his message is simply set forth: expressed musically, we have, each one of us, our “part to play.” “And we try . . . It doesn’t mean we have success.” Rollins ponders quizzically “the profligate use of things” — “that is a bad trait;” “the way we use energy . . . and things—that’s the sin.” “I want to live lightly on the planet—I’d rather think of myself as a spirit than a body.” Interested readers may want to check out this interview from 2006 as a sort of prelude to your forthcoming conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n75XmlOcG1Y

Spirit and the Beyond

“I would only believe in a god who could dance.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

“A great  relationship . . . breaches the barriers of a lofty isolation, subdues its strict law, and throws a bridge from self-being to self-being across the abyss of dread of the universe.”

Martin Buber, Betweeen Man and Man

“What is courage?” Rollo May muses in his collection of essays, The Courage to Create. Rollo speaks here of physical, moral, social, and creative courage, observing soberly: “Any theory of ‘resistance’ that omits the terror of human consciousness is incomplete and probably wrong.” Point and counterpoint, do you see? We may think here, reflexively, of the example of Rollins. Rollins has faced hardship, both worldly and more esoteric, a necessary concomitant of a remarkably turbulent and astonishingly generative life: the culture, the pressures, the manifold losses along the way; those recurring disappearing acts proceeded by hallowed acts of resurgence in order to attain ever higher rungs; an ongoing honoring of comrades who did not always make it to the other side. (The highway of jazz is littered with both the corpses and shimmering pearls of high art.) And, pervasively, the muse of music, the ongoing quest for inner exploration and new dimensions of sound—what James points to, in his Principles of Psychology, as “this unfinished-seeming front.”

Humanistic psychology is fond of speaking often and often volubly about creativity, though the real deal is terribly complex and only infrequently encountered. Perpetual restlessness would seem to be an essential thing, something very different from repetition compulsion or vanity. This is where we tend, inevitably, to fall short. One seeks almost in vain that Nietzschean “free spirit”—one who “not only speaks differently” but “also is different.” May’s exhortation concerning the differences between artifice and bone fide art is instructive, and Rollins is the consummate instructor. The myriad band formations, the spellbinding conversations among a plethora of diverse, regularly shifting players, the explorations of both self and worlds until well into old age. Our collective error lies in constricted purview, in our insufficient honoring of dancing stars. Think of William James or Ellington; think of Nina Simone, Abby Lincoln, and the ethereal Sarah Vaughan; think of Coltrane and the seraph Clifford Brown.

Now 88 years of age, Rollins no longer performs. I find myself listening these days to his recordings, made over a span of more than sixty years, perhaps more than anyone else. I recall a friend of mine once jesting, “If my favorite tenor saxophonist is Coleman Hawkins, why am I always listening to Ben Webster?” I feel that way, lately, about Coltrane and Rollins. Both men are exemplars worthy of our reverence, spiritual compatriots who have kept their appointments in these all-too-visible realms and beyond—a higher order of being and connection offering up respective, complementary prayers. Such laudable human figures and artistry serve as stirring embodiments of what is possible in the way of the development of human consciousness over time. ”As for my spiritualism,” says Rollins in a recent interview, “it’s more an amalgamation of my religious convictions, including my belief in reincarnation. I am trying to clean up my karma so that I can come back with the blessings of the Great Spirit.” 

Global warming, indeed! Or, as an ancient Arabic/Judaic expression would have it, “From your lips to God’s ears.” 

Afterword

Someday everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody

When I paint my masterpiece

Bob Dylan, When I Paint My Masterpiece

Clov: What is there to keep me here?

Hamm: The dialogue.

Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Time, we all know, is fleeting. Here, I have reserved enough of it for just a few musical codas testifying to Rollins’s astoundingly fecund and graceful career—waters from that infinite ocean breaking upon earthly shores. These several gnostic fragments are intended, as Robert Coles has put it, for those of you “within hearing distance,” for those who—as Eugene Taylor wrote shortly before death—are able to “grasp the inmost core”:

Sonny Rollins Trio in the Netherlands, 1959; “Weaver of Dreams”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZazZYmjOOF0

Sonny Rollins in Denmark, 1965; “There Will be Another You”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGcsIaErFFw

Sonny Rollins with McCoy Tyner, 1975; “In a Sentimental Mood”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d6auI6qUm

Sonny Rollins in Prague, 1982; “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFTqYjA5lVM

Sonny Rollins with Stephen Scott in Italy, 1996; “Someone to What Over Me”: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1324434467599944&id=108462262530510&refsrc=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&_rdr

Sonny Rollins in Japan, 1997; “Falling in love with Love”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ewg90DKNt0M

Sony Rollins in Italy, 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juPhNKKSnhA

Sonny Rollins interview, 2006; “Global Warming and Living Lightly on Planet Earth”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLKaJlp4xuI

Sonny Rollins interview, 2006; “How I’d like to be Remembered”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=belAIPaPhUA

Sonny Rollins interview, 2014; “Moving Toward the Unconscious”: https://sonnyrollins.com/biography/

I send all of you warm greetings along with the hope that your forthcoming conference might, at its most inspired moments, be as moving as Rollins’s midlife rendition of Bacharach’s “A House is Not a Home”—a fitting benediction for your conference theme, a sort of paean to I-Thou encounter, Mother Nature, and Mother Earth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBdsHLdi_hg

References

Abbott, J. & Blumenthal, B. (2009). Saxophone colossus: A portrait of Sonny Rollins. New York, NY: Abrams.

Beckett, S. (1958). Endgame. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Buber, M. (1965). Between man and man. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Chinen, N. (2018). Playing changes: Jazz for the new century. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Dubois, W.E.B. (1903/2003). The souls of black folk. New York, NY: Modern Library.

Dylan, B. (1972). Greatest hits, vol. 2. New York, NY: Columbia. [CD]

Goodman, G. W. (1999). Sonny Rollins at sixty-eight: Reformed, redeemed, and ready for reincarnation. The Atlantic Monthly, July 1999.

James, W. (1908). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York & Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co.

James, W. (1950). The principles of psychology: Vol. 1. New York, NY: Dover. 

May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York, NY: Norton and Co.

May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: Norton and Co.

Nietzsche, F. (1954). The wanderer and his shadow. In The portable Nietzsche (W. Kaufmann, trans.). New York, NY: Viking Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1954). Thus spake Zarathustra: A book for all and none. In The portable Nietzsche (W. Kaufmann (trans.). New York, NY: Viking Press.

Rollins, S. (1956). Colossus. New York, NY: Prestige Records. [CD]

Rollins, S. (1958). Freedom suite. Berkeley, CA: Riverside Records. [CD]

Rollins, S. (1965). Sonny Rollins on Impulse! New York, NY: Impulse/MCA records. [CD]

Rollins, S. (1962). The bridge. New York, NY: RCA Victor. [CD]

Rollins, S. (1998). Global warming. New York, NY: Milestone Records. [CD]

Rollins, S. (2005). Without a song: The 9/11 concert. New York, NY: Milestone Records. [CD]

Rollins, S. (2016). Holding the stage: Road shows, vol 4. New York, NY: Sony Masterworks. [CD]

Rollins, S. (2017). Sonny Rollins trio: Live in Europe 1959. EU: Essential Jazz Classics. [CD]

Wyatt, H., (2018). Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a riff. New York, NY: Kamama Books. 

Dedicated to Mark Perrier, 1929-2019, beloved friend and early mentor in jazz.