It's 1959, the hazy days of late summer in New York City. In the boom of jazz music's golden age, Sonny Rollins is at the peak of his powers.
The 28-year-old tenor saxophonist has already made landmark records like Saxophone Colossus and Freedom Suite. He's worked with jazz royalty like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and won countless fan and critics' polls in magazines. He's sold loads of records and he's commanding huge fees for his performances. His star is rising. So what does Rollins do? He does the unthinkable--he stops. Unhappy with where his own music is heading, he takes a sabbatical to work on his craft in solitude. In an effort to escape his cramped apartment, he discovers a catwalk high above the din of the Williamsburg Bridge. As cars and trains speed across the bridge and boats skim the East River below, Rollins plays for the birds.
It was after a 1958 show in Baltimore that his frustration boiled over. "That was the one that broke the camel's back," Rollins recalls over the phone from the upstate New York farm he shares with his wife. "I had a big audience and my name out front, all these jazz fans, and I really disappointed the band and I disappointed myself."
Did the audience notice? Probably not, but don't try telling Rollins that. "What I'm striving for is usually beyond what the people like. I didn't like what I was doing--it was just horrible--and I said right then and there, 'Hey, man. I'm gonna go in the woodshed. I'm gonna walk away, get my things together and then I'll come back out when I feel more confident in my playing.'"
Fair enough. But why did Rollins take it to The Bridge to hone his sound? Why not work it out on the bandstand? "That's a good question," he says, "because as much as you practice, there's nothing like actually performing on the bandstand. You can get so much more knowledge out of playing once you get on the bandstand than you can practicing for six months."
A self-taught musician, Rollins acknowledges it was musical insecurity that made him turn inward. "I've always been a person that's sort of learning as I go along," he says. "So when I got to that point, even though I had a name, I felt I had some more learning to do."
Looking back on it, he says he was satisfied with the results. "I felt much better about myself that I had the gumption to do something I wanted to do--turn my back on the business world, the commercial world, everything--and it turned out to be very beneficial to me musically."
Rollins admits he's surprised that so many people still ask him about The Bridge--GQ recently devoted an entire article to it--but he understands why. "It is a very romantic story of the artist fighting against the world and trying to get better," he says with relish. "At the time I was doing it, I was just looking for a place to blow my horn. I wasn't thinking about it. As I look back on it now--sure--it looks like PR cool, you know? But it didn't happen like that. I guess that's the way real life happens."
Sonny on The Bridge is the stuff of legend--in a shallow, feel-good sort of way. But beneath the simple story and beyond the indelibly romantic image lies the real substance of his character. Sonny Rollins' story is not that of an attention-seeking showoff; it is the story of a demanding artist and his relentless pursuit of perfection.
When he emerged from his hiatus in 1961, Rollins issued a series of startling, challenging and ultimately triumphant albums, quickly reclaiming his status as the best tenor this side of John Coltrane. But to search for perfection in improvised music is to doom oneself to a life of madness, a suspended state of unrequited love. And Rollins knows it. "This is my dilemma," he once admitted. "I'm a guy who makes things up as I go along, so nothing is ever going to be finished."
Today, at an age when he should be resting on his laurels, the 70-year-old Rollins is still trying to "finish." He is a legend, an international superstar, the last of the titans from jazz's golden age. Many consider him the best improviser since Charlie "Bird" Parker, bebop's fabled inventor. Isn't that enough for the hopelessly self-critical Rollins?
"If people feel that way I guess I should be pleased, but I'm certainly far from doing my best work. I am still trying to get to what I hope will be my complete improvising expression." You know, the one he admitted he can never attain. Bird, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins top Rollins' own list of improvisers. Why? Musical integrity, maybe a sense of humor and an uncommon ability to connect with people. "I think you have to have a fertile mind and be able to take advantage of all the chord progressions that are going by so quickly. And you have to have something of a spiritual nature that we really can't put our hands on.
"You can't teach a guy to be a great improviser. You can teach him to play good jazz and understand jazz--all that stuff--but a good improviser is probably born. There's some element in there which is beyond human definition."
It is the search for a magical moment of near-perfection, the one beyond definition, that has led numerous jazz musicians to use drugs over the years. Despite the fact that much of the music's mythology revolves around it, drug use in jazz often gets glossed over, imbued with a sort of fuzzy romance or submitted as a badge of honor.
When he was an understudy, Rollins says, alcohol was the drug of choice. "Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster--all those great players--those guys drank a lot. That was sort of the thing to do. So as a young kid coming up, you had to learn how to throw back a few in order to really be in the club, in a way of speaking."
Where those before them turned to booze, Rollins' musical generation often turned to heroin. He himself struggled with drug problems in the early '50s and has said that clean-living trumpeter Clifford Brown taught him he didn't have to take drugs to be a jazz musician.
"What I really got from Clifford," Rollins remembers, "was that he was a very humble person and a kind person. He was sort of the opposite of most jazz musicians--they had sort of a braggadocio or they were hard livers, they were on drugs or they were coarse individuals. He showed me that it wasn't necessary to be like that."
Of course, people used drugs as a shortcut to creative enlightenment long before jazz came along and continue to do so in the present day. Rollins cautions that, if there is any genius to be derived--any wisdom to be gleaned--it comes at a price.
"Music is a spiritual thing and if you value spirituality, you have to value your body. We have to take care of our body. We can't just ravage our body and say that we're being spiritual.
"I think we have to look at the big picture. In other words, it's not just jazz musicians. It's writers, actors, artists, all people that try to reach that spiritual plain where you're trying to really pluck meaningful things out of the air. All these people tend to gravitate towards something that's going to get them outside of themselves. It is a problem and it's something we ought to think about."
These days, Rollins meets a lot of young musicians who eat health food, do yoga and, as he puts it, "try to find some other values of life. I mean, we're getting into the 21st century now. Let's forget about getting drunk and playing and being out all night and, gee, that's the way to reach our musical nirvana. I think we should have grown out of that by now."
After six decades as a professional musician, the torrential nature of Rollins' live shows continues to astound his fans. (His relentlessness translates into his solos, as he zeroes in on and obliterates note after note.) So does his obsession with improving.
"The only thing I worry about is trying to get better," he says, adding that he still practices daily. "I think music itself is such a vast field of endeavor that there's always something to learn, there's always different types of music that are fresh and appealing and can be incorporated into jazz."
To that end, Rollins' new record This is What I Do (Milestone) includes lush ballads ("Charles M."), funk ("Did You See Harold Vick?") and calypso ("Salvador"). In his hands, it all sounds a lot like jazz.
"I think jazz has always got within it the seeds of something new," he says. "I think it's always evolving. It is a live, living thing. It's not a dead music that you have to go listen to, and it sounds like it's great but it's of a time past. Jazz will continue to be one of the beacons of American life."
For his show at UNC's Memorial Hall this Friday, Sonny Rollins will be accompanied by the band from his new record--pianist Stephen Scott, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Perry Wilson and trombonist Clifton Anderson, who happens to be Rollins' nephew. The Chapel Hill show will be the band's first since Thanksgiving. Asked if that means they've been saving up their energy, Rollins responds in typically humble fashion. "Well, I hope so. Either that or we'll be rusty. Let's hope it's the former."