A Conversation with Gary Giddins
Village Voice writer Gary Giddins, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and who is the country’s preeminent jazz critic, joins us in an October 21, 2002 conversation about jazz legend Sonny Rollins.
Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
Right now, I just want to get away for awhile. I think I need a lot of things. One of them is time…time to study and finish some things I started a long time ago…I never seem to have time to work, study, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night and wondering how the band sounds and whether our appearances are okay.
– Sonny Rollins, 1958
photo by Jimmy Katz
Listen to Rollins play Blue 7
JJM Why do you describe Sonny Rollins as jazz music’s most provocatively enigmatic man?
GG Because Sonny defies the expectations of his audience and he always has. As I have explained at some length in Visions of Jazz, there always seems to be two Sonny Rollinses — the recording artist and the concert artist. For years, whenever I reviewed one of his concerts in New York, I would get angry, impatient letters from readers around the country who would question my sanity. They would point to some recent Rollins record and ask how I could say how great he plays when clearly he doesn’t have an ounce of the genius that he evoked on his recordings from the fifties. But, this is now a historical phenomenon that people recognize and accept. When you see Sonny Rollins perform, you are hearing a very different musician than the one who goes into the studio.
There is a collector’s network of people who devote hours of their lives to finding tapes of Sonny Rollins concerts. One of them is a fellow named Carl Smith, who contacted me some months ago and sent me half a dozen CD’s of concerts precisely from the years reviewers and fans thought Sonny was most off — in the mid eighties. These performances are extraordinary. I played them for skeptical friends whose jaws just hit the ground. Now, Ralph Kaffel, President of Fantasy Records, has asked this particular collector to hear a few. When listening you can’t miss the fact that something magical happens when he is on stage.
Another aspect of the enigma of Sonny Rollins is that he is such a thoughtful, honest player. He can’t just “run the changes.” He can’t play by remote control. In the sixties, I once saw him play the theme of “Take the A Train” for thirty or forty minutes. He just couldn’t get out of the head. Then, a few years ago, he did a concert at the Beacon Theatre in which the same thing happened with “St. Thomas.” Many in the audience couldn’t believe that he just played the head over and over again. Jackie McLean and other musicians were on stage, trying to break through it, but Sonny was completely caught up. Of course, there are other nights when he leaves the head and slides into permutations that you simply can’t believe, as he did at B.B. King’s a few weeks ago.
JJM I assume they were unauthorized recordings? Is Kaffel pondering releasing any of these?
GG Yes, they’re unauthorized, made by fans, stolen you could say for posterity, and well recorded. Kaffel wouldn’t consider releasing them unless he has the wholehearted support of Sonny and Lucille. I think he was curious, and I imagine he’ll send them to the Rollinses. I hasted to add that Smith is a good guy, who told Kaffel he wouldn’t take a penny for them. He’s just a huge Sonny fan who would like to see this music released.
JJM How do you suppose his early life experiences of attending the Apollo Theatre concerts shaped his view of live performance?
GG That is an interesting point. It’s true that in addition to loving Coleman Hawkins and a lot of the jazz greats, he was always attracted to Louis Jordan and the R&B musicians who were not only playing a more popular and visceral kind of music, but were also entertainers. Jordan was an incredible entertainer. Almost every major number he did had some kind of a comical, theatrical aspect to it. Thinking about it now, Rollins certainly has that quality. For example, the way he appears on stage. The first time I saw him in concert was at the famous “Titans of the Tenor” concert at Philharmonic Hall in 1966, and I remember he was dressed from head to toe in black. He was wearing black Keds, a black t-shirt, and black jeans. Before that, he went through a period where he wore a mohawk, and this was in the fifties!
The first time I actually saw him at all was at the Village Vanguard. He started his set in the kitchen, which is in the rear of the club. I heard a tenor player, looked around because there was nobody on stage, and he came out, wended his way through the tables, playing all the while like a strolling violinist in an Italian restaurant as he made his way on to the stage. At B.B. King’s a couple of weeks ago he wore these wonderfully hip dark glasses – almost like goggles – and a white ascot. This on top of the fact that he is an imposing looking man — tall, muscular, and now with white hair and a white beard. So, he is conscious of dressing for the event and having a theatrical demeanor, and I think that does extend to the music.
Rollins tries things on stage. At the B.B. King show, in the middle of a very slow ballad, he walked over and tried to get the conga player to trade phrases with him, but the conga player was completely bewildered because you don’t usually do something like that on a ballad. After all, what can you do with congas when the rhythm is practically stagnant? But, Sonny just kept it up. As I said before, people who are skeptical and impatient might find that to be a provocation. Certainly it is not something he could do on records, but theatrically, at that moment, it was extremely effective because the whole audience was sitting on the edge of its seats, wondering what the hell was going on? Nobody knew. When he finished, we sort of relaxed, sat back, as the set continued. So, even though musically it was a kind of an impasse, visually it wasn’t. In a way it served as a respite from his very intense playing. My god, I clocked him playing “Sweet Leilani” for 25 minutes. It was just one chorus after another, and it was absolutely staggering. The invention was limitless. This is true of many of these CD’s that I have heard of concerts taped around the world in the seventies, eighties and nineties. I was listening to one the other day that was done in 2000 or 2001, and after hearing it you don’t wasnt to go back to the records for a while. On the other hand, because I was reviewing this B.B. King’s performance, I went back to the most recent record, which I like a lot, to hear the way he recorded Sweet Leilani, and it is a very powerful performance in its own right. When he is in the studio, he thinks differently. He is more contained, more aware of time, and there is more restraint and a veneer of professionalism that is not necessarily to the benefit of his instinctive way of playing.
JJM When referring to a recording session Rollins took part in, the critic Martin Williams wrote, “Most of the other performers had had experience with big bands. Rollins had not. Big band work can teach lessons of discipline and terseness in short solos, and lessons of group precision and responsiveness. Rollins has learned some of these lessons but he has surmounted not having learned others.” Do you suppose Rollins would have been a different player had he played in a big band?
GG Of course the great thing about playing in big bands is that you learned how to announce who you were in a measure. You could tell a story in 16 measures or 32. You got a chorus, at best, if you were lucky, and you had to have something to say in that very limited time. Whereas a lot of contemporary musicians feel free to play chorus after chorus just to find what they’re after.
I am surprised at Martin’s comment, though. I don’t think I agree with it. On the contrary, it seems to me that Sonny’s strength, at least from the time he was 25 and recorded the amazing Work Time album, is that he had tremendous discipline. There isn’t one solo on that album or the albums that immediately follow that have wasted notes. You never feel that when his playing is inspired he is playing choruses just to figure out what to do next. The whole idea of Sonny and thematic improvisation is that he takes a motif and works on it and continues the solo in a certain logical way.
But, you do remind me of something that I remember reading when I was a kid that Martin Williams wrote. In a review of Sonny’s album with the song from Camelot, “If Ever I Should Leave You,” he said that while the record was fine, it couldn’t compare with the performance he had done in a recent concert. When I read that, I found it astonishing and I couldn’t understand it. It seemed to me that if the recorded performance wasn’t as good, why didn’t they just do it again? I didn’t understand the finances of this at the time. Or, why didn’t they just record him live? But as I grew older and started to follow Sonny Rollins myself — I don’t think I have missed more than one concert performance in New York in almost thirty years — you begin to realize that this is a constant.
For example, Sonny’s repertoire is extraordinary. Nobody else plays as many bizarre, off-the-wall, unexpected tunes as Sonny does, and he plays them because he genuinely loves them. People may think it reflects a sardonic sense of humor, but in fact it really reflects his incredibly diverse grounding in music and his love of melody. In the seventies, he started playing, of all things, Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” a piece I don’t think any jazz musician had ever performed. It became almost a signature tune in concert after concert, and audiences began to listen for it. As soon as he played the first couple of notes, the audience started cheering. So eventually, Milestone put out a concert record that included “To a Wild Rose.” It was on okay performance, but the first thing all of us said was, hey, this isn’t as good as the ones we heard. When people finally get to hear some of these private recordings, they will see that we were not exaggerating, that the Sonny Rollins in concert is a very different artist and a very consistent one.
It’s not always just a question of live vs. studio recordings, because sometimes a live performance may not be his best. I will give you another example. Sonny put out a live album recorded in San Francisco, released as a two record set called Don’t Stop the Carnival. That recording is a real treasure for analysis, because on the one hand you have two of the most extraordinary solos that Rollins has ever recorded, “Silver City” and my favorite “Autumn Nocturne.” I would rate these very high, maybe in the top ten of all Rollins recordings. But the rest of the album is downright tedious – the dullest of which is something called “President Hayes.” I found out from subsequently talking to him that they recorded it when it was brand new, and when the band was just learning it. Months later, Ira Gitler, Stanley Crouch, myself and some other writers were on a panel at Buffalo University, and there were a number of bands that were playing at this festival, including Sonny’s. The highlight of his set was “President Hayes,” and we were just completely knocked out. The piece hadn’t been, to use a phrase that he likes to use, “road tested” when he recorded it, but this mediocre version is the one that will exist forever. After four or five months of playing it every night, the piece completely took off. It developed its personality, it clearly inspired Rollins and the group in totally thrilling performance. Does such a performance exist? Is there even a private recording of it? I don’t know, but that is part of the nature of jazz. Much of the best playing is not captured.
JJM You have said that a comparison between Louis Armstrong and Sonny Rollins is unavoidable. Why is that?
GG To me personally, it is unavoidable, and I have made many comparisons over the years. Armstrong represents the jazz dynamic at its greatest. I was brought up listening to classical music and rock and roll of the late fifties and early sixties, and for many years I thought that the greatest achievement in western civilization was Bach’s B Minor Mass, particularly “Kyrie eleison,” the first movement. It made me break into goose pimples all over when I played it. I never heard anything remotely like that, with the emotional impact it had on me until I heard Armstrong’s 1928 recordings, which made the short hairs stand up. It was a shock to me. I had no expectation because to me Louis Armstrong was the guy from Ed Sullivan with the handkerchief and the sweat and “Blueberry Hill” and “Mack the Knife.” This was the year before he recorded “Hello Dolly.” When I heard those records it became a mission for me to know more about the music and to hear everything. It made me want to understand how this incredible art can exist in a context where I simply wasn’t expecting to find it.
In the course of listening I come across Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Rollins to me has that kind of impact. He impresses me emotionally. Others might choose John Coltrane, or they might say the same of Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or anybody else. But to me, it’s in Rollins’ best work that I hear this kind of inspiration, this kind of euphoria. The main thing is that there is a sense of well being about him. Sonny is not a depressing player, he is not a despairing player, which is something you can say often of Coltrane, that he has devils in him that he tried to exorcise through his music. When Rollins is at his best, there is a tremendous sense of magnanimity, which I also associate with Armstrong — a tremendous generosity. It’s like he’s plugged into the best aspects of the cosmos, and that is what he is recycling in his music. I never leave a great Rollins performance with anything less than a feeling of euphoria. Few other musicians inspire me to the degree of Armstrong and Rollins.
JJM When did he begin being thought of as the most important tenor player of his generation?
GG I think that was fairly early. In the first years when he was recording, he was always a side man, frequently with Miles Davis. When he did recording sessions, they were with quintets, studio groups where they would usually add a trumpet player to beef up the sound. It wasn’t until 1955 that he made his first LP as a leader, and showed what he could do. Work Time is maybe the greatest debut LP ever made in jazz. I can’t think of anything to quite match it. He was 25 years old and he sounds completely matured, as though he just, to use the old cliché, popped out of the forehead of Zeus fully formed. “There Are Such Things” is one of the greatest ballad performances I know of in jazz. I think I know it by heart at this point. Every aspect, from the opening cadenza to the closing passage, the entire statement and theme, the way it develops improvisationally is an amazingly dramatic, perfect piece of musical prestidigitation. He takes a great tune and plays the hell out of it. He is faithful to it and he also makes it something more than it was. With a recording like that and the immediate recordings that followed – the ones with Clifford Brown and Saxophone Colossus, which became such a benchmark of the fifties – he emerges in a way that no other contemporary has.
The only two rivals for the audience among modern saxophonists, were Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. But Gordon was more closely associated with the bebop generation of players, and his career in the fifties was falling apart from personal problems. For a while, he was basically no longer on the map. Getz was associated with the cooler school so he already had an established audience, but he represents something that people already knew and understood. But Sonny comes along at the height of the hard bop thing and he clearly is the most conspicuous virtuoso among the young tenor players. He doesn’t sound like anybody else. Most of the other tenor players, like Stan and like Dexter, started out coming out of Lester Young. You really don’t hear Lester Young in Sonny’s style, and more profoundly, you don’t hear Coleman Hawkins, although he was clearly a major influence on him. He doesn’t arpeggiate every chord in the Hawkins tradition, nor doe he play gruff, expressive embellishments the way Ben Webster did. Rollins has his own sound, he has his own way of dealing with improvisation, which is chiefly melodic and thematic, using the actual material at hand. He plays throughout the registers of the instrument, but he clearly favors the low register, which was very unusual at that time, especially with Getz and the other cool players preferring the middle and higher registers.
At that time, nobody was really taking Coltrane too seriously. Coltrane is older than Rollins, but he had more personal problems getting his life and his career started. So until 1956 when he joined Miles Davis, nobody was paying much attention to him. Even then, Rollins had made such an impact that if you go back and look at old Downbeat magazines you will see people dismissing Coltrane as a Rollins imitator, which is preposterous! The first person to recognize how preposterous that was was Sonny Rollins, who invited Coltrane to record Tenor Madness. People forget that when Tenor Madness was made, this was not a convocation between two great tenor stars, this was Sonny Rollins inviting a virtual unknown to share the recording with him. Few people knew who Coltrane was. He had made a couple of records with Miles, and before that was practically unknown. He had been a sideman with Johnny Hodges, and was hardly ever given a chance to solo, and never given a chance to solo on a recording.
So, Coltrane comes along and he is the first one to really challenge Rollins, and they do become the twin figures of the late fifties, much as Hawkins and Young had been in the thirties. But again, Coltrane also prefers the middle and the high registers. His sound could not be more different than Stan Getz’s but he still likes the higher register. Since Sonny plays down in the cellar range, his sound remains unique. Then, Sonny leaves the scene for two very important years, during which time Coltrane completely takes over and Getz has that amazing personal revival with Jazz Samba. Suddenly, Getz and Coltrane are the rulers of the roost. Then, Rollins comes back and he does amazing things. His style changes frequently. His sound is changing almost constantly. He makes many great recordings, and in many ways I think he becomes an even greater and greater player but he never really quite gets back to being at the very pinnacle of the instrument as he had been in the fifties.
JJM Did an artistic rivalry between Coltrane and Rollins exist?
GG I don’t know if it was a real rivalry, although I think the way Coltrane played was such a powerful approach, and it was so different from anything Rollins ever considered, that it must have given him serious thought. I don’t think that Sonny is the type of individual who is concerned with rivalry in the sense of a professional jealousy because someone else is doing better or getting more attention. I think to the degree that there was a rivalry, it was a musical one. Coltrane gave everyone something to think about, and Rollins had to rethink where he and his music were going. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life playing bebop changes and in the style he had already mastered. It’s Sonny’s nature to keep moving forward. Coltrane suggested one way to do that, Rollins another. It’s an example of how ingenuous Rollins is that in the early sixties, he made a record with Ornette Coleman’s quartet, and it’s a great record!
JJM This is Our Man in Jazz?
GG Yes, the Our Man in Jazz album for RCA, which was maybe the first Sonny Rollins album I ever heard. It was a very scary record that included a 25 minute version of “Oleo” and a very funny version of “Dearly Beloved” by Jerome Kern, which turned into a military march at one point. He is not afraid for people to say whatever they want. He just goes out there with Ornette’s group and shows his way of dealing with that kind of music. He is not going to play quarter-tone pitch like Ornette. He is not going to play a lot of free music, or squealing in the hidden register like Coltrane and the musicians who were directly influenced by Coltrane. He is going to do it his own way. He is playing melodically, he is playing thematically, playing it in the lower and mid-to-lower register, but he is showing he likes this new freedom and is willing to explore it on his own terms.
JJM You call that recording one of the most entertaining benchmarks in the entire free jazz movement. It is listenable, it is fun
GG That’s right, yet he is taking advantage of all the things that these musicians are giving him. He gives Don Cherry a lot of space, he clearly loves the rhythm section, and he is in clover for that session. But that doesn’t mean that is where he is going to go, because then he bounces back and makes an album with Coleman Hawkins, which, incidentally, is very interesting psychologically and musically, because Hawkins wins that session. If there is a rivalry there, Sonny is very gracious to Coleman Hawkins, and I think Hawkins is inspired by the fact that Rollins probably plays more out on that than he did with Ornette Coleman’s men. He is very eccentric on that record, whereas bouncing off of him, Hawkins seems to genuinely enjoy the material. It turns out to be one of the better Hawkins recordings from a period in his life when he was in decline.
Then, Sonny comes back with things like one of my favorite albums, Sonny Rollins on Impulse! This is another record which tells a lot about Rollins. It begins with a long “Green Dolphin Street” that sounds almost like a warmup. It’s fine, but there isn’t a lot happening. But the album gets stronger and stronger. You turn it over and side two begins with this unbelievable cadenza on a new calypso, “Hold em Joe,” and then at the very last track, an absolute unquestionable Rollins masterpiece, “Three Little Words” — which is another one that I would put on my short-list of his greatest performances on record — he plays a startling intro and one of the greatest closing cadenzas he ever recorded. He hardly ever bothers to state the melody on this. It is a very different kind of performance, where he sets his own melody, one which had a tremendous velocity — it’s five or six minutes of perfection.
JJM How did Sonny Rollins connect with John Lewis and what was Lewis’ intent for Rollins?
GG They admired each other greatly. For John, Sonny was a major new talent in jazz. Again, you have to remember that Sonny was recording at age nineteen, so he goes back. He is on records with Bud Powell and Babs Gonsalves and others in 1949. Lewis’ career really begins with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and only a few years earlier, but in jazz, sometimes, those few years lead to a father/son type of thing. Sonny comes along at a time when John Lewis has been to the mountaintop, having played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and participated in the revolution in jazz. Of all the young players coming up, Rollins was somebody who really, in a way, was after John’s own heart, because John sees that Sonny has a respect for melody, which for John was so important. A gift for melody is the the rarest of musical qualities. A lot of great jazz musicians don’t really have that. John recognized that in Sonny. So, when they did that recording together up at Lennox, this gave them a chance to have a meeting of the minds. I think they just enjoyed working together.
JJM How do you rate Rollins as a composer?
GG Sonny is a wonderful composer. I am amazed at how few attempts there have been by other musicians to develop a Sonny Rollins songbook. I am aware of only a few people recording albums of just Sonny’s music. The most recent is David S. Ware’s Freedom Suite. A few of Sonny’s pieces became instant standards. Everybody in the fifties and sixties knew and played “Oleo,” and “Doxy.” “Strode Rode” is not done as often as it should be. “Airegin” is a piece that Miles Davis and a number of others have recorded, so many of these tunes immediately won the affection and admiration of musicians, because they are very soundly structured, and they all have memorable melodies. Once you hear these tunes you tend to know them and audiences respond to them. “Oleo” is one of those magical springboards for improvisation, so musicians love to play it. Everybody talks about Freedom Suite in terms of its political implications and the fact that it is a trio performance that went on for nineteen minutes, but there are four wonderful melodies in it, some of the hookiest tunes that Sonny ever wrote. That is what keeps the record so strong. Again, talking about the eccentricities of Sonny, it has always amazed me that he put out the Freedom Suite on the same album with some of the most sentimental of Tin Pan Alley melodies. Noel Coward’s “Some Day I’ll Find You,” and “Shadow Waltz” are tunes that most jazz musicians give a very wide berth and wouldn’t know how to deal with.
JJM He caught a lot of flak for that recording too.
GG Yes, and the company got some flak because it was reissued as Shadow Waltz, and they were being accused of some sort of political cowardice, but that wasn’t true. The album originally came out with the “Suite” in the title and I don’t think there was ever a conscious attempt to play that down.
JJM He made some sort of social statement in the liner notes that may have ruffled the feathers of some people during that era.
GG Well, it was a strange period. I remember when a Downbeat reviewer referred to Abbey Lincoln as a “professional negro,” so there was a lot of that stuff going on then. Everybody was rooting for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but Malcolm X came along and scared the hell out of people, and many of those who thought of themselves as good-hearted, leftist, integrationist types were terrified and didn’t want to see politics expressed in art. They didn’t like the idea of musicians making a claim. But, God bless Sonny Rollins, he really was the first to do so, even preceeding Max Roach’s We Insitst!–Freedom Now Suite.
JJM When referring to critics, Rollins told the biographer Eric Nisenson, “I am never going to have everybody liking me, so the hell with them.” Do critics expect too much of Sonny Rollins?
GG I will answer that by telling you a Sonny Rollins story. The first time I ever met him was in about 1973 or 1974. It was at the Half Note, when it had moved uptown to 54th Street in midtown. I was there with Ira Gitler. Ira, of course, had known Sonny since the beginning. I had just started at the Village Voice. I don’t think I had written more than ten or twelve reviews for them. When Sonny finished this set, he came over to join Ira, and Ira introduced us. He told Sonny that I was now writing for the Village Voice. When Sonny heard this he said that he was quite upset about a review that had been written by another writer in the Voice. The review was a rave that went on and on about how great his new band was. Sonny’s complaint was that in fact, it was a terrible performance. The band was new and unrehearsed, and he and the guys were embarrassed by how badly it had gone. Then he reads this rave review in the Voice. Sonny told me, and I will never forget this, “If you can’t trust them when they say you’re playing good, why should you believe them when they say you’re not.” So, he is not looking for critics who just want to slap him on the back every time and tell him how great he is. I sure as hell haven’t.
Readers of the Voice expect my annual or bi-annual Sonny Rollins column to be worshipful, or that’s what I hear, and I won’t argue. But I have also given him some very tough reviews. When he did that Beacon Theatre thing, I went chapter and verse into how ridiculous it was at times. Some of my reviews of the seventies records he did for Milestone during his fusion period were very negative. I know that Sonny doesn’t think of me as someone who gives him a gold star every time he walks out on the stage. We get along very well. Sonny likes people, even reviewers. He wants people to respect him and he respects them in return. But, that doesn’t mean that he expects you to just fall over everything he does, because he doesn’t.
I learned a long time ago that really serious artists don’t expect to be praised for everything they do. They are much more respectful of reviewers who can distinguish between when they are playing well and not. A lot of jazz musicians, especially in the generation that Sonny came up with, in the fifties, when there were a lot of drugs and the record labels were like plantations, where musicians would just go in there to make a record for a nice piece of change, never really expecting a royalty. They made so many records. One of the reasons Sonny said he quit is because he made too many records, and he did. He was in the studio practically every other week for a period in the late fifties.
JJM Yes, he even refers to it as his promiscuous recording period.
GG Yes. I later learned that a lot of these guys simply expected serious listeners to be able to tell the difference between when they were really playing something and when they were just looking for a three hour handout. Most of the critics can, that’s why they are critics. Most fans can, I think. On the other hand, a couple of years ago in the wrap-up of the year in the Voice, I quoted from a column that appeared in Oakland, a critic who wrote that Sonny Rollins had the worst tone of any saxophone player, that he was inept, that he couldn’t play, and that he was boring. I just find that hilarious. Also, I think it is to Sonny’s credit that, along with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, he is one of the most controversial musicians on the scene. That’s wonderful, I think. Here is a man in his seventies, who basically is an inside player who comes out of bebop, who is almost always playing the changes, and who can start that kind of controversy that you associate with the outer fringe of the avante-garde — that says a lot about the creative edge in his music.
JJM I read your most recent review in the Voice, and I thought it was amazing how wonderful you were describing the performance of this man who is now 71 years old! The way you describe his performance it is almost as if he is playing better now than he ever has before.
GG I started to say this before, and this is a minority opinion, but I think Sonny’s work of the last 20 – 25 years contains many of his greatest performances. As a recording artist, there was greater consistency in the fifties and in the sixties than later. But as a player, he has kept growing — his sound is so much more powerful and interesting now. And he’s made many great records. Cabin in the Sky is a remarkable performance, and the new album, This Is What I Do, is tremendous. I wouldn’t miss a Rollins concert. I don’t understand how anybody who professes to love this music would dare to miss a Rollins concert because you never know when it is going to be his last. They are incredibly dramatic, whether they are great or not, and usually they are great. He only comes to New York every other year or so, and you never know what he is going to play or what he is going to pull out of his bag of tricks, and he is an emotionally encompassing musician. He just gives you so much. You walk out on air.
JJM Are these heavily attended concerts?
GG Yes, he sells out no matter where he plays. B.B. King’s, of course, was an easy one to sell out, but when he played at the Plaza at Lincoln Center, there were thousands of people there. I know a lot of press people who couldn’t get anywhere near enough to hear. When he used to do the Carnegie Hall series they were always sold out. The audience is there for him, yes. His name is such that he may have crossed over, although I don’t think his record sales are that phenomenal. A lot of rock people know about him, and they know that it is an experience to go see him. He has that charisma as soon as he walks out on stage, like a rock star. The sound is so huge and brawny that it just brings you right in.
JJM People forget that he played with the Stones in 1980
GG I will tell you something funny about that. A not very good rock critic in Stereo Review reviewed that album, Tattoo You, where Sonny solos on three tracks. Sonny is not mentioned anywhere on the label, which is an outrage. This reviewer said there was a “rumor” that Sonny Rollins was performing on this album but he couldn’t hear him! What can you say?
JJM The thing that even casual fans of jazz seem to know about Sonny Rollins is this kind of romantic notion of him going into semi-retirement and dragging his saxophone on to the Williamsburg Bridge, even though this was forty years ago…
GG There is something so visually enticing about a musician, alone at night on a Manhattan bridge, wailing at the stars. Much has been made of that, but Sonny actually took three sabbaticals, and I think that was the briefest of them. The one that nobody seems to talk about is the one in the late sixties when he disappeared after Coltrane died. He didn’t record for about five years until the Sonny Rollins’ Next Album came out. This album, by the way, is yet another example of what we were talking about concerning the inconsistencies of his recording. Next Album had a riffy sort of track on it called “Playin’ in the Yard.” I listened to that and wondered why they released it? Yet it was on that same album that included “The Everywhere Calypso” and “Skylark,” yet another Rollins masterpiece. He is a hard guy to pin down. You started this discussion by asking me about him as a provocateur, and the more you look at him the more you see indications of that.
JJM Anything else you wish to share about Sonny Rollins?
GG Only that when Sonny Rollins puts down his saxophone and stops playing, for me, a large measure of what makes music great will disappear. That will be a terrible, terrible moment — a moment I don’t care to even think about.
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This interview took place on October 21, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Sonny Rollins biographer Eric Nisenson.