In 1966, an interviewer asked Sonny Rollins if he was a perfectionist. You think?
This was the titan of the tenor saxophone, the one who consumed everything Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker had done, then expanded it, with a warm, original tone, with jokes, quotations, and a seemingly endless reserve of oxygen. “If this word means someone with a constant search for perfection, then I am a perfectionist,” he replied. “But I would like to add that everything I do … is far from perfect!”
Critics are supposed to be critics, and hyperbole is supposed to be for special occasions, yet for decades, whenever Rollins would appear, they would write variations of “Sonny Rollins is God.” Rollins avoided the reviews. How does one get to be not only God but a reluctant and self-deprecating God? As Aidan Levy recounts in his exhaustive, definitive biography, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins, Rollins was not always God.
He grew up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. His musical heroes Hawkins and Duke Ellington were right around the corner. Rollins’s father, who rose as high as a Black man could in the segregated navy, was stripped of his rank and imprisoned for the crime of hosting inter-racial parties. A Black-nationalist flag hung in the Rollins home. Rollins’s older siblings took classical lessons and went to college, but he, the baby, rebelled, calling himself the “black sheep.”
By the time he was 19, he was the tenor player on The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1, already sounding like himself. Brilliance was bubbling all around him, and he joined forces with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, even his idol Charlie Parker. Rollins distrusted authority for good reason—Parker was the authority. Good enough for Bird, good enough for him.
Like many around him, Rollins became a heroin addict. It broke Parker’s heart to see his acolytes become junkies. When Rollins recorded with Davis and Parker in 1953, Rollins assured Parker he was clean, and when Parker found out otherwise, the vibes got bad. In Rollins’s solo on “The Serpent’s Tooth,” he quoted “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”
Rollins went to Rikers a couple of times, tried to kick, then relapsed, and people avoided him on the street. He became a known pickpocket, a disgrace to his parents, who stood by him anyway. He eventually recovered at the United States Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1955, and while he was there, he found out Parker had died, so he never got the chance to tell him he had finally cleaned up for real.
It was after sobriety that Rollins really blossomed. He began to appreciate all he had—the musicians, the humor, the songs, the earth itself. The rest of his life would be a second chance. When critics listened, they heard the next major step after Parker. A song adapted from a West Indian lullaby his mother sang to him, “St. Thomas,” became his biggest standard, and the calypso beat, just as it was being popularized by Harry Belafonte, set him free. His 1956 breakthrough, Saxophone Colossus, lived up to its title.
The musicologist Gunther Schuller credited Rollins with creating “thematic improvisation” on a completely improvised track called “Blue 7,” as if each solo were a three-act play with Aristotelian structure. But Rollins didn’t like to be aware of what he was playing. His destination was “beyond.”
In a fraternal cutting contest with his dear friend John Coltrane on “Tenor Madness,” in 1956, Coltrane sounded like the one with something to prove. By 1959, Rollins was still winning the polls, but all the hype was on Coltrane—blossoming, like Rollins, after kicking drugs—and the free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, with an album that promised The Shape of Jazz to Come. Things were changing fast. Rollins, distrustful of all praise and demeaning competitions, knew there was something more.
He gave up his income and lived off his wife Lucille’s secretarial salary for two years while he practiced, studied anthropology and Rosicrucianism, and, because his neighbors on Grand Street complained about overhearing the Colossus, found his way to the Williamsburg Bridge and discovered a perfect place to blow his horn to the East River, rain or shine.
When he returned in 1961 and cut the exquisite The Bridge—where his vocabulary became less Parker-derived, his style even more original and assured—Rollins continued to live his own way.
When a record executive took him to see his beloved Yankees, he refused to stand for the national anthem, and this was in 1960. Rollins played on a Rolling Stones album at his wife’s urging, but he did not want credit for it, and he turned down millions when he declined their invitation to tour with them. After being named to the Kennedy Center Honors and accepting a National Medal of Arts from the Obama White House, he wrote a letter to the First Lady urging her to restore funding for the N.E.A. Jazz Masters program, which she did.
On his best nights everyone else heard the great Sonny Rollins, blowing inspired chorus after chorus. He knew what was in his head was better. Recording studios rarely captured it, and he was at his best live, when he thought no one was recording. Finally, in 2014, pulmonary fibrosis forced him to put his horn down for the last time.
The first time I talked to him, when I was 22, he told me, “I practice all the time, and I’ll be here when the spirit comes,” and he treated me with a grace and generosity one doesn’t expect from a genius. I would speak to him again here and there, and I would be astonished by how many details he remembered from my little life.
I talked to him a few years ago, and when we discussed giving up his horn, he told me he was mad at first, but after a while he accepted it, was grateful for all he got to do, and wanted to figure out how to be a better human being. He told me he never listened to records. The music was in his head constantly, and his friends who had died—Coltrane, Miles, Dizzy, Monk—were still there, too.
Rollins is now 92, living in Woodstock, New York, still trying to improve without his horn. There is a campaign to name the Williamsburg Bridge after him, and he is endowing music scholarships called “The Sonny,” but he is also looking beyond. Rollins, a believer in reincarnation, continues to prepare. Our bodies turn to dust, he says, but we have to keep coming back, “until we begin to learn.”
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here