This interview with Sonny Rollins was commissioned as an NEA Jazz Masters oral history in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s Jazz Oral History Program, recorded on Feb. 28, 2011 at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC. Rollins, who was 80 years old at the time, seemed to enjoy the questions and the flow of the conversation, which stretched to nearly 3 hours, pausing only to change tapes. Part 1 of this interview is here: http://larryappelbaum.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/interview-with-sonny-rollins-pt-1/.
Appelbaum: I meant to ask…how did you acquire the nickname “Sonny?”
Rollins: Well, “Sonny” is sort of a name that they give to a lot of the, uh…usually maybe
the youngest son might be called “Sonny.” You know, in the–
Appelbaum: So, your parents started calling you “Sonny?”
Rollins: I think so.
Appelbaum: Your grandmother?
Rollins: I think so, yeah…yeah.
Appelbaum: And you like that name?
Rollins: Well, I was, I was too young to really object [laughing] you know, but
everybody called me “Sonny” so I was “Sonny.” Which was okay, you know. There
were a lot of people named “Sonny,” you know…but uh…
Appelbaum: There’s a famous song called Sonny Boy…
Rollins: Sonny Boy…I made a recording–
Appelbaum: …which you recorded.
Rollins: Exactly. It’s a nice song, too.
Appelbaum: By the way, what’s nice about it? What do you like about it?
Rollins: Well, I like the melody. I like the, uh…melody, chord structure, and I like the
sentiment, you know. Something about, “I’ll always be Sonny Boy”–I mean, it was a
sort of, a sentiment.
Appelbaum: Are you a sentimental person?
Rollins: Uh…that’s a, that’s another complicated question you’ve asked me here.
I if I look at my career, yeah I, I…I’ve been a, I’ve been a sentimental person.
I say that, because very recently I’m beginning to get a different view of “sentiment,”
“being sentimental.” That is…I mean, I’m a guy that can–you said I had a good memory. Okay, some guys that I grow up with, we could, certain guys we, we’d meet, “Hey, man,” we can talk about things we did a long time ago, and you know. “Oh, we used to go to this show” and “We used to go to Theta,” “Oh man, remember when we went here?” and you know. So, I guess that’s sentimental in a sense, right? Would that be sort of?
Appelbaum: Yeah, but that’s also nostalgia.
Rollins: Nostalgia. Okay, so uh now there’s a difference, you mean, between them?
Appelbaum: Sometimes. Sometimes they overlap.
Rollins: Yeah, well then I’m thinking of them more as overlapping, but anyway…I mean
how else would you describe being–
Appelbaum: I just mean being “sentimental” in terms of connecting with your feelings,
as opposed to thoughts from your brain.
Rollins: Well, as I said, I’m a “primitive.” So, I’m going with my feelings more than
my brain anyway. I mean, I’m going with…that part of me is going to go first. When I’m
acting, you know, or reacting, whatever…you know–
Appelbaum: But as we get older…
Appelbaum: …it seems to be natural to get deeper into feelings, to have this
warmth associated with feelings, and to be more compassionate with people around you
when you’re–well, I don’t want to dwell on my thinking about this.
Rollins: Well, no but I need that to know exactly what you mean.
Appelbaum: Yeah. Well, when you had said that a certain song is sentimental, that’s why I asked are you, in general, a sentimental person?
Rollins: Uh huh.
Appelbaum: Do you like to connect with that side of yourself, more than maybe other
Rollins: Well…I like, yeah, I like, I think it’s a, you see, I think–I think about my
mother, for instance, and my, and my deep love for my mother, and this is sort of a
sentimental feeling, I guess. But uh…I mean, I don’t want to get into Oedipus here,
but…I do feel that I like things that are away from the brain. I like things that make you,
you know, “Wow! Gee, I love my mother. I love–” uh…rather, “Wow! The music of
that song gives you sentimental feeling. The song Long Ago and Far Away, the chord structure,
everything gives me a… something. It excites something within me that makes me feel,
“Wow! Yea, I can relate to this.” So, in that sense I probably am a sentimental person,
Appelbaum: Okay. You mentioned in your home you had recordings of Louis
Appelbaum: What other music was around the house? Do you have other favorite
recordings other than Jordan when you were coming up?
Appelbaum: That’s the big-band era, right?
Rollins: Right. That would be the 30’s.
Rollins: Yeah, I’m sorry.
Appelbaum: Go ahead.
Rollins: No, I was just going to say Duke Ellington was also a big player. I
remember my brother coming home, and uh, you know, oh, he was so excited about
[scatting the melody of] I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart, and all this stuff. And so, we liked Duke Ellington…uh, my mother had calypso records, you know. So, I heard calypso records. I heard stride piano records, because in those days we always had a piano, but they had these piano rolls, you know. So, all the pianos had rolls, and these rolls were generally by people like James P. Johnson, you know, piano rolls, and uh, that was ubiquitous. And in those days there were a lot of people that were losing their apartments because of the economic situation. I think they called it “The Great Depression.” And there were always pianos out on the street from people whose, who had to move–evicted from non-payment of rent. So, there were always when you’d go walk down the street, here’s a piano, there’s somebody who’s evicted. And uh, all these pianos had rolls. So, I heard a lot of that, and I loved that. Fats Waller, in fact, was sort of one of the earliest people that I remember.
Appelbaum: What did you like about Fats Waller?
Rollins: Well, he had such a ebullience-y about him, and everything was so…like
sunshine when he, you know, but his playing, I mean it was just…it, I mean, he
wrapped the whole thing up for me. I said, I knew I wanted to play jazz. I knew that jazz
was something which was good, you see, which is a theme which I sort of try to reiterate
all the time. Jazz is good. It’s not just, uh… lecture music, it’s not uh, you
know music, shake your booty music, and all that stuff. It has, it, it’s everything. It has
everything to it, and it’s a positive. It doesn’t make you feel like fighting. It makes you
feel that there is a God, and that things are okay, see. And that’s, so, I’ve always, uh–he
was one of the first, he was the guy that, sort of…woke that up in me at an early age. And
Appelbaum: Did you hear these things on the radio?
Rollins: On the radio, yeah. Radio was the medium.
Appelbaum: Do you remember which stations you listened to?
Rollins: Oh boy, uh…there used to be a show that I used to listen to, we used to listen to
every Wednesday night on I think it was WMCA, but that, you know, I could be wrong.
Uh, and it was amateur night at the Apollo, and that came on every Wednesday
night coming from the Apollo. The, the emcee was a guy named Willie Bryant–
Appelbaum: The bandleader.
Rollins: The bandleader, and then later there was a guy named Ralph Cooper, who was
there a long time. And uh…anyway, the, uh…they would have, it was amateur night.
They would have amateurs coming out, you know, but they also had the band playing.
So, you heard it, they had the orchestra from the theater, as well as accompanying these
amateurs, you know. So, that was a big, a big program that we liked. And uh…I also
used to hear uh a show you all listened to, um…Wings Over Jordan, which was sort of a
gospel show. It came on Sunday, and any place you’d go in Harlem Wings Over Jordan
was on the radio on Sunday. That was an extremely popular show. In fact, one time I
was in Kansas City and uh, I was talking to a guy there, and he would say, he’d
say, “Oh, remember Wings Over Jordan?” I said, “Yeah, that was in New York, you
know. They’d broadcast that every Sunday.” And uh, there’s also another show that I uh
enjoyed a lot with the Golden Gate Quartet, who also had a Sunday morning show, I
believe. I was, I was a big fan of the Golden Gate Quartet, you know. I mean, I
almost fancied myself as being able to sing with the Quartet, but don’t ask me. But uh I
really enjoyed those groups, you know, those shows.
Appelbaum: Did you ever try, did you ever try to sing a cappella or Jubilee’s style?
Rollins: No, no, not really.
Rollins: I mean, in the bathroom. That’s all, you know. In the shower, you know.
Appelbaum: Yeah. I’m a big fan of theirs, too. I love that group.
Rollins: Who, the Golden Gate Quartet? Oh, that’s great stuff. That’s great stuff.
Appelbaum: Yeah. One of the reasons why I wanted to ask you about the records in
your house and the radio…I’m trying to understand how you got such a deep knowledge
of these songs; where you would have heard all these great songs, because, you know,
there are many musicians who sort of work the same twenty-five standards
throughout their life, and you have a much wider range of repertoire that you choose
from, and things that seem to move you. And I’m wondering where you heard–did you
hear it live? Did you hear it radio? Was it recordings? How did you get exposed to this
Rollins: Boy, that, that’s funny you say, because, um, you told me you were just talking
with Jimmy Heath recently. Well, Jimmy had sent me-he sends me some tapes
sometimes-he sent me a tape of Benny Carter’s band and they were playing a song–this
would be from the 40’s, probably–they were playing a song that uh I remember very
well. I mean, I would know, I probably know the whole song. If I heard it wouldn’t
know completely, but I know most of it just from memory. I don’t know where I heard
it. I must have heard it on the radio, I guess. But at that time I, or the family, every
family, would spend their Saturdays at the movies. That was our source of entertainment
in those days. So, I was at the movies every Saturday, and uh, you know, as a kid, of
course, you like the action-adventure serials with all this stuff. I mean, I could name you,
I’m almost an expert on those, too, but we don’t need to get into that I don’t think.
Appelbaum: What, like Tom Mix?
Rollins: Tom Mix was a little–yeah, I knew Tom Mix. He was a little before me, but
uh–although I heard him–but uh you know he was around then but he was just sort of
fading. The other guys that I liked: Buck Jones and uh, Ken Maynard and Charles
Starrett, the Durango Kid and the serial The Lone Ranger; um, Hoot Gibson, Tim
McCoy. All of these uh before your guys’ time. You wouldn’t know what I’m talking
about unless you read about them, but…and then of course the uh short serials, you
know the–S-E-R-I-A-L-S–where each week you’d come back for the next chapter. You
know, the guy would be falling off a cliff and then “BAM! Next Week See What
Happened,” you know. All the sudden next week he’s okay, you know. But you
know, but I spent every week at the movies. Every week.
So, I got a lot from the movies, because, besides the serials, I mean
there were Hollywood musicals and all that stuff there, too. You’d have to sit
through, especially at the Apollo, I remember. I mean, I would go to the Apollo and if I
liked the band I would stay there all day. They had about four or five shows a day. That
means you’d have to see the movie four or five times, you know, and all this stuff, but uh
but so, you know, I had–I was quite grounded in the movies. I had a great uh you know,
so, some of these songs I believe, you know, they stuck with me. Um…and uh….that’s
the only place I could have heard them. And the radio and the movies you know, is where, is where I heard most of these. It’s the only place I could have heard them.
Appelbaum: You mentioned the Apollo Theater. Certainly you would have heard live
music there, and you mentioned the club where you saw the photo of Louis Jordan
Rollins: Louis Jordan.
Appelbaum: So, what other places would you have gone to hear live music when you
were really starting to get serious about music?
Appelbaum: Were there other places in the neighborhood?
Rollins: There were places. Well, when I was really young there, well…you see Harlem
was a place that, especially at that time, I mean there was music everywhere. There were
a lot of–of course, I was too young. I mean, in the 30’s I was, you know, a little boy
going to school. But we used to pass by The Cotton Club, the famous Cotton Club on the
way going to school, you know. The Savoy Ballroom…uh, which I actually was able, I
grew up enough to go to the, The Savoy before it closed, you know.
Appelbaum: Did you see any of the “Battle of the Bands?”
Rollins: Uh, no. I went to, when I went to The Savoy, I went there, Dizzy Gillespie was
there. And that was, we were really into Dizzy, so I was still fairly young. I was in
my uh early teens, you know, when I went to The Savoy, and it wasn’t long after that The
Savoy closed, you know. So, I didn’t see these “Battle of the Bands,” but I heard a lot
about them, but I didn’t witness them myself.
Appelbaum: Was it expensive to go these theaters or the clubs?
Rollins: Uh, I, I don’t recall, but I don’t think it was prohibitive, you know.
Appelbaum: I mean, did you have an allowance? Did your parents give you money to
do that, or did you have to work to make money?
Rollins: Well, I, uh…I started working when I was eleven years old. When I came out of
school, I got a job uh delivering clothes from the cleaners, tailors. I used to do that when I was eleven. I’m very proud of that, because my wife would try to say, “Oh,
you didn’t start–,” I’d say, “Well, when did you start working?” She said, “Oh, 14.” I
said, “I started at eleven.” So, I’d have her. But um, I got money, you know. I, I got
money and I worked, you know. I worked and got money, or got an allowance to do
things. But yeah, I worked, sure. Yeah, from an early age.
Appelbaum: A lot of the most popular kinds of music at that time–and it could be jazz,
or it could be big band–it was meant for dancing, and I wonder: Were you a big dancer?
Rollins: I, I used to do a dance called “the applejack,” which was a singular dance
that the guy did. Uh, you may have seen Thelonious Monk do “the applejack” sometimes
on the stage. Um, but you know I, I was okay at dance. I wasn’t, you know, I could
dance, but uh you bring up something that just happened recently. I recently played a, it
was just a little, small benefit upstate where I live at for a hospital up there, and my
mother-in-law was in that hospital, as a matter of fact. And it sort of the hospital of my
town…town. So, anyway, I did a benefit for them, and it was, it was, well it was a place
called the, um, Helsinki Club. The Helsinki Club was a club in Great Barrington,
Massachusetts, and it, it had, you know, folk people like that, that’s who came up–Odetta,
or uh any of these folk people. That type of audience. That type of performer. Anyway,
they moved to Hudson, which the town I’m talking about which is close to me uh
because it’s bigger. Their club was getting too, it was big enough for the people. So,
they’re at Hudson. Anyway, it’s a nice place. They redid this big uh old ice house
and something. Anyway, I did this benefit just February the 5th, actually. And it
was a, it was the biggest venue they had in that town. I think it was about 300 people was the most, you know. But anyway, they, they had it by subscription, so some of the, it
wasn’t tickets. They had, people had to subscribe, and they guys–donors–guys that had
to pay a lot to be involved and all this. So, they made, they made a nice, you know,
donation that went to the hospital.
So, anyway, the point is this–I had to give you that context, okay uh because I
don’t want you to think I’m saying, “Oh, I played a benefit.” I don’t, you know, that’s
not, you know, what the point is. The point is that it was a small club and they had a
dance floor. And we played, after we started playing…maybe the sick–the people got up
and started dancing. I mean, one person did, then other people did. Now, do I like
playing for dancers? Yes. I grew up playing for dancers. That’s how we played. We
played for dancers. Later on, jazz became something people wanted to listen to and not
so much dance, but I, I was actually there at the inception at this place called The
Audubon Ballroom, where they had jazz guys were playing, but it was also a dance. It
was a dance, but the jazz guys are playing, and what would happen the people that were
into jazz would come up to the front of the stage, and they’d be listening, you know, to
Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, all these guys, you know. Wow. But there were also
people still dancing, okay? And so, I was on the cusp, I mean, I liked, I liked playing for
dancers, as well as playing my horn. And uh, anyway, this place last February the 5th–
this month as a matter of fact, it’s still February, right–uh, the people started dancing, and boy, I was really knocked out, man. It really, I felt so good, but I mean I couldn’t, I didn’t express this to anybody, because, you know, the musicians may be, I don’t know, I had some of my musicians I don’t know how they might have felt about it. They might have been insulted, because that’s the, these days, you know, well, “How dare you dance? This is listening music,” you know, art music. But anyway, uh…
Appelbaum: How does playing for dancers inspire you?
Appelbaum: Does it affect the way you play?
Rollins: Well, I don’t know how it affects it, but it, it inspires me–yeah, because, uh…I
like to see people happy, and having a good time. And so, sometimes if they’re, you
know, I don’t, I don’t think I’m looking at their movements to get me ideas, but the fact
that it’s creating an atmosphere, you see, that I am able to really get into myself. And I
might play anything. That’s going to inspire me, see?
Rollins: So, this is sort of how it works.
Appelbaum: Let me go back and try and clarify some things. Tell me your
first–do you remember your first gigs as a professional?
Rollins: I remember my first gig as a professional.
Appelbaum: Okay. Tell me more.
Rollins: Well, Larry, here’s what happened. I was…I recounted this recently, because
they did a story last year about, um, uh in The Wall Street Journal. This guy took me
back uptown to where I lived. I don’t know if you saw that. Anyway, I was about uh
well…I don’t know, I was around 13 or something like that. And there was, and um,
where I lived at–I lived on 155th Street right near the old Polo Grounds–but there was a,
and there was a what they call a “Hill,” because that was the beginning of The Hill. The
rest of Harlem was down below, and The Hill started coming up from 145th Street, and
so, but at the time 155th Street there was–lower, that was lower. We were up on The Hill.
Okay, this, there was a viaduct that went from 155th Street all the way down, sort of
going down, The Hill, and uh, part-, part-, partway through the old Polo Grounds was a
uh a subway–a shuttle sort of subway which has since been torn down. But anyway…I’m
trying to set the scene here. You had to walk all the way down to get to the shuttle,
which is uh was on, was on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. That’s where my first job was
on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. I had a, I don’t know if I explained, but I have no idea
who it was, but that’s where I went when I had my first job. And after my first job, and I
was coming home to this, this little shuttle in the middle of this viaduct which lead all the
way up to Edgecombe Avenue where I lived at uh I got through, you know, and I was
coming home after a game and I was coming home–and this is sort of late in the night–
there was my mother, way up on the top of the Edgecombe Avenue waiting for me. So,
you know, I said “Oh, mom, you don’t have to wait for me, you know. I can…I’m big
enough to, to–,” you know how guys would say.
Appelbaum: “I’m 13.”
Rollins: [laughing] Right, right. Exactly, see. But there she was, and uh, it was so
touching, man. I mean, you know, it was really nice. But you know, but anyway, I don’t
know how I got to that part of the story, but that was my first job, you know.
Appelbaum: Is it what you thought it would be? Meaning, you know, you imagined being a professional–
Rollins: Yeah, well, sure. I mean, I don’t, it was with older guys, I think were
playing. Maybe not everybody, but it was, it was great. I was playing my horn. That
was it, I didn’t care. The rest of it was really inconsequential, really. I was playing my
horn, and I was getting paid.
Appelbaum: Was it for dancers?
Rollins: Probably. Probably, yeah. I’m sure it was. I’m sure it was, because everything
at that time was for dancers. That must have been around, uh…uh, 19–, uh…
Appelbaum: Early- to mid-40’s?
Rollins: Early-40’s, right, early-40’s. Yeah.
Appelbaum: And when you play a gig like that is it arrangements, or–and if they’re
arrangements are they stock arrangements, or…?
Rollins: I don’t know if they had, I don’t think they had arrangements at that time. I
think it was just–
Appelbaum: So, you just knew the songs?
Rollins: I think we–
Appelbaum: Everybody knows the songs?
Rollins: Everybody knew the songs, yeah.
Rollins: I don’t think there was any uh stock arrangements. I don’t, I think there’s
maybe five or six people, you know, musicians, so, I don’t think we were reading any
music. It was a few, a few people, really.
Appelbaum: Mmhmm. I think we need to take a very quick break, while we change tapes.
For more on the Smithsonian Institution’s Jazz Oral History Program (http://bit.ly/efqGXA) and the NEA’s Jazz Masters Program (http://www.nea.gov/honors/jazz/index.html). Special thanks to Ken Kimery and Terri Hinte.