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.
Appelbaum: Let me begin by just asking some basics to establish some context.
Tell us first of all the date you were born and your full name at birth.
Rollins: Oh, I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Ok, my full name at birth was
Walter Theodore Rollins, and I was born September 7, Sunday morning, 1930 in Harlem,
America on 137th Street between Lenox and 7th Avenues. There was a midwife
that delivered me, and that was my–how I entered into this thing we call life.
Appelbaum: What were your parents names?
Rollins: My father’s name was Walter uh my mother’s name was Valborg, V-A-L-B-O-
R-G, which is a Danish name and I can go into that if you want me to.
Appelbaum: Tell me first, where were they from?
Rollins: Yeah well, my father was born in St. Croix in what was then the Danish Virgin
Islands. My mother was born in St. Thomas, which was then the Danish Virgin Islands.
And uh, since the Danes of course–Valborg was a Danish name–and um, so uh she was
given that name. My great-grandfather was a doctor in Haiti–Dr. Solomon–that was
my grandmother’s wonderful husband–she was married several times. And um, let’s see,
I think that’s a, that’s about as much as I know about my, you know, immediate heritage,
Appelbaum: Did you know your grandparents very well?
Rollins: I knew my grandmother very well. My grandfather I never knew. He
remained in Haiti and I never met him or anything. My grandmother I knew. My
grandmother I stayed with often ‘cause she was in the United States, also. You know
Appelbaum: This is your mother’s mother?
Rollins: My mother’s mother.
Appelbaum: I see. Okay.
Rollins: My father’s mother I met, also. Uh, uh but she wasn’t living in the States. I
think she was living in St. Croix, and she came to the United States one time, a couple of
times, and I met her, you know.
Appelbaum: I know your immediate family. You have a sister and a brother who are
both musical. Where do you think that musical ability came from?
Rollins: Well, that’s very interesting. I–my father told me that he played clarinet at one
time. I never heard him play clarinet. I have the feeling it wasn’t something he was
doing regularly, you know. I never heard him play, and so I don’t know. But other than
that uh I think it’s probably uh further back. I think my grandfather on my father’s side
was a singer, I believe. That’s what I was told, and they were from St. Croix. And my
sister used to show–had pictures, and she said I resemble him very much. And he was a
singer. He was also a lothario, and she gave me these stories about him being chased out
of–jumping out of windows when guys would find him with–this kind of stuff. I’m not
like that, but uh I may have gotten my musical, you know, thing from him. It’s possible.
Appelbaum: Do you think having an ear for music is genetic?
Rollins: Uh, gee, that’s a question I…Well, I, I think so. I think–see you’re asking me
this question, this is a big question: environment or genetics. I think to play music you
have to have–be born with–I mean I know that because when I was growing up all my
friends wanted to be jazz musicians. We all wanted to be jazz players, because those are
guys that were always show up and play it, you know, had a lot–but they all couldn’t do
it. I was the guy that had enough natural talent to be able to play music, so, I was the guy
that did it. So, in that–I feel it’s genetic, in that, you know–it’s not environmental,
because if it was environmental we all would have been playing. So, I think you have to
have a good–and yeah it’s genetic, probably, there’s some percentage, probably, the
preponderance that would be–think genetic.
Appelbaum: What was your brother’s name?
Appelbaum: Okay, and he played what?
Appelbaum: And he played well.
Rollins: He played very, very well. And uh–
Appelbaum: Is he older or younger?
Rollins: He’s five years my senior. So, I listened to him as a boy in bed, I listened to
him practicing, and I enjoyed listening to him practicing I, you know, I liked music as a
child myself, everything, but I, I really enjoyed listening to him practicing. He was
very good, by the way. And as I may have said he was considered uh to go with the
Pittsburgh Symphony. This was a black kid in Music & Art High School [The High
School of Music & Art] at the time, which was sort of the big music high school in
New York. And um, he was that good, you know–talking about that, I don’t know if it
would have happened but he was considered that, so I know he was that good. And um–
Appelbaum: Did he make his living as a violinist?
Rollins: No, no, he became a doctor. He went into–he was a doctor, and he’s, he’s
retired. He’ll be at the ceremony at the White House, by the way. So you know, if
you’re around I’ll introduce you to him. But he became a doctor, you know, but he
still, you know, plays for uh recreation, you know.
Appelbaum: Did he literally show you things?
Rollins: No. He was–you know, five years is a big difference, especially at that of your
life, so, we didn’t uh you know, associate that much together.
Appelbaum: But you heard him, and you absorbed.
Rollins: I absorbed it.
Appelbaum: How about your sister?
Rollins: My sister played piano and uh, she sang and all this stuff. So there was
always a piano in the house and she played piano, and she–um, so she was, you know,
she had a musical talent, also.
Appelbaum: What was her name?
Appelbaum: Younger? Older?
Rollins: She’s older. I was the youngest.
Appelbaum: You’re the youngest.
Rollins: I’m the youngest.
Appelbaum: Tell me a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in, and how that
informed your choice to become a musician.
Rollins: Well, okay, I was born, as I said, in uh what would be called “Harlem Proper,”
because Harlem is expanded somewhat but Harlem, 137th Street, would be sort of
right–the mecca, I think, Old Harlem was the mecca, but the centerpiece street was
125th Street. And the uh another big street was 135th Street, and that was the street they
have the famous Harlem Y, YMCA, in which a lot of cultural events and so on occurred
there. Um, 125th Street was the, uh commercial center, and um, there were all, there were
a lot of–125th Street was sort of, you know, the big shopping street and there were things
happening there, as well, you know. There was a very famous bookstore, um, that I, I’ve
seen written about in history that a lot of these black national people at that time used to
go to this bookstore. I forget the name of it now, but it was on 125th Street and 7th
Appelbaum: Was it run by Garveyites?
Rollins: Garveyites were prevalent, you know. Uh, my grandmother was a Garveyite,
and um, it–yeah, I would imagine, yeah I think everybody was sympathetic to Garveyites,
you know. But I don’t know if they, if they would call themselves, technically, some of
these people, but [Marcus] Garvey was a very sympathetic figure, among the, especially
the lower, middle classes. You know, he had problems with the upper, middle-class
blacks, W.E.B. Du Bois, and so forth, they had their clashes, you know. But among
the sort of lower people–I hate to say that because I would–although, my father was a
career Navy man we were, we didn’t live in any, we were right in the middle of uh you
know, that, the poor area, I guess I would have to say. And now I’ll explain to you
what I mean. My father was very close friends with a man named Admiral Radford,
Arthur M. Radford, who was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you may remember the
name. Admiral Radford and his wife came to our house in Harlem. And my father
was a very sort of a proud man, and he was very uh stern, you know this kind of stuff.
And [chuckles], and so he was sort of, you know, when he’s, when he brought, Admiral
Radford came by, I think my father could have been coming there the first time also,
because my dad was in out of, you know, he was traveling all over on these ships. So,
um, it might have been the first time he came home, and I could say that he was sort of
chagrined because of the neighborhood. I mean, it looks sort of like uh what’s this place
in Porgy & Bess where everybody lived?
Appelbaum: Catfish Row.
Rollins: Catfish Row. It’s sort of, you know, people all–and here comes my father, you
know and here was Chief, you know, he called him Chief. And so he was a little bit, you
know, and I think he chided my mother after that for not, you know, the place not, but I
mean, you know, this is where we lived. This is what, I guess, we could afford, you
know. But anyway, I’m saying that to say that–I was talking about Admiral Radford, and
somehow I forgot to point now.
Appelbaum: I really wanted to get, generally, at how your neighborhood
informed your decision to become a musician.
Appelbaum: But even before we continue with that: your mother and your father, who
did you take after most?
Rollins: Well, I have no idea. My moth–I was with my mother more, because my father
would be away, you know.
Appelbaum: Maybe it’s better to ask: What did you get from your mother, and what did
you get from your father? Which qualities?
Rollins: Well, my mother was a very, I would say a very soulful, in that she loved
music, she was a, she was a hard-working person. She went to night school as we were
kids, as little kids, she was going to night school.
Appelbaum: To study what?
Rollins: I don’t know. I, I don’t know. And uh, she was, um, she was very gentle. She
had a very, I mean I use the word soulful, but that’s not–she was a very kind person, I
feel. It’s something, it’s another word. She was a very, and something I think I have
from her, she was a, she was a person that would be uh kind, because I remember when, I
remember when I was a youth and sometimes some of my mother’s friends would come
by and I would sit in the front room, you know, and with them, and they would, the
friends would sort of be, “Well, geez, why doesn’t this kid go to bed?” you know, “so we
can have an adult con–,” you know, with my mother, you know. But I would sit there,
because, I mean this is funny. I really loved my mother, by the way. Every time my
mother went out, I didn’t care where she went, I’d have to go and kiss her goodbye. You
know, anytime, anyplace, anyplace she went. So, she, you know, but anyway, that’s a
funny thing I would do. So, I’m sitting there, these guys I know and women and things
they would, you know, “Why doesn’t this kid get out of here so we can–,” you know.
But she would never tell me. She would never make me go. So, I would sit there and
just ‘til they finally left, you know, the evening was over. But I mean, that’s the kind of
thing she had. Whatever that is, I don’t know how to describe that, but she, she had that,
she wouldn’t be, you know, so strict or–
Appelbaum: Does that mean your father was strict?
Rollins: Yeah. My father was strict.
Rollins: Uh, I would say so, yeah, and being in the Navy, you know, my father wanted
everything–when he came home the house had to be–I mean that’s military, this is
military. The house had to spick and span, and you know, and like that. But I mean, I uh
I loved my father and I went uh when I got older–I was about uh 9, 10, 11–I used to come
down to Annapolis where my father was stationed. My father was the head of the
Officer’s Club. You know, he was like a chief steward, which was sort of the highest a
black could aspire to at that point. And uh, so daddy would, I’m calling him “daddy,”
I’m going back into that time when we all called him “daddy.” Um, dad–I would go
down, I would want to, “gee, I want to go down,” so I would go down and daddy would,
you know, so I’d go spend the summer down at the Officer’s Club at Annapolis, you
know. So, I got a little bit of uh insight looking at Annapolis and all this stuff. I mean,
there’s a lot of little incidents happened while I was here. I mean uh anecdotal things,
you know. But uh–
Appelbaum: Can we assume that, um, first of all to achieve your level in music requires
a certain amount of discipline; and can we then assume that that discipline comes from
Rollins: Well, yes and no. I…I’m not the world’s greatest musician. I’m more of a
“primitive,” see? So, I…I had discipline, but not in–I had discipline to the things that I
wanted to do. I mean, I practiced 15 hours a day with not any thought about it. But I
wasn’t a person–I never went to uh, uh conservatory and all this stuff, see. And uh, I
remember when I was in school studying music in high school uh I wasn’t the favorite of
my high school music teacher, you know.
Rollins: Well, see, I don’t know. She just didn’t like me. Her name was Mrs. Redmond,
and Mrs. Redmond didn’t, didn’t like me and she’d always tell me, “Oh, you didn’t get
your parallel fifths right, and your harmonization.” And my friend, he was, you know, he
got everything right. I just couldn’t get this stuff, you know. But anyway, so that’s why I
say that. I’m not, you know, my–Yes, I’m disciplined, but I consider myself a
“primitive.” You know, that would–I’d feel, I feel happy in that character–
Appelbaum: A very sophisticated “primitive.”
Rollins: Well…but a “primitive.”
Appelbaum: Okay. What drew you to the saxophone?
Rollins: Well, I uh that I was almost destined, you know? I, uh…my first really hero was
Louis Jordan, the alto saxophonist, and he played tenor, also. But um, he drew me
because we had his records at home, and uh…it’s sort of a weird circle the way these
things happen. I used to go to school, elementary school, on 135th Street, 135th Street,
as aforementioned. And um, right across the street from my school was a night club, I
think it was Elk’s Rendezvous, a night club. So, in that club there was–Louis Jordan was
playing there. So, coming home, I used to see this picture of Louis Jordan–8×10, glossy,
you know–and he had on his cutaway and really beautiful King alto saxophone, and you
know, I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do,” you know. But I think I had heard him
before. I’d heard him before, as I said I heard the records by him, I’d heard records uh at
home and at my uncle’s uh house. So, I think that uh I had heard him before, but then
when I saw the picture just, you know–it was around the same time, I was around seven
years old or so–but all of this stuff was just like I was destined to be a saxophone player.
So, after that, that’s what I wanted to play: saxophone.
Appelbaum: And how old were you when you got your first one?
Rollins: I think–I was either seven or eight. I’m not sure…when I had, I got a uh a uh
alto saxophone from my cousins who played uh saxophone. I think he took my mother to
uh a place where, you know, we could get a uh second-hand alto saxophone. And–
Appelbaum: Do you remember what brand it was?
Rollins: I don’t remember. I don’t remember, but I, I have–there’s a picture of it that I
saw recently when they did a story. I don’t know where they got that picture, but I don’t
remember what it was. But this reminded me to go dovetail back to my mother. My
mother was very–she took me to music lessons. She was very–and when I wanted to play
saxophone, I mean she was right with me all the way on that, on my wanting me to be a
musician and to play. I mean she was 150% with me, you know, that’s a characteristic of
hers. When you were asking me to try to describe, you know. But uh anyway she got me
the saxophone, and uh, that’s when I started. And um, I was uh you know. So, the
saxophone was it for me. I was destined. It was fate. It was, I was destined to play
saxophone, and I knew it at that early age. I mean, I felt that my life was unfolding in a
way that was predestined, you know.
Appelbaum: Very few people are able to pick up a saxophone the first time and start to
play it. So, clearly you had to have lessons. Who taught you the fundamentals?
Rollins: Well, I uh my mother took me–there used to be a place on 125th Street. Now,
this is the mecca block I told you about. I think “mecca” is the wrong word. This was
the stem, this street, you know, in Harlem.
Appelbaum: The main stem.
Rollins: The main stem. And uh, there was a uh music school there, and it had I think it
was 25 cents a lesson. They had a list: saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone,
xylophone, piano, harp, blah, blah, blah–everything. Somebody there that taught,
whoever it was, they had a teacher for any instrument. I was out there 25 cents a lesson.
So, that’s when I first started to get to go, that’s when I got my first lessons. I used to go
to the uh New York schools of music, 125th Street, 25 cents a lesson.
Appelbaum: And what would they teach you? Just scales, or…?
Rollins: Well, yeah, probably how to hold the horn, where to put your fingers and all
this kind of stuff, you know, just…I didn’t stay there long, but uh very basic elementary
things, see. And nothing, you know, I don’t think the guys there were–well who knows, I
shouldn’t say that, because probably a lot of those guys played a lot of different
instruments. One guy probably played three or four instruments. So, I shouldn’t talk
about each teacher, I don’t know, but I learned basic saxophone, you know.
Appelbaum: You mentioned that you feel you were predestined–
Appelbaum: –for the saxophone.
Appelbaum: Did you take it very seriously in the beginning, or at what point did you
become really committed to it?
Rollins: I was committed to it, I was wanting it from earlier before I got one. I’d been
listening to Louis Jordan, as I said, and all that. So, when I got it, I would go in the room
and I’d be in there all day playing, see. And my mother would have to come in, “Sonny,
Sonny, come on we want to eat dinner. Time to eat dinner,” you know. “Come out,” you
know, and I’d be in there playing in my reverie.
Appelbaum: So, she didn’t have to encourage you to practice?
Rollins: No. Oh no. No, no, no…no, no, quite the contrary. I was uh you know, she
was, as I said, she would have to call me if I had something to do, but which was, she– I
don’t mean to say she was in any way against…no. But I mean like eating dinner, like
that, that’s what I mean. Not in a bad way, just, “Okay, Sonny, come on let’s eat.”
Something like that, you know.
Appelbaum: So, your brother was like that, also? Just constantly playing?
Rollins: Uh…I don’t know. I don’t know. I heard my brother practicing a lot, you
know, but I don’t know…I, I don’t know if his, uh…he had the same…I shouldn’t say
“dedication.” That might be selling him short, but uh…I, uh…I heard him practicing a lot,
so he may have, you know–he did practice, I know that. But uh…I think what I did was
different than him, because, as I said, I would get in a reverie, and I could be there
forever playing my saxophone. And that is a trait which carries over, has carried over all
Appelbaum: Can you tell me a little bit more about this “reverie?” Is it a kind of
Rollins: Well, it’s funny you say that, because when I went to India many years later in
the 60’s uh the fellow, the swami at this ashram I was at, uh…I was telling him, “Swami,
you know, I have a hard time…”–I was studying yoga, because I was very much
interested in yoga’d principles. And uh, so the swami, I told the swami, “Well, you
know, it’s hard for me to sit down and meditate, you know, quietly and nothing
happening and…” just all this stuff. So, the swami said, well he said, “Sonny, you know,
when you play your horn that’s a form of meditation.” And when he told me that it really
was good, because it removed an obstacle. I thought that I had to be sitting down in the
lotus position completely still, and like that, which is hard for me to do, because, you
know, my mind, you know….uh, and when he told me that I said, “Wow…right, that is a
form of meditation.” And that was, this was a big thing for me. It’s one of the,
uh…things I went to India for, that I got. When I look back, this is, this–well, I know it
was, because after that I was ready to come back to the States. You know, I mean, that
was, I learned enough, not just that, I learned certain things I wanted to absorb. But that
was a biggie, see. So, he said, “Sonny, when you’re playing that’s meditation. You’re
meditating.” And that was great. So, yeah, I was meditating all the time.
Appelbaum: And you didn’t even know it.
Rollins: And I didn’t even know it.
Appelbaum: Huh, that’s the best kind.
Rollins: Yeah, yeah. Right, it’s not forced. You’re not, like in zen in Japan you sit
down and you have to kind of make yourself–okay, that has things too, but like he said,
you don’t even know it. It’s just natural what you’re doing.
Jump to Part 2 here.
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.