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. Pt 1 of this interview is here. Pt. 2 is here.
Appelbaum: Let’s continue. When you were at a certain crossroads, you were playing the
horn, you loved this music so much, you knew you’re going to dedicate your life to it, but
in terms of style, many people of your generation–horn players–went either
towards Coleman Hawkins or towards Lester Young. And I wonder if you ever felt you
had to make a choice, and if so, how did you make that choice?
Rollins: Well, I started with Louis Jordan, as we’ve been through. My idol was
Coleman Hawkins, because that was the person that, uh…I was, I gravitated to him. He
was really the man, you know.
Appelbaum: What does that mean exactly, “the man?”
Rollins: Well, it meant that he was the epitome of the saxophone. That [recording of] Body and Soul
had just come out, and Body and Soul you could hear on any street corner in Harlem,
from any bar on the jukebox–Body and Soul. See, and Body and Soul was
saxophone-played. It wasn’t Ella Fitzgerald singing, or…you know, it wasn’t a big band
–Duke Ellington playing some beautiful–no, it was saxophone solo. And uh,
[Thelonious] Monk used to ask Coleman Hawkins, “Man, how did you make a hit with
Body and Soul, and you didn’t play the melody? How did that, you know, you
never played the melody, and you did all this stuff.” So, it was, it was miraculous what
he did with this.
Appelbaum: What was his answer?
Rollins: I don’t think he answered it. You know, he just kind of smiled and said,
“Oh…,” something like that, you know. But no, I don’t, I don’t think he addressed it, you
Appelbaum: Did you memorize his solo?
Rollins: Well, that was a hard solo. It was, um…they had transcriptions of it. They had
everything of it. People we’re trying to play that, you know. I played some of it, but it
was a difficult solo to really get. I don’t think I ever played the whole solo, you know.
Appelbaum: What do you think is difficult about it?
Rollins: Well, just technically it’s difficult. There’s technically a lot of things
that–you know, this is many years later, but at that time when that was made–1939, I
believe–there were a lot of ways that the saxophone was played, which were
revolutionary at that time, and he was doing them. So, there were a lot of technical
feats which he accomplished with that solo.
Appelbaum: Are you talking about intervals, or are you talking about harmonically,
Rollins: Well, I’m talking about technically: just playing the instrument itself.
Now, as far as what he played, yes, what he played was also highly advanced. He was
playing a lot of uh very advanced stuff, you know. But beyond that it was just so
technical to play some of the runs and things that he made on the horn was, it was quite
Appelbaum: Hm. He made lots of great recordings…
Appelbaum: Why do you think Body and Soul is the one that broke through?
Rollins: I don’t know. Well, I’m like Monk, I don’t know why that one made it. How did you
make a solo that got everyone’s attention, and you were playing all this advanced music?
[laughing] All this stuff, and there was no melody. There was no words. Just this really
saxophone virtuoso, you know, playing. You know, I mean, how did it, how did it work,
but it worked.
Appelbaum: I’m going to ask you more about Coleman Hawkins a little bit later. But
for now, I want to get at–you know, clearly you had some instruction, you learned how
to play the horn…
Appelbaum: But how did you learn how to improvise?
Rollins: Well, I think I was improvising when I got my first horn, way back when, I told
you, when I was seven or eight years old, and I would go in the room and be playing all
day–I think I was improvising then.
Rollins: Because I think I’m sort of a stream-of-consciousness type of a player. See,
that’s why I call myself a “primitive.” I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was still
doing something which had some value, but I didn’t know what I was doing. And that,
and that’s, uh–Ornette Coleman did an interview recently with the guy, and the guy said,
“Well, gee, Ornette, gee you never went to music school. You never learned to read
music,” and all this stuff. And Ornette told him, “Well, gee, I’m glad I didn’t, because if
I did I wouldn’t be Ornette Coleman. I wouldn’t have gotten the acclaim that I had.”
See, so what I’m doing, Ornette was saying is, uh–so, Ornette, I would say, in a sense, is
a “primitive,” also. I mean, “primitive” isn’t the same for everybody, so we’re not
the same, but in that sense he’s a “primitive.” He didn’t, he didn’t do what everybody
else was doing, learning music the way everybody else did, you know. And uh, I think
I’m that person, because, you know, I think I’m that primitive, of a different stripe
maybe, but I was playing, when I started playing in my bedroom, my mother’s
bedroom, I’d go in there and shut the door–it was sort of the last room in the house, so it
was the illusion of privacy, at least in my mind–and I would go in there and just play.
Now, I think, so when you say, “Where did I learn to improvise?” I think I was
Appelbaum: Can you teach that?
Rollins: Well, you know, Larry, the act of teaching would imply that…I don’t know. I
think that somebody–I don’t know if that can be taught. I don’t know. I don’t know that.
I’m not saying jazz cannot be taught–that’s another thing–but playing intuitively that’s, I
don’t know if that can be taught. I think jazz can be taught. I’m not saying jazz is
something which you just have to have a–no, I think jazz can be taught. But stream-of-
consciousness playing, that kind of deeper connection between something and your
playing, that I think may be difficult to describe, even. I don’t know how you would
teach it, you know. It would be hard to say what it is that you’re doing.
Appelbaum: And you just naturally started doing it?
Rollins: Oh yeah! I mean, I had heard all these…Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, but when I
got the saxophone I didn’t have to, you know, I was–whatever I was doing, I’m not
saying it was good or bad, you know, it might, I don’t know, but I was doing it, see. I
don’t know what it was but I was doing it.
Appelbaum: You also were drawn to art when you were young.
Appelbaum: Did you always draw inside the line?
Rollins: What do you mean “inside the line?”
Appelbaum: Did–well, I, I guess I was trying to make the analogy between playing
strictly and opening up to let your intuition and stream-of-consciousness go. And for
artists, they can create within a structure, or they can let their intuition go and
paint outside the lines.
Rollins: Okay, I never knew that uh definition.
Appelbaum: [laughing] It’s not really a definition.
Rollins: [laughing] Okay.
Appelbaum: [laughing] We’re just talking.
Rollins: Okay. I, um, I used to do water colors…
Appelbaum: Uh huh.
Rollins: …you know. And water colors lend, lend themselves to sort of you know, you can
mix your colors. It’s very creative. So, I did, I did, I did some oil painting, not a lot, a
little bit. I know that I have talent, I know that, you know. I’ve been told that. I know if
I ever did it, that, you know–well I’m an artistic person. Probably, the same talent that I
have in music would express itself, you know, in art. But uh I also used to do cartooning.
See, I was a big fan of, um, cartoons.
Appelbaum: Which ones?
Rollins: Well, uh…the one I remember very much was a guy named Strong Man. It was
a cartoon book.
Appelbaum: Like a comic book?
Rollins: Comic book.
Rollins: So, I remember Strong Man, you know, very strongly [chuckling]. Anyway, I
used to do that stuff, so, um…I used to have, you know, staple my pages together and I
had my own characters, you know. I had some of my own characters.
Appelbaum: Tell me about the characters.
Rollins: I’m trying to think of some these guys that I had [chuckling], you know. Uh, I
can’t remember some of the names right off hand but uh…they were, you know, they
were guys that would fight crime, you know, and–
Appelbaum: So like superheroes?
Rollins: Superheroes. Exactly. Yeah, yeah. Sure. And they’d be, you know–and all
this was based on, um…these comic books I started reading. I mean, Superman began
coming out around that time, but you know, it was in that period. You know, Batman. I
mean, this is going back in the 30’s now when these guys first–I don’t know when
Superman or Batman originally appeared, but it must have been the 30’s. And if it
wasn’t there were other people that were, you know. I mean, I know all those guys–the
Human Torch, Captain America, uh Steel Sterling–I mean, I had all these guys that, you
know, I wanted to draw stuff like that, and as I said, I had my own characters,
Appelbaum: Again, in an attempt to understand the connection between your interest in
art and your interest in music: do you hear in “color?” Do your senses cross?
Rollins: Well, in, in analyzation I can see, maybe.
Appelbaum: I mean, do you hear, for example, certain keys as colors?
Rollins: Uh, after the fact. You know, I once had a book uh some years ago that I was
studying that had the correlation between keys and colors, you know. I mean, E-flat was
supposed to be blue, I remember, and uh, uh green there was another, there was another
key that is–but I thought about that. And I thought about that and some–yeah, they may
be right, but uh, no, I don’t, I don’t–no. After I, after I do something musically you might
be able to say, “Oh, that’s blue,” or, “That’s orange,” and I might agree with you, but as
I’m conceiving of my music: no, I don’t, I don’t think of it in colors, no.
jump to Pt. 4 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.