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, followed by Pt. 2 and Pt. 3
Appelbaum: Let’s jump ahead a little bit to your first recording session.
Appelbaum: I assume it was with the vocalist…
Rollins: Babs Gonzales.
Appelbaum: The expoobident one.
Rollins: Well, Babs was a character, and people have different opinions about him, you
know, very negative ones, et cetera, et cetera. Most people have negative opinions
about Babs, as a matter of fact. But uh…he gave me an opportunity, because Babs was a guy that just wanted to hear young guys play. Well, I was a young guy and
I got a chance to work with a lot of great people. Babs would get a job, and he was good at getting these gigs, and he’d have all these guys–Dexter Gordon and Fats Navarro and Wardell Gray and, you know uh, all these people of the period, and the real guys–giants–who were playing this music. So, I got a chance, he would get me on these gigs. I got a chance to play with all these guys. And so you know, Babs was, for me, was great, you know. And I didn’t get too much involved with some of the other things that people…uh, negative things that he might have had–his business things, you know, people had questions about, and all that–I didn’t get involved in that at all, you know.
Appelbaum: How do you think he heard about you, or knew about you?
Rollins: Well, he was living on The Hill, which is an area now, 155th Street, which was
called Sugar Hill that was the area where all of the, upper-middle class blacks lived,
maybe. You know, Duke Ellington lived up there. Andy Kirk lived up there. Coleman
Hawkins lived up there. All the top-notch musicians lived on The Hill, and a lot of black
politicians. On my block, there were people like W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood
Marshall. All those guys lived up on the corner from, on the block I lived at. And so
it’s sort of the upper-middle class. Now, we weren’t upper-middle class ourselves, but
Edgecombe Avenue was uh, bifurcated in that the upper part was sort of the higher-class
income–or maybe they thought “class,” too–and the lower part of Edgecombe was sort of
the not quite as well-to-do. But you know, but we were able to get on The Hill. I mean,
and not in the nice apartments W.E.B. Du Bois had, who lived on the upper part of
Edgecombe Avenue. See, Edgecombe Avenue was one long block from 150th Street to
155th Street. It was one long block overlooking the park. It was, it was a–and the park
was down below. There was a, it was a hill there. We could look over at
Yankee Stadium and everything. It was a nice, exclusive area. But anyway, so that was
the people that lived up there, see. And I remember, we used to–I lived on the lower part
of Edgecombe Avenue–and I remember we would be playing ball and stuff, and I
remember W.E.B. Du Bois, you know, he would be coming home every night, I’d see
him coming home, and he’d see us up there playing up against the wall and stuff, and
he’d sort of look at us and say, “[scoffing] Why aren’t these guys in school or
something?” You know, he’d have that real look like, “What’s wrong with these guys?
Why aren’t these kids–,” we were kids, you know. But he was a very stern guy, you
Appelbaum: As a kid, did you understand who he was?
Rollins: Oh yeah. Yeah, we, we, oh yeah.
Appelbaum: Everybody knew.
Rollins: Yeah, yeah. Oh no, they–he was very well known in the African community,
Appelbaum: You were talking about the neighborhood: Where did Bud Powell live?
Rollins: Bud Powell lived…uh let me see if I can describe this. In a sense, you see there,
there was a park–St. Nicholas Park–and uh Bud Powell lived at 141st Street. Now 141st
Street was also one long block from 141st Street to 145th Street. And Bud Powell lived on
149th Street on a hill coming up to–‘cause that was still heading up, the topography was,
you know, was going up on The Hill when–up by us it was even higher on The Hill on
155th. But he was sort of starting, The Hill sort of started almost around there. But so
Bud Powell lived there, and he lived not really that much–although that block he lived in,
Willie “The Lion” Smith lived on that block, also in, in, in a tenement building, you
Appelbaum: Willie “The Lion” Smith and Bud Powell lived on the same block?
Rollins: Uh, close to each other.
Appelbaum: Did they know each other?
Rollins: I don’t know, I would imagine that Bud knew about Willie. I don’t know if
Willie knew about Bud. I mean, he may have, but I know Bud–‘cause everybody knew
Willie “The Lion” Smith, see–so, Bud knew that Willie “The Lion” lived up the street on
St. Nicholas Avenue, yeah.
Appelbaum: So, you’re a young musician, you’re living in a neighborhood with many
great, big, important names: Are young musicians, are you free to just go and knock on
Appelbaum: And say, “Mr. Hawkins…?”
Rollins: Funny questions. Well [laughing] they’re free to do it if you have the, the
backbone and the will to do it. I mean, you’re a kid, so nobody’s going to…I did it.
Appelbaum: You did it.
Rollins: And, but I think I was disturbing them, you know. When I’d look I know I was
disturbing some guys.
Appelbaum: Who did you disturb?
Rollins: [laughing] Well, there was a guy that played drums with Coleman Hawkins
named Denzil Best. Denzil Best lived on 156th Street, and somebody in my
family knew somebody in his, some kind of way like that. But I was a big fan of Denzil Best, because I was a big fan of Coleman Hawkins, and I knew everybody in Coleman Hawkins’ band, you know, including Denzil Best. So, when I found out Denzil Best lived right here, you know, I went up to, you know–you see, the thing is these guys are working at night clubs, sometimes ‘til three and four o’clock in the morning. That’s how clubs would go then: you’d play ‘til four–four or five o’clock, not three o’clock, three o’clock is early. You wouldn’t get home ‘til five o’clock, and if you hung out a little bit you might not get home ‘til daybreak.
Okay, so here’s some guy…these guys are sleeping, ‘cause they’ve got to go to
work, you know that night, so these guys are sleeping. So, here I go coming by this guy’s
house, I would say maybe when i got back from school, maybe four o’clock in the
afternoon. And I’m ringing Denzil Best’s bell, you know, and this guy’s trying to get
some sleep. And he doesn’t, you know, he doesn’t know me. I just know
that, “Oh, this is Denzil Best.” So, I remember some incidents when uh…I’m
ashamed about it now, because he finally did let me in, but he was, you know, he said,
“What’s wrong with this guy,” you know, “I gotta get up, man.” It was, you know, he’s
sleeping man, and so that was one guy. There was another guy–Eddie Davis, Eddie
“Lockjaw” Davis–who lived in the Bronx. He lived up on Kelly Street in the Bronx.
So uh…I find out where he lived, you know, and uh he was the same thing, man. I went up there, and he didn’t answer at all, so I never got a chance to disturb him. But I ran his bell, you know, and probably just was sleeping. He didn’t even respond. That’s the
kind of stuff that, you know, a young guy who was just crazy bent for music and, you
know, being with musicians does…did.
Appelbaum: Did people do that with you after you were established?
Appelbaum: …and became a kind of a star?
Rollins: Yeah some, some. I experienced some of that. Yeah. Yeah.
Appelbaum: And what do you do when somebody rings your bell?
Rollins: Well, because I knew the kind of guy I was, I was a little bit more sympathetic.
Rollins: You know, ‘cause I knew how I was, you know. So, I kind of went out of my
way to not, you know, be gruff and all this stuff, you know.
Appelbaum: So, you’re talking about the different neighborhoods, and all these
musicians who live in these neighborhoods…
Appelbaum: Did you ever sense that there was a rivalry, say between people in Harlem
and musicians in Brooklyn, or musicians in the Bronx? Was there anything going on
between these neighborhoods?
Rollins: I think there might have been, but not, not on a grand scale. No.
Appelbaum: Could you recognize where somebody is from in the city from the way
Rollins: Uh…no. I never got to that point where I could do that, you know. No. And
the guys in the Bronx–of course, Monk was in the Bronx…uh lived in the Bronx for a
while, and Elmo Hope, my piano player…well, a piano player that I was associated with,
he lived in the Bronx–and uh…a very fine um reedman, Eddie Barefield, he lived in the
Bronx. He was my clarinet teacher, as a matter of fact. He was a splendid person.
Eddie lived in the Bronx. So, I don’t think there was any discernible stylistic differences
you know, that you could say, “Oh, that’s a Bronx sound,” or something. I don’t think
I would say that.
Appelbaum: We started to talk about some of the places…
Appelbaum: …where people played. Were most–I’m not talking about the theaters, but
Appelbaum: Were most of the clubs mob owned?
Rollins: Uh…let’s see now. Well, the clubs that I started playing with uptown, I started
playing, we played at uh…the club up on 155th Street we played around. The clubs right
there were smaller scale clubs. They weren’t mob owned. They were owned by people in the community, the neighborhood. Um…as you went downtown–and, of course, we all
know that The Cotton Club was owned by Lucky Luciano, or some people in that group–
those clubs were owned. I think the bigger-named clubs, the mob was involved with
those, you know.
Appelbaum: Did you ever work those clubs?
Rollins: Well, I worked at the uh…let’s see. I think there was a club–The Cafe Bohemia–that a lot of guys played, I think there were probably mob people that had those properties, you know. And even the Termini Brothers at the Five
Spot, I think there were mob people that had those properties, and they might have let the
Termini Brothers operate them, you know. I’m not suggesting they were connected, but
they were connected, I think, to that extent. And uh…some of those places…I think
52nd Street there were a lot of so-called “mob connections” with some of the people.
But yeah, some of the players I would say. The local places, no, I don’t think
Appelbaum: The reason I ask is because you often hear stories about musicians who are
exploited–either by record labels or by clubs or wherever–where you either don’t get paid
or you don’t, you don’t get paid what you’re promised, or whatever. And I would
assume that if the club is connected it’s harder to make a big issue out of this,
because people feel intimidated. And I wondered if musicians knew which clubs to avoid?
Rollins: Well, I think that if the mob was involved to that extent, like I think they were
on 52nd Street, those were pretty…they were involved because those were pretty
established places where there was a good turnaround, good…
Appelbaum: I see.
Rollins: …money coming in. So, that, I don’t think you had to worry too much about
that. If you were playing on 52nd Street in the Downbeat Club, or something, usually you
could, you would get paid, because it was, you know, it wasn’t a place, it was sort of a
low-level, you know, that was sort of an established place like that. Even
Birdland…although the, the uh…ownership of Birdland was not the people that you would want to, you know, have dinner with, or something like that, you
know, you generally got paid what you were promised.
Appelbaum: I see.
Rollins: You know, the bigger places you got paid what you were supposed to get paid.
Appelbaum: So, if you work a smaller club, or you didn’t get paid, what could you do?
Rollins: Well…as I said when you say “smaller club,” I worked many places where I
didn’t get paid. I’ve worked places where my overcoat was stolen. I’ve worked places
where uh…oh boy, I hate to, I’ve got a mental block so I don’t have to relive those days,
but I worked plenty of those places where I didn’t get paid, for one reason or another. I
mean, we just expected that as musicians, you know. I say that because well
there’s a place in Brooklyn that might have been a mob-owned, Tony–I don’t know, it
was called Tony’s–but I remember the overcoat, because my mother had just gotten me
this overcoat, you know, from Barney’s. I mean, this is, I was young, you know. It was a
nice raglan overcoat with tweed, you know, a raglan coat, like the kind
Basil Rathbone wore in Sherlock Holmes, that type of coat. So boy I’ve, you know,
after I got done playing and a fight breaks out. And once a fight break out: forget it.
You’re not going to get your money. You’re lucky if you get your coat. And that’s the
way. Good thing you have your horn in hand, because that would’ve been…so, I’ve been
in situations of that kind, you know.
Appelbaum: Hmm. We’ve talked earlier about how you learned to improvise…and you said you used instinct, basically, and I wonder: how did you learn to “swing?” Or did you have to learn? Did you, were you always swinging?
Rollins: Well, by “swing”…you see, that’s hard. You have to define what you mean
when you say “swing.” You, you have to define that more…
Appelbaum: It’s an approach to syncopation that is a characteristic of a lot of
jazz. You can swing in many different kinds of ways, but its a kind of rhythmic
displacement, or places where you put the accents, or a way to approach the bar lines, or
anything like that. You know it when you hear it, yes?
Appelbaum: So, is this something that you could always do?
Rollins: Well, I think it was something I could always do, because I was probably doing
that, as I said, before I knew what I was doing. I was, I think I was “swinging,” you
know, in that sense. I would probably say that I was, you know, so it’s not
something I had to learn. I mean I just had a, it’s part of my talents, such as it is, that I
could…it was part of what I did, you know–everything. There’s the placement of
notes, and the notes themselves, the whole thing is really a package.
Rollins: And that’s what I did, so there was no, you know, demarcation– “Oh well, this
is ‘swing’”–no, it all was together. At least, in my experience.
Appelbaum: A question about your talent: How much of it do you think is a gift,
versus hard work?
Rollins: I think it’s probably 75% a gift, and um…maybe 80% a gift. And
maybe 15% hard work, although I’m a hard worker, as I told you. I practice hours
and hours, although I don’t look at it as hard work. So, see that’s why it’s a…so, in a
way, I can even say it’s 90% a gift, because in that gift it involves hard work–what you
would say is hard work is not hard work for me, because I’m…you might say, “Well, gee,
Sonny your practicing on the bridge for 15 hours.” Well, that’s not hard work for me.
It’s just something which comes–
Appelbaum: But it is effort.
Rollins: Well, effort not…[chuckling]…you see, if you like to eat ice cream is it an effort
to go to the corner store and buy some ice cream? Probably not. See, so no, it’s not an
effort. It’s not an effort.
Appelbaum: You have to take the spoon…
Appelbaum: …and dip it, and actually put it to your mouth.
Appelbaum: That’s an effort.
Rollins: Well, no, no. It’s not an effort. You know it’s not an effort. If you like ice
cream, it’s not an effort.
Appelbaum: Yeah, that’s…[laughing]…true. When you listen to music…
Appelbaum: …what are you listening for?
Rollins: Well, when I listen to music uh…I, you know, I guess I have to reveal that I, I
haven’t listened to music in years.
Rollins: I mean, I don’t, I used to listen to, you know…all, everyday to music, but
uh…about 25 years ago I stopped listening to music. I mean, I’d gotten filled up. So, not
that I don’t enjoy music, especially listening to guys if I go out to a festival, or
something, and there’s a band and I hear them–no, I love that. But going home and
putting on a record, you know, and listening–no, I don’t do that for some reason. Maybe,
I feel that I don’t want to be influenced by something I’m hearing, or–you know, there’s a
lot of reasons why I stopped listening, you know. But uh…I love listening to music,
though, but I just don’t do it as a past-time anymore, or an instructional thing like I might
Appelbaum: There is a man who has collected many airchecks, soundchecks, recording
of you over the years. What is his name? Carl…something?
Rollins: Carl Smith.
Appelbaum: Smith, yeah. So, there’s this big treasure trove of your stuff, and clearly
you listen to something in order to make a decision what to release. What is that process
when you’re hearing yourself, how do you decide this is worth releasing…
Appelbaum: But…take us through that process when you’re listening?
Rollins: Well, because I’m a guy that–you’re talking about two things: first, you’re
talking about music; now you’re talking about listening to myself.
Rollins: Okay. Myself, I’m one of these guys that’s very conscious of anything I do that
may be, that, you know, I’m a strict perfectionist.
Rollins: So, I can hear something and I say, “Oh, god, why did I do that?” or, “Why
didn’t that…?” This kind of stuff. So, it’s very difficult when I’m making a record
uh…and I have to listen to myself. It’s really the hardest part in trying to figure out what
is acceptable to me, and, therefore, may be acceptable to the public, you know. So,
that’s, that’s rough. That’s, that’s, that’s rough.
Appelbaum: When you’re in this…doing a studio session, do you generally go for first
takes, or do you try and perfect it?
Rollins: Well…yeah, no. I, many years ago when I first started recording, that
technology was not available. So, it was only first takes, or maybe second takes, maybe,
but that was it. There wasn’t a whole lot of takes. As years, technology advanced, then
you had the–which was a curse to me, because then when I was, I remember I was at
Fantasy [Records] and I used to do, we would just do take after take after take, you know,
because I’m trying to get the perfect take. And it’s, it’s not going to happen. So, it
became a very uh…you know, the technology in that case didn’t work on my
Appelbaum: Does this mean there is no perfection in the studio, or in art, or in life?
Rollins: Well, to me, probably there is no perfection. Other people listen to something
that I’ve done and say, “Oh, wow! Isn’t that great?” But uh…so I wouldn’t say there’s
no perfection in their eyes, you know. For me, there probably is no perfection. Like it’s,
it’s like…it’s like now when I’m working towards a way of playing and a way of getting my ideas together to create the kind of music that I want to do, that I think I can do. I’m not, I don’t think I’m ever going to get it perfectly. I mean, I understand that. I’m not going to make the perfect solo, but I still feel that I can get closer to it. Close enough to it that it, that I can do it more often, and so on and so forth. So, I’m not giving up, but I know I can’t–perfection, at least, for me, is something which is probably never going to happen. I accept it.
Rollins: But I know that I want to get closer. I know that this…I can get closer to
Appelbaum: Hmm. It’s elusive.
Rollins: Yeah. I’m not even trying to get perfection. I just want to get closer to it,
because…right, perfection is–I mean, I don’t think it’s possible, you know, for me. I’ve
heard other people play and I’ve said, “Wow! Perfect.” So, that’s, you know, but I’m
talking about myself. I’ve heard guys plays solos–Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul–I’d
say, “Perfect.” But can I get there in something I’m doing? No, because I’m going to
listen to myself and say, “Wow. No way. That was wrong. I shouldn’t have done–,”
Appelbaum: So you’re self-critical?
Rollins: Very much so.
Rollins: Well, because uh…I think I’ve heard people like Coleman Hawkins [long
jump to Pt. 5.
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.