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, Pt. 3 and Pt. 4.
Appelbaum: You did an interview with Arthur Taylor–very interesting interview–that
was published in his book “Notes and Tones.” And in the interview, you say, “I don’t have
the greatest opinion of myself. I recognize a lot of my faults.” And I guess, first, I need
to, I’m obligated to ask: What do you think those faults are?
Rollins: Well, those faults are…numerous, but they’re probably embarrassing to mention
them. And plus, they would, they would, they wouldn’t hold me in good stead, because
some of my fans might say, “Oh, gee, I thought that was good. Now, Sonny is telling me
that that’s crap.” So, I don’t, if you–I’m going to desist from…outlining my many faults,
in my mind. If you don’t mind.
Appelbaum: No problem.
Rollins: Because somebody else might think they’re great.
Appelbaum: I understand.
Rollins: And that may color their view. They might say well, “Gee, I thought Sonny
was really doing something great. I come to find out Sonny thought it was nothing,” you
know. So, maybe I’m wrong. So, I don’t want to cut off my career that close yet.
Appelbaum: I gotcha.
Rollins: I still have a few more years, hopefully, to go.
Appelbaum: Many more. So, let’s just leave it at the fact that you are somewhat self-critical.
Appelbaum: And you’re aware of your faults.
Appelbaum: Are you able to easily forgive yourself? I mean, none of us are perfect.
Rollins: Well, you know, “forgive myself” to me means that I’m going to keep trying. If
I keep trying then I’ve forgiven myself.
Rollins: And I’m going to keep trying.
Appelbaum: So, you don’t ever, like, beat yourself up for making mistakes, or feel
guilty, or any of that stuff? It’s all moving on to the next thing?
Rollins: It’s moving on to the next. Of course, when you have to hear this–when I say
I’m, I’m making a record and I have to listen to something, or if I have to be someplace
where a record is made that I’m on and I have to hear it, then I might beat myself up a
little bit…which is why I don’t like to listen to my own music. You know, ‘cause I don’t
want to beat myself up so much [chuckling]. See, so uh, you know…
Appelbaum: You have very high standards.
Rollins: Well…for what I think I can do, and, as I said, great musicians I’ve been around.
Yeah, I’ve heard some great music. You know, I’ve, I’ve heard some great music. I’ve
been around with the hierarchy, see. So, yeah, I want to get there. I want to be able to be
on a level with stuff I’ve heard.
Appelbaum: Hmm. I’m just curious, if um, if Coleman Hawkins were sitting
here with us right now, would you want to talk with him about these things? Or what
would you want to talk to Coleman Hawkins about?
Rollins: Well, I got to know Coleman Hawkins a little bit. Um…I don’t, I don’t know if
I would uh want to talk too much music with Coleman Hawkins. I think his musical
statements speak for themselves. I mean, I don’t think I’d want to uh talk shop with
Appelbaum: What would you want to talk about?
Rollins: Well…I remember I used to uh ask him, make sure he was uh…into health
foods. Stuff like that. And that, you know…because there was one period there where he
was drinking a lot, and the cats he was working with said, “Oh man, Hawk, you’re not
eating,” and all this. I’d want to talk to him about stuff like that, you know, that I got into
around that time. I got into sort of more healthful living back when everybody else
hadn’t gotten into it yet. So, I would probably, in fact, I have talked to Coleman about
that, you know.
Appelbaum: What, what did he say?
Rollins: I don’t, I don’t remember but his drummer uh…uh…uh…what’s his name, he just, he
just left us not too long ago [Eddie Locke]. Uh, he’s in that picture, the Harlem…picture, Art Kane
photo, “A Great Day In Harlem.” Anyway, he, he was with Coleman and all them. He told me about some things that I used to, you know, tell Coleman about, or send him something, some, you know.
Appelbaum: Speaking of health, I–first of all, I’m very glad to see you’re doing well. I
mean, I think I’m not alone in that.
Appelbaum: We, we all, we all are inspired by this.
Rollins: [laughing] Well, okay.
Appelbaum: So, here’s the, here’s the question…um: There was a time, especially late-
40’s early-50’s, there a dark period for, not just musicians, but for a lot of people in this
culture, you know. And there were people leading, let’s just say, unhealthy lifestyles.
Appelbaum: And I wonder how you pulled yourself out, when so many others
Rollins: Well, I was fortunate. We, we, we all got involved with drugs when our hero
Charlie Parker was involved with drugs. So, we thought, “Oh, gee, that’s a great thing to
do. Charlie Parker’s doing it. Gotta be okay.” So, uh…that was our, you know, he was
the guy especially, Charlie Parker. And uh…a lot of guys didn’t make it, but everybody
was using drugs. So, uh I, my individual case, which I’ve told many times, is that Charlie
Parker actually got me away from drugs by, kind of, you know, when I saw that he really
didn’t want to see me, who was one of his proteges, throwing away my life like he did.
That really upset him. He got drugged, I mean, he was…despondent over that, because he
didn’t know…he knew I was one of his top proteges, you know. But when he found–I
told him that I wasn’t using drugs, and then he, somebody in this session ratted on me and told Bird, “Oh yeah, we were just getting high,” you know. So, then I saw the
reaction from Charlie Parker. So, that and some other things–I had already had a lot of
trouble–but that and some, you know…I said, “No, I got to stop this.” I wanted to stop. I
mean, my mother was–I wanted to stop for her, too, but uh…also, but I wanted to show
Charlie Parker, who was my idol, my prophet, you know, I wanted to show him that,
“Hey man, I got your message,” you know, “I understand. I’m through with drugs now.”
Appelbaum: And why do you think he really couldn’t lead a healthy lifestyle?
Rollins: Well, I don’t know. He was just uh…I guess he tried and he gave up. You
know, Max [Roach] told me uh…Bird said, “Oh man, look at my body. I’m just, I’m
just–my body is wasted. I can’t, I can’t fight this,” you know. He said, “I’m just…I can’t
do anything, man. I’m over,” you know. So, you know, it was some sort of weakness.
You know, addictions are tough to break, and uh…I don’t know why exactly that he
couldn’t do it, but he certainly conveyed to me that that wasn’t the life, you know. That
is a… “Don’t do this, man,” you know.
Appelbaum: Let’s switch gears a bit, and ask… I’m very taken with how
you play ballads. I love the way you play these songs. I wonder whether lyrics of a song
are important to you? You’re an instrumentalist: Do you pay attention to lyrics?
Rollins: Oh yeah, I pay attention to lyrics. Yeah.
Appelbaum: Do you learn them?
Rollins: Uh…yeah, some of them. I mean, the ballads that I play I know some of the
lyrics. Maybe, the essential part of the lyrics. I, I don’t know, you know, lyrics from A-
to-Z on many of the songs, but I know some of the crucial part, of the crucial parts of the
lyrics, you know.
Appelbaum: You know the story of the song?
Rollins: Yes, sort of the story. Exactly.
Appelbaum: It’s funny, we were, I mentioned that we were with Jimmy Heath the other
night, and he recounts a story of talking with Ben Webster and Johnny Griffin. And Ben
wants to know the lyrics of these songs, because he wants to speak them through his
Appelbaum: And Johnny Griffin says, “I don’t need lyrics. I play notes.”
Rollins: Right, right.
Appelbaum: So, I’m guessing you lean more towards wanting to know the story.
Rollins: I, yeah, I lean towards wanting to know the story. Yeah.
Appelbaum: Do you feel that you’re a story…that you literally tell stories through your
Rollins: Well…not enough, you know. I mean, I’d like to be able to really tell, and I’m
practicing every day. I’m practicing right now, as a matter of fact, trying to perfect these
things you’re talking about. So, do I know them? Well, I’m trying to do that. I’m not,
it’s not, I haven’t gotten it where I want it to be yet.
Rollins: But yeah, I’m trying to tell stories. I mean, some of the guys that I…uh, my
heroes, like Gene Ammons, these guys, I mean, they told a great story, and they were,
you know. So, I, I’ve heard these people. So, that’s why I’m hard on myself. I’ve heard
people. I know what can be done in our music, see. So, until I’m doing it myself, I’m
hard on myself, of course.
Appelbaum: Especially in your younger years–you can still play fast, you can play
whatever you want, as far as I’m concerned–but in your younger years you could play
blindingly fast. And I’m wondering, as a musician or as a horn player, how do you relax
when you’re playing very fast tempos?
Rollins: Well, you know, I probably don’t play those fast tempos. I remember I was
playing with uh…the great Dizzy Gillespie over at Wolf Trap, which is right near here.
And uh, we were doing this big tribute concert to Dizzy, and I think in the band was the
great Hank Jones, Dizzy, myself, I think was Mickey Roker and Rufus Reid. And
somebody told me those last two guys recently, ‘cause we had been talking about that.
But anyway, uh we were talking about the repertoire. So, Dizzy said, “No, don’t play
anything fast, man,” you know, “I don’t play–,” as if to say, “Well, I don’t play fast
anymore.” And okay, I, I know Dizzy used to play fast and could play fast, so maybe it
might as you get older and stuff, playing fast might, you know, not be, you know, your
ability to do that might diminish somewhat. Uh…not that that’s anything that detrimental
anyway, because if you don’t play fast then you play something else which is equally
great, you know. So, I don’t mean that, but there was some reason why he said that, and
maybe it’s true, now I see, you know, I, I don’t play a lot of fast stuff. And it may be a
technical reason after you get a certain age, you know, it might be–
Appelbaum: But do you recall the experience, when you were younger, of playing these
very fast things?
Rollins: Well, I used to work with Max Roach, see.
Appelbaum: How about that?
Rollins: And Max Roach would play these fast songs, and we’d, we had a practice of
discouraging young guys who wanted to come up and play with us. Anybody wanted to
play, you know. A guy would say, “Oh, can I sit in with the band, Max?” “Okay, sure,
man.” Then he’d come and see and it’d be–BAM, [imitating fast drum beat]–you know.
So, I had to learn to play fast playing with Max, you know.
Appelbaum: And is that just a matter of physical dexterity, or–?”
Rollins: Well, it’s part. Physical dexterity is part of it, you know, which is why I said
maybe Dizzy said, you know, “I don’t play that fast anymore.” So, that’s, it’s part of it,
definitely. Uh…yeah, it’s definitely part of it. Physical dexterity plays a part in it.
Appelbaum: Okay. Do you ever hear music in your dreams?
Rollins: Uh…I don’t, I don’t think so. I don’t think so, but I have a bad habit of sleeping
with the radio on, and occasionally I have music, I have music on. And if there’s some
great music playing I wake up. For instance, I was sleeping one time, I remember, and
they were playing Art Tatum, and wow I woke up right away, you know. Which, you
know, but uh which shows I probably wasn’t in deep sleep–or maybe I was in deep sleep,
but it got me up right away. I don’t think I hear music when I’m sleeping though. I
don’t think so. I mean, in my dreams that’s what–yeah, I remember uh…you know, to
recall really, “Oh yeah, I heard something.” I can’t recall anything in particular. But, I
think that’s close to the surface. The music is close the surface of what I’m doing when I
am sleeping. I think it’s close, and that, you know, it’s, it’s not like it’s foreign. I think
it’s, you know, it’s somewhere close there. Even in a dream, I think the music
Appelbaum: Was it always somewhere near even when you weren’t playing? Like
when you took your sabbaticals, or when you went to India, or…did you ever feel like, “I
need to take a break from music?”
Appelbaum: Not, not the business, but I mean from music.
Rollins: Yeah. Uh…very, very seldom. I remember…very seldom. I remember a couple
of times in my whole career when I felt I was, musically, I was up against a brick wall. I,
I do remember, and I had to, I said, “Gee, man, I just can’t, you know, go on. I can’t
think of anything.” But that period didn’t last. I kept my regimen, and then it passed
away, you see. So, maybe, I don’t know, maybe it meant that: Hey, don’t give up;
always persevere. So, uh…you know, not, not often, but I have had periods when I’ve
felt–maybe once or twice in my whole life–I remember uh feeling, “Gee, I don’t know
what else to play, or what else can I–what can I do now?” But it didn’t last, you know.
Appelbaum: There’s always more.
Rollins: There is–that I know. I know there’s, I mean, there’s no doubt about that.
So, since I know that, you see, I have hope. I can, I can practice and I know, because I
know there’s no doubt about that. There’s more. There’s a lot more, see. It’s like when
they started looking at the um Hubble Telescope, and they’re looking and they’re looking
for the end of the uh universe. We’re going to see all these things. And they looked up
there and they said, “Wait a minute. We thought that was the end of the universe, but
there’s so much more stuff beyond that.” There’s so many more universes we thought,
you know, we were going, you know, make a picture then. So, that’s how life is really.
That’s how life is, and music. Anything that’s real, there’s no fine, fine, finite, you
know. There’s nothing finite about real things.
Appelbaum: It’s only the end of the beginning.
Rollins: The end of the beginning.
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.