Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Theodore Walter Rollins, 7 September 1929, NYC) Tenor saxophone, composer. The most influential tenor saxophonist between Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane; his influence continues and may in the end be as great as anyone's. He had piano lessons at nine but gave it up; took up alto in 1944 inspired by Louis Jordan, soon influenced by Charlie Parker, and switched to tenor in 1946 influenced by Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon. He made his first records in 1948 with Babs Gonzales. He worked with J.J. Johnson (who recorded the first Rollins tune 'Audubon'); Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron '49-50, Miles Davis '51, freelanced, joined the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet '55-7, and led his own combos ever since, with sabbaticals in the late '50s and late '60s.

He was one of the most vocal of jazz musicians complaining about having to play in saloons, and abandoned them completely for concert halls in the 1980s. His sabbaticals were times of examination and woodshedding as well as dissatisfaction with the jazz scene; he practised in the late '50s on the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River. His tone is uncompromising, harmonic ideas unique; he can do more with the bare bones of a tune than some composers with a whole orchestra: the way he improvises on the melody rather than jumping around in the chords means that he cannot hide from the musically literate listener; he walks a tightrope, skill and ideas always fully in view, and has been described as extending the possibilities of the solo more than anyone since Louis Armstrong. His many recordings with Max Roach in the '50s (some under each name) generated the excitement of two masters tossing rhythmic challenges to each other. Amomh his best-known tunes are 'Oleo' and 'Airegin'; he wrote a score for Alfie '66 including 'Alfie's Tune' (not the Bacharach/David title song). The Miles Davis album Collectors' Items on Prestige has '53 tracks with both Rollins and Parker (as 'Charlie Chan'). Many of Rollins's albums are now in original formats on Fantasy's OJC series (Original Jazz Classics): six '51-4 dates (including the Modern Jazz Quartet and Monk) comprised First Recordings, Movin' Out, Sonny And The Stars etc. Plus Four (with Brown), Plays For Bird and Saxophone Colossus (all with Roach), Tenor Madness with Coltrane on the title track and Davis's rhythm section were all made in 1956. Other single Prestige LPs are Worktime and Tour de Force '55-6, all with Roach. Way Out West '57 on Contemporary, a trio with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, was a landmark album, with a famous sleeve photo of Rollins in a cowboy hat in the desert; also Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders '58, with Manne, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, Leroy Vinnegar on bass, Victor Feldman playing vibes on one track; Alternate Takes from both dates released '86 on LP, the tracks added to CD editions of the original LPs. On Blue Note: Sonny Rollins '56 was a quintet LP including 'How Are Things In Glocca Morra?' (from the Yip Harburg/Burton Lane show Finian's Rainbow), an unusual vehicle for a jazzman, typically lovely ballad playing from Rollins; Vol. 2 '57 was a quintet with Monk on two tracks; quartet Newk's Time '57; trios with just bass and drums on A Night At The Village Vanguard and More From The Vanguard '57. On Riverside: The Sound Of Sonny '57, a quartet with Sonny Clark; famous The Freedom Suite '58, a trio with Oscar Pettiford and Roach, the title composition recorded in two sessions, with four other tracks (the album aka Shadow Waltz on Jazzland). He also played on the Abbey Lincoln album That's Him! on Riverside. Sessions for Metrojazz '58 included one each with a big band and the Modern Jazz Quartet, compiled on Tenor Titan on Verve. He toured with a trio, tracks from broadcasts/clubs '59 issued in Sweden.

He visited Japan and India, came back from sabbatical on RCA with epochal The Bridge '62, a pianoless quartet with young Jim Hall on guitar; other quartet tracks with Hall on What's New? '62, The Standard Sonny Rollins '64, other quartet, trio, quintet tracks from the last two had some with Hall, Herbie Hancock, others. Our Man In Jazz '62 was made live at Village Gate NYC, the quartet including Don Cherry, Billy Higgins on drums, Bob Cranshaw on bass (Live In Europe of unknown date on Jazz Horizons had Henry Grimes instead of Cranshaw), and Sonny Meets Hawk! '63 had a quintet with two tenor giants, Paul Bley, Cranshaw, Roy McCurdy on drums. The RCA albums are collected on The Complete Sonny Rollins RCA Victor Recordings (six CDs '97). On Impulse '65-6: Sonny Rollins On Impulse!, There Will Never Be Another You (live in NYC), Sonny Rollins Plays Alfie (nine pieces with Roger Kellaway, J. J. Johnson, Phil Woods, Kenny Burrell, arranged by Oliver Jackson), East Broadway Run Down '66.

Returning from his next layoff he did not much care whether he recorded, but trusted Orrin Keepnews's well-deserved reputation and went with his Milestone label: Next Album '72, The Cutting Edge '74 (from Montreux), Nucleus '75, The Way I Feel '76, Easy Living '77 (two tenors overdubbed), Don't Stop The Carnival '78 (live in San Francisco), Milestone Jazzstars '78 (live with McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Al Foster on drums, Rollins on soprano on one track), Don't Ask '79, Love At First Sight '80, No Problem '81, Reel Life '82, Sunny Days, Starry Nights '84, various personnel including Mark Soskin on keyboards, Bobby Broom on guitar, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, others; along the way he guested on the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You '81. The Solo Album '85, consisting of the composition 'Soloscope', was made at the Museum of Modern Art NYC, followed by Plays G-Man '86 with Cranshaw, Soskin, Marvin Smith on drums, his nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone. Also Sonny Rollins In Japan '73 on JVC, Island Lady mid-'70s on Joker or Lotus. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship '72; the Concerto For Saxophone And Orchestra was premièred in Japan '86 and featured in film Saxophone Colossus (as was music from the G-Man album).

Self-critical, he doesn't like to listen to his own records; in the '90s he was playing 40-45 concerts a year, but played larger venues and no doubt missed the closer relationship with audiences jazz once had in clubs. Falling In Love With Jazz '90 included Branford Marsalis, Jack DeJohnette and Tommy Flanagan (Rollins rises above the electric rhythm section and leaves Branford in the dust); Old Flames '93 had similar guests; The Complete Prestige Recordings were issued '92 on seven CDs and Silver City was a two-CD retrospective of his Milestone years; Plus 3 '96 was again back to basics, a trio format with Flanagan and Stephen Scott sharing piano duties, also DeJohnette, Al Foster and Cranshaw. He told Clive Davis that he was finding a new direction, 'looking backwards to something more primitive, more aboriginal', perhaps recovering his family's Caribbean roots.

In 2010 the MacDowell Colony, the USA's leading artist residency program, awarded its 51st Edward MacDowell Medal to Sonny Rollins. The Medal, named after the American composer (1860-1908), has been awarded annually since 1960 to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to his/her field, and this was its first jazz award. Earlier recipients included Leonard Bernstein, Alice Munro, I.M. Pei, Merce Cunningham, Aaron Copeland and Georgia O’Keeffe.