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Jazz Corner: Mr. Jazz Standard Sonny Rollins

At 87, Rollins has decided to finally hang up his prodigious tenor saxophone

Sunil Sampat Jan 18, 2018

Rollins started as a pianist in 1946 and soon changed first to alto and finally to tenor saxophonePhoto: RI-jim/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0

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Unlike almost any other types of contemporary music, jazz builds upon it’s own tradition; a modern composition will thus be built on the shoulders of some past jazz experience of the composer from his accumulated musical assimilation from his influences. Jazz, thus becomes a continuum, having a link with its past at all times.

One thread that has run through the jazz ‘sound’ from the Forties to the present time is, remarkably, Sonny Rollins. At the age of 87, Rollins has decided to finally hang up his prodigious tenor saxophone but despite playing for eight decades, neither his music nor his musical ideas have ever been outdated or passé. To put things in perspective, Rollins’ career lasted longer than the entire history of rock and roll!

Rollins started as a pianist in 1946 and soon changed first to alto and finally to tenor saxophone, debuting with Babs Gonzales in 1949. He moved on to play alongside trombonist J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro, legendary pianist Bud Powell and later with Thelonius Monk. For me, the high point of his early playing career came in the great Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. Sadly, the death of Brown in a car crash ended the career of this band. However, their music—recorded over 60 years ago—still sounds exciting and contemporary. Rollins played and recorded with Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quartet and also with John Coltrane as his career progressed in the Fifties. His album Tenor Madness with Coltrane is a classic.

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For some strange reason, Rollins withdrew from the jazz scene in the years 1959-61. He was trying to reinvent himself and stories of him playing his sax alone on Williamsburg Bridge in New York in the middle of the night have added romance to this enigmatic hiatus. On his return in 1961 he set up his own band, a piano-less quartet, with guitarist Jim Hall. He also seemed to veer slightly in the direction of R&B. At that time Ornette Coleman had emerged with an avant garde sax sound that might have influenced Rollins ever so slightly. He even recorded using Rufus Harley on bagpipes in his band!

That was the extent of him trying his hand at the new jazz sound using exotic and electronic instruments—a trend started by Davis in the late Sixties with the album Bitches Brew—and he stayed acoustic in his sound. Rollins found new direction in his life through his discovery and involvement with yoga and meditation. He would come to Mumbai (then Bombay) and spend several weeks every year at the Ganeshpuri Ashram. He became a teetotaler, a vegetarian and his disciplined life led to a strong and focused sound.

In 1978, the inaugural Jazz Yatra was held in Mumbai and New Delhi and Rollins played two concerts in Mumbai. His version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” was a huge hit with audiences, some of whom still recall it with nostalgia. The only concession he had made to the then jazz sound was in the use of an electric guitar and electric bass. However, as the fusion era in American jazz came to an end in around the early Eighties, Rollins was back to using acoustic piano and upright bass in his band.

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Rollins is one of the great jazz giants. On the tenor sax he ranks with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and is truly a Saxophone Colossus—also the name of my most favorite Rollins album! He has enriched jazz enormously.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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