Lost & Found: Sonny Rollins Interview

Was cleaning up some older work, and found this Q&A with Rollins from late 2006.  The site it first appeared on est mort, so here it is again. – Jim Macnie

Some tenor players are cagey, some are bold. Sonny Rollins is both, and has been for a long time. Listen to him motor around the confines of “Come, Gone” on 1957’s immortal Way Out West. His meaty lines are the definition of vivaciousness, keening with smarts and swagger. Ditto for “Nishi,” a track from the newly released Sonny, Please. It’s a jumpin’ blues that finds the saxophonist tearing up all sorts of turf. Long squawks, “Oh Susannah” quotes, clipped phrases that are continuously stacked higher and higher, spiraling bits of melody that chop rhythm and revitalize the music’s thrust – the piece is a smorgasbord of musical gambits that illustrate its creator’s architectural savvy. When Rollins is hitting on all cylinders, wisdom and vigor spill from his horn. Some tenor players are distinctive. Sonny Rollins is often majestic.

The 76-year-old’s jazz icon is in the spotlight because Sonny, Please is one of his best discs in recent years. Lots of critics, even those who fault the saxophonist for occasionally releasing half-baked albums and working with musicians below his skill set, agree on this. Named after a phrase his late wife Lucille used to use when her husband was going off on a verbal tangent, Sonny, Please also finds Rollins the proud owner of his own record label. After years recording for Milestone, he’s created the Doxy imprint. It comes in tandem with the launch of a Web site that offers everything from classic clips to podcast portraits. The depth of his artistry was recently recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, which awarded Rollins its prestigious Polar Award. Always a candid interview subject, Rollins was thoughtful and self-effacing during a late December phone chat from his upstate New York home.

The holidays are here. Was Christmas a special time for you as kid?

Sure — even as an adult. I’d get presents for my wife and try to conceal them until Christmas Eve. But she knew all my tricks.

This is your second Christmas without Lucille?

Yeah. It can be overwhelming. We were together a long, long time. But I’m dealing with it. It’s part of life. But its [impact] certainly hasn’t waned. I’m still in the same bed; I think about it. Everything’s the same, except…well…You have certain memories. But it’s part of this existence we call life, and we have to deal with it as best possible. I guess on balance I’m not doing bad.

For a sec I thought you said “on ballads.”

Well, maybe on those, too!

As an artist, have you always felt that revealing emotions we all share was one of the thrills of music-making?

I never was presumptuous enough to assume that what I was doing would ever reach the heights of bringing good emotions to people. I was just sort of involved in learning how to play musical things. I’m still pretty amazed when people tell me how this music has hit them, or describe something they’ve gotten from my playing.


But you do know what they’re talking about, right? If I came up to you and effused about how the tail end of “Someday I’ll Find You” on the new disc really catches the spirit, you’d know what I mean.

Well, I wouldn’t know what you are talking about. I would know what I was trying to convey. But I wouldn’t know it affects other people. I’d be highly gratified, but I wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

Throughout the years you’ve said you like to know the lyrics of Broadway and film tunes you play. Is it to help sort out the emotions?

Yeah, basically. On songs I usually have a good idea about the lyrics in my head, enough to get the intent out there.

Your new label Doxy is named after one of your classic tunes. Do you remember where you were when you wrote “Doxy.”

Actually I think I was institutionalized when I wrote “Doxy.” The gory details…well it was back at a time when I was hooked on drugs, and while I was institutionalized my mind turned to music, and I had an opportunity to play with a band, a sort of Protestant Chapel Band – we played hymns and such. It’s not a pleasant memory. But it’s fruitful in that I was able to overcome those problems. I wrote “Doxy” during that time.

lots more after the jump…

In the ‘60s, a few jazz artists launched their own labels. Was that something you applauded?

There was an alto player, who I can’t recall the name…he was with Mingus. He used to talk about it all the time, and people began to think about it. I wasn’t ready to do it. It was a good idea, but…Mingus and Max [Roach] tried to do something like that.

Besides business, it had political overtones, too.

Precisely. I was involved with them for a moment. We were discussing ways to have more control over what we were doing. Max and Mingus used to come by my house on the Lower East Side and talk about these things. There’s no doubt that this was a time when people were beginning to think like that.

Tell me what came into your mind when you watched the classic clips that were recently placed on your Web site. What kind of memories did it conjure?

Hold on to your hat…I’ve never seen them. I don’t have a computer. But I understand we got a lot of hits on the site. A lot people like ‘em and wanted more.

Jazz fans love that kind of footage. I just got a Monk DVD where Ben Riley looks 22 years old.

When I look back at old pictures of me, I know it’s me, but it feels like another guy. Like, “who’s that guy?”


Do you look back at pictures of you with your famed Mohawk haircut and say “what the hell was I doing,” or are you proud of it?

Ha, ha, ha. I loved it. At the time I did it, it was sort of a statement – outside of the box behavior. I got different reactions from different people. But I thought it was a very individualistic thing and I’m happy I did it.

You’ve always had a somewhat regal look, and the Mohawk brought that out a bit.

Wow, thank you. You made my day.

When writing, do you know when you have a strong new piece, something a cut above the rest?

When I’m playing at my best I usually know that I have something good, when it’s better than usual. But in composing you never really know how it’s going to strike people. I had some tunes that I thought were good, but didn’t make a lot of noise with the public. Some of my songs did resonate with some people, so I shouldn’t really imply that they weren’t accepted. “Doxy,” that’s a song that needed exposition. It needed Miles and the people that were playing on it to truly make it happen. I was fortunate in that I had the right group of musicians around to bring it to life.

Being the bandleader is another part of being the composer, because if you don’t have the proper guys around you, it doesn’t come out right.

Right. And that’s still true today. I have to have a good band with me to get at the positive stuff. It depends not on me and my compositions, but the level of musicianship that these guys have. You always try to get the people everything you can, you know?


I was listening to The Bridge the other night and hearing you trade lines with Jim Hall. From Clifford Brown to Clifton Anderson, you’ve often had simpatico mates in the front line. What does the job of sharing the front line with Sonny Rollins entail? Is it jousting, is it kissing each other on the cheek, what…

It’s all of those things. It’s kicking each other in the behind, too. When you’re playing with someone on the front line, it’s a lot of give. I might have to substitute what I might do alone for the sake of the other person and what we’re trying to make together. So we can reach another level. It’s a little different than when you’re soloing. Some different elements come out when playing in the front line.
Describe some of your key partners from throughout the years. Jim Hall?

Jim was great, a wonderful accompanist. He had a great sense of space and time and – for sure – harmonic structure. It gave me what I needed at the time. He’s an exceptional musician. I learned from him.

Don Cherry?

Don and I would practice together, just he and I. Great fun. He had a fantastic musical imagination, musical mind. He always kept things on a creative, unplanned level. Spontaneous.


One of the tunes that tickles me on the new disc is “Remembering Tommy.” Tell me a good Tommy Flanagan story.

Well, he was such a guy…Tommy and I had planned on recording that song under another title a while ago. For one reason or another the date didn’t take place. And one day I was reading a story by a reporter who went to Tommy’s house on the West Side and he was describing Tommy and his wife, the house, and everything. It was nostalgic. He brought out memories, very evocative. And I said, “Wow, man, let me bring this tune back out – the one he and I had planned to record. I changed the name to “Remembering Tommy.”

Fans and critics love to play a parlor game with you. They want to be the producer. “Gee, he needs different band, a trio maybe.” Or “He should make a duets disc, just Sonny and a bassist…” Do people bring that up to you? Are they steadily pitching you contextual ideas?

My wife used to say that to me all the time. “You know Sonny, all these critics want to tell you who you should play with, or what tunes you should play.” There’s something about me where people have their own ideas about how I should be presented. I don’t know if I should be flattered or concerned or what. It’s a form of flattery, though. I’m happy they even consider me.

Back in the day, when you guys were hanging out, would that kind of conversation come up? “Oh, Miles needs drummer X, not drummer Y…” Did you guys speculate how a band could be improved?

Sure, sure. And there would be some musicians…I don’t want to mention names – I’m thinking of a specific case – but I remember a piano player who burst on the scene at a certain time and everybody was saying, “well, no, we still like Bud Powell. Bud’s the best guy to be involved with Charlie Parker’s group, not this other guy. So, yeah, we had our preferences. With Miles, for instance. I always liked Miles with Charlie Parker – outside of the original Dizzy and Parker collaboration, I mean. I always thought that nobody else connected with Bird like Miles did. They really had a perfect symbiosis, if that’s the word.

That a good example of what we’re talking about. Because in the large, everyone might not agree with that. Miles is known as many things, but not the ultimate trumpet player.

Right. But Dizzy and Bird were closer in style – they sounded alike. Miles brought a different approach to what Bird was doing, and I thought that was great. I think Miles is a top-notch player. Now Fats Navarro was a guy who everyone agreed was a whiz, technically. But I heard Miles and Fats Navarro play with each other at Birdland one night, and they were right on the same technical level. I can understand why people might say that about Miles, because he doesn’t always play with that kind of skill. But he definitely had it, and if the occasion presented itself, he’d let it loose.

Was part of the excitement of playing bop and hard bop the physical thrill of the sound? Fats was a thriller, a guy who could overwhelm you as a matter of course.

The dexterity and the musicality, yes. To be able to play like Charlie Parker —  that was just the ultimate. You know how fast Bird played. To be able to get into that kind of thing was masterful. That had its own fascination, yes, and we got a kick out of being able to do it. The music was fun!

They’re finally a movie of Miles’ life.

Well, I hope they do a good job. Generally I’m not impressed with the biographies of jazz musicians that I’ve seen, partly because I’ve known some of them. Once you’ve known somebody the depiction on the screen generally falls short – or that’s my experience at least. I wasn’t thrilled with the Billie Holiday story, cause I knew Billie. The Charlie Parker thing I wouldn’t even go to see. Monk had a film that left people thinking that Monk was some kind of kook or something. You have to be careful with film; it’s larger than life, and to capture a person, it’s going to take an exceptional film to impress me. I knew them!

Was Miles as hot-headed as history has it?

In what sense? How do you mean that?

As quick to rile or as ornery as we hear.

You know that got overblown, and he played on it. He rode it. In part, Miles used to turn his back on stage from shyness. People looked at that and said, “Look, this guy’s really arrogant – he’s turning away from us.” I don’t want to blow his image, but from our association in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, I always though he was shy.


The annual shows at New York’s Damrusch Park have become really special, like a sermon-on-the-mount type of thing.

Well, they’re special because it’s fun to play in New York. I don’t do clubs, so I don’t do New York too much. But playing any place is always a big responsibility, and it’s nice, but it’s tough. I’m very tough on myself and it’s a hard thing to do. I have had some success with doing the shows over the years and the turn-out has been phenomenal and they’ve become something of an event. But on my end, it’s not just happiness; there’s a lot of trepidation, especially a big show in New York. I’m tough on myself critically, so it’s hard to think I’m satisfying my audience. It’s not an automatic thing in any sense of the word.


I was chatting with a horn player who’s been trying to physically change his personal sound. Did you ever go through a period where you overtly tried to not only improve, but indeed create a different sound?

Oh yeah. I’ve done it a great deal in my career, so I understand what this guy’s doing. That’s why we used to change mouthpieces, horns, reeds. We’re always looking for something that’s not there, a sound we’re not getting. I’m still searching. I’m glad I hit it every now and then, but it’s a constant. That’s why I practice every day – I’m still trying to get my stuff together. That sound. You’re looking for a place that will allow you to play easily, freely. Coltrane, and me and all the older cats used to call each other. “Oh yeah, try this mouthpiece, try this approach.” See if they could make you the best you can be.


Do you feel more in touch with sentiment or wistfulness now, as an older man. Do you think you bring different emotions to a song now than you did when you were, say, 30?

An insightful question. I’ve never been asked that in that way.

That’s what I hear at the tail end of “Someday I’ll Find You.”

I’ve never said this before, but I think I have gained a certain amount of experience…so I can get some thoughts over better than I once did. Not in a technical sense, but in an emotional sense, just knowing certain things from life – experiences, you know? It’s very gratifying when those things happen through music. I’ve never been put in the position of saying that. I hope it doesn’t sound to self-aggrandizing. You asked the question, so you made me answer. But yes, I feel I can sometimes get deeper inside an emotion of late. I never thought about it quite that way. But I’m a person who’s always searching and trying to improve myself.

Here’s a fun radio interview with Sonny.

5 responses to “Lost & Found: Sonny Rollins Interview

  1. Jim,
    I love(d) this interview. Glad you could repost.

  2. That is a beautiful interview. Sonny Rollins is my #1 hero in jazz, and you brought out things no one else has in this conversation. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Run Silent, Run Deep: Hall’s Heroics « Lament For A Straight Line

  4. Pingback: Five Fave: Sonny Rollins, Birthday Boy | Lament For A Straight Line

  5. Really enjoyed reading this. What Sonny means to you really comes across here. More so for me than the OnPoint interview or Tavis Smiley’s(although they were both great). I’d like to hear more of you and Sonny talk!

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