WALTER THEODORE "SONNY" ROLLINS (born September 7, 1930) is an
American jazz tenor saxophonist, widely recognized as one of the most
important and influential jazz musicians. In a seven-decade career,
he has recorded at least sixty albums as leader and a number of his
compositions, including "St. Thomas ", "Oleo ", "Doxy ", "Pent-Up
House", and "
Airegin ", have become jazz standards . Rollins has been
called "the greatest living improviser."
* 1 Early life
* 2 Later life and career
* 2.1 1949–56
* 2.2 1957–spring 1959
* 2.3 Summer 1959–fall 1961: The Bridge
* 2.4 Winter 1961–1969: Musical explorations
* 2.5 1969–71: Second sabbatical
* 2.6 1971–2000
* 2.7 2001–present
* 3 Influences
* 4 Instruments
* 5 Discography
* 6 Decorations and awards
* 7 References
* 8 Further reading
* 9 External links
Rollins was born in
New York City
New York City to parents from the United States
Virgin Islands . The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in
Harlem and on Sugar Hill , receiving his first alto saxophone
at the age of seven or eight. He attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High
School and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem
. Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone , and
finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high school years, he
played in a band with other future jazz legends
Jackie McLean , Kenny
Drew , and
Art Taylor .
LATER LIFE AND CAREER
After graduating from high school in 1947, Rollins began performing
professionally; he made his first recordings in early 1949 as a
sideman with the bebop singer
Babs Gonzales (
J. J. Johnson was the
arranger of the group). Within the next few months, he began to make a
name for himself, recording with Johnson and appearing under the
leadership of pianist
Bud Powell , alongside trumpeter Fats Navarro
Roy Haynes , on a seminal "hard bop " session.
In early 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and spent ten
Rikers Island jail before being released on parole; in 1952,
he was re-arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using
heroin. Between 1951 and 1953, he recorded with
Miles Davis , the
Jazz Quartet ,
Charlie Parker , and
Thelonious Monk . A
breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions
"Oleo", "Airegin", and "Doxy" with a quintet led by Davis that also
Horace Silver .
In 1955, Rollins entered the
Federal Medical Center, Lexington , at
the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While
there, he volunteered for then-experimental methadone therapy and was
able to break his heroin habit, after which he lived for a time in
Chicago , briefly rooming with the trumpeter
Booker Little . Rollins
initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went
on to greater success.
Rollins briefly joined the
Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955.
Later that year, he joined the
Clifford Brown –
Max Roach quintet;
studio albums documenting his time in the band are
Clifford Brown and
Max Roach at Basin Street and
Sonny Rollins Plus 4 . After the deaths
of Brown and the band's pianist,
Richie Powell , in a June 1956
automobile accident, Rollins continued playing with Roach and began
releasing albums under his own name on
Prestige Records , Blue Note ,
Riverside , and the
Los Angeles label Contemporary .
His widely acclaimed album
Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June
22, 1956, at
Rudy Van Gelder 's studio in New Jersey, with Tommy
Flanagan on piano, former
Jazz Messengers bassist
Doug Watkins , and
his favorite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins's sixth recording as a
leader and it included his best-known composition "St. Thomas ", a
Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his
childhood, as well as the fast bebop number "Strode Rode", and
Kurt Weill composition also known as "Mack the Knife
"). A long blues solo on
Saxophone Colossus , "Blue 7", was analyzed
in depth by the composer and critic
Gunther Schuller in a 1958
Sonny Rollins "St. Thomas" (1956) Improvisation from St.
Thomas starting immediately after the melody
Problems playing this file? See media help .
In the solo for "St. Thomas", Rollins uses repetition of a rhythmic
pattern , and variations of that pattern, covering only a few tones in
a tight range, and employing staccato and semi-detached notes. This is
interrupted by a sudden flourish, utilizing a much wider range before
returning to the former pattern. (Listen to the music sample.) In his
Jazz Style of Sonny Rollins, David N. Baker explains that
Rollins "very often uses rhythm for its own sake. He will sometimes
improvise on a rhythmic pattern instead of on the melody or changes."
Ever since recording "St. Thomas", Rollins's use of calypso rhythms
has been one of his signature contributions to jazz; he often performs
traditional Caribbean tunes such as "Hold 'Em Joe" and "Don't Stop the
Carnival," and he has written many original calypso-influenced
compositions, such as "Duke of Iron," "The Everywhere Calypso," and
In 1956 he married the actress and model Dawn Finney.
In 1956 he also recorded
Tenor Madness , using Davis's group –
Red Garland , bassist
Paul Chambers , and drummer Philly Joe
Jones . The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John
Coltrane , who was also a member of Davis's group.
At the end of the year Rollins appeared as a sideman on Thelonious
Brilliant Corners and also recorded his own first album
Blue Note Records , entitled Sonny Rollins, Volume One , with
Donald Byrd on trumpet,
Wynton Kelly on piano,
Gene Ramey on bass, and
Roach on drums.
In 1957, Rollins pioneered the use of bass and drums, without piano,
as accompaniment for his saxophone solos, a texture that came to be
known as "strolling." Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are
Way Out West and
A Night at the Village Vanguard . Way Out West was so
named because it was recorded for California-based Contemporary
Los Angeles drummer
Shelly Manne ), and because it
included country and western songs such as "Wagon Wheels" and "I\'m an
Old Cowhand ". The
Village Vanguard album consists of two sets, a
matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer
Pete LaRoca and an
evening set with bassist
Wilbur Ware and drummer
Elvin Jones . Rollins
used the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes
taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section
instrument during bass and drum solos.
Lew Tabackin cited Rollins's
pianoless trio as an inspiration to lead his own.
Joe Henderson ,
David S. Ware ,
Joe Lovano ,
Branford Marsalis , and Joshua Redman
have also led pianoless sax trios.
Los Angeles in 1957, Rollins met alto saxophonist Ornette
Coleman and the two of them practiced together. Coleman, a pioneer of
free jazz , stopped using a pianist in his own band two years later.
By this time, Rollins had become well known for taking relatively
banal or unconventional songs (such as "There\'s No Business Like Show
Business " on
Work Time , "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye" on The Sound
of Sonny , and later "
Sweet Leilani " on the Grammy-winning album This
Is What I Do ) and using them as vehicles for improvisation.
Rollins acquired the nickname "Newk" because of his facial
Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher
Don Newcombe .
Sonny Rollins at the San Francisco Opera House, February 22, 1982
1957's Newk\'s Time saw him working with a piano again, in this case
Kelly, but one of the most highly regarded tracks is a saxophone/drum
Surrey with the Fringe on Top " with
Philly Joe Jones . Later
in the same year he made his
Carnegie Hall debut and recorded again
for Blue Note with Johnson on trombone,
Horace Silver or Monk on piano
Art Blakey (released as Sonny Rollins, Volume Two ). That
December, he and fellow tenor saxophonist
Sonny Stitt were featured
Dizzy Gillespie 's album
Sonny Side Up .
In 1958, he appeared in
Art Kane 's A Great Day in
of jazz musicians in New York; as of 2017, he is one of only two
surviving musicians from the photo (the other being
Benny Golson ).
The same year, Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone,
bass and drums trio: Freedom Suite . His original sleeve notes said,
"How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim
America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that
the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence,
is being rewarded with inhumanity." The title track is a
nineteen-minute improvised bluesy suite; the other side of the album
features hard bop workouts of popular show tunes.
Oscar Pettiford and
Max Roach provided bass and drums, respectively. The LP was available
only briefly in its original form, before the record company
repackaged it as Shadow Waltz, the title of another piece on the
Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass (
Sonny Rollins Brass/Sonny
Rollins Trio), Rollins made one more studio album in 1958, Sonny
Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders , before taking a three-year
break from recording. This was a session for
Contemporary Records and
saw Rollins recording an esoteric mixture of tunes including
Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody " with a West Coast group
made up of pianist
Hampton Hawes , guitarist
Barney Kessel , bassist
Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Manne.
In 1959 he toured Europe for the first time, performing in Sweden,
the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and France.
SUMMER 1959–FALL 1961: THE BRIDGE
By 1959, Rollins had become frustrated with what he perceived as his
own musical limitations and took the first – and most famous – of
his musical sabbaticals . While living on the
Lower East Side
Lower East Side of
Manhattan, he ventured to the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg
Bridge to practice, in order to avoid disturbing a neighboring
expectant mother. In the summer of 1961, the journalist Ralph Berton
happened to pass by the saxophonist on the bridge one day and
published an article in
Metronome magazine about the occurrence.
During this period, Rollins became a dedicated practitioner of yoga .
In 2016, a campaign was initiated that seeks to have the bridge
renamed in Rollins's honor.
WINTER 1961–1969: MUSICAL EXPLORATIONS
In November 1961, Rollins returned to the jazz scene with a residency
Jazz Gallery in
Greenwich Village ; in March, 1962, he appeared
Ralph Gleason 's television series
Jazz Casual . During the 1960s,
he lived in
Brooklyn , New York.
He named his 1962 "comeback" album The Bridge at the start of a
RCA Records . Produced by
George Avakian , the disc was
recorded with a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall ,
Ben Riley on
drums, and bassist
Bob Cranshaw . This became one of Rollins's
best-selling records; in 2015 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of
Rollins's contract with RCA lasted through 1964 and saw him remain
one of the most adventurous musicians around. Each album he recorded
differed radically from the previous one. The 1962 disc What\'s New?
explored Latin rhythms. On the album Our Man in
Jazz , recorded live
The Village Gate , he explored avant-garde playing with a quartet
that featured Cranshaw on bass,
Billy Higgins on drums and Don Cherry
on cornet. He also played with a tenor saxophone hero, Coleman Hawkins
, and free jazz pianist
Paul Bley on
Sonny Meets Hawk! , and he
re-examined jazz standards and
Great American Songbook melodies on
Now\'s the Time and
The Standard Sonny Rollins (which featured pianist
Herbie Hancock ).
In 1963, he made the first of many tours of Japan.
In 2007, recordings from a 1965 residency at Ronnie Scott\'s were
released by the Harkit label as Live in London; they offer a very
different picture of Rollins' playing from the studio albums of the
period. (These are unauthorized releases, and Rollins has responded
by "bootlegging" them himself and releasing them on his website.)
Upon signing with
Impulse! Records , he released a soundtrack to the
1966 film Alfie , as well as
There Will Never Be Another You and Sonny
East Broadway Run Down (1966), which
Freddie Hubbard , bassist
Jimmy Garrison , and
Elvin Jones , Rollins did not release another studio album for
In 1968, he was the subject of a television documentary, directed by
Dick Fontaine , entitled Who is Sonny Rollins?
1969–71: SECOND SABBATICAL
In 1969, Rollins took another two-year sabbatical from public
performance. During this hiatus period, he visited
Jamaica for the
first time and spent several months studying yoga , meditation , and
Eastern philosophies at an ashram in
Powai , India, a district of
He returned from his second sabbatical with a performance in
Kongsberg , Norway, in 1971. Reviewing a March 1972 performance at
Village Vanguard night club,
The New Yorker
The New Yorker critic Whitney
Balliett wrote that Rollins "had changed again. He had become a
whirlwind. His runs roared, and there were jarring staccato passages
and furious double-time spurts. He seemed to be shouting and
gesticulating on his horn, as if he were waving his audience into
battle." The same year, he released
Next Album and moved to
Germantown , New York. Also in 1972, he was awarded a Guggenheim
Fellowship in composition.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he also became drawn to R the group was
filmed performing live at Ronnie Scott\'s in London. For most of this
period Rollins was recorded by producer
Orrin Keepnews for Milestone
Records (the compilation Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on
Milestone contains a selection from these years). In 1978 he, McCoy
Ron Carter , and
Al Foster toured together as the Milestone
It was also during this period that Rollins' passion for
unaccompanied saxophone solos came to the forefront. In 1979 he played
The Tonight Show
The Tonight Show and in 1985 he released The Solo
Album , recorded live at the
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art in New York. He
also frequently played long, extemporaneous unaccompanied cadenzas
during performances with his band; a prime example is his introduction
to the tune "Autumn Nocturne" on the 1978 album Don\'t Stop the
By the 1980s, Rollins had stopped playing small nightclubs and was
appearing mainly in concert halls or outdoor arenas; through the late
1990s he occasionally performed at large New York rock clubs such as
Tramps and The Bottom Line . In 1981, he was asked to play uncredited
on three tracks by the Rolling Stones for their album
Tattoo You ,
including the single, "
Waiting on a Friend ". That November, he led a
saxophone masterclass on French television. In 1983, he was honored
as a "
Jazz Master" by the
National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts .
In 1986, documentary filmmaker
Robert Mugge released a film titled
Saxophone Colossus. It featured two Rollins performances: a quintet
Opus 40 in upstate New York and his Concerto for
Saxophone and Symphony with the
Yomiuri Shimbun Orchestra in Japan.
In 1993, the
Sonny Rollins International
Jazz Archives opened at the
University of Pittsburgh .
New York City
New York City Hall proclaimed November 13, 1995, to be "Sonny Rollins
In 1997, he was voted "
Jazz Artist of the Year" in the Down Beat
magazine critics' poll. The following year, Rollins, a dedicated
advocate of environmentalism , released an album entitled Global
Rollins at Newport in 2008
Critics such as
Gary Giddins and
Stanley Crouch have noted the
disparity between Rollins the recording artist, and Rollins the
concert artist. In a May 2005 New Yorker profile, Crouch wrote of
Rollins the concert artist:
Over and over, decade after decade, from the late seventies through
the eighties and nineties, there he is, Sonny Rollins, the saxophone
colossus, playing somewhere in the world, some afternoon or some eight
o'clock somewhere, pursuing the combination of emotion, memory,
thought, and aesthetic design with a command that allows him to
achieve spontaneous grandiloquence. With its brass body, its
pearl-button keys, its mouthpiece, and its cane reed, the horn becomes
the vessel for the epic of Rollins' talent and the undimmed power and
lore of his jazz ancestors.
Rollins won a 2001
Grammy Award for Best
Jazz Instrumental Album for
This Is What I Do (2000). On September 11, 2001, the 71-year-old
Rollins, who lived several blocks away, heard the World Trade Center
collapse , and was forced to evacuate his apartment, with only his
saxophone in hand. Although he was shaken, he traveled to
days later to play a concert at the
Berklee School of Music . The live
recording of that performance was released on CD in 2005 as Without a
Song: The 9/11 Concert , which won the 2006 Grammy for Jazz
Instrumental Solo for Rollins' performance of "
Why Was I Born? "
Rollins was presented with a
Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in
2004; that year also saw the death of his wife, Lucille.
In 2006, Rollins went on to complete a
Down Beat Readers Poll triple
win for: "Jazzman of the Year", "#1 Tenor Sax Player", and "Recording
of the Year" for the CD Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert . The band
that year featured his nephew, trombonist
Clifton Anderson , and
included bassist Cranshaw, pianist Stephen Scott , percussionist
Kimati Dinizulu , and drummer
Perry Wilson .
Sonny Rollins at
Jazz Fest 2009
After a successful Japanese tour Rollins returned to the recording
studio for the first time in five years to record the Grammy-nominated
Sonny, Please (2006). The CD title is derived from one of his
wife's favorite phrases. The album was released on Rollins' own label,
Doxy Records, following his departure from
Milestone Records after
many years and was produced by Anderson. Rollins' band at this time,
and on this album, included Cranshaw, guitarist
Bobby Broom , drummer
Steve Jordan and Dinizulu.
During these years, Rollins regularly toured worldwide, playing major
venues throughout Europe, South America, the Far East, and
Australasia. On September 18, 2007, he performed at
Carnegie Hall in
commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his first performance
there. Appearing with him were Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom
(guitar), Cranshaw (bass), Dinizulu (percussion),
Roy Haynes (drums)
Christian McBride (bass).
Around 2000, Rollins began recording many of his live performances;
since then, he has archived recordings of over two hundred and fifty
concerts. To date, four albums have been released from these archives
on Doxy Records and
Okeh Records : Road Shows, Vol. 1; Road Shows,
Vol. 2 (with four tracks documenting his 80th birthday concert, which
included Rollins's first ever recorded appearance with Ornette Coleman
on the twenty-minute "Sonnymoon for Two"); Road Shows, Vol. 3; and
Holding the Stage, released in April 2016.
In 2010 Rollins was awarded the
National Medal of Arts and the
Edward MacDowell Medal . The following year he was the subject of
another documentary by Dick Fontaine, entitled Beyond the Notes.
In 2013, Rollins moved to
Woodstock, New York
Woodstock, New York . That spring, he made
a guest television appearance on
The Simpsons and received an
honorary Doctor of Music degree from the
Juilliard School in New York
In 2014 he was the subject of a Dutch television documentary entitled
Sonny Rollins-Morgen Speel ik Beter and in October 2015, he received
Jazz Foundation of America 's lifetime achievement award.
Rollins has not performed in public since 2012, due to recurring
As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R
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