Sonny Rollins is one of the greatest musicians of his age. A protégé of Thelonious Monk. A close friend and rival of fellow tenor man John Coltrane. A junkie who did two bids at Rikers Island before kicking his habit in 1955 and cranking out an astounding twenty-four albums under his own name in the next four years, most notably the immortal Saxophone Colossus in 1956, and the groundbreaking civil rights album Freedom Suite in 1958. Then in 1959, at the peak of his fame, he dropped away for two years to practice, nights, on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. That wasn’t the last prolonged sabbatical he took from music. A decade later, Rollins dropped off the scene to study Eastern philosophy and religion in India and Japan.
Rollins, eighty-three, has been combating a respiratory illness over the past year, and when I showed up at his house in Woodstock, New York, his sax was resting on an easy chair. He says he has been able to resume practicing for short stretches. He hopes to start performing again. In the meantime, his Road Shows, Vol. 3—culled from concert highlights between 2001 and 2012—recently dropped.
I’m not about enjoyment. Enjoyment is a serpent with a lot of heads. I’m here to do something; I’m here to learn something. Make an impression on myself. Know for myself that I’m doing something better than I did yesterday. That’s my enjoyment. And I’m at an age where I can say that.
I grew up going to the movies every week. So for me, it was the happy ending and the picket fence and the wife and living forever—I believed in that as a young person growing up. Human beings don’t behave that way.
Do you remember Andy Capp? Andy Capp was my favorite cartoon. Oh boy, that Andy Capp. He was incorrigible.
All my friends wanted to be jazz musicians. We can get all of the girls, dress sharp, drive cars, wear sunglasses—the whole thing. But only me, out of my group—I’m not talking about the other guys I began playing with, this is just the kids I grew up with—none of them had the gift.
That’s my curse. I have to play. That’s what I’m known for. “Saxophone Colossus,” remember?
I don’t want to go to my grave thinking, I wish I could have one more bottle of Moët & Chandon. Or, I wish I could have one more sirloin steak. Those are things of this world.
I knew that the circumstances that got me sent to Rikers Island were not good. I knew that I was doing things that were antisocial, so I deserved to be there. I didn’t feel I’m a victim and all this stuff. I never felt that. All my life, I realized that, to one degree or another, what I did was my own doing. I caused my own problems.
Once I find a way to live properly, the dying will take care of itself.
Look at Coltrane. Coltrane, at the end, all he was talking about was spiritual things. That’s the kind of music he was trying to play. That’s where he was at. The goal is not to be one person off the stage and another person on the stage. The goal is to be a complete circle.
There’s beauty in the world. If there wasn’t, forget about it. But it’s the ugly things that you have to work on.
I was born black. That means in this world I’m going to have problems. That’s what I have to deal with in this life: being born black.
Drugs release a certain inner spirit in a person. The creative spirit is released by the use of these narcotics, or even alcohol or other things. There are other ways to get it done, but that’s an easy way.
It mattered then, to be cool.
Well, how about being born with talent? You can’t be taught music. You can be taught the mechanics of music, but you can’t be taught to be Bud Powell.
Bach was gifted. Or Handel. How many guys in Handel’s group could be Handel and create that music? Handel could. He heard it. It was a gift. But no, not everybody’s going to be a great musician. It just can’t be.
No, you can’t reach into your subconscious. You just have to play and let it happen. I don’t reach into my subconscious. My subconscious asserts itself.
I realize that I’ve got to live off of the bandstand, as well as when I’m on the bandstand. And I realized this when I was using drugs, because I was just on the bandstand maybe three hours a night, but the rest of the day I was out there looking for drugs. It doesn’t compute.
All of the great musicians that I know, that I’ve had the honor of working with—all of those guys—were great guys. Now, did they cheat on their wives? Okay, but they were good people. Inside, they were good people. And in another world, they would be gods.
You can’t think and play at the same time. Impossible. I’ve tried it. You can’t do it. The music is going too fast.