The Sound of Sonny

SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins, by Aidan Levy

Two images stay in the mind after finishing Aidan Levy’s long biography of the jazz musician Sonny Rollins, with a set of online endnotes half as long again. “Saxophone Colossus” mentions nearly every recording Rollins made, and nearly every concert Rollins ever played for which there is available information (or so it seems). Since I finished it, I have been listening to the music of its subject, much of which is similarly lengthy, thorough, sifting, sorting, wending, quoting, implying an ongoingness and a disinclination to recognize the state of being finished — so in some sense I have not finished it: I am still inside the book. But here are the two images.

One is an image of Rollins apart: essentially Rollins practicing, or playing his tenor saxophone unaccompanied while not on the bandstand. Rollins (born in Harlem as Walter Theodore Rollins) is now 92, and had to give up playing altogether in 2014 because of pulmonary fibrosis; otherwise, for most of his waking life he seems to have had the saxophone in his mouth. Here is a Rollins boyhood memory: “I just loved to play and I would get in the closet and blow for hours — nine, 10 hours, and I would get lost in my own reverie, in the sound.” He is describing himself at around the age of 9.

The other is an image of Rollins in company with others, but not only the fellow Olympians he recorded and toured with, and befriended — Charlie Parker, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown and so forth. Those people are all here, but so are a much broader set of musicians and listeners Rollins knew from jam sessions, private lessons, short-term collaborations and long-term correspondences. Here are the singer Ahmad Basheer, the euphonium player Kiane Zawadi, the drummer Ike Day, the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, the saxophonists Bennie Maupin and David S. Ware; the painters Prophet Jennings and Gertrude Abercrombie, the journalist Randi Hultin. Take the time to know them, this book implies, because Rollins did. At least until the mid-1970s, after which he shifted into a quieter lifestyle in upstate New York with his wife, Lucille, Rollins hung out. Even during busy periods he put in long hours jamming in lofts and rehearsal spaces, with musicians far below his level of achievement. Growth mind-set, yes, this man had it. But not growth toward a material endpoint. He changed up his bands so many times that a reader of this book may grow fatigued clocking all the changes. It may not be crazy to assume that for Rollins, reconfiguring his bands became part of a spiritual daily practice.

And here we are back to practice again. Most jazz musicians practice by themselves; “woodshedding” is part of the life. But Rollins’s notion of practicing expanded into nearly all of his life, to the point where you wonder whether he’s practicing in preparation for the thing or if practice is the thing itself — whatever the thing may be: a gig, a recording, a new level of musical expression, a higher consciousness, the next life. Because this is a story of a virtuoso and also kind of an ethical-spiritual hero, Levy lingers particularly over the most iconic version of Rollins’s practicing, in a chapter called “The Bridge.”

The story has been repeated an unreasonable number of times. In the spring of 1960, when many considered him the greatest jazz musician of his generation, Rollins withdrew. He’d had a decade of extremes. He had experienced addiction, prison and rehab at the New Deal “Narcotic Farm” institution in Lexington, Ky. — all detailed here — and endured the deaths of his mother and Charlie Parker, both of whose encouragement he depended on. He had become a new kind of improviser-hero — self-possessed, stoical, outspoken against racism — and attracted an idolatry that he didn’t really know what to do with. (“I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing,” he told Nat Hentoff in 1957, in a variation on a speech we read many times. “I know what I want. I can hear it.”) He got rid of his phone — friends who wanted to see him were advised to send a telegram — and out of deference to his neighbors found a practice space near his Grand Street apartment on New York’s Lower East Side: a spot by the abutment of the Williamsburg Bridge, where he played unbothered against the sounds of traffic for, in his own telling, up to 16 hours a day.

This was in general for Rollins a period of reconditioning, also involving diet, exercise, yoga, the study of Rosicrucianism and clean living. It wouldn’t be his only sabbatical. (Later in the ’60s he spent some months at an ashram in India.) When Rollins rejoined the scene two years later, he acquiesced to RCA Victor’s insistence that his next record be called “The Bridge.”To this biography’s credit, the whole sequence of events is demystified and given proper context. As I read the book, my reaction to the story of Rollins’s idiosyncratic sabbatical, for the first time, was, essentially: I’d do the same.

Rollins at about 14.Credit…via Sonny Rollins

Or at least I would if I were Sonny Rollins. How clarifying to read about an artistic leader who is, perhaps, obsessively driven, but not at all by his own standing in the world. Levy also shows Rollins in non-iconic solo practice: at a wooded spot near the Palisades Parkway in Alpine, N.J.; in the SoHo basement space Musart, run during the ’60s and ’70s by the saxophonist George Braith; and in various clubs and recording studios after closing time, where by special arrangement Rollins was allowed to play on his own through the night.

Here are many stories, too, of Rollins playing solo in dressing rooms during breaks between sets; of Rollins beginning a gig by starting his playing from the back of the room as he moves his way forward; and even one of him doing the reverse at the end of a set in Chicago in 1964, told by the drummer Beaver Harris: Rollins played without stopping as he made his way to the door, as he opened it, as he closed it, as he walked through the parking lot to find his car. …

Levy has scoured personal archives and the public record for any narrative details relating to Rollins, which are nearly countless, because from at least the 1940s to the 1980s he worked with such a high percentage of musicians who left any kind of trail in the jazz tradition. Most of them have had something to say about Rollins’s stamina, his differentness, his perfectionism and — I hesitate to use the word, but Levy doesn’t — his neuroses. Beyond that, Levy, the author of a biography of Lou Reed, seems to have found every published interview Rollins has ever given (mine included); interviewed Rollins in depth himself many times over the last decade, as well as dozens of musicians, friends and neighbors; and made thorough use of the Sonny Rollins papers, acquired in 2017 by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, including diaries, letters and ephemera. It joins, and was likely inspired by, Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original,” from 2009, as a useful standard on current methods in jazz biography.

I often found myself thinking “who knew”: that Rollins’s grandfather had been a singer in St. Croix in the early years of the 20th century, likely involved in quelbe, the early form of calypso including wind instruments; that Sonny and his family lived on the same long block of Edgecombe Avenue as W.E.B. Du Bois, later one of his political heroes, and that Rollins remembered the older man’s austere expression around the neighborhood; that Rollins had a teenage crush on another neighbor, the artist Faith Ringgold, his near-exact contemporary; that Rollins attended an upstate New York Communist-affiliated summer camp, where Abel Meeropol, songwriter of “Strange Fruit,” was a counselor; that young Rollins was known to stammer. (My mind flashed to his strangely phrased, out-of-sync repetitions of a single note in his 1962 track “John S.”)

The “Bridge” chapter also represents a bridge between the book’s two long sections, and a kind of apex from which the book’s tension begins to slacken. This slackening is not particularly a fault of Levy, a sympathetic and conscientious biographer who keeps his own style dialed way down — far more so than in his biography of Reed — or even of Rollins. After the ’70s his playing often stayed as committed as ever, as his music bent toward funk and calypso-rhythm tunes, but in the telling his context becomes less inspired, out of the local and into the global, from one jazz festival to the next, through recordings whose new technologies deaden his sound, and with musicians, excepting the occasional all-star showdown, who for whatever reason are in less of a position to challenge him. (I am thinking by contrast of his “East Broadway Run Down,” from 1967, the way his saxophone tone seems to burn and glow and bounce off the ceiling, and the way Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and Freddie Hubbard seem to drive him on.) Levy registers some disappointment from musicians and critics who wish he’d go back to X, Y or Z, but there’s not much percentage in his dwelling on it.

Rollins, now, is available as a sage. In a way, he is still practicing: The many wise and philosophical interviews he has given in the eight years since he stopped playing may have reached a greater number of people — or variety of people — than his music did in the eight years before he stopped. I worry that there’s something wrong with that — that a narrative-hungry, impatient culture prefers to hear about jazz rather than listen to it. But this book, a brimming and organized compendium, something to keep returning to like Rollins’s records, is not part of that problem.

Ben Ratliff is the author of “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound” and “Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty.” A former music critic at The Times, he teaches at New York University.

SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins | By Aidan Levy | Illustrated | 772 pp. | Hachette Books | $35

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