Still Great at 80: Celebrating the Music of Sonny Rollins

Sep 9, 2010

Jazz saxophone legend Sonny Rollins celebrated his 80th birthday on September 7th. KPLU's Kirsten Kendrick and Nick Morrison used the opportunity to talk about Rollins' life and play some of his great music. As part of a monthly contribution to NPR's music Web site, Nick compiled a list of five Sonny Rollins' songs that span his extensive career. And Nick talked with Kirsten about some of his selections.

Kirsten: Nick, when did Sonny Rollins first start coming into focus for jazz fans?

Nick: I would guess that the release that really brought him into focus was when he worked as a sideman for Miles Davis on the 1954 Bags Groove recordings. Because Sonny Rollins came in just a member of Miles' Band but he brought with him three songs that he had written that have all become jazz standards: Doxy, Airegin and the song that we're going to hear now, which is Oleo. And this is the Miles Davis group with, of course, Rollins playing tenor saxophone, Horace Silver on piano, the great Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.

Kirsten: Oleo is one of three compositions you said Sonny Rollins penned for the Miles Davis' recording Bags Groove. He played with some other greats while working as a sideman before really coming into his own as a bandleader.

Nick: He did a wonderful recording in 1955 as a member of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. And I think that probably that group would've put together a great body of work. Unfortunately Clifford Brown died in 1956. And from that point on, Sonny Rollins basically didn't work as a sideman with anybody. That's when he started doing a lot of classic recordings under his own name. And so, I'd like to take a look at one of those now from maybe his first classic recording Saxophone Colossus.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Nick: Which is now basically his sobriquet. Everybody calls Sonny the Saxophone Colossus! Well earned. This is a song that KPLU listeners, I think, will be very familiar with, it's St. Thomas.

Kirsten: Well, Nick, Sonny Rollins made a lot of classic albums after Saxophone Colossus in a very short period of time.

Nick: He did, he did. He was on fire between 1956 when that was recorded and 1958, presumably late 1958 because between '56 and '58 Rollins recorded 16 - or maybe 17 - albums, depending on which discography you look at. And during that span, he recorded some of his greatest stuff: Saxophone Colossus, which we were just talking about, also Tenor Madness with John Coltrane, Freedom Suite, Way Out West. And, so, the fact that he was so prolific during that period of time was one of the reasons that the jazz world was gob-smacked stunned when he quit. He just stopped. He decided that he wasn't as good as he wanted to be, so he retired from recording and performing for what turned out to be a three-year sabbatical. And during those three years he just practiced, just "woodshedded," in his apartment in New York (City). But, since he lived in an apartment in New York, it was kind of tough to practice your saxophone and not get the neighbors all upset.

Kirsten: Yeah. Not much of a woodshed. (Laughs)

Nick: Right. So he, very famously, began doing a lot of rehearsing all by himself on the Williamsburg Bridge for hours and hours. He eventually reached a point where he felt like he wanted to return and that was 1962 and he came out with a release that was, curiously enough, called The Bridge.

Kirsten: It's amazing to think that at 80 years old that Sonny Rollins is still out there recording and touring. And, in the recent past, 2001 was particularly an eventful year for him.

Nick: In 2001, he'd been making great recordings at that point for over 50 years. And that was the first year that he won a Grammy. He won a Grammy for an album called This is What I Do. Later on that year, four days after his 71st birthday, on September 11th, he was basically living at Ground Zero, and had to be evacuated from his apartment. All he took with him was his saxophone. And then just several days after that he did a concert at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and that concert was finally issued as a CD in 2005 and he received a Grammy for best instrumental solo for one of the tracks on that release called Why Was I Born? and that's available to be heard in the Sonny Rollins list at our Web site.

Kirsten: Nick, thanks again for providing us with some musical history on the great Sonny Rollins.

Nick: Happy Birthday Sonny!