[JPL] Saxophone Colossus Strides Into a New Life

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 23 19:05:13 EDT 2006

October 21, 2006
Saxophone Colossus Strides Into a New Life 
GERMANTOWN, N.Y. — Until recently, Sonny Rollins
practiced his tenor saxophone in a cottage studio a
short, loping distance from his house here, on the
rustic property he and his wife, Lucille, bought
nearly 35 years ago. Mr. Rollins, who has long been
lionized, partly for his intense, solitary practicing
— or woodshedding, in jazz argot — would often work in
the cottage past nightfall. At the house, his wife
would turn on the porch light so he could find his way
back through the dark.

Lucille Rollins died not quite two years ago, and Mr.
Rollins initially turned to his regimen for solace.
“So I came out here a few times,” he said in his
studio one recent afternoon, “and then I looked, and
there was no light on the porch. It just kind of
highlighted that, well, there’s nobody there now.”
These days, he practices in the house. 

Mr. Rollins has faced many more changes since the
death of his wife, who scrupulously managed his
business affairs for more than 30 years. Last year he
fulfilled his recording contract with Milestone, and
instead of renewing it, he formed his own label, Doxy
Records, through which he is releasing his strongest
studio album in a decade or more, “Sonny, Please.” And
while the album has been licensed to Universal, which
plans to distribute a digital version next month and a
CD in January, it has quietly been available for
several months, along with other merchandise and free
audio and video clips, at sonnyrollins.com. For Mr.
Rollins, who turned 76 six weeks ago, this has all
been new terrain. 

As an elder statesman, Mr. Rollins is aware of the
emblematic impact of his decision to abandon the
traditional recording-industry model, though he plays
down that impact. “This is where the business is
going,” he said. “I hate technology myself, but that
aside, one of the good things technology has done is
allowed guys to use the Internet and sell their own
product. I think this is inevitable.”

A certain amount of faith accompanies that claim,
given that Mr. Rollins does not own a computer. He
consented to a Web site at the urging of the
trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew and a longtime
member of his band. Through the recommendation of
Terri Hinte, the former director of publicity at
Fantasy, Milestone’s parent company, Mr. Anderson
enlisted as Web producer an entrepreneur, Bret
Primack, who first met Mr. Rollins in the 1970’s.

Mr. Primack unveiled sonnyrollins.com on Mr. Rollins’s
75th birthday; he says the site has logged 250,000
visitors from 95 countries. Last month Mr. Primack
assembled some streaming video clips of Mr. Rollins in
concert, provided by a collector, Hal Miller. (They
were up for one week, but most of them can still be
found on YouTube.) Periodically Mr. Primack sends Mr.
Rollins the comments from his guest book, which Mr.
Anderson credits with helping to ease his grief. 

Still, seclusion suits Mr. Rollins, who moved more
than 100 miles north of New York City, he said,
“because Lucille and I wanted to be away from people.”
Answering a knock at the door of his house, he wore a
hooded sweatshirt; a radio inside blared baseball
playoff chatter. (A Yankees fan during his youth in
Harlem, Mr. Rollins grew disillusioned some years ago
with what he called “the mercenary nature of the
team,” and has since rooted for the Mets.) 

For the brief walk from the house to the cottage —
past an actual woodshed, appropriately enough — Mr.
Rollins pulled on snow boots and a ski jacket, though
it was a warm and cloudless day.

Mr. Rollins stomachs but does not savor his
extramusical duties. “Releasing this record and
dealing with lawyers and this whole thing, that’s a
very difficult thing that I have had to do,” he said.
He has also had to approve decisions regarding
concerts and promotions. “So that brings me into the
picture more than I’d want to be,” he said, “but
there’s no choice.” 

He was painting a picture in stark contrast to what he
wistfully remembered as “a perfect existence,” in
which Mrs. Rollins handled everything but the music.
Partly to fill that void, Mr. Rollins has gathered an
inner circle of Mr. Anderson, Ms. Hinte and Mr.
Primack. (His agent, Ted Kurland, occupies a
concentric outer circle, along with his recording
engineer, Richard Corsello, and his tour manager,
Peter Downey.) 

At times this team has knowingly crossed boundaries
established by Mrs. Rollins. The most prominent
example is “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert,” the
album with which Mr. Rollins fulfilled his obligation
last year to Milestone and the Concord Music Group,
which acquired Fantasy in 2004. The album was a
bootleg: the man who recorded it, an avid jazz
collector named Carl Smith, had previously offered it
to the label at no charge. But Mrs. Rollins would
brook no exception to her policy of condemning illicit

“Lucille was adamant about shutting that door and
keeping it shut,” Ms. Hinte said, “and Sonny was not.”

When the album was finally issued, its back story —
involving a concert in Boston just four days after Mr.
Rollins had evacuated his apartment near the World
Trade Center — helped make it a success. Mr. Rollins
was voted artist of the year in two critics’ polls,
and he won a Grammy Award, only the second of his

“Sonny, Please,” recorded in a New York studio one
month after Mr. Rollins and his band had finished a
Japanese tour, has a less dramatic provenance. (Its
title is derived from an expression of exasperation
frequently used by Mrs. Rollins.) But it is a
noteworthy achievement, at least to anyone intimately
acquainted with Mr. Rollins’s working habits. 

“He’s the foremost living example of someone who is
always much too hard on themselves in the studio,”
said Orrin Keepnews, who produced many of Mr.
Rollins’s records over the years, beginning in the
mid-1950’s. “When I worked with Sonny,” Mr. Keepnews
said from his home near Berkeley, Calif., “he refused
to get involved with mixing. As intensely
self-critical as he is, he has obviously crossed into
an area where he can handle that now, which is a big

Mr. Rollins still describes listening to his own
playing as “an excruciating experience.” But because
his wife is gone, and he trusts no one else to edit
his albums, the task is his. While recording “Sonny,
Please,” he went into the engineer’s booth to listen
to playbacks, something he had rarely done before. 

Of course, he had some gentle encouragement. “We were
all trying to make this record more comfortable for
him,” said Mr. Anderson, who is credited as the
album’s producer; he was referring to the band, which
also comprises the bassist Bob Cranshaw, the guitarist
Bobby Broom, the drummer Steve Jordan and the
percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. “We’re committed to
making the music the best vehicle for Sonny to be able
to express himself. A lot of critics say that the band
is just there for Sonny, and that’s true: we’re there
for Sonny.”

Viewed from one perspective, that’s a purely
comforting thought; from another, it might seem
terribly lonely. Mr. Rollins suggested that it might
be both. 

“When I play, I have a lot of responsibility,” he
said. “The band has to sound good, and I’ve got to
sort of bring the band together by what I do.” He
admitted to feeling an increasing burden of
expectation over the years, partly self-inflicted and
partly a product of his stature. 

It is a heavy load for any artist, even if someone
else programs his Web site. Thankfully there exists
that elusive, unforced moment, in the course of some
pressing improvisation, when inspiration strikes, and
the weight, however briefly, disappears. 

“Oh, sure,” Mr. Rollins said, brightening at the
thought of that possibility. “If something like that
happens, everything is fine.” 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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