[JPL] It's always Sonny: At 77, no plans to hang up the horn

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Mon Aug 25 07:48:12 EDT 2008


It's always Sonny: At 77, no plans to hang up the horn

CHICAGO JAZZ FESTIVAL | Rollins works on new songs

August 24, 2008 Recommend (1)
He's often called the greatest living improviser and deified as the
Saxophone Colossus (the title of his most celebrated recording from 1957).
But Sonny Rollins takes it all with a grain of salt, as indicated by the
somewhat perfunctory titles of his records -- "Don't Ask," "Reel Life,"
"Next Album" and "This Is What I Do."

A bashful, private man, Rollins -- who Thursday night will open the 30th
anniversary Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park -- shot to fame with a
teenage work ethic inspired by his location. He grew up in 1940s Sugar Hill,
a Harlem neighborhood not far from the Apollo Theater, the Savoy Ballroom
and the doorstep of his idol, tenor saxist Coleman Hawkins. As Rollins puts
it: "Harlem was the epicenter of black culture" at that time, so Rollins was
quick to hook up with local master musicians of the era, including pianist
Bud Powell and Powell's mentor, Thelonious Monk. Before he was 20, Rollins
had recorded with Powell, scat singer Babs Gonzalez and Miles Davis, among
others, and was developing a clear, individual style.

During what he calls a "promiscuous period" in the mid-'50s he averaged a
new LP release every other month for several different labels -- unthinkable
today. Then, at the height of his popularity, he took major leaves of
absence from the music business and began exploring, both personally and
musically. He experimented with the free-jazz concepts pioneered by Ornette
Coleman -- who will close this Chicago Jazz Festival on Aug. 31 -- and took
another break between 1968 and 1971 to absorb Eastern philosophies in Japan
and spend time in a monastery in India.

A self-confessed "diamond in the rough," Rollins' sinewy, sand-and-gravel
tone remains as unpretty as it is unmistakable. In 2001, his gritty solo on
Jerome Kern's "Why Was I Born?" earned Rollins a Grammy -- the more
remarkable since the saxophonist had only evacuated his ash-covered
apartment six blocks from 9/11's Ground Zero a couple of days prior. The
death of Rollins' wife, business partner and co-producer, Lucille, in 2005
suggested he might slow his output and cut back live appearances, but this
summer he visited unchartered terrain for his music in southeast Asia,
including Singapore and Korea.

After 30 years with Milestone Records, Rollins joined the modern age and
launched his own label, Doxy Records, marketing personally selected live
recordings through his Web site. The upcoming "Road Shows, Vol. 1" culls
cuts from international dates between 1980 and 2007. But when he spoke with
the Sun-Times last week, Rollins, about to turn 78, insisted he is working
on new material, too.

"I am not putting up my horn and sitting on the back porch with a glass of
lemonade," he said. "I'm in the studio right now. I remain an active
recording musician."

Q. You recently played Sydney Opera House for the first time. Recalling your
affection for Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, had you had an ambition to play
the Opera House?

A. It is my ambition to play anyplace! I'd like to return to Australia, see
more of the country.

Q. Perhaps, since you like outdoor gigs, atop Ayers Rock would be an
alternative venue.

A. Maybe they could drop me down there by helicopter?

Q. And now you will be playing in Frank Gehry's wildly original structure in
Millennium Park, Chicago's Pritzker Pavilion.

A. I was just looking at Gehry's museum in Bilbao, out of my hotel window
the other day, on tour in Spain.

Q. You played the Tokyo Forum in Japan recently, another interesting
building. According to set lists published on your Web site, you encored
with your tune "Global Warming." Was that a message to a country that, like
the U.S., has dragged heels about the ecology crisis, an issue important to

A. It might have been. I put a few Japanese sentences together and made an
announcement to alert people. It's not just the fact of global warming but
the psychology of any people that are irresponsible and foul their own nest.
When I go, I hope it will be a case of "The Little Man Who Wasn't There" and
there won't be a lot of garbage around after Sonny Rollins leaves.

Q. In Korea, a surprise addition to the set was "Kim," which you named after
the son of your longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw.

A. I discovered from the band that night that Bob named Kim after his South
Korean army comrade, a kind of Gunga Din character who was killed by mortar
attack in the Korean War when working alongside Bob in the field. We hadn't
played that tune in 20 years, but everybody knew it.

I first played with Bob [who was born in Evanston] at the first Playboy Jazz
Festival in Chicago in the 1950s, and we've worked together on and off ever

Q. Plus, you have Chicago-based guitarist Bobby Broom in the band, who you
introduced at Carnegie Hall when he was only 16, and now young home-boy
Kobie Watkins on drums.

A. People will say, "What...? Is this Sonny's Chicago All-Stars?!"

Q. No topical music planned for the event then?

A. I've done things like that in the past. This morning I saw "Easter
Parade" with Fred Astaire on the TV, and I remember when I used to play in
the [Greenwich] Village in the '50s, I would make a point of referencing
"Easter Parade" if it was near that time of year. If I was in London, I
might play "Chelsea Bridge" or "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square"; in
fact, on my last trip this year we played -- [sings] "There'll be bluebirds
flying over the white cliffs of Dover" -- since we came in from that port.
But I don't want to reduce myself to a gimmick. Certain songs mean something
to me, there has to be an emotional reaction and these things should be

Q. Recently you've been partial to Hank Williams' "Half as Much."

A. I'm constantly hearing music in my head, or on the radio, but with that
song I liked the melody. It was strictly the harmonic value rather than the

Q. A fan from Barcelona commented on your Web site that he had placed the
saxophone mouthpiece cap you autographed for him next to a portrait of the
Dalai Lama, because you reminded him of one another.

A. Well, that is gratifying, since I had pretensions of being a spiritually
advanced person, trying to equate the purpose of music with peace, love and

Q. But aren't you living the life of a bachelor in your latter years, with
all this touring away from home?

A. [Laughs] I think I'd be fooling myself if I thought I could handle the
regimen of a lothario these days.

Q. Do you resort to Red Bull before a set?

A. Red Bull, what is that? No whisky, pot, amphetamines -- I've been there
and done that. I don't use any crutches. Green tea is my narcotic.

Q. You are a man of sartorial standards. Will you be indulging in some
"retail therapy" before your performance in the park?

A. You won't see me hobnobbing on Michigan Avenue. I have a couple of places
in New York I visit for clothes. I used to wear a lot of things from Yohji
Yamamoto, but fashion changes and I don't feel comfortable wearing that
anymore. I visit D.Cenci, an Italian store on Madison Avenue. I've been
shopping there for many years. I'll bring a couple of options.

Q. The special thing about Millennium Park is that it is very user-friendly,
a gift to the people, a free downtown hang. You are sure to attract a varied

A. That is what I enjoy most, a representative crowd. Not all-black, not
all-white, not all-old, not all-young -- people of the world.

Michael Jackson is a Chicago free-lance writer and critic.

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