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Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins on Retiring His Sax, His Legacy, and the Secret to Life

Sonny Rollins Photo: Getty Images

Sonny Rollins is, inarguably, on any short list of greatest living American musicians. So vast, intelligent, and witty is his improvisational skill, and so satisfying the sheer, sensuous life force of his saxophone playing. And though the 87-year-old has very likely blown his last note in public — a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis has made that a near-certainty — he’s left behind a 66-year-long trail of joyous, searching recordings and live performances. If you’ve got a heart, Sonny Rollins’s music can touch it. That’s what I think; he disagrees. “I dedicated my life to my music,” says Rollins without regret, speaking on the phone from his home in upstate New York, “and I never got it to where I wanted it be.”

Rollins has been feeling autumnal these days, partly because he recently donated his massive personal archives to New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and partly because he had to put down his horn. (The memory of his beloved wife, Lucille, who passed away in 2004, also hangs heavy.) “When you’re on the wrong side of 87,” says Rollins, “there’s all sorts of things happening to you, and they all make you look back at the life you’ve lived.” He gives a short, rasping laugh. “But I’ve been lucky, haven’t I?”

What sorts of feelings did putting your archives in order stir up? That material is the stuff of your life, and now you’re giving it away.
I could say it put me in a reflective mood, but most of the archiving itself was done by someone else, and the truth is that my life has been in a reflective mode for some years now. Maybe my whole life has been in that mode. It’s gotten more that way since I became unable to blow by horn. That was hard. I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve done musically, what I could’ve done, what I might’ve done.

What’s the nature of those thoughts?
What’s the meaning of life? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?

Have you come up with any answers?
You know, I listen to the radio a lot and there’s a guy that comes on and says, “Have a good day today and enjoy.” I hate the word “enjoy.” Because to me life is not about enjoyment or, in other words, getting for yourself. That’s not why we’re here. The reason of life, to me, is all about giving. Giving is what gives me happiness. Making somebody else happy is the greatest thing you can do.

Even though you can’t play anymore, it must bring you some satisfaction to know that you gave people so much through your music.
Not really.

Why not?
I’m thrilled when somebody tells me that listening to my music gives them some solace or peace, but I played music for myself, too. I was getting something out of it. So I don’t consider my musical gifts as any kind of servitude. It wasn’t giving of myself, because I got too much out of it. I had to play music. I had to. It’s something I wanted to do when I was a child. That’s like a gift to me. It’s not me giving. Do you understand what I mean?

I think so. You’re saying that your playing music wasn’t an act of giving because it didn’t come from a purely altruistic place.
Yeah, that’s right.

So if not through your music, how have you been able to give?
By being a nice person. By going by the golden rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Trying to observe that rule, trying to be kind, not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings. It’s just about thinking of others, and how you can do something for them. I’m okay. I’m not worrying about the ending. I’ve gotten so much in my life, so much love — more from the public than I probably deserve. My life now is about what I can do for others. That’s what life means. That’s what it should always mean.

You mentioned that in your moments of reflection, you think about what you have and haven’t achieved musically. In both categories, what stands out?
Achievements — I don’t know. The thing about me is that I was always practicing my instrument. I knew that’s what I had to do to improve. Here’s an incident I remember: I was playing in Munich and we had a nice concert that night, which is not always the case. During the concert, I’d been trying to work on some musical passages, and after it was over, when everybody was leaving, I was in my dressing room trying to work out this little passage. Everyone was leaving and I’m this little room playing. See? I knew what I had to do to get better. My thing, my burden, in my life was that I had to stop blowing my horn, so I never got to the musical place I wanted to get to. That was my bête noire — what does that mean?

Literally I think it means black beast. I know what you’re saying: Having to stop playing was your cross to bear.
Right. It was my problem. But am I going to get mad at the heavens now because I couldn’t ultimately play the way I wanted to play? Of course not. I tried. And I believe in reincarnation, so I also believe that I’ll have another opportunity to get it — whatever it was and in whatever new situation arises. I’m not unhappy about the fact that I couldn’t reach the brass ring in this life.

Can you tell me more about how it felt when you understood that you couldn’t play the saxophone anymore?
A while back, I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. I’d play and I’d get really sick after. So I said, “Oh shit, I can’t play my horn.” I went through a period of depression; I was really low. I’d been on this life quest to try and fulfill my potential with music, and not being able to play anymore meant I wasn’t going to get a chance to do that. But I eventually came out of my depression when I realized that rather than being depressed I should be grateful. I had an opportunity to live a life as a musician, which I always wanted to do. I was even able to achieve some prominence — that was a wonderful, wonderful gift. I didn’t want to be like a spoiled child, “Gee, I didn’t get everything I wanted to get under the Christmas tree.” It would be selfish of me to think like that. I decided I didn’t want to be that person. Once all of those feelings gelled in my mind, I was able to come out of my depression and accept my circumstances and be grateful for what I’d had.

Do musical ideas still pop into your head?
Oh god, always. I can’t get rid of them. It’s just a little trial that I have to endure. I still finger my horn, too. I deal with it. It’s all good, man. It’s all good.

When you say you were trying to get to a certain place with your music, can you explain what that place was? Are you talking about getting technically better on your instrument? Or was it about getting better at conveying emotion?
I wanted to be able to play anything that I thought of, and that required a certain level of technical facility. I wanted to have a general, comfortable feeling that whatever it was I wanted to do on my horn — bang — I’d be able to do it.

So the desire to keep improving wasn’t about the emotion that the technical facility was presumably in service of?
I leave the emotion to the higher powers. The emotion is the spiritual part of music — of everything — and trying to understand where that comes from or how to achieve that would be like trying to understand God. When I was playing, I just wanted to get the technical part as best I could and leave the other part to the universal spirit. If I’d do my part, the universe would do its part. That’s also one of the things I’ve come to understand about life: I have to do my part in every aspect of my life. If I’m trying to be a good person, I’ve got to do the work to be that. I don’t think any honest person is egotistical enough to feel that they’ve got every aspect of their life under control. But everyone has the capacity to work on those things, whether it’s getting mad too fast or getting better at your horn. If you seriously try to correct your faults, then the universe will do its part, it will take you in. The universe is good, David. I believe that. The universe is good, and it’s there for us to realize it.

Our corner of the universe doesn’t seem so good right now. How are you feeling about the country these days?
That’s complicated.

Have we progressed as a country since the days of Freedom Suite?
How can I explain this? Just because the universe is good doesn’t mean that there’s not bad in it. Let me try to put it this way: Like I said, I believe in reincarnation. So all these terrible people that we know of in the world, including the president or whoever, who might seem like they’re running things right now, they are going to have to pay for what they do. No one gets away with anything. There have always been evil people, man. Come on. Hate is not new. It’s up to the individual — you, David; me, Sonny — to try and figure out what the fuck this thing called existence is all about. It’s up to us to try and be good, if we want our souls to improve. It’s the truth: You will reap what you sow. I believe that very strongly.

How has jazz’s place in the culture changed over the course of your career?
It’s still very important. People today might say there’s not as much jazz as there was back in the ’50s, or that it’s not as popular, but to me it seems like jazz has gotten almost deified now. A lot of people look at jazz with a level of respect that it didn’t have before. The idea of jazz is so spiritual, and it has such great qualities, that it will always withstand whatever the larger culture is.

In terms of respect and your own career, there are certain albums of yours, like Nucleus, or tunes, like “Harlem Boys,” that tend to be considered by critics as far inferior to stuff like “Blue 7” or A Night at the Village Vanguard. Do you think, with your work, improvisational complexity has been praised at the expense of music that maybe was simpler but emotionally just as affective?
Have you ever read the book by Nicolas Slonimsky, “The Lexicon of Musical Invective”? It’s fantastic. It’s about the way that some of the great symphony composers were treated by critics during their lifetimes. Boy, if you read that book, you’ll want to go out and get a gun and shoot all the critics. They were so often so wrong in their judgments. Look, critics — it’s okay, they’re just doing their job. As far as what I do, I’m happy that I’ve been able to do a lot of different records in my life in a lot of different styles. That’s just who I am. I’m always grateful when anybody tells me they like something that I did musically. The universe gave me my musical gift. Sure, I developed it, but I understand the bigger context — I got that gift. I’m very humble about it.

Can you point to certain performances or albums or even individual solos where you felt like you were able to achieve everything you wanted to achieve with your playing?
Oh, I got there. When I was working regularly, out of a year I’d get maybe two performances where I felt like I was able to play everything that came into my mind. Man, those nights were great. I can’t even describe how great they were. I haven’t made a lot of records which I thought were really like that, but in performance I did reach the peak of what I could do on rare occasions. And reaching the peak always means you can still go so much higher. Do you know what I mean?

One peak just gives you a view of the next?
Yes, that’s right. That’s it.

Do you know about this movement to get the Williamsburg Bridge renamed after you?
I’m aware of it.

How do you feel about that?
Well, when I first began going up there, I found a spot on the bridge where I was unseen. Nobody riding on the subway could see me, and nobody driving in cars could see me. The boats down below couldn’t really see me either; I was hidden by the abutments from the bridge. I’m very flattered and appreciative, but I find the idea to want to name a place where I was trying to hide after me to be a bit funny.

Has the notion of you playing your horn alone on the bridge been over-romanticized?
I was just looking for a place to practice. If you’re a musician in New York and you’re living in an apartment where people are so close to each other, it’s hard to practice without disturbing your neighbors. So, in other words, yeah, people have mythologized my playing on the bridge. I was just looking for a place to practice. Simple. Period. End of story.

This is a little tangential, but I’ve always really loved the music you recorded with Thelonious Monk, and Monk is someone who not every musician could be simpatico with. Why’d you guys play so well together?
The thing is that Monk [laughs] … oh, boy. You have to understand this: Monk really respected me. I appreciated that and it was reflected in the music. You know, later on as years went by, I was in India, studying at an ashram, and I realized, Wow, Monk is my guru, my mentor. He carried me through a lot of phases of understanding. But Monk looked up to me as much as I looked up to him. At least that’s how it felt, and perhaps feeling that allowed for great music to be made. I want to make sure that doesn’t come off as disrespectful to Monk.

I don’t think it does.
Good. Monk was one of the most beautiful human beings I ever met in my life. He was the most honest person; he was the most real person. Oh, boy. I still pray to Monk’s spirit for forgiveness: Hey man, I did some stupid things. I do that a lot. I’m still trying to make amends for some of my early life when I did a lot of ignorant things. But hey, that’s what life is: You mess up, and you try to become aware. I hope I’ve done that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jazz Icon Sonny Rollins on Giving Up Playing and His Legacy