Tag Archives: aamam

sonny rollins

Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins on Why He Hasn’t Hit His Peak Yet

sonny rollins

Sonny Rollins

The year was 1930 and Harlem was a Mecca of jazz. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were coming to the end of their residency at the Cotton Club at Lenox and West 142nd, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was experimenting with improvisation that would later influence modern forms of jazz, and Fats Waller had composed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose” just the year before. This was the environment into which prolific tenor sax player Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins was born. “Harlem was the black center of culture in the US in those years and I benefited by being close to a lot of great musicians and leaders in the black community,” says Rollins, 78, of Local 802 (New York City). “It afforded me a great education—I was very fortunate to have grown up in this ambiance.”

Rollins’ first stab at music came when his mom signed him up for lessons on the piano. Despite growing up in the birthplace of the Harlem Stride (a style of improvisational jazz piano) mastering the ivories was not written in the stars for Rollins. He preferred playing stickball out in the streets with his contemporaries.

Even though the piano wasn’t the instrument for Rollins, he was fascinated by the rollicking rhythms of Fats Waller and other Harlem musicians he heard on the radio. “He influenced me very much,” says Rollins of fellow Harlemite, Waller. “His music was such a mood lifter; he made sunlight shine every place just by listening to him.”

By the time Rollins was seven, it was pretty clear he had an intense desire to give the saxophone a try. Both his uncle and a family friend played the instrument and one of his idols, Louis Jordan, played the alto sax in a club next to Rollins’ elementary school. Every day Rollins would admire photographs of Jordan plastered to the outside of the club, featuring the musician in a dapper suit and bow tie, holding the shiny horn.

“I don’t want to sound braggadocio, but I always did have this feeling I was destined to be a good musician,” says Rollins.

Once he saw the saxophone in person, he was hooked. “I remember a family friend showing me his saxophone that he kept under his bed,” says Rollins. “It was so beautiful looking, gold and gleaming against the velvet case, oh boy, I was just wide-eyed.”

For 25 cents a lesson, Rollins’ mom enrolled him in the New York Academy of Music. Although Rollins took lessons, he is largely self-taught. He practiced relentlessly and often got lost in his music. Rollins remembers his mom often having to call him several times to come to dinner.

A few years later, Rollins moved to upper Harlem on Sugar Hill where a community of New York’s black elite lived. It was around this time that Rollins’ career as a saxophone player took off. Now, living even closer to music icons Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, Rollins’ reputation as an up and coming sax whiz, began to swell.

After leading a high school group consisting of Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor, talk around Harlem provided Rollins opportunities to play with Thelonious Monk and record with Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell when he was 18-years-old. “I began playing with some of the older musicians and they sort of broke me in,” says Rollins. “I began getting recommended by people and then I met up with Babs Gonzalez who gave me my first recording date in the late ’40s.”

Rollins joined the AFM around the time of these first recordings. “I believe workers need the protection of a union,” says Rollins. “I’m a big union man and I’m proud of it.”

By the time Rollins was 20 years old, he had played many clubs around Harlem with Davis, Charlie Parker, Monk, and Powell.

By the mid 1950s, Rollins recorded three songs with Davis that would become jazz standards: “Airegin,” “Doxy,” and “Oleo.” Rollins began to play with the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet and was featured on several recordings as the leader of the group. His critically acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus, released in 1956, gave Rollins legendary status as an innovator in the area of thematic improvisation. The popular “St. Thomas” track was based upon a traditional calypso song his mother, a native of the Virgin Islands, sang to him as a child.

The excessive praise Rollins received from the album, along with comparisons to other influential players like Charlie Parker, made Rollins uncomfortable. He retreated from public life for three years in what would be the first of several sabbaticals from music.

“I was getting a little bit of a claim in the jazz community and I felt I wasn’t quite up to my claim because I knew there were musical things I wanted to work on,” says Rollins of his leave from the music scene. What is known to many fans as the “bridge period,” Rollins spent practicing his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge, close to his home on the Lower East Side. Once a club headliner, Rollins was practicing in solitude alongside rushing cars, above the East River.

“I learned people have to listen to their inner selves, they can’t do things because they are expected to, or because everyone else is doing it,” says Rollins. “I was going against all conventional wisdom at the time. When I came back, critics said, ‘Gee Sonny, you don’tsound any different since you went up there.’ That may be true, but it gave me an inner strength—that was the big lesson that happened as a result of the bridge.”

When Rollins re-emerged in the music scene in 1962, he released a recording aptly named, The Bridge. For the next several years, Rollins was known for his stream-of-consciousness solo playing and his ability to deftly rework hackneyed and old melodies, making them fresh and his own.

Once again, in the late ’60s, Rollins decided to put his performance life on hold, and studied Eastern philosophy and religion in Japan and India. “I was on a quest to find out about life and its purpose,” says Rollins. “I was always a deep thinker, even as a child.”

Although Rollins doesn’t equate that particular sabbatical with a change in the style of music he plays, he does consider himself an introspective musician. Rollins has a favorite outdoor spot off of the Palisades Parkway, overlooking the Hudson River where he used to play after a night of club gigs in New York. “Just being alone with yourself and your music, that’s a very consciousness-raising thing to do,” says Rollins. “I always like to play in the open under the elements with the feeling of being closer to nature—that’s my heaven on earth.”

Rollins’ nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson of Local 802, runs the label that they co-own, Doxy Records, and recognizes the spirituality his uncle possesses. “He’s always been that way,” says Anderson. “He always studies to further himself and he’s still in that process today. He leads the way for other musicians to see that the more you know about yourself, the better you are able to assimilate and create what it is you’ve absorbed, and to create something fresh with your music.”

Continuing to seek growth in his music, Rollins still tours with his band, which includes nephew Anderson. Rollins says the discomforts and inconveniences of traveling are all worth it in the end. “I can learn more in one concert than I can in months and months of practicing,” says Rollins. “Nothing can match the thrill of a live performance.”

After releasing live album Road Shows Volume One last year, Rollins is looking to record another album in 2009 with some compositions he’s put together. Mostly, he just feels blessed for his opportunities. “Life is not just one easy ride—there were a lot of horror times,” says Rollins. “Being a musician is not the easiest life in the world but I always knew I wanted to be one. I still practice every day and I am still searching to make a better musical statement. I feel I haven’t really gotten my best work out yet and I’m just so happy to be involved in the thing I’ve loved all my life.”

ron carter

Ron Carter: Jazz’s Elder Statesman

ron carter

Ron Carter

“I’m a reluctant star,” says Ron Carter, humbly. “I’m always surprised when projects are offered to me by strangers, even pop singers, whom I don’t know. I’m taken aback that they’ve heard of me and know enough about my integrity and professionalism to approach me.”

Then, somewhat surprisingly for a musician of Carter’s stature, he adds, “I always blush a little when I get those phone calls.”

One reason that so many young musicians, in and out of the jazz world, know Carter, a member of Local 802 (New York City), is that he is incredibly prolific. To date, he has recorded on more than 2,500 albums.

The Sideman

Another reason is that the roll call of front men and women Carter has played for includes some of jazz’s greatest legends: Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, and Milt Jackson, to name a few. A good website helps, too: at www.roncarter.net, fans young and old can listen to his work directly.

Then there is the fact that over the years Carter has built a reputation for lending his wisdom to projects outside of the jazz genre. He has played blues with BB King of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), funk with James Brown, soul with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), and even modern classical with the Kronos Quartet. “I’m always happy to broaden my horizons,” he says, “and people call me because they seem to trust my judgment.”

“I’ve played as a sideman all the way,” explains Carter, looking back on his 50-year career. “My job has always been to make the musicians around me sound much better. I have not minded subjugating my ego eight bars back if I know that I can contribute to a successful project.”

As an example of how he fulfills the role of sideman, Carter recalls one project with Stanley Turrentine when the group was searching for numbers to fill out an album. “At that point, someone had to step forward and make suggestions about tunes and arrangements, and I’ve been known to do that.” Carter then puts his role in military terms: “The frontman is like a general sitting at the desk, while I’m an officer in the field.”

Stepping Out

But everyone at some point wants to be a band leader, admits Carter, and in this latest stage of his storied career, he has decided to see if some of his own ideas about how to lead a band, learned by watching jazz’s greatest leaders at work, can come to fruition. Carter has recorded several albums recently as a bandleader, including The Golden Striker for Blue Note Records.

“I’m absolutely pleased with what I’ve done as a leader,” he says, adding that it’s still frustrating when club managers want to book bands that have a trumpet player or singer out front. “But I’m comfortable that my approach is the correct one,” Carter asserts.

In a way, fronting his own jazz combos–either a trio, quartet, or nonet–is a return to Carter’s earliest days as a jazz bassist, when he started up a quartet with like-minded musicians in his neighborhood, having left behind the cello as an 18-year-old in Ferndale, Michigan.

New Skills

After high school Carter attended Wayne State University, near Detroit, and soon heard about an audition for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. “I auditioned in 1955 while the recruiters were in my area,” recalls Carter.

Carter remembers his time at Eastman as a fabulous experience that gave him many chances to perform and gain valuable experience as a sideman. Eastman also gave the jazz player a classical music education (he played in the Eastman Philharmonic Orchestra), which extended his range. “Eastman’s classical music education gave me new skills and helped me become a more diverse musician,” Carter explains.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in music at Eastman, Carter went on to earn a masters degree in double bass at the Manhattan School of Music. Today, those two diplomas are joined by honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music, and in 2002 his alma mater recognized him with its prestigious Hutchinson Award.

Miles of Smiles

In 1960 Carter joined the all-union Randy Weston Quartet and began his professional career. After leaving Weston, he freelanced in New York City, where his reputation grew enough for Miles Davis to take notice. “In those day, Miles’ concerts were one night gigs for me,” Carter remembers. “Whenever Miles had gigs though, I’d be performing.”

The call from Davis proved fortuitous when Carter’s became one element of the latest sound the great trumpet player was experimenting with. “When I played with Miles, it was like having five men in a laboratory with the same goal,” he explains. Those five men came to be known as one of most legendary groups in jazz history: along with Davis and Carter, it featured George Coleman on tenor sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, both of Local 802, and Tony Williams on drums.

When asked what it was like when these musicians got together to rehearse, Carter replies, remarkably, that “we only had two rehearsals during my five years with the group.” What made it work, he says, is that there was absolute trust between the musicians. “It was a collective,” Carter continues. “The sidemen were all equal and Miles allowed us to be equal with him.”

While Carter was working at the Half Note in March 1963, Davis was reorganizing his road band and asked Carter if he’d like to join full-time. He agreed and began a new chapter of his life as a traveling musician, playing with Davis all over the country, as well as on the classic albums Four & More, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and others.

Life on the road proved challenging, though, especially when Carter became a father. “I truly enjoyed working with Miles, but I had two sons born in 1962 and 1965, and playing in the band made me feel as if they were growing up without me,” he admits, “so I left the band.”

Sonic Presence

Today, Carter is recognized as a legend in his own right, a status measured to some degree by awards bestowed on him. He has been named Outstanding Bassist of the Decade by the Detroit News, Jazz Bassist of the Year by Downbeat magazine, Most Valuable Player by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and he received Grammys in 1993 for Best Jazz Instrumental Group and in 1998 for the Best Instrumental Composition.

The elder statesman is well-positioned to comment on the contemporary jazz scene. “There’s more of a responsibility put on vocalists and the media these days,” Carter observes. “In the past, when I was growing up, there were more clubs, radio stations, and more jazz in movies as well.” In other words, says Carter, jazz was more accessible in the ’50s and ’60s.

But that doesn’t mean jazz is a dying art. In fact, Carter is still busy mentoring the next generation of jazz bassists, previously as the Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies and these days as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of The City College of New York.

“Be prepared for anything that may come your way,” is Carter’s advice to his students, “then you can always find work playing music.” At the same time, Carter warns young musicians that the industry is a different game then when he got his start. Today, for instance, the need to make your name visible is crucial in a world flooded with new artists and new forms of media.

Talking about the technical side of his art, Carter explains that the situation for a bass player has changed in the past few decades. “One reason for this that is overlooked is the influence of electric basses and amplifiers,” says Carter, who experimented with the electric bass in the ’60s and ’70s before concentrating on the upright. “Now, a bass player has the same what I call “sonic presence’ as other members of a group. They can be heard equally, and with that a bass player can become more comfortable with the idea that his or her intent will get attention.” Through this, a modern bass player is given the courage to try new things, he adds.

As if to lead the way for his students, Carter is still trying new things, and dismissing any talk of retirement. “I’m continually performing,” he concludes, “I played both at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center recently. I’m getting better everyday, and I’m still growing in my career.”