Like supermodels, the best jazz musicians need only one name: Monk, Miles, Coltrane, and, of course, Rollins. But unlike so many of his single-name contemporaries, saxophonist Sonny Rollins is still out there, touring and recording.
In honor of his newest album, Road Shows Volume 3 — which has six tracks recorded in Japan, France, and St. Louis between 2001 and 2012, including a new song called “Patanjali” — I decided to dig up interviews I did with him in 1996 and 1998 for the music magazine Huh and the pop culture magazine Bikini.
What follows is an edited version of my 1996 interview, most of which has never been published before. You can read the 1998 one here.
How do you think you’ve grown as a saxophone player over the years?
I kind of feel that a musician changes just by the fact that you hear different things around you, different world situations that cause you to reflect on them through your music in different ways. Each day brings new experiences to an improviser like myself, so in my case I don’t think that I sound like I did when I made Saxophone Colossus [in 1956], even though I still play one of those songs, though I’m sure that it sounds different.
I’ve also always considered myself to be a work in progress, I’m not a complete, finished musician so I don’t try to reprise what I’ve done. Rather, I’ve always tried to add on, so my playing has changed just by virtue of that that’s the approach that I take to my own improvisation.
So then why have you never gone into free jazz like John Coltrane did, or fusion like Miles Davis?
Well, some people would say that I’ve done both. For a while I played with the Ornette Coleman group, who were considered free jazz at the time. I also did an album called Our Man In Jazz on RCA/Victor, which was somewhat in that mold, and some have cited it as my dabbling in free jazz. So it all depends on who you’re talking to, some people might disagree with that conclusion.
True, though some people think you’ve stayed the course.
I certainly don’t mind being so assessed. Though I’ve had periods where I’ve played with electric instruments, which a lot of jazz purists thought was not kosher, if I can use that term. But I’m quite happy to be judged as being a person who stayed the course because whatever I did, I was always honestly trying to pursue a type of a straight-ahead approach. So while people have said, “Well, Sonny did this and then that song with The Rolling Stones…,” [in 1981, Sonny played on “Waiting On A Friend” and other songs on The Rolling Stones’ album Tattoo You] but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been a straight-ahead player and I’ve always tried to create music in the straight-ahead idiom.
Speaking of the Stones, do you find yourself being influence by music that didn’t exist when you started, like rock music?
Well, I don’t listen to other people’s music because I’m very consumed with practicing and with trying to compose. But, of course, you hear things, you can’t go around with earplugs all the time.
How often do you practice?
I try to get in, I would say, about two, three hours a day. Of course, when I’m on the road, it’s a little bit more difficult.
There are people who would say you don’t need to practice.
Well, I’ve heard people say that, and there is a certain validity [to it]. But on a very mundane level, you have to keep your embouchure in shape. Sure, I could just go to a beach and lie out for thirty days. But when I come back and pick up my horn, the physical part wouldn’t be there, my lips would start bleeding.
Practicing is also part of my very existence. If I don’t practice for a few days, for some reason or another, I actually get nervous and edgy. I have to do it. And I enjoy it. It’s my way of composing and getting ideas. So it’s very essential for me to practice.
And again, as I said earlier, I don’t consider myself a finished musician. I’m still learning and I’m still working on scales and all of these things. I hate to disillusion these people, but I think I need to practice.
Do you remember the first time you heard your influence on another musician?
Many years ago, I heard people sort of try to play like me, but I dismissed it because I didn’t feel that I was playing everything that I wanted to play yet, so I kind of looked down at somebody trying to play like me. If I had really had felt that I was the cat’s meow, then I would’ve said “Wow,” and I guess I would’ve felt proud, but then I felt like I was struggling to get my own voice together.
But now it’s good because, after all, it’s good to know that after you’ve been playing out there this long that you’ve made some contribution to the music. It’s nice to know that, besides having a lot of fun playing, and having a nice life at doing what I wanted to do, that I’ve influenced some people and, in some way, carried the tradition forward. But it’s not a matter of ego, I’m way past that.
Are you aware of Henry Rollins?
I became aware of him a couple of years ago when he played at Woodstock, I began to see his name in the papers, “Rollins? Who is this guy taking my name?” [laughs] And I saw that it was some rock guy. Then, when I was in Japan last year, he and I did an interview with some magazine, a conversation between Rollins and Rollins. He seems to be a jazz fan, which I didn’t know until I talked to him, so it was interesting.
Have you ever met a rock musicians that you think would make good jazz musicians?
To be quite frank with you, I haven’t had a lot of experience with rock musicians. Outside of the thing I did with The Stones, I haven’t listened to a lot of rock musicians. I’ve heard some rock, some of it I liked, I’ve heard guys who sound like they have something to say. But I’m not that familiar with enough rock people to give you some names.
Do you think there’s a big difference between jazz back when you started and jazz now? Because to me, one of the fundamental tenets of jazz is improvising, and someone like Kenny G doesn’t improvise.
Well, I think there’s a difference between some of the stuff that’s more contrived, if I can use that word. Now, I don’t want to put that down, because I really think that jazz is a big umbrella and that all of this stuff falls under the umbrella of jazz, all of it. What Kenny G does is still jazz, really. However, it’s just a matter of how far you go into it. I, like you, I think that the essence of jazz is the improvisation. It’s not meant to be background music at all. Nevertheless, I certainly can recognize that its all different forms of jazz. People ask me, “Aren’t you get mad at Kenny G?” No, I’m not mad at him at all, why should I be? More power to him. He has nothing to do with what I’m doing.
As long as we have people coming up like James Carter and the other Kenny G, Kenny Garrett — these guys are good — and as long there are people that will appreciate them, I don’t mind the difference, let there be a difference.
Of all the people you’ve played with in your career, who are the ones you’d most want to play with again? Assuming the laws of time and space weren’t a factor.
I guess I’d have to say that I’d like to play with Miles again. Miles and I had a certain synergy, and it inspired me a lot.
I’d also like to play with Louis Armstrong, though I never got to play with him before. I admire him so much, and the way he played was so simple yet direct, so profound in the simplicity. He really pared his style down the beautiful basic notes.
I’d also like to play with Fats Waller, because of his tremendous swing, he had a great, great swing, really made you sad. I’d like to hear that piano behind me.
I’d probably like to play with Art Blakey again. And on bass…I’d like to play with Oscar Pettiford again.
Now I don’t know a whole lot about jazz, I’ve only been listening to it for a couple years. But one thing that I’ve noticed is that while most jazz musicians are only as good as the people they play with, you and Dexter Gordon seem to be able to play with anyone and get something good out of them. But do you pick people and get them to do what you want, or do you the Miles Davis thing and get people because you know what they’re going to do and that’s what you want?
In the first place, I’m really quite taken aback by what you said [laughs]. So I think rather than minimize yourself, I think you’re a very astute observer of the music, to say the very least.
While I’ve never heard that expressed before, and think there’s some truth in it, I can’t really explain why. Without being self-serving, I would hope it’s because Dexter and myself maybe bring a certain something to the music that transcends our environment. If I wanted to really make myself feel good, I could just think of it like that. But other than that, I don’t know.
As a rule, who you play with has an effect on how you play. I notice that with my playing. The direction I go in on a certain night certainly depends on the guys I’m playing with, and the way I’m playing at a certain period in my career certainly depends on the people I’m playing with, so what I play depends on the company I’m in. You just can’t go beyond your company, really. But if you think I do transcend that on a large playing world, I’m really quite touched to hear that.
You said earlier that you don’t listen to your own music. But of all the albums you’ve recorded over the years, which are you the most proud of?
I’m asked that question a lot, but my answer is the same always: I don’t have one album that I like completely because there’s certain things that I like from different albums. Now, I like some of the things I did with Elvin and my trio on [1957’s] Night At The Village Vanguard, I like parts of Saxophone Colossus, I like some of the things I did with Clifford Brown on [1956’s] Sonny Rollins +4, parts of [1957’s] Way Out West had a good feeling to it, and I think my last CD, [1996’s] Sonny Rollins +3, if some kid wanted to listen to it, they might like it.
But I haven’t done my masterpiece yet. The reason I practice — besides the enjoyment and all this stuff — is that I’m hoping I’ll make a breakthrough and get to a higher level. I’m still at it, so to speak. This might seem strange to you, since you think I’m a big star and everything [laughs], but I’m still trying to make the great record. That’s how you have to live. If I thought my best work was in 1957, there’d be no point going on.
Speaking of 1957, you mentioned your album Way Out West, which had something of an old west/cowboy thing about it. Which worked, but the first time I saw it, I have to admit I was a little confused.
As a boy, my uncle used to take me to these cowboy pictures, the cowboy and his horse, fighting and all this stuff, so I used to go to the movies a lot as a kid, and that’s where I heard a lot of music, a lot of the standard songs that I play from time to time. So dressing up like a cowboy wasn’t meant as a joke, there was a serious side to it, and I felt kind of good doing it ’cause I liked that image.”
Finally, I have to ask: After all these years, are you still having a good time?
I have a great time whenever I’m playing my horn. Life gets disillusioning, but when I play my horn, all the problems go away.
To read the interview I did with Sonny in 1998, click here.