Sonny Rollins isn’t considered a saxophone colossus just because he named an album that in 1956. It’s because of the music on that album, as well as such other jazz classics as 1966’s East Broadway Rundown, 1998’s Global Warming, 2001’s Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert, and on up through his latest, Road Shows Volume 3.
In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Rollins for the pop culture magazine Bikini. And while the interview was for an advice column called Tips From Pops, we still covered a wide range of topics, including his penchant for practicing, his place in jazz history, and even The Simpsons.
What follows is a slightly edited version of that 1998 conversation, most of which has never been published before. You can also read an interview I did with him in 1996, for the music magazine Huh, here.
A lot of people find jazz to be intimidating because it has such a huge history, and they feel like there’s a lot you have to know. As someone who has been around and has seen a lot and been a part of a lot of it, if somebody wanted to know what albums they should get, what you would recommend?
I would say that they should take a listen of some of the recognized great jazz artists and listen to one thing by each of them at different times, and see what they like. I’m sure they’ll find something that they can relate to. There’s so many different styles that it would be hard for me to know what they would like, but I think that if I listen to a lot of the established stars of jazz over the past, let’s say forty years, you know, they’ll find something that they’ll like. They might like Louis Armstrong, they might like Errol Garner.
Is there anybody you would recommend them listen to that isn’t as well-known as, say, Miles Davis or John Coltrane?
No, no. I mean, I think they would have to just start out and listen to those guys, and if their interest is peaked, then they can certainly find a lot of other people. Once they got interested in jazz, they could find a lot of guys playing jazz all over the planet, and find someone they might like better.
Those are all great albums so yeah, I guess they could listen to those albums. Those men have made a lot of albums, so those are a couple of great albums they made, and they could listen to those.
What if someone wanted to get a sense of what you are all about, what albums of yours would you recommend?
Well you are certainly one of the big boys.
It would be a little hard for me to say, I’m a little bit too modest as a person to recommend my music to somebody as an introduction to jazz.
What about as an introduction to you?
An introduction to me?
Yeah. ’Cause anytime when I mention your name, people’s faces just light up. I mean everyone knows who you are. What albums of your own exemplify what you have done over the years?
There is no one album. I think my last CD is all right: Sonny Rollins +3. That has something in it. But again, this might be for people who are more jazz aficionados. For someone who is trying to get an introduction to me, well I’ve made a lot of albums…and I might be the wrong person because I’ll tell you a little secret: often, when I play, people will tell me, “You know Sonny, I don’t like jazz, but I like you.” This has been said to me over and over in my career down through the years. So I think that jazz people might object to my being set up as a person that they should listen to know what jazz is all about. I think I’m an example of jazz, but I also play things like country western songs. I used to play this Dolly Parton song called “Here We Go Again,” which was a country pop song. I also play a lot of Caribbean music in my repertoire. So I think people should start with some other established artist, and they may find me someplace along the way and can relate to what I’m doing.
In the last year, there’s been three boxed sets in your stuff: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, The Complete Blue Note Recordings, and Silver City. When those things come out, obviously they send you copies. How often do you go back and listen to your old stuff?
With Silver City, I worked on the compilation, so I had to listen to most of it and sort of pick out the takes and everything like that, that one I’ve listened to. As far as the RCA/Victor one, , I only just got it the other day, so no, I haven’t listened to it. And I probably won’t. I’m not one of these people who sits around saying how great I am and listening to my own music. But a fellow called me the other day, yesterday in fact, one of these jazz critics, and he was praising it highly. I’m sure there’s something worthwhile on it, it’s not bad, it’s just that I don’t really find it too informative to listen to it, and I’m very much a perfectionist, so I’m always finding perhaps something I could’ve done better.
But when you were listening to the Silver City stuff, deciding what was going to go on there, did anything make you say, “Wow, I forgot I did that”?
That’s interesting. When I was listening to Silver City, I heard a couple of things I hadn’t heard in a long time that I…a couple of ideas that I had that I’d forgotten about. And, you know, they were interesting, I haven’t had a chance to utilize them, but some of it was things I’d forgotten about. As a person who’s been out here as long as I have, I’ve played music that I forgot I played, and been into certain directions that I’d forgotten about.
I got a chance to see you play live at the House Of Blues a few weeks ago, and the thing that struck me was that when the curtain parted, you were standing there with your sunglasses on, almost looking like you were posing. You weren’t being a musician, you were being a bit of a showman. You were being a performer. And I wanted to know, how important do you think it is to be a performer, to be an entertainer?
Well, that depends on the person. Music is paramount to what I’m doing. I’m a musician. Now, when I go up on the stage, I’m not playing in my studio by myself with my slippers on. So I can’t quite get into that same mode of relaxation or whatever you call it. So there is a certain amount of showmanship involved. It is a show, we are doing a show, it is a stage, and we are playing for people. It’s not just a bunch of guys oblivious to the audience. I don’t believe in that. I’m sort of from the older tradition where it was really…when I used to go to the theaters when I was a kid, the curtain would open up, and all of the musicians would be well dressed and shoe shined and sharp suits and ties. It was a show. It’s a spectacle of sorts. That doesn’t mean you don’t play music. You’re sort of implying a dichotomy between music and performing, which I don’t necessarily accept as being there.
Is that why you were wearing your sunglasses?
Well, I always wear my sunglasses, that’s just sort of…most of the time I wear sunglasses on the stage. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
By the way, I bet you caught the second show.
You should’ve caught the first show.
Oh, don’t tell me that. Was the first show better?
No, the first show was great…oh, I shouldn’t say that, I don’t want to be that. But the second show was sort of…everybody was, I was worn out and everything. The thing about playing now, where we just play one night, is that if the people see you one night and its not a good show, they have a bad impression of you. In the old days, if you played at a nightclub, you’d play five or six nights and could redeem yourself.
One of the things we talked about last time was my feeling that you are one of the rare musicians — not just jazz musicians, but musicians as a whole — who can play with anyone and get something really good out it. How do you do that, how do you motivate people? Is there some kind of trick to it, is it just that people are like, “Oh god, I’m playing with Sonny Rollins, I have to be really good tonight”?
Well, I think it’s probably more the form, I think that people that play with me are a couple of generations my junior, so they probably realize that they are playing with somebody that they’ve been hearing all their life, that has a reputation…and I’m sure they are on their best behavior musically.
As a leader, sometimes you have to play with whoever you can get at a certain time. You have to make a good show regardless of who’s up there with you. I’ve played with people like Art Blakey, Max Rhodes, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones. Sometimes you long to have that kind of level of musicianship. These days, there’s not that many people around who can…unless you have a big all-star band, which is most impossible to maintain except maybe a small tour or something, it’s impossible to have those kind of people playing together like we used to have back in the early days.
But I’m glad that I can bring this out. I feel that I’m often suffering because of the level sometimes of a lot of musicians. There is a lot I get from playing with younger musicians, but I also long sometimes to be to have guys like the people I named, who can push me to certain level where they can relate to what I’m doing instead of me having to relate to what the younger guys are doing.
Do you think that some of the younger guys will be at that level when they’ve had as many years of experience?
Some of them, some of them. But I wouldn’t say the preponderance. Some of the younger guys I’ve played with might make it to an extra level. They’re all good musicians. But you’re talking about people who become outstanding rather than just your journeyman players.
One of the things we talked about last time is that you still practice every day. Why do you feel the need to practice so much?
Playing a wind instrument, you have to keep your imbrute in shape. If you don’t practice for a while, your embouchure gets out of shape, your lip muscles get flabby, and you can’t really execute whatever’s in your mind.
But I also love practicing. I enjoy coming across different things that I do when I’m practicing. I come across things that I can use when I’m composing and I also compose by practicing. You know, that’s one way I compose.
It’s also integral part of my life, one of my enjoyments, to sit down and practice, it’s something that I enjoy doing regardless of anything else, you know. if I was a postman or something that, I’d come home at night and play. I mean, it’s sort of something like that, regardless of the fact that I’m a professional musician.
Back in 1981, you recorded some songs with The Rolling Stones for their Tattoo You album. Would you ever do something like that again?
Oh, sure. If I thought it was something that I could relate to and I had some kind of confidence in the power of the message that would be conveyed, yeah. I mean I’m not looking to get, lining my pockets. In fact, I’m very against lining my pockets. I think this is what’s wrong with the world. Everybody’s trying to line their pockets, but we have to step back from this materialism. It’s a step back and try to live lighter on the planet. So, I’m not just doing something if I think it’s going to be lining my pockets. No, I’m too old for that.
So if the Rolling Stones said, “We’re going to do this big tour, and we want you play on the tour and open for us,” you probably wouldn’t bother.
No, I don’t think I would do it. What I did with the Stones was sort of remarkable and groundbreaking and all this stuff at the time. But I don’t think the need for it today, except to line my pockets. I’m interested in saying something, trying to do something, trying to create some music and trying to stand for something. So, that’s why I wouldn’t do a lot of things now.
I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons, but it’s one of my favorite shows because it doesn’t take the easy route, and there are things in the show that make me think.
Right, right. The Simpsons has some guy practicing the horn, wasn’t it? On the bridge?
Yeah, yeah, Bleeding Gums Murphy.
Yeah, the daughter on the show, Lisa, is a big saxophone player. They actually had an episode about three, four weeks ago which was all about how when Lisa was little, she was really gifted and her parents wanted to encourage her, but they couldn’t afford to send her to a really good school, because they don’t have lots money. So the father went and took the money that he did have, which he was going to spend on an air conditioner, and bought his daughter a saxophone.
Well, this sounds very encouraging. I’m glad to know about The Simpsons, that sounds beautiful.
Finally, given how much you love to play, do you think you’ll ever look at what you’re doing and think, “I’m not getting any better, I’m not doing anything new, I’m not pushing myself. It’s time for me to give it up”? If not from playing altogether, then at least from recording and playing for other people?
Well, it’s always a…that’s something will probably have to get from my audiences. You know, when they stop coming to see me or when I begin to really feel old. Because I’m going to probably always feel that, as long as the opportunity to get better is there — which I would say is, would be demonstrated by the fact that people are still coming to see me play — as long as that opportunity presents itself, then I’ll probably do it because I want to play and progress. Because I can practice for a hundred hours, but playing on the bandstand for three minutes is equal to practicing for a hundred hours because that’s where the real stuff happens.
So no, I don’t perceive stopping just because I run up against a brick wall because actually I’ve run against a lot of brick walls creatively during my career. There’s times when I said, “Gee, I can’t get out of this particular rut. I can’t think of anything new. I can’t get anything going.” Then, after a while, it passes over and I find a new way.
To read the interview I did with Sonny in 1996, click here.