Aidan Levy’s much anticipated new book, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins, a moving and meticulously researched 784-page biography seven years in the making, chronicles the musicians, places, and jazz spaces that shaped Rollins, and how Rollins shaped modern music. The book is out now from Hachette Books.
For the last 70 years, the Grammy-winning, NEA Jazz Master tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins has been universally proclaimed as the world’s greatest living improviser, creating compelling musical stories improvised over original compositions, film scores, Broadway hit tunes, and American popular standards. Born in Harlem in 1930 to Caribbean parents, Rollins, a teenage prodigy deeply influenced by Charlie Parker and the rise of bebop, performed and recorded with a long list of jazz masters and pop icons, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Jackie McLean, and The Rolling Stones. He recorded over 85 albums as a leader, including such landmark jazz recordings as Saxophone Colossus (1957), Freedom Suite (1958) and Way Out West (1957). Rollins, now 92, was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2010, and retired from performing in 2014 due to respiratory issues.
Levy is a former Leon Levy Center for Biography Fellow and holds a doctorate from Columbia University in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. He is also the author of Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed and editor of Patti Smith on Patti Smith: Interviews and Encounters. PW talked with Levy about Rollins’ Harlem influences, the evolution of his improvisational style, his rejuvenating jazz sabbaticals, and the making of this monumental book.
Publishers Weekly: What inspired you to write about Sonny Rollins?
Aidan Levy: Sonny tells epic stories without words in a universal language. What could be more inspiring? I began playing the saxophone when I was nine years old, and I discovered Sonny not long after that. Saxophone Colossus was the first jazz album I bought with my own money. I first spoke to Sonny in 2012 for Blue Note Records, and he told me that he still practiced every day. “You have to practice because you never know when the spirit is going to come,” he said. He retired not long after that. I was inspired by that lifelong commitment to keep on pushing, to keep searching for what he refers to as the “lost chord.”
What books and/or jazz biographies served as models for your book?
Robin D. G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a masterful biography of one of the most misunderstood jazz musicians. Through exhaustive research and a riveting narrative arc, Kelley sets the record straight and enriches our understanding of Monk’s genius while affirming the crucial role jazz musicians have played and continue to play in global solidarity movements. Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life and Music showed me what it meant to take a deep dive into the music of another saxophone hero of mine. Porter has blazed a trail for generations of jazz historians.
Harlem is central to Rollins’ story. How did it shape him as a musician and as a man?
Sonny was the first person in his family to be born outside the West Indies, and he was born into the melting pot of Harlem. Born in 1930, the Harlem Renaissance and Great Depression were the two dominant influences on his upbringing. His mother took him to calypso dances at the Renaissance Ballroom or the Park Palace. The family went to Westerns at the Lincoln Theater or the Odeon. W.E.B. Du Bois lived only a few doors down from Sonny on Edgecombe Avenue, as did much of the leadership of the NAACP. On his way home from work, Du Bois would often shoot a glare at Sonny and his friends playing stickball, not realizing that they were the next generation’s cultural warriors.
Sonny’s grandmother was a follower of Marcus Garvey, and took him to rallies on Lenox Avenue marching for Paul Robeson or the Scottsboro Boys starting when he was four years old. These experiences were direct influences on his music—“St. Thomas,” Way Out West, and “The Freedom Suite” came out of being steeped in the culture of Harlem. He received his musical education at the Apollo Theater. Sonny’s idols lived in Harlem: Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Denzil Best, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and Bud Powell among them, and being from the neighborhood gave him the opportunity at an early age to meet many of them on the street or in the club.
Rollins’ archives are in The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. What kind of materials are there, and how did they help shape the book?
The Rollins archive at the Schomburg is staggering—extensive practice notes, writings, business documents, correspondence, photos, audio, and video totaling tens of thousands of pages and thousands of hours of listening. Sonny turned out to be a prolific writer himself, so the archive gives a unique perspective into the day to day life of an iconic artist—not just where he was and when, but what he was thinking about and what motivated him. There is a series of journal entries and love notes to his wife Lucille during his famous “Bridge sabbatical” that illuminates and demystifies what was going through his head during that much-mythologized period. There are some live tapes in the archive that would blow your mind which are detailed in the book.
Tell us about the wide variety of people you interviewed for the book.
It was important to me to tell as much of the story as possible in the musicians’ own words, because they lived this history. Books like Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro’s Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, Ira Gitler’s Swing to Bop, and Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones have established the importance of oral history to jazz history. Interviews are a kind of improvisation in a call-and-response form, so they are conducive to jazz historiography. For this book, I interviewed more than 200 people, including Sonny. Many of them are no longer with us: Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath, drummer David Lee, producer George Avakian, or bassist Rick Laird, who told the fascinating story of Sonny’s score for Alfie. Fortunately, others, yourself among them, had interviewed many of the musicians who passed before I began my research. For example, your wide-ranging oral histories with drummer Arthur Taylor and pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. as part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program serve as a vital record of jazz history that would have been otherwise lost.
Charlie Parker was a co-creator of bebop. John Coltrane was known for his “sheets of sound” improvisations. How did Rollins pioneer the concept of thematic improvisation.
Composer, educator, jazz historian, and French horn player Gunther Schuller articulates this concept in the landmark essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation.” In the essay, published in 1958, Schuller uses “Blue 7” from Saxophone Colossus as a case study to define Sonny’s style as thematic improvisation, developing a clear motive across an extended improvised solo, akin to a Bach fugue. It is a kind of cohesive musical storytelling, with a beginning, middle, and an end, instead of resorting to disparate preconceived riffs or “licks” that correspond to a particular chord in the harmonic progression but may not relate to the broader concept of a solo. Sonny did not conceive of his approach to improvisation in these terms at the time, but Schuller makes a compelling case, and it stuck.
In the book you write about the sabbaticals that Rollins took from jazz. What inspired him to do so, and how did those sabbaticals help him?
In 1959, Sonny was considered the greatest tenor saxophonist of his generation, but he did not believe the hype. After taking his first tour of Europe, he began seriously contemplating the possibility of a “sabbatical” from the jazz scene, not unlike a professor. The idea was to practice, practice, practice, or in jazz terms, go into the “woodshed.” He was living on Grand Street on the Lower East Side, and to avoid disturbing his neighbors at all hours of the night, he found the perfect woodshed: the Williamsburg Bridge. Competing with passing subway trains, Sonny developed an even bigger sound and refined his technique and approach to the saxophone, but he also did calisthenics. Yet it was not just shedding, but also “shedding,” as in a second skin. Sonny worked on his mental, physical, and spiritual health, because he believed that a holistic process of self-searching and self-improvement was all part of becoming an evolved musician.
Tell us about his wife Lucille, and the stabilizing force she played in his life.
Not everyone has the means to take a sabbatical, much less several, and Lucille supported Sonny during these periods. Starting in the early 1970s, she became his manager, and made sure that Sonny was treated fairly, advocated for his right to artistic self-determination, and created a sense of work-life balance in a field that has driven many into the ground through overwork. No matter how lucrative an offer was, Lucille had no compunction about turning it down if it meant preserving Sonny’s health and well-being. This long-term outlook ensured his longevity.
You wrote in the book that Rollins’ life was a “thematic improvisation.” Can you expound on that?
In his liner notes to Freedom Suite, the first civil rights album of the hard bop era, Sonny wrote that Black artists, despite having “exemplified the humanities in [their] very existence,” have been “rewarded with inhumanity.” Sonny has always exemplified freedom as a sound, but that freedom was hard-won. This book tells the story behind that sound.