Another 15 minutes with . . .
Sonny Rollins . . . 2008
In November 2008, TheaterTimes’ Cristofer Gross again spoke with Tenor Saxophonist Sonny Rollins. This interview was for a story in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Revue Magazine. [Click image for pdf.] As in the 2006 interview – here – he was friendly, generous with his time, and candid on a range of subjects.
In our previous conversation he talked about some of the famous musicians with whom he had collaborated, and the members of the group who were touring with him at that time. According to his website, his 2011 band is guitarist Peter Bernstein, longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobie Watkins, and percussionist Sammy Figueroa.]
This time we spoke much more about how he plays, how he writes, and – given the historic election that had taken place only days before – how he felt about that.
CRISTOFER GROSS: The name of your Record company is Doxy. Where did that come from?
SONNY ROLLINS: That was from that song I recorded with Miles back in the early 1950s.
GROSS: You have occasionally been in groups, as a sideman or leader, but really you're a soloist who gathers personnel as needed. Your recent bands, however, have been among your longer lasting.
ROLLINS: I’m not sure. Bob [Cranshaw] has been going off and on with me for a long time. Clifton [Anderson, his trombinist and nephew] has been with me since the ‘80s I guess. Bobby Broom has been with me since the ‘80s and then off and on with me. It varies, I’ve had a lot of . . .
GROSS: Yeah. So in terms of communicating with other guys, a group you can think intuitively with, this is the best you’ve had of that, isn’t it?
ROLLINS: I would say probably so. I know with Bob, he’s been with me off and on since 1960. I guess when they came out with the Jim Hall Band. So it’s been awhile.
GROSS: Yes. And it helps your playing, which as we said last time has such a lyrical sense. like a conversation with someone. It sounds like communication beyond the music, beyond just the jazz.
ROLLINS: Well, of course there’s nothing beyond jazz. Jazz is at the top of the pyramid. But there used to be a saying in jazz when I was coming up that a guy was doing a solo he had to tell a story. And that was a shorthand way of saying that the solo had to make sense. It had to have beginnings, endings, middles and so on. So that used to be the way you’d say, "Oh that guy, he’s telling stories." It was a way to characterize an intelligent, happening jazz solo.
GROSS: You have such a long career as an artist, but one that still is creative and important, which is rather extraordinary in the arts.
ROLLINS: Thank you.
GROSS: I’m only in my 50s, but I see people in my generation who just run out of gas. It seems they have nothing new to say. Or, they don't have the energy to get out there and try and say it. I don’t know . . .
ROLLINS: Both. Both, probably. They go hand in hand. The energy and the thoughts, and getting it together, it’s all sort of one process.
GROSS: Do you look back at the phases of your storytelling or your career and see that there has been progression or plateaus or different things that came along that people who are younger artists might even think about avoiding . . . ?
ROLLINS: I don’t do it. Only when I’m forced to listen to something I did a long time ago. Because, I’m one of these people that cringe when I listen to my own music. I mean, I’m always criticizing myself. So, no. I don’t really look back and think about things like that. But people have asked me, well, what about this period, and what about that period, so I have to kind of think about it to give a cogent answer.
But I really don’t look back at my career because I’m still in the middle of trying to get it together. So there isn’t really time to look back, you know. If ever the time would come, hopefully never, when I can’t play, then I’ll have plenty of time to look back at my career. But right now I’m right in the middle of it. As a matter of fact I feel that I’m gaining on getting . . . finding my lost chords, you know. And these things.
GROSS: What do you mean by "finding lost chords?"
ROLLINS: Well, you know there used to be a saying that a musician is looking for the lost chord. He’s searching for something which he hears but he hasn’t quite grasped yet. He hasn't been able to own it and express it musically. But it’s something there that he knows is lacking and you can hear it at times more clearly than other times.
So, that’s me. That’s where I am. Right in the middle of saying get that level of jazz playing. So, you know, there’s a lot of things involved in it. It’s not a straight line, because there are a lot of other elements involving your technique that may sidetrack you. But, I’m still playing. I’m still on the path.
GROSS: And I guess that’s part of what keeps you creative: that sense of hunger for something a little bit more than what you’ve found so far.
GROSS: Which is where people can get get self-satisfied and that's the beginning of the end.
ROLLINS: I don’t know anything about that. I was self-satisfied when I was a very, very young, immature guy. And, I played a couple of nice things and Gee, I thought I had it all together. But thank God that was a long, long time ago.
GROSS: What opened your eyes to that reality? Was it done on your own, or did someone else help?
ROLLINS: [Deep laughter.] Other people. Other people. I mean I was kind of disrespectful to a guy one time who was a great, great musician and . . . ah. . . .
GROSS: He showed you the light?
ROLLINS: Yeah. Made me realize. But you know I was young and really immature. I don’t get down too much on myself about it because I came out of it. But it still is a little painful when you start to reveal how ignorant you could have been at one time. It’s not easy to recall it, but it existed. There was a brief time when I didn’t realize the greatness of music and the whole thing and I was just a brash kid. Didn’t last long, though.
GROSS: Well that’s good for all of us, I guess. In terms of songwriting, is that something that is also progressing? Rather than going through phases. I hear what you’re saying about being in the moment all the time rather than seeing it as part of a continuum that you worry about.
ROLLINS: Yeah, songwriting is one thing that seems to be getting more difficult as years go by. So I had to sort of find a different. . . This all has to do with my general playing. I think what’s going to happen to me is I’m going to find a different method of songwriting, which will remain closer to my general new idea search. Instead of just sitting down like I used to do in the past and conjure up something that is akin to a song. So I see that as something that is not quite formed yet in my mind either. But I think songwriting is going to . . .
He thinks a moment.
You know, it’s more. I’m depending more on what you mentioned a moment ago, the moment. It’s all by the moment with me, and I think my songwriting, such as it is really, is going to be slightly more than the old-fashioned way of sitting down and you decide to write a song.
GROSS: Do the times, or the era you’re in, or even your emotions from time to time, affect your solos?
ROLLINS: Well, you know, some guys asked Charlie Parker one day, "Well, gee Charlie, what are you going to play tonight?" So Charlie Parker told them, ‘Well, what I’m going to play is what I experienced during the day leading up to arriving at the nightclub. What you hear me playing tonight is going to be my experiences." And that’s about it.
I mean, to a greater or lesser extent as long as I’m a human being here on the earth, I’m going to play my experience and the things that happen to me, and happened to me in my past, way past, that are way down in the subliminal. But it’s all about what I’ve experienced. So, yeah, I automatically play things that have to do with what’s going on around me. On occasion, as you know, I had done things like my global warming albums and my civil rights albums of the ‘50s and this kind of thing. But you know, those are things also that are happening to me, I just formalize it with a recording. But when I’m just soloing at any given time, I'm playing what’s happening, what my life experiences are. And each person there has deep, deep feelings and fortunately artists have a chance to bring them out. Painters have a chance to do things that are right on the surface. So that’s what I’m always trying to do.
GROSS: Does playing help you get over anger or help you understand euphoria? Or is it that if you get too far out mood-wise you’d better put the horn down because it’s going to be counterproductive?
ROLLINS: Well, the horn sort of determines the other things. The other things don’t determine the horn. That may sound contradictory to what I just said, but the horn is where everything comes out at. That’s a paramount thing, right? My anger and other frustrations I might have with this life are sublimated to what happens when I play, to my actual performance. So that anger and all these things are expressed through my horn in one way or another.
GROSS: You said you cringe when you listen to yourself. Does that make it hard to select the songs for the disks?
ROLLINS: Right. It does. It makes it very difficult.
GROSS: Do you have people who can overrule you and say, no that sounds good, and even if you disagree you’ll go along.
ROLLINS: Well, I try to avoid what you just said happening. When my wife was with me she had attained the level of being able to . . . I would give in to her at times, you know. If we disagreed I would defer to her. But, generally I try not to do that. Now I have my nephew Clifton Anderson who produces it. He has made some suggestions which I have . . . acquiesced to, I guess you could say.
GROSS: [laughter] You wouldn’t say ‘agreed’ to necessarily. That’s great. I have to ask, given the historic nature of this week, and also in the context of one artist assessing what it means to have an incoming leader who makes an art out of speaking as opposed to using it merely to hobble from one message to another, what are your impressions? You’ve been through a lot and this is a culmination for a lot of people.
ROLLINS: Right. Right. Right. Well, [pausing] it’s a little complicated. Barack Obama, the president-elect, was not my first choice, okay? That being said, however, it’s a great thing that we have a minority president. I mean, that has its own rewards, so all that is good. But so far as his policies and so forth, I'm not a big supporter. But that being said, of course, having a black president is really a good thing, for the black population and the white population, in that it saves them both from a lot of guilt, you know? I think a lot of white people may not have to feel guilty about anything if they did. They might not realize that they did. But those that are caring people might have felt guilty at times. And so I think it’s good, plus this guy is, since you were left with these two people, he is definitely the best choice between the two. . . .
GROSS: So your preference would have been somebody who fell out earlier on in the process?
ROLLINS: Yeah. Right. Right. Exactly.
GROSS: Well, time will tell, but I’m certainly excited. I was telling someone the other day it reminds me of how excited my folks were when Kennedy came in. Just the fact . . .
ROLLINS: Oh, yes, yes. It’s a beautiful moment in American history. No, it’s very moving. Looking at the people on TV there in Grant Park and everything. And all of his rallies. The people, it’s really great. That’s really great. I don’t mean to minimize my enthusiasm about that, you know. And I know, Kennedy, sure. Kennedy was a big change and everybody began feeling so hopeful. And Bobby Kennedy also was really a hopeful sign that there might be a better country. A closer country and so on. So, I mean, by saying these things about Barack Obama I don’t want you to think I’m not enthusiastic about him. . . .
GROSS: No, I can hear it. It would hard not to be.
GROSS: I think it's that gift for a storytelling language, which you have with music that is a way to truly get an audience to be emotionally involved. Some have been discounting the importance of the president's ability for speech, and they probably discount the power of music, too. But, as you both do, it's important to inspire through communication.
ROLLINS: Oh yeah. That’s a big thing.
GROSS: Thanks again for your time. It's great to talk to you, and I'll hear you at the concert.
ROLLINS: Okay. Thank you as well.