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Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins (born September 7 1930 in New York Citymarker) is a Grammy-winning Americanmarker jazz tenor saxophonist. Widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the post-bebop era, Rollins' long, prolific career began at the age of 11, and he was playing with piano legend Thelonious Monk before reaching the age of 20. A number of his compositions, including "St. Thomas", "Oleo", "Doxy", and "Airegin", have become jazz standards.

As of 2009, Rollins is still touring and recording, having outlived most of his contemporaries such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Art Blakey, all performers with whom he recorded. Mr Rollins was elected to the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1973.


Early life & career

While Rollins was born in New York City, his parents were born in the United States Virgin Islandsmarker. Rollins received his first saxophone at age 13.

Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high-school years, he played in a band with other future jazz legends Jackie McLean and Kenny Drew. He was first recorded in 1949 with Babs Gonzales – in the same year he recorded with J. J. Johnson and Bud Powell. In his recordings through 1954, he played with performers such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

In 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and given a sentence of three years. He spent 10 months in Rikers Islandmarker jail before he was released on parole. In 1952 he was arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using heroin. Rollins was assigned to the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, at the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While there he was a volunteer for then-experimental Methadone therapy and was able to break his heroin habit. Rollins himself initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went on to greater success.

As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R&B sounds of performers like Louis Jordan, but soon became drawn into the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition. Joachim Berendt has described this tradition as sitting between the two poles of the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the light flexible phrasing of Lester Young, which did so much to inspire the fleet improvisation of be-bop in the 1950s. Rollins drew the two threads together as a fluid post-bop improviser with a sound as strong and resonant as any since Hawkins himself.

Rollins began to make a name for himself as he recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet and with Miles Davis in 1951, recording his composition "Oleo" among others. In 1953 and 1954 he worked with Thelonious Monk, recording Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, which includes "I Want to Be Happy" and "Friday the 13th". Rollins then joined the Clifford BrownMax Roach quintet in 1955 (recordings made by this group have been released as Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street; Rollins also plays on half of More Study in Brown), and after Brown's death in 1956 worked mainly as a leader. By this time he had begun his career with Prestige Records, which released many of his best-known albums, although at the height of his career in the 1950s Rollins was also recording regularly for Blue Note, Riverside and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.

Saxophone Colossus

His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins and his favorite drummer Max Roach. This was Rollins' sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition "St. Thomas", a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number "Strode Rode", and "Moritat" (the Kurt Weill composition also known as "Mack the Knife").

In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Miles Davis' group – pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also in Davis' group.

At the end of the year Rollins recorded a set for Blue Note with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Gene Ramey on bass, and Rollins' long-term collaborator Max Roach on drums. This has been released as Sonny Rollins Volume One (the superstar session Volume Two recorded the following year has consistently outsold it).

The piano-less trio

In 1957 he pioneered the use of bass and drums (without piano) as accompaniment for his saxophone solos. This texture came to be known as "strolling". Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957) and A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957). Rollins uses the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section instrument during bass and drum solos. Way Out West was so named because it was recorded for a California-based record label (with L.A. stalwart drummer Shelly Manne), and because the record included country and western songs such as "Wagon Wheels" and "I'm an Old Cowhand". The Village Vanguard CD consists of two sets, a matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete LaRoca and then the evening set with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones.

By this time, Rollins had become well-known for taking relatively banal or unconventional material (such as "There's No Business Like Show Business" on Work Time, "I'm an Old Cowhand", and later "Sweet Leilani" on the Grammy-winning CD This Is What I Do) and turning it into a vehicle for improvisation.

1957's Newk's Time saw him working with a piano again, in this case Wynton Kelly, but one of the most highly-regarded tracks is a saxophone/drum duet, "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" with Philly Joe Jones. Also that year he recorded for Blue Note with a star-studded line-up of JJ Johnson on trombone, Horace Silver or Thelonious Monk on piano and drummer Art Blakey (released as Sonny Rollins Volume 2).

In 1958 Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums trio: The Freedom Suite. His original sleeve notes said, "How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity."

The title track is a 19-minute improvised bluesy suite, much of it interaction between Rollins' saxophone and the drums of Max Roach, some of it very tense. However the album was not all politics – the other side featured hard bop workouts of popular show tunes. The LP was only briefly available in its original form, before the record company repackaged it as Shadow Waltz, the title of another piece on the record. The bassist was Oscar Pettiford.

Finally in 1958 Rollins made one more studio album before taking a three-year break from recording. This was another session for Los Angeles based Contemporary Records and saw Rollins recording an esoteric mixture of tunes including Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody with a West Coast group made up of pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Manne.

1959 to 1971

By 1959, Rollins was frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations and took the first – and most famous – of his musical sabbaticals. To spare a neighboring expectant mother the sound of his practice routine, Rollins ventured to the Williamsburg Bridgemarker to practice. Upon his return to the jazz scene in 1962 he named his "comeback" album The Bridge at the start of a contract with RCA Records, recorded with a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall and still no piano. The rhythm section was Ben Riley on drums and bassist Bob Cranshaw. This became one of Rollins' best-selling records.

The contract with RCA lasted until 1964 and saw Rollins remain one of the most adventurous musicians around. Each album he recorded differed radically from the previous one. Rollins explored Latin rhythms on What's New, tackled the avant-garde on Our Man in Jazz, and re-examined standards on Now's the Time.

He then provided the soundtrack to the 1966 version of Alfie. His 1965 residency at Ronnie Scott's legendary jazz club has recently emerged on CD as Live in London, a series of releases from the Harkit label; they offer a very different picture of his playing from the studio albums of the period. (These are unauthorized releases, and Rollins has responded by "bootlegging" them himself and releasing them on his website.)

1972 to 2000

Rollins took his most recent sabbatical to study yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophies. When he returned in 1972, it was clear that he had become enamored of R&B, pop, and funk rhythms. His bands throughout the 1970s and 1980s featured electric guitar, electric bass, and usually more pop- or funk-oriented drummers. For most of this period he recorded for Milestone Records and the compilation Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on Milestone contains a selection from these years. The 70s and 80s were not all disco though and it was during this period that Rollins' passion for unaccompanied saxophone solos came to the forefront. In 1985 he released The Solo Album.

In 1986 Documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge released a film titled Saxophone Colossus. It featured two Rollins performances: a quintet in upstate New York and his Concerto for Saxophone and Symphony in Japan.

2001 to present

Critics such as Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch have noted the disparity between Sonny Rollins the recording artist, and Sonny Rollins the concert artist. In a May 2005 New Yorker profile, Crouch wrote of Rollins the concert artist:

Rollins won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for This Is What I Do (2000). On September 11, 2001, the 71-year-old Rollins, who lived several blocks away, heard the World Trade Center collapse, and was forced to evacuate his apartment, with only his saxophone in hand. Although he was shaken, he traveled to Boston five days later to play a concert at the Berklee School of Musicmarker. The live recording of that performance was released on CD in 2005, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, which won the 2006 Grammy for Jazz Instrumental Solo for Sonny's performance of "Why Was I Born?". Rollins was presented with the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004, but sadly that year also saw the death of his wife Lucille.

In 2006, Rollins went on to complete a Down Beat Readers Poll ctriple win for: "Jazzman of the Year", "#1 Tenor Sax Player", and "Recording of the Year" for the CD Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert). The band that year was led by his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and included bassist Bob Cranshaw, pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummer Perry Wilson.

After a highly successful Japanese tour Rollins returned to the recording studio for the first time in five years to record the Grammy-nominated CD Sonny, Please (2006). The CD title is derived from one of his late wife's favorite phrases. The album was released on Rollins' own label, Doxy Records, following his departure from Milestone Records after many years and was produced by Clifton Anderson. Rollins' band at this time, and on this album, included Bob Cranshaw, guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu.

Rollins performed at Carnegie Hallmarker on September 18, 2007, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his first performance there. Appearing with him were Clifton Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Kimati Dinizulu (percussion), Roy Haynes (drums) and Christian McBride (bass).

September 25 2009, Rollins performed to a packed crowd at the Kimmel Centermarker in Philadelphia. The personnel was similar to the Carnegie Hall performance; Clifton Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Kobie Watkins, drums, Sammy Figueroa (percussion).

Tributes and legacy

Rollins is recognized by many for the length and quality of his career, one not easily matched in the world jazz or other genres. His melodic sensibilities, playing style and solos have also influenced several generations of musicians.

The city of Minneapolis, Minnesotamarker officially named October 31, 2006, after Rollins in honor of his achievements and contributions to the world of jazz.

In 2007 he received the prestigious Polar Music Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, together with Steve Reich, and Colby Collegemarker awarded Rollins a Doctor of Music, honoris causa, for his contributions to jazz music.

In 1981, Rollins was asked to play uncredited on tracks by The Rolling Stones for their album Tattoo You, including the single, "Waiting on a Friend." In other links to the rock world, Donald Fagen can be seen playing Rollins' 1958 LP Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders on the cover of his 1982 LP The Nightfly, while Joe Jackson replicated the cover photo for his 1984 A&M album Body and Soul as homage to the 1957 Blue Note album Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2.


As leader

Sonny Rollins
Date Album Label
1953 Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige
1954 Moving Out Prestige
1955 Work Time Prestige
1956 Sonny Rollins Plus 4 Prestige
1956 Tenor Madness Prestige
1956 Saxophone Colossus Prestige
1956 Rollins Plays for Bird Prestige
1956 Tour de Force Prestige
1956 Sonny Boy Prestige
1957 Sonny Rollins, Vol. 1 Blue Note
1957 Way Out West Contemporary
1957 Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 Blue Note
1957 The Sound of Sonny Riverside
1957 Newk's Time Blue Note
1957 A Night at the Village Vanguard Blue Note
1957 Sonny Rollins Plays/Thad Jones Plays Period
1958 Freedom Suite Riverside
1958 Brass/Trio Verve
1958 Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass Metro Jazz
1958 Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders Contemporary
1962 The Bridge RCA Victor
1962 What's New? RCA Victor
1962 Our Man in Jazz RCA Victor
1963 Sonny Meets Hawk! RCA Victor
1964 Now's the Time RCA Victor
1964 The Standard Sonny Rollins RCA Victor
1965 There Will Never Be Another You Impulse!
1965 Sonny Rollins on Impulse! Impulse!
1966 Alfie Impulse!
1966 East Broadway Run Down Impulse!
1972 Next Album Milestone
1973 Horn Culture Milestone
1973 Sonny Rollins in Japan Victor (Japan)
1974 The Cutting Edge Milestone
1975 Nucleus Milestone
1976 The Way I Feel Milestone
1977 Easy Living Milestone
1978 Don't Stop the Carnival Milestone
1979 Don't Ask Milestone
1980 Love at First Sight Milestone
1981 No Problem Milestone
1982 Reel Life Milestone
1984 Sunny Days, Starry Nights Milestone
1985 The Solo Album Milestone
1986 G-Man Milestone
1987 Dancing in the Dark Milestone
1989 Falling in Love with Jazz Milestone
1991 Here's to the People Milestone
1993 Old Flames Milestone
1996 Sonny Rollins + 3 Milestone
1998 Global Warming Milestone
2000 This Is What I Do Milestone
2001 Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert Milestone
2006 Sonny, Please Emarcy
2008 Road Shows Emarcy

As sideman

With J. J. Johnson With Fats Navarro With Bud Powell With Miles Davis With Thelonious Monk With Art Farmer
  • Early Art (1954)
With the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet With Max Roach With Ernie Henry
  • Last Chorus (1956)
With Kenny Dorham
  • Jazz Contrasts (1957)
With Dizzy Gillespie With McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Al Foster With The Rolling Stones


Further reading

  • Blancq, Charles. (1983). Sonny Rollins: The journey of a jazzman. Boston: Twayne.

External links

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