The Kennedy Center

Sonny Rollins


(Saxophonist, composer; born September 7, 1930, in Harlem, NY)
A colossus by any standard and a powerful presence in jazz, Sonny Rollins is a master of improvisation in an art form that is drenched in spontaneity. Yet his roots are as deep as they are deeply American, and he both celebrates tradition and makes jazz history whenever he plays his sax. He has shared the stage with such geniuses as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.

"They're not here now, so I feel like I'm sort of representing all of them, all of the guys," Rollins said recently. "Remember, I'm one of the last guys left, as I'm constantly being told, so I feel a holy obligation sometimes to evoke these people." In fact, Sonny Rollins honors the jazz tradition by continually making it new.

"With Sinatra gone," as Newsday's Gene Seymour said of Rollins in 1998, "there aren't too many 20th century miracles left to behold in person." In the 21st century, the accolades continue. In 2010, on the eve of his 80th birthday, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Later that year he was named the Edward MacDowell Medalist, becoming the first jazz composer to be so honored. When President Barack Obama awarded Sonny Rollins the National Medal of Arts in March 2011, the disarmingly modest Rollins accepted his nation's highest honor for artistic excellence "on behalf of the gods of our music."

Branford Marsalis has called him "the greatest improviser in the history of jazz" after Louis Armstrong.  His playing, according to the New York Times, is "among the most satisfying experiences one can derive from listening to jazz." Last year, London's Daily Telegraph noted how "Rollins has darker moments, nights when he can sound somber. But, fundamentally, he is a joyous performer. His music makes you feel better."

He grew up in Harlem not far from the Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom, at the doorstep of his idol Coleman Hawkins. He discovered Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong in his early teens, taking up the alto saxophone inspired by Louis Jordan and soon switching to tenor, emulating Hawkins. Surrounded by bebop, he began to follow Charlie Parker and soon also came under the wing of Thelonious Monk, who became the young man's mentor and a generous influence. His neighbors in Sugar Hill included fellow young turks Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor, but the precocious Sonny stood out and soon was working--and recording--with Babs Gonzalez, J.J Johnson, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis while still in his teens. Davis recalled in his autobiography how he "began to hang out with Sonny Rollins and his Sugar Hill Harlem crowd."

"Sonny had a big reputation among a lot of the younger musicians in Harlem," wrote Miles Davis. "People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thing--he was close. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas."
He made his first major recording in 1953: Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet, today considered a jazz classic. A series of landmark recordings under his own name followed in the 1950s. Valse Hot introduced the now-common practice of playing bop in ¾ meter.  St. Thomas began Rollins' delicious exploration of calypso rhythms. The landmark Blue 7 was hailed by Gunther Schuller as the epitome of a new kind of thematic improvisation. He pioneered a piano-less trio of saxophone, double-bass and drums in Way Out West, and on the heels of that little adventure he began releasing a series of unaccompanied solo recordings that presage by decades much of today's avant-garde. His Freedom Suite in 1958 was a prelude to the political activism that would inform jazz in the 1960s.

His stream-of-consciousness jazz meditations began in earnest with The Bridge in 1962.  Then as now, Rollins proved restless and brilliant, often bringing out the best in his collaborators at this time including Jim Hall, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and his idol Hawkins.  Following a brief sabbatical where Rollins worked in Japan and explored the sounds of other cultures, he came back in the 1970s with the encouragement of his wife Lucille and put together all-star ensembles with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter, Tommy Flanagan and others, taking his unique brand of jazz to concert from Montreux to Boston, from New York to San Francisco. He won his first Grammy in 2000 for This Is What I Do, his second in 2004 for Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. In recent years, Rollins has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Arts.

"The thing that I am most proud of in my career," Rollins told the Associated Press recently, "is the fact that I was able to see beyond being popular and all that stuff…and do what my inner self told me to do." 

"If young musicians can realize that," the sax colossus continued, "that will help them stick to their ideals with music. So that is my legacy… it's what keeps me going."
Sonny Rollins