In My Mind, I Haven’t Reached My Vision’

New York‘s Carnegie Hall was akin to a pilgrimage site in September when Sonny Rollins marked the 50th anniversary of his debut at the revered venue. Jazz musicians and aficionados who have drawn inspiration from the self-named Saxophone Colossus turned out in droves: Lee Konitz, John Zorn, Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano were all spotted, as were the rock star Lou Reed and his wife Laurie Anderson.

Now aged 77, Rollins is constantly reminded that he has outlived most of his peers, including many with whom he collaborated such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Max Roach.


Yet while he may no longer be as prolific as he was in the past — in 1957 alone he recorded seven albums — and while the Sep. 11 2001 attacks led him to leave his Manhattan home for a farmhouse in upstate New York, he has no intention of packing away his horn. And despite being voted the year’s best jazz musician in polls run by Downbeat and Jazz Times magazines in 2006, he remains determined to improve his art even further.


Rollins spoke to IPS Brussels correspondent David Cronin ahead of a forthcoming European tour.


IPS: You grew up in the Harlem area of New York. Were you conscious during your youth of its vibrant musical scene?


SR: Living in Harlem was very beautiful. I was conscious from an early age that it was very important. I happened to be born in the right place at the right time.


My memories of my childhood were listening to great people and music coming from Harlem. As a small boy, I heard Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan. They were all playing in Harlem.


I used to wait outside Coleman Hawkins’ house with a picture for him to autograph.


IPS: In the sleeve notes to your 1958 album Freedom Suite, you wrote: "How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America‘s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed." Did you encounter personally encounter a lot of racism?


SR: I came from a family of activists. My grandmother was a member of (Jamaican-born black nationalist leader) Marcus Garvey’s group. She took me with her to a lot of protest parades, where we were petitioning the government for better treatment and so on.


Every black artist, every jazz artist and every black person had that kind of problem (with racism). It was just part of the way the world was.


I’ve fought against it all my life and fortunately have made some progress in my life. I’ve been trying to have a good image for jazz music.


There certainly was a racial divide problem in the 20th century and there still is in the 21st. I call the problem we have today ‘tribalism’. Until we can solve that, we will have a big problem solving the world’s problems. It’s still there in different ways. If you’ve been a victim, like I have, you have to fight against. I have no choice.


IPS: You have taken a number of so-called sabbaticals from the music business. Why did you do so?


SR: Each of them was for a different reason. In the 1950s, I took off a period because I was addicted to drugs and had to get away from that. In 1968, I took off a period because I wanted to study Eastern philosophy. I travelled to India to study yoga and in Japan I studied Buddhism. I came back to playing in 1971, so I think that was my last sabbatical.


IPS: Did you feel that your success was a burden for you?


SR: In 1959, I had a big reputation in the jazz world, but I knew I needed to study some more. I needed more time to get away from performing to practise and study.


The biggest example I want to set for other musicians is that you have to be happy with what you’re doing. You have to make the best effort and do the best you can do and not be influenced by people around you. Once you do that, it doesn’t matter what other people think. That’s what I did.


I knew I had to study music and I knew I couldn’t do that while being a jazz star. I had to get away.


IPS: One thing you have been known to do is take jazz standards or popular tunes and put your personal stamp on them. Do you still do that?


SR: I have discerned among my audience today a thirst for new material. You have to have a mix. You can’t just play old standards, you have to play original things. I notice that young people and people in general who come to see me want to hear something new.


People might have got disenchanted with the whole world — just like with politics. People feel that about wars. The Second World War. What good did that do? So why should they feel positive about that era and songs from that era?


But there is a dilemma. My old fans don’t want me to play anything new. They want me to play the old standards. It’s one of those musical puzzles.


IPS: Do you still go to New York city regularly?


SR: When I have to — for business reasons. The place I lived in was very close to the World Trade Centre. It is still contaminated by the air quality, by the poison from the explosion.


I kept the apartment for a while but never slept in it any more (after Sep. 11). Eventually, I gave it up.


IPS: How do you feel about how the Bush Administration used

9/11 as a pretext for the war in Iraq?


SR: I was very disoriented by the events of 9/11 because it was like being in a war zone. It was very traumatic.


Bush squandered a very important period. After 9/11, everybody in the world was on the side of the U.S. We had Muslim, Jew, Hindu. Everybody was in sympathy with the U.S.

at that time.


Unfortunately, Mr Bush didn’t use that period to keep everybody on our side. Instead, it was the same old thing of ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me’. There was a chance after 9/11 that things could be different and that chance was squandered. Today, we have the same old stupid wars.


IPS: Does Buddhism remain important to you?


SR: I still do my yoga and I still practice. It has given me a different outlook on life. I wanted to find something more satisfying for my soul. I didn’t just want to be a person who gets a big car and a big house. I’m not interested in that.


I’m still on the learning path and I still have an open mind.

I have a fairly good idea, though, about certain things in life. For instance, it is better to give than receive. That’s very simple but of course, it’s forgotten. Nobody thinks of giving today, everybody wants to get money.


IPS: So many of your peers are dead. Do you see yourself, to use the title of Jerry Lee Lewis’ latest album, as the ‘last man standing’?


SR: I don’t look at it that way. One reason is because I have the ability to think about friends like Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Miles (Davis), Clifford Brown. I can bring them to mind and it’s like I’m still with them.


I don’t look at it like I’m the last man standing. But I can understand why other people are saying that.


IPS: Can you ever see yourself retiring from music?


SR: Playing requires a certain physical dexterity and ability. As long as I have that, I will keep playing.


There is no endgame in music. Music itself has no end, there’s always more to learn. I know I want to be able to reach a way of playing that transcends everything. I’ve not done that yet, that’s why I keep practising.


It depends what you want to achieve. Nobody was greater than (pianist and bandleader) Count Basie. Maybe if I was as great as Count Basie, I’d say ‘I’m alright’ and just retire. But in my mind, I haven’t reached my vision.  

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