Giants at the Gate

Giants at the Gate

If there’s one aspect of being a jazz historian that can be said to fascinate me more than any other it’s that of people and places, the conjoining of individual musicians and locations that can result in some surprising trysts, bringing together those who, on paper at least, might seem never to have ever occupied the same space. Researching Tubby Hayes’ life and work has thrown up many instances of this sort of thing; this blog has dealt with his unlikely collaboration with Beatle Ringo Starr. It’s also touched upon a reverse-route pop-meets-jazz endorsement of sorts in documenting how Paul McCartney once attended a recording session by the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet (note: the band’s bassist Dave Green told me this story, dear BBC message board readers; it’s not apocryphal – Dave was there). There are many more such unusual meetings that might warrant further discussion in future posts, not least of which is that of Tubby Hayes and the Rolling Stones being on the same bill (at Oxford’s Magdalen College Celebration Ball) in 1964, a story which requires an essay all its own.

Today’s post, however, swings the spotlight of attention from the British jazz scene of the 1960s across the Atlantic to New York and to be more specific to 1962, the year in which the fates – not to say the careers – of two of jazz’s most potent tenor saxophone innovators began to be drawn together. The two players in question were already linked by certain stylistic traits and more generally by a healthy cross-generational respect – both were already on-record speaking highly of the other – but it was in the summer of 1962 that this mutual admiration blossomed to such a point that there was really nothing left but for the two to collaborate on-stage. The story of this relationship over the ensuing year or so is one which touches all sorts of bases; pure fandom, friendly ‘rivalry’, a touch of one-upmanship, even intimidation. It was a teaming which also resulted in one of the oddest recordings in the entire jazz canon, an album unlike any other either man made elsewhere. It is, above all, a tale about how great jazzmen, like great statesman, are occasionally called to act less like ‘personalities’ of equal footing but as pupil and master, icon and follower, using all their diplomatic skills in order to find common ground, all the while not appearing to cede an inch from their entrenched mindsets.

But first, some background. I suppose if there is one source which inspired my love of these sorts of meetings – the ‘so and so was actually in the same room as such and such?!’ anecdotes – it was Ben Ratliff’s masterly study of John Coltrane, Coltrane: The Story of A Sound (Faber and Faber, 2007) which remains perhaps my favourite biography of my favourite saxophonist. Like Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate, 2020) which I’ve recently praised here, it’s very far from a straight biography, instead looking at Coltrane’s oeuvre, one of the most discussed and overanalysed in all of jazz, from angles that make for a far more engrossing read than the ‘...and then he played with X’ line we see in so many accounts of great musicians lives. It’s also a book that’s rarely a work of hagiography, a trait that has resulted in a ridiculous amount of sycophantic claptrap where Coltrane is concerned. One of Ratliff’s most engaging tropes was to place Coltrane at other people’s gigs – Ornette Coleman’s, Cecil Taylor’s, Albert Ayler’s, Sonny Sharrock’s – alignments which, while they superficially tick the box of ‘jazz giants under the one roof’, are actually indicative of something far more impressive; Coltrane’s retention of the instincts of both a jazz musician curious about current developments made by others and a jazz fan willing to show practical support for those working on the same scene. This last point is one which will resonate with anyone playing jazz professionally today, prompting the awkward question of how many times a working musician will spend his or her night off at a club listening to one of their contemporaries? Leaping up with defensive rejoinders about hearing half a set when you share a festival booking really isn’t enough; what’s under discussion here is the actual act of going out to, paying for, and hearing a gig by someone else simply because you rate them. And how about someone on the same instrument as you, who you know both personally and professionally, but whom you still regard with the utmost musical respect? But this is an argument for another day.

New York’s clubland in the early 1960s provided plenty of opportunity for both kinds of endorsement to exist; places like Birdland always offered double-headers, meaning that as well as listeners out front experiencing the heady proposition of hearing both, say, John Coltrane and the Jazz Messengers on the same night, the musicians themselves would hear each other. But there were other more direct homages. The English drummer Trevor Tomkins recalls seeing Coltrane in the audience for Ben Webster one night at the Half Note in Manhattan, then Webster returning the favour a few nights later, something which is remarkable both for the apparent disparity of each man’s musical aims at this point (around 1964) and the overt show of respect from one generation to another. Back home in London things weren’t always nearly so selfless; indeed in 1961, during Zoot Sims first visit to Ronnie Scott’s club, one reviewer noted how most of the off-stage chatter during the great American saxophonist’s sets came not from casual onlookers but local musicians, who, it could be argued, should be the last people to jaw through the very music they sought to master.

Sound is it

There were no such embarrassments for Sonny Rollins that summer of 1962. Unlike those players at Scott’s who thoughtlessly believed that having played the same venue gave them the right to ignore their idols, Rollins was right there, listening intently to a man standing on the very spot he’d occupied barely a few weeks earlier; Coleman Hawkins. The spot in question was the Village Gate, one of New York’s plusher jazz nightspots, opened on the corner of Greenwich Village’s Thompson and Bleeker Streets by Art D’Lugoff six years earlier. Acts like Rollins and Hawkins spoke loud and clear of its policy, which promised nothing but the best. Indeed, consulting an advertisement for the club for the previous August (promising ‘Summer Jazz’) is rather like reading aloud a 1960s jazz fans wish list; the bands of John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Nina Simone playing back to back. The club’s byline – The Biggest Jazz Show in Town – couldn’t be faulted.

When Sonny Rollins alighted at the Gate for a week’s worth of gigs at the end of July 1962, he was among the biggest names in contemporary jazz, having recently emerged from a controversial (and legend-building) sabbatical in which he’d famously retreaded his approach to improvisation. Commercially as well as artistically Rollins was hot property (his newly signed recording contract with RCA-Victor had netted an astonishing $90,000 advance), but then he’d always been a major seller as well as a major player. Part of what had made Rollins the force that we was back in the pre-lay-off days of the mid-to-late 1950s had been his insistence that the detail and velocity of bebop needn’t require the jettisoning of a big, booming ‘traditional’ tenor sax sound, the kind of audio calling card which his teenage idol Coleman Hawkins had made his own back in the 1930s.

As a very young player, Rollins had been fascinated by the older man, who lived locally, this enthusiasm even resulting in him doorstepping Hawkins for an autograph. For Rollins Hawkins had something that went far beyond the notes he played; he carried himself with unaffected dignity, treated the instrument as a tool of a craft rather than some tin-horn, regarded improvisation as a perfectible art, saw himself as a complete musician not some jazz hack. He was, in sum, an exemplar of how a jazzman should behave and perform; for Rollins he quickly became a hero, no less.

A remarkable document of this respect can be found in a CD compilation issued as part of Verve’s ‘Ultimate’ series in 1996, a fascinating run of releases in which contemporary jazz figures selected and discussed the work of the their idols. The tenor saxophone entries were especially telling; Wayne Shorter picking Lester Young, James Carter Ben Webster and Joe Henderson Stan Getz. Sonny Rollins, inevitably, chose his boyhood hero (Ultimate Coleman Hawkins, Verve 557 538-2). The choice of tracks – mainly focused upon Hawkins’ work on the Keynote label in the middle-1940s – was hardly surprising; these were some of the best recordings of the great man’s career – yet the real value of this collection came in Rollins’ own reminiscences of his great inspiration. Respect coloured every line. ‘I didn’t make it my business to associate with him,’ he remembered. ‘He was sort of a father figure, and I always approached him as my superior, not my equal.’

Rollins ‘knew [Hawkins] liked my playing’ but said ‘it would be out of place to try and act like one of the boys with him.’ Nevertheless, by the late 1950s and already there existed a mutual musical respect between both men. Rollins was the young gun, DownBeat magazine’s ‘New Star’, a tenor talent beginning to exert almost as much influence on contemporaries (Clifford Jordan, Junior Cook, J. R. Monterose) and younger players (Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson) as Hawkins had exerted over the likes of Chu Berry, Don Byas and Ben Webster two decades earlier. His biggest gift to the jazz scene had been that insistence that the tenor saxophone – which had cooled down considerably at the end of the 1940s with the rise of players like Stan Getz – should be a robust, virile-sounding instrument. This, in a rather bizarre turn of fate, contributed in part to a resurgence of interest in Hawkins himself. Not that the venerable Bean had been musically inactive; although his chosen sound – the ‘heavy’ rather than light tone – had been out of fashion for a time, he’d never been coasting. 1954’s remarkable Jazz Tones album – cut in the middle of this supposedly fallow period - was as good as anything he’d ever done, as were his marvellous series of LPs on Norman Granz’s Verve imprint during 1957. And, at the end of the decade, a contract with Prestige had resulted in an astonishing run of late-flowering brilliance, with albums like Hawk’s Eyes full of assertive, challenging playing, proving that the old man was as creatively fecund as ever.

The Rollins of the late 1950s, a genuine genius of a player who’d given the world at least one LP for the ages – Saxophone Colossus – was a man of equal brilliance. Yet he too knew his place, Hawkins delighting in telling anyone who’d listen how younger saxophonists like Rollins and John Coltrane would call him up for advice, advice, incidentally, he was willing to dispense without a fee but which he ensured everyone knew was ‘his’. However, there was one thing he couldn’t vouchsafe; the secret of his sound. ‘On the saxophone sound is it,’ he told one interviewer, reflecting on the post-Coltrane shift towards a more channelled tenor tone.‘You take the boys over in New York, those that do all this playing – and the crazy ones that do all the crazy playing. They can’t get my sound. That’s what bugs them – so they have to get into these other things. Even people like Sonny Rollins ain’t got my sound. And they never will.’

Breaking point

The ‘crazy playing’ was Hawkins’ thinly-veiled reference to the avant-garde, a musical movement that alternatively amused or irritated him. He’d recorded with Coltrane under the leadership of his former-sideman (something of a Hawkins’ discovery actually) Thelonious Monk in 1957 (Monk’s Music) and in 1960 he appeared Max Roach’s blisteringly contemporary We Insist! -Freedom Now Suite. It was a musical meeting of minds but little else (‘I’m a musician – I play music’, was his reaction to the trend of ‘Africanization’ favoured by Roach and his colleagues. ‘Playing African music in America is like Africans playing jazz. It just can’t be done right’). Nor did he take seriously the freely improvised duet he’d recorded with drummer Shelly Manne a year later (‘Me and Some Drums’) dismissing it as ‘some foolishness.’

For Hawkins, a lifelong listener to the classical masters, playing ‘new’ didn’t necessarily mean denuding the music of its inherent disciplines. Finger-waggling and bleating meant nothing to him, as did attempts to ‘compose’ within the new free-forms. ‘Some of these cats go way out and forget where they began or what they started to do,’ he observed tetchily. ‘Bach will clear it up for them.’

For men of Rollins’ generation, though, there was considerable pull in the idea that structure was a negotiable commodity. As a time and changes player, Rollins had been one of the most notably free-wheeling improvisers in 1950s jazz, his phrasing at times almost comically elastic, pushing bop’s beat to its limit, but when Ornette Coleman arrived at the tail end of the decade, declaring openly that solos ought not to be dictated to by pre-set harmony, a combination of curiosity and threat overwhelmed him. By the middle 1962, he’d abandoned his elegantly hard-swinging comeback quartet with guitarist Jim Hall (heard on The Bridge) to pursue a freer route, hiring both Coleman’s trumpet playing sidekick Don Cherry and the altoist’s preferred drummer Billy Higgins for a pianoless quartet of his own. The results were startling, Rollins and his men prising apart familiar standards to such subversive extent that sometimes it was impossible to say which theme they were extending, the very thing of which Coleman Hawkins had been so critical. If this freedom were energising for those playing it, it could cause endless headaches for anyone attempting to present it more formally.

When Rollins brought his new band with Cherry, Higgins and bassist Bob Cranshaw into the Village Gate for an extended run at the end of July 1962, the label to which he was signed expressed their desire to record one of the shows for a new LP. The notoriously microphone-shy saxophonist proposed they record the whole run, hoping that the spontaneity of in-the-moment thinking might eventually make him forget the presence of the recording equipment. It did. ‘After a while, after three or four nights, we sort of forgot about [the recording]’, he told his biographer Eric Nisenson in 2000, ‘and played more naturally.’

As natural it may have been to Rollins it was anything but to the casual listener. Tempos changed in mid-flight leaving soloists free-falling into nothingness, themes were twisted this way and that, the leaders wilful distortion of even familiar material showing the marked inspiration of Ornette Coleman. And with Cherry’s scribbling trumpet etching febrile lines across this shifting backdrop it seemed at times if Coleman were directing the band by proxy. Some times the music swung. At others it jerked about like water from an air-locked tap. This was Rollins creating in the raw, rather than offering up the finished article.

In the end RCA-Victor taped four evenings’ worth of performances, cherry-picking just three tracks for a single LP, titled Our Man In Jazz, released in January 1963. Instantly listeners fell into for and against camps, some thinking Rollins’ brave deconstructions of two of his own signature themes – Oleo and Doxy – and a single standard, Jerome Kern’s Dearly Beloved, a bold manifesto statement. Others thought Rollins hadn’t so much lost direction, buoyed in the wake of Coleman, as lost the plot (‘I really don’t know what he is doing’, said Tubby Hayes. ‘This is him not being himself.’)

What was undeniable was the daring of the music. At twenty-five minutes Oleo lasted an entire album side, Rollins wrestling every last musical morsel from its interior, pretty much the first on-record instance of the sort of playing he’d been engaged with in nightclubs for some years and which, as the Sixties moved forward, would become his legend.

Nothing was missing in these explorations, but then that was part of the problem. 1950s Sonny Rollins had been one of the most structurally aware of all jazzmen, ordering what were superficially spontaneous improvisations with such architectural clarity that one of them – ‘Blue 7’ from the Saxophone Colossus album – had been analysed by leading musicologist Gunther Schuller and found to be a solo perfectly balanced between theme and variations. Rollins had read Schuller’s critique (contained in the debut issue of Jazz Review magazine) and been so profoundly affected by it that he at first attempted to reproduce its supposed modus operandi (hear the album Sonny Rollins at Music Inn, MGM) and then became so befuddled by the weight of expectation it had created that he forthwith decided to never read any of his critique at all, good, bad or indifferent. 1960s Rollins therefore had no edit button, reducing the music to its law rather than its letter. If writers were praising or questioning him – which they were – he remained blissfully unaware of their opinions.

Whether he became a ‘better’ soloist for this unfettering remained moot. One critic, British jazz writer Benny Green, thought his all-in approach left nothing but ‘a great rubbish dump sprinkled with pearls of wisdom’, its inclusive prolixity representing ‘jazz at the moment of dissolution, an art stretched to breaking point by sheer integrity.’

Airegin or air-leak?

This was the kind of Rollins heard at the Village Gate that July of 1962 – so free-wheeling in fact that those recording him hadn’t the faintest hope of ever releasing everything taped over those eventful four nights. However, less scrupulous souls had no such qualms, Complete Live at The Village Gate 1962 a whopping six CD ‘bootleg’ boxed set of all the material taped by RCA-Victor emerging in 2015 on the mysterious Andorran imprint Solar Records (both Sony - who owned the recording rights - and Sonny, who was mightily annoyed at such effrontery, allegedly sued and the set swiftly disappeared), revealing that, if anything, the original Our Man In Jazz had indeed been the pick of the 400-minute plus mother-lode. If only to give an impression of how taxing a listen this marathon was even for an avid Rollins’ fan I’ll quote briefly from a magazine review of the set I penned soon after its release;

‘Rollins plays with gusto and commitment throughout, but given that this was a period in which he was less into playing structured compositions than following a collaborative, spontaneous muse, six CDs make one tough listen, even for this writer, a dyed-in-the-wool Rollins completest. There are great moments (the best of which, it can now be seen, were already cherry-picked for Our Man) but for much of the time, this is unfocused, experimental stuff. It's certainly not the place to look for the elegance of The Bridge or the cogency of Saxophone Colossus. Much anticipated, and hailed in some quarters as an unqualified triumph, this is, in fact, a troubling collection; fascinating, intriguing, beguiling in parts, it leaves a nagging sensation that the impact the avant-garde had made upon Rollins was by no means a helpful one.’

In some senses (although he probably couldn’t have known it at the time) Rollins’ four night recorded ‘happening’ at the Village Gate had strong, even direct, echoes of a similar stint played by his supposed ‘rival’ John Coltrane at another New York jazz spot, the Village Vanguard, the previous autumn. Like RCA-Victor, Coltrane’s record label – Impulse! - had also taped four nights, distilling the best to a single LP release, Coltrane “Live” at The Village Vanguard, which contained (as would Our Man In Jazz) just three performances, including the saxophonist’s controversial unscripted tour-de-force 'Chasin’ The Trane', a performance one celebrated jazz critic of the day greeted as ‘one big air-leak’. Unlike Rollins, however, the unused balance of Impulse! material would later receive official release, fully authorised by the Coltrane estate.

Possibly even more unknown to Rollins was the fact that the Village Gate had played host to a recording crew aiming to tape another resurgent tenor saxophonist – Stan Getz – just six months earlier, at almost the same time as Coltrane was taping his Vanguard outpourings. Verve chose not to release its efforts for undisclosed reasons (most likely being the success of Getz’ bossa-nova breakthrough album, Jazz Samba, taped early the following year), Universal Music eventually issuing them to great acclaim in 2018 as Getz at the Gate. Taken with the Rollins’ recordings from the Village Gate they make a fascinating study of the breadth of ‘modern’ jazz during the early 1960s.

At the time they were made, Getz was seen as a polar opposite of Sonny Rollins, the two men more or less setting the orientation for all modern jazz tenor saxophonists who emerged from 1950 and 1960, or at least until John Coltrane’s influence began to make itself felt near the close to the decade. Listened to now they appear not so very different; each was a melodic improviser first and foremost, Getz fabled for his ballad interpretations, Rollins for his thematic logic. Both loved songs, even oddball ones (at the Gate Getz chose the obscure ‘Yesterday’s Gardenias’, Rollins the hoary ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’), and both knew more than a thing or two about assembling an apposite band, Getz selecting new stars like Steve Kuhn and Scott La Faro just as Rollins had picked Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. The connections become even more explicit when you hear Getz sashay through Rollins’ classic 1954-penned theme, ‘Airegin’ on one of the Village Gate discs. All of a sudden the two men are part of a rich fabric of 1960s jazz tenor saxophone, neither rivals nor opponents but just contemporaries on a scene bursting with front-rank talent.

But, if Getz represented a sort of distant cousin of Rollins (and vice versa), packing in audiences to the Village Gate as the ‘latest’ jazz saxophone icon, the club also chose to make an illuminating juxtaposition barely a few weeks after Rollins’ closed his stint by presenting the man who was arguably musical father not just to both men but to all jazz tenorists everywhere, Coleman Hawkins. On the surface the mercurial gloss of a Getz, or Rollins sledgehammer delivery, might suggest something Oedipus-like, as if the new wave of tenors had to kill Hawkins’ influence stone dead in order to progress. In reality things were far from hostile. As it had done with Getz Verve Records planned to tape Hawkins during his stay at the Gate, recording the saxophonist over two nights with his regular quartet of pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Major ‘Mule’ Holley and drummer Eddie Locke, August 13th and 15th 1962. The resulting LP – titled Hawkins! Alive! At The Village Gate – is one of the finest examples of its creator on record, outstripping much of what he taped at elsewhere at the beginning of the final decade of his life. To this day, it plays as a tenor saxophone masterclass (bizarrely Hawkins’ biographer John Chilton thought it ‘sanguine’), the leader outlining classic standards and ballads with such gravitas that only the truly tone deaf could fail to recognise his authority.

A remarkable document

Tellingly, only two further ‘bonus’ tracks have been unearthed from the two nights of recording, suggesting that Hawkins natural sense of economy (and general musical maturity) made the entire process of assembling a representative LP far easier for Verve producer Creed Taylor than Rollins Village Gate project was to be for RCA’s George Avakian and Bob Prince. Not that the old man was playing it safe. Opening with a barrelling ‘All The Things You Are’, the changes of which he demolishes in knowing style, he moves into an dark and unorthodox rearrangement of the old spiritual ‘Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho’ which sleeve annotator James T. Maher believed showed his awareness of ‘Arabic music...coloring jazz solos.’ The effect is certainly startling, hinting at times of something almost Coltrane-like, the closing cadenza, in the words of Maher, ‘a remarkable document of the present moment in jazz.’ (Hawkins struck another Coltrane-ish note on his album Today and Now, recorded for Impulse! a month later, turning the fluff of ‘Love Theme From Apache’ into something of genuine emotional depth, its mood remarkably like that of Coltrane’s iconic ‘Alabama’, taped over a year later. Again, as with Rollins, it’s a question of who was influencing whom at this point).

The album’s original B-side begins with still more evidence of Hawkins’ ability to stake his claim on the turf of others. ‘Mack The Knife’, popularly thought of as the property of Louis Armstrong, had been recorded under its original title of ‘Moritat’ by Sonny Rollins six years earlier (on Saxophone Colossus) and among fellow tenors had become a performance regarded as definitive. Hawkins’ take at the Gate is no less assured, suggesting that this was one of those many nights when he seemed to sending a message to the younger generation. The albums closer, a lovely account of the long-time Hawk favourite, ‘It’s The Talk of The Town’, places further dibs on the saxophonist’s claim as jazz’s most inventive tenor balladeer.

If ‘Joshua’ and ‘Mack’ appeared to imply the links Hawkins had to younger men like Rollins, then one of the rediscovered bonus cuts makes the connection wholly explicit. ‘If I Had You’ begins with an unaccompanied tenor outburst of Rollins-esque audacity, one of those sadly all too rare moments when jazz offers up a genuine surprise. It’s a performance so passion-driven, so completely engaging that one can only wonder why it was passed over for so long.

Another questions nags; what might have inspired Hawkins to those heights he displays consistently throughout Alive? The promise of a good fee for a few nights work with choice accomplices? Good acoustics? The knowledge he was being recorded? A good reed? Or might it have been the presence in the club of someone to whom he still felt he needed to prove his superiority? The mighty shriek that begins ‘If I Had You’ certainly sounds like a shouted warning; ‘I’m still the top man – and don’t you forget it!’

But who, alongside the Village Gate’s supper club crowd, might be listening to such an affirmation?

The Hawkins archive provides a possible answer, containing a letter penned to the veteran tenorist from no lesser personality than Sonny Rollins, dated October 1962, which discusses ‘your recent performance at the Village Gate’, the entire contents of which can be found by a little Googling. It is one of the most remarkable documents in jazz, certainly one of the few pieces of private correspondence between major jazz figures of the golden era of the music to show an undisguised fan-like worship. Rollins has gone on record saying that although he knew Hawkins he never assumed to hang with him in the manner of contemporaries; Hawk was, he maintains, a figure of respect, even awe. This certainly comes across in his letter, which reads rather more like fan mail than a note between equals. Affection, respect and wonder intermingle, Rollins’ decorous sentences reading like courtly entreaties.

The feelings are unequivocal. ‘You have ‘lit the flame’ of aspiration within so many of us’, Rollins writes, ‘and you have epitomized the superiority of ‘excellence of endeavour’’. Hawkins was said to ‘stand today as a clean living picture and example for us to learn from’, a diametric opposite of those Rollins felt ‘too weak and not men enough to command the course of their lives.’ Moved by the ‘profound and meaningful’ qualities he saw in his idol, Rollins believed Hawkins’ recent form had reminded him of ‘why I thought so much of you for so long’. The performance at the Village Gate he thought ‘ marvellous’, closing his letter by wishing Hawkins ‘Godspeed in your travels and may I be fortunate to hear you play the tenor saxophone again in person.’

Perhaps what’s most striking about Rollins’ missive is its humility; this is not a love letter pitched with parity; it is a piece of obeisance. The closing sentiment alone makes this clear; Rollins hopes not to perform with Hawkins but to listen to him, a sentiment that seems almost naive and child-like in our climate of Social Media networking and rapacious culture of the self.

Post-script: Kippers and steak

But Rollins got more than his wish, barely nine months later, finally sharing first a concert stage (at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival) and then, some days later, a recording studio with his idol. Tapes of the live appearance (oft-bootlegged and issued illegally) reveal an energised joust, each man drawing off the other to winning effect. The studio LP – again taped for RCA-Victor and titled inevitably Sonny Meets Hawk – was less of a success, for reasons that have never really been satisfactorily explained. Both tenorists knew the marquee quality of such a meeting (‘extraordinary in every sense’ read the sleeve notes) but for some reason Rollins played not so much with inspired abandon as downright surreality. Whistling harmonics, low honks, solos that ignore the form which frames them, all these things whizzed past a Hawkins who performed as imperturbably as ever, inspired by one of the most ‘modern’ rhythm sections he’d yet recorded with (centred on a very on-form Paul Bley on piano). There were moments of beauty, albeit of the gnarled kind (‘Lover Man’) but on the whole the album played a bizarre hand, epitomized by what has to be some of the most confused (and confusing) tenor soloing ever committed to disc by Rollins on ‘All The Things You Are’. It grips the listener, certainly, but mainly in an effort to hear how the saxophonist can possibly right himself (I remain convinced Rollins is harmonically adrift from his rhythm section; try shifting what he plays on the songs ‘A’ sections eight bars forward). Hawkins, on the other hand, simply ploughs on, casually tossing out many of the devices he’d already put to the test on his Village Gate account of the Jerome Kern perennial.

As one of the first Rollins albums I owned, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sonny Meets Hawk, and, as such, it was to take me years to comprehend how genuinely odd a record it is. Others got there more quickly, Melody Maker’s Bob Dawbarn thinking the result akin to trying to eat a meal of ‘kippers and steak’ (long before surf 'n' turf), John Chilton (in his masterly Song Of The Hawk, Quartet, 1990) like listening to ‘two Harold Pinter characters talking earnestly and simultaneously on different subjects.’ The two saxophonists colleagues were just as dismissive; in their respective DownBeat ‘blindfold tests’ Stan Getz thought Hawkins and Rollins ‘like a couple of high school players’ while the Mingus-associate Booker Ervin gave the pairing a mere ‘three stars – just on the strength of who it is and the respect I have for them.’

Rumours still abound about exactly what went down over the couple of days Hawkins and Rollins spent recording. Some maintain that the younger man was so preoccupied with changing mouthpieces and horns that he remained distracted throughout, others that nerves caused him to literally ‘freak out.’ One of the few things he has yet offered in the way of an explanation came in an interview excerpted in Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and his World of Improvisation (Da Capo Press, 2000) in which he states:

‘Everybody was trying to expand the perimeters [then]. That is how we were playing and how I was playing with the group I had. Also, I was trying to make a contrast between Hawkins and myself, really make a sound. I didn’t want to try to sound like him, because I could not sound like him anyway. It’s pretty hard to sound like Coleman. A lot of people played that style, but I wanted to make a contrast. I thought it would make a more striking record.’

It’s hard to argue against Rollins final point: Sonny Meets Hawk is a striking record, not only in its musical shock value but for its insistence that when major player meet they needn’t go for the safe option, something many jazz producers since have ignored to their (and their records) peril. If nothing else, it places two of the greatest jazz saxophonists ever in the same room, the result of such an occasion immortalized for the ages. But, as the above set of combined circumstances reveal, Hawkins and Rollins had occupied the same space before, during those few heady weeks of summer 1962. One could also assert with equal conviction that they’d always inhabited the same ground, one in which the wellspring of Hawkins’ incredible invention gave life to the young Rollins, who both as a neophyte and an established star never lost his fan-like appreciation of the man he openly called ‘sort of a father figure’. That summer of 1962, musical progenitor and offspring grew that much closer, that much more themselves, and paradoxically, that much more alike. Both trod the same stage, found the same challenges, felt a new respect.

Photo: colossi up-close: Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins, Newport Jazz Festival, 1963

We use Cookies

We use cookies to give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we’ll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website.

You can change your preferences at any time by visiting the “Cookies Preferences” page, which can be found via our footer. View our Privacy and Cookies policies for full details.