This Happy Madness: Sonny Rollins

This Happy Madness: Sonny Rollins

‘He doesn’t play music, he makes music.’

Ronnie Scott on Sonny Rollins

A few years ago I was asked by an interviewer which jazzmen I most admired but hadn’t yet heard live. Virtually all of them, I replied, adding that, given ninety-eight percent of my heroes were already dead, this was a situation that was unlikely to change any time soon. It wasn’t supposed to sound flippant. Quite early on it occurred to me that the vast majority of those I was listening to on record – records made in the 1950s and 60s in the main – were either a) now long in the tooth veterans playing on borrowed time or b) long since passed over to the great jam session in the sky. In the late 1980s I remember seeing advertisements for the North Sea Jazz Festival in Dad’s copies of Jazz Journal, marvelling at how many of those whose early work I was then getting into were still out there on the circuit; Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, even Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer. With schoolboy naivety I wondered what it would be like to actually be in the presence of these giants. Then came the climb down. Channel 4 or BBC-2 might show a bit of coverage of a festival like Brecon or, more glamorously, Montreux, and suddenly I’d discover that figures who’d once been razor-sharp icons of cool – all crew-cuts, berets and skinny Italian-styled suits – were now paunchy pensioners, grey, balding or with shaggy beards that were the diametric opposite of the neat, clean-cut looks of their youth. Having digested all those West Coast album covers where handsome young men frolicked in the Californian sunshine, and the moody monochrome of East Coast labels like Prestige, Savoy and Bethlehem, I’m ashamed to say I was visually-led in much of my taste in jazz. It seemed to me that the music was a young man’s game and these old-timers, names that had been carved into the firmament long ago, were all well past the point where they mattered.

It was an idiotic opinion, of course, and one that I’d soon revise when I myself started to play alongside musicians in their fifties, sixties and seventies, all of whom still had plenty to offer, but in my mid-teens I really thought jazzmen had some sort of sell-by date. Best Before December 1955. Use by January 1964.

In some ways I wasn’t entirely wide of the mark. Indeed, watching Miles Davis pad cat-like about the stage of the Montreux festival dressed in baggy pants, a vest and the sort of hair-weave that might require quarantine if crossing international borders, I remained unconvinced that this was progress. It wasn’t just the clothes. Back in the late 1950s, when he was without doubt the sharpest cat around, rivalling Frank Sinatra for his taste in the finest trappings in life and looking consistently hip in the best tailoring of the day, Davis was creating a series of stepping stones towards the future of the music – Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue – each the sort of record that, if you owned it, suggested membership of some sort of elusive club – that of ‘the cool’. The music sounded like the look. Measured, finely cut, classy, controlled but full of the passion of youth. That I heard on the TV outing from Montreax was consistent in only one thing; it too sounded like it looked – a mess of embarrassing Eighties gaucheness that I couldn’t help but think wouldn’t go the distance in the way that, say, Porgy and Bess, had. Indeed, you could almost see it date as you watched. I also felt much the same about latterday Gerry Mulligan, who’d been a hero almost from the off, but whose music after the early 1970s seemed to me to lack the sure direction of his earlier innovations.

These were almost unbelievably lofty prejudices for a teenager to hold and thank goodness that becoming a musician both cured me of this and helped me learn that genuine artists develop as they wish regardless of the audiences expectations. Still, the thought of seeing one of my idols from the Golden Era never really filled me with excitement. That was until I saw Sonny Rollins.

Oddball choices

Rollins had entered the frame very early on in my listening, via a tatty LP on the Esquire label in my Dad’s collection, titled Rollins Plays For Bird – a tribute to Charlie Parker taped the year after the pioneering saxophonist’s death and dominated by a twenty-six minute side-long medley of themes associated with him. It also had a nifty cover design (different and to my mind better than that of its original US issue); a cartoon of an empty bird cage, a single white feather signifying Parker’s recent departure.

Although many widely respected volumes suggest that this, the last of an incredible sequence of records Rollins had taped for the Prestige label over five years from 1951 on, is the weakest and least consequential of the lot it’s an album for which I retain an enormous affection, based in part on the fact it was the first Rollins I ever really heard. While it may lack the concentrated punch and ‘must have’ cachet of Saxophone Colossus or the bubbling brilliance of Work Time (my own favourite early SR record) Plays For Bird actually worked very well as entry-level Rollins. For starters it shows him doing an early version of something he would later be famed for – stringing together nearly half an hour of standards, the Broadway and old pop song material from his youth which books like James Lincoln Collier’s The Making Of Jazz told me was the bedrock from which the saxophonist’s finest improvisations might spring.

Its B-Side – minus the Parker theme – included a version of I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face, the Lerner and Lowe song from a then new Broadway show My Fair Lady, showing Rollins continuing to have an ear cocked towards the Great White Way. It was the first time I’d heard the song. Indeed, this was a record which introduced me to all sorts of themes – Old Folks, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Star Eyes – that I hadn’t heard previously, as well as Rollins’ penchant (which he obviously shared with Parker*) for odd ball choices. My Melancholy Baby was a tune that I remembered threading through the 1939 Humphrey Bogart/Jimmy Cagney movie The Roaring Twenties, which I’d loved watching as a kid. That in itself may strike some as unusual – an ten year old child sitting down with the whole family on a Saturday night in the 1980s to watch a black and white movie made nearly half a century earlier – but believe you me, it wasn’t.

*Parker had recorded My Melancholy Baby in 1950, on his final studio session with Dizzy Gillespie, on which the pianist was Thelonious Monk, another man who favoured unlikely popular songs as jazz vehicles.

As a youngster I adored old films, unknowingly storing away what had at the time seemed like their throwaway melodies in some inner song repository – about the only similarity I’m ever likely to share with Rollins – things like Buttons and Bows from Son of Paleface (Bob Hope and Jane Russell, 1952), Now I Know (Up In Arms, Danny Kaye, 1944) and Moonlight Becomes You (Road To Morocco, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope 1942), none of which I realised might be thought of elsewhere as suitable jazz vehicles (my Dad’s love of Glenn Miller, the ultimate pop song populariser of the 1940s, was another powerful yet subliminal influence).

In a broader sense this enthusiasm for old Hollywood was giving me a lot of social context around the eras in jazz I most loved – from the 1930s to the mid-1960s – although again I was unaware of it at the time. In fact, if anyone had suggested that My Melancholy Baby, the song I half-whistled while playing gangsters with the kid who lived next door the morning after seeing The Roaring Twenties might later come back an invade my life via one of my jazz heroes, well, I’d have probably thought them mad.

Tribal elder

I knew Rollins was still an active player. Reviews of his latest records (most of the critics seemed to be pining for his ‘old’ music) would pop up every so often in Jazz Journal. And I already knew through reading other books that he’d long since given up club work, his only British appearances being an annual show at places like the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane or The Barbican. My way-station between the first phase of Sonny’s music – the ‘classic’ Rollins of the 1950s and 60s – and what he was up to ‘now’ was a BBC Omnibus documentary on Ronnie Scott’s club, televised to mark the 30th anniversary of the club in the autumn of 1989. This was a programme of enormous significance in my appreciation of jazz, broadening my appetite for things beyond the Mulligan/Brookmeyer angle I was then in thrall to, and introducing me to first the house style of Ronnie’s (‘what time do we open? What time can you get here?’) and its cast of characters, and then (very much unknowingly) to two-quarters of the quartet I’d lead from 2004 to 2010 - pianist John Critchinson and drummer Martin Drew. Even now, having spent years working with these two legendary jazz musicians, I find it surreal to think how they went from figures I regarded in awe on a TV screen to colleagues and friends.*

* Nor could I have guessed then that I’d ever play at Ronnie Scott’s, much less become a member of its resident Jazz Orchestra. In fact, watching this programme for the first time I grew increasingly despondent; all these jazzmen were so inspired, so magnificent, so good – I’d never ever get close to that. The next day, seeing how down I was, Dad sat with me and tried in the nicest possible way to explain things. The performers I had watched were the greats, true legends, who’d spent a lifetime playing the music night after night. They were also working in a environment conducive to jazz creativity; a world famous night club. I was young, a mere boy, he reminded me, just starting out, playing with an amateur school band. I shouldn’t put myself through such a dispiriting and unnecessary game of comparison. I should just enjoy the music of these giants and take inspiration from it. I could see his point, of course, but to this day I’ve never really been able to shake my belief that in order to progress you need to be extremely hard on your own efforts., the reason why I no longer make albums incidentally. Dad always found this difficult to understand.

The programme also made clear how integral was Sonny Rollins to the legend of Ronnie’s. Archive footage showed him at two key junctures in his relationship with the club; in 1966, clad all in black and with a shaven head, his body and tenor cleaving the air as the music poured through him; then in 1974 when he’d begun to absorb some aspects of rock and contemporary pop (the ubiquitous electric bass guitar), afro-haired and sparkly-waistcoated and playing Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not A Home. Neither clip was complete but both were powerful indicators of Rollins’ gravitas as a live performer. This, I told myself, is a hero I really should see.

Rollins was also interviewed, all dyed hair and beard and with his saxophone laid out before him, looking a little like an elder Haile Selassie, his characteristically unmistakable high-throated voice sounding very much at odds with the deep boom of his tenor tone. Minus his music he still had something captivating about him; a depth that suggested the wisdom of some tribal elder; a philosopher whose every measured word was loaded with meaning. I found him fascinating.

Dad had odd bits of Rollins dotted about his collection; his debut on record, accompanying the eccentric vocalist Babs Gonsalez; his first session with Miles Davis in 1951; a broadcast in the company of Clifford Brown, the ill-fated trumpet star whose death in a car accident in 1956 (Rollins was in the car behind) left a huge emotional scar on the saxophonist*; even the title track from his 1962 ‘comeback’ album The Bridge, tucked away on a compilation LP. I loved all of these and recall assembling a ‘complete’ Rollins cassette from their contents – early signs of my desire to produce albums.

* Rollins was a member of the Brown/Roach Quintet, which the trumpeter co-led with drummer Max Roach. After Brown’s death the band continued as the Max Roach Quintet and featured Kenny Dorham in the front line. This line-up made several albums and appeared en masse under Rollins leadership on Plays For Bird.

True spontaneity

My own initial album purchases by him were perplexingly varied, to say the least. The first was All The Things You Are, part of the RCA-Bluebird series of reissues of the late 1980s which made new album-length programmes from the labels archive, in this instance reissuing all of Rollins’ legendary on-record meeting with the man he regarded as his idol (and to whom he was said to be musical heir) Coleman Hawkins - 1963’s Sonny Meets Hawk – with add ons from two other RCA albums of the same era; Now’s The Time and The Standard Sonny Rollins.

Some of the music I thought amazing – and I adored Rollins’ tone, which soon came to rival Courtney Pine’s in my mind as the ‘ideal’ tenor sound (Dexter and Hank Mobley came to me later), Other bits of it made no sense at all. What on earth was that shrill squeaking on the otherwise stately ballad Lover Man? Was he having trouble with his reed? And why on All The Things You Are did he seem to be playing in a different key to the rest of the band?

Later I came to appreciate the finer points of the record; it had been made in Rollins’ deeply inconsistent but intriguing mid-1960s period, when it was alleged the influence (some said threat) of the new wave of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman had forced him to further broaden his already wide tonal canvas. Some of the music he made during this time – On Impulse and Alfie most notably, as well as several unofficial bootleg recordings done live – are staggering documents of his improvisational gift at its most engaging. Others, however, including huge tracts of the RCA output, are often either middling when compared to the richness of his 1950s work, petering out before they’ve got going (I’ll Be Seeing You, Love Letters) or so downright weird as to be genuinely disturbing (Django, the long ‘alternative’ take of Now’s The Time). In fact, Rollins later vetoed the issue of several off-cuts from these sessions which, coming from a player who has never been shy of the hit or miss nature of true spontaneity, certainly says something as to how successful he thought this period of recording.

The album with Hawkins – which was, to an extent, my first real encounter with the man credited with ‘inventing’ jazz saxophone – falls somewhere between the two extremes and despite a sneaking suspicion (shared by other players I know) that its patchy nature is due in no small part to Rollins being almost overwhelmed by the prospect of sharing a recording mic with his hero, it remains a favourite. And having heard much more from the RCA sessions (being comprehensively if rather randomly reissued in the early 1990s) than the earlier Prestige and Blue Note albums, this ‘middle period’ Rollins became my in-depth introduction to his way of working.

Yet again, I’d come into the output of one of the major jazz figures the ‘wrong’ way around, via Dad’s collection and whichever random album purchase I could make. And yet again it didn’t (and doesn’t) matter. There is thankfully no set way in which to listen to jazz, part of what makes it a music so inviting for the genuinely curious. Retrospection, of course, sorts a lot of things out, just as it eventually did with my appreciation of the content of the other Rollins’ album I bought early on – Newk’s Time – the penultimate of the four sets he taped for Blue Note records in 1956-57 and which I consider perhaps my favourite all-round Rollins record. Listened to now, it’s both everything I want in a jazz album and, in the leaders full-toned but mobile soloing, everything I wish my own playing were. At under 40 minutes there is no chaff and its supporting cast – Wynton Kelly, Doug Watkins and Philly Joe Jones – is a hard bop dream team. But when I heard it first, after the caprices and odd tonal distortions of Sonny Meets Hawk it all sounded rather tame, as if Rollins were a lion not so much caged as doped. Nowadays I realise that the ‘two’ Sonny Rollins’, that before the famed ‘Bridge’ sabbatical from 1959 to 1961, and that after, are in fact conjoined beings, both of whom used the stimulus of the contemporary jazz scene to partially set their agenda. In 1957, when Newk’s Time was taped, Hard Bop was king. In 1963, when Rollins went head-to-head with Coleman Hawkins, the ‘new thing’ was, well, the new thing. As a player firmly sensitive to his time – whenever that time be – Rollins was happy to be framed by that around him, an observation that makes me realise that any failure to appreciate his later (1970’s-onwards) work is mine alone and not that of the music. It also makes me regret that he and Hawkins hadn’t met on record five years earlier.

Magical and mystifiying

As far as Rollins’ influence on my own relationship with the tenor saxophone is concerned it remains vital. Back in the early 1990s, even before I even owned a tenor and was still making woefully ill-pitched noises on the alto Dad had in mothballs in the loft (which I started playing in order to impress a girl in my music class whose boyfriend also played alto), he was a hero. A few years hence and I’d bought everything – and I mean everything – I could of his, numbering him among the biggest inspirations I’ve had in jazz period. Today I teach that there are six truly great jazz tenors whom no student can afford to ignore – Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young (pre-war); Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane (post-war). While this list omits dozens, maybe scores of other important jazz tenor saxophonists, I think it fair to say that there are enough connective tributaries between, say, Lester Young and the unmentioned Dexter Gordon, or likewise between John Coltrane and Michael Brecker, for it to make a very solid core guide. And even if you disagree with such a radical reduction, then surely you cannot argue that Rollins’ voice is central to much of what has happened to jazz tenor since the 1950s.

I also loved him for his general wackiness; here was a man who dressed as a cowboy for one album cover (Way Out West), changed images with alarming rapidity (from mohican haircuts to shaved heads or prophet-like beards), had a nice line in hats (a great jazz tradition in itself) and could on occasion do really startling stuff on stage, or indeed off it. Legend has it that in the 1960s he’d begin his sets at Ronnie Scott’s by stepping from a taxi, already playing, and that he was fond of strolling off the bandstand and taking the people who’d paid to hear him conga-style around Soho. Even in the 1980s, when he was in his Fifties, he’d sometimes do disarmingly odd things, like leaping from a high stage while playing (as captured on the Robert Mugge film Saxophone Colossus), continuing the performance lying on his back, refusing to let a little thing like a broken ankle impede the music. Things like this – like Thelonious Monk’s trance-like dancing, or Dizzy Gillespie’s on-stage clowning – made me think that a number of great jazz figures were not merely eccentric but close to mad. Maybe they were/are? And in any case, who are we to judge when we’ve been the happy beneficiary of the effect of such a curse?

When I finally saw Rollins play live – in September 1996 at the Barbican in London, barely a couple of weeks after I’d turned ‘pro’ - it was an evening both magical and mystifying. After getting hopelessly lost on the journey in, myself and another sax-playing friend had arrived twenty or so minutes later. Rollins was already on-stage, a blur in bright red, his body arching this way and that, shimmying every bit of music possible from his tenor. He was playing a medium-tempo blues and as I squeezed past what seemed an entire tier-length of retreating knees, the sound was close to overwhelming. After whispering a sidelong apology to the man next to me, I added ‘he’s amazing. What was the first number?’ ‘This is the first number,’ came the reply. A few seats away sat Art Themen – the English saxophonist with whom I’d later work and acknowledged to owe a huge stylistic debt to Rollins. It felt like we’d all come to pay homage – newcomers like myself, old admirers like Art. And that remains Rollins’ power; his is such a force of nature that you couldn’t help but be swept up in the sheer exuberance of the thing. And if you just happen to be a tenor saxophonist too, he draws you to his playing in a way that is nothing short of magnetic. He is the first great jazz saxophonist I saw live. He is also the only one of the initial crop of musical heroes my Dad’s record collection hipped me too I ever saw in person, and while the music he played that night in 1996 – with its funk borrowings and calypso themes – was a world away from that he’d played on that Plays For Bird tribute LP forty years earlier it still thrilled me to the core. To be in the same room as him, albeit at an anonymous remove, was very very special, his playing still the very definition of the in-the-moment ethos of jazz.

Photo: man of many faces, musician of many sounds: Sonny Rollins circa. 1957.

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