Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins was a teenage saxophone prodigy in the jazz hotbed of Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood in New York City. Under the influence of Charlie Parker and the tutelage of Thelonious Monk, Rollins was the undisputed champion of tenor saxophonists in the 1950s, first as a sideman with luminaries such as Bud Powell, Monk, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, then as a member of the legendary Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. Rollins’ approach to playing was startling in its rhythmic and thematic innovations, incorporating elements of calypso, opening up the harmonic possibilities for a saxophonist by recording in a trio format as well as making solo saxophone recordings and venturing into political territory with the inspirational 1958 release The Freedom Suite. Rollins added to his legend by dropping out of the music business at the height of his popularity, returning in 1962 with a landmark recording, The Bridge. In 1966, Rollins traveled to Japan and India to study eastern religions, returning to participate in the jazz fusion era of the 1970s and ‘80s and anticipating the world music explorations of the 1990s.
Rollins has won Grammy performance awards for This Is What I Do and Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert) and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo for “Why Was I Born.” Earlier this year, President Barack Obama presented Rollins with the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the U.S. government. Rollins is more than one of the greatest saxophonists in jazz history. He is a conceptual thinker who embodies the spirit of the music. His playing at age 80 is as vibrant as it was when he was one of the brightest young stars of the jazz world. Rollins was profoundly affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. His appearance at Jazz Fest marks his first trip to New Orleans since the federal flood of 2005 and draws a connection between the two signature national tragedies that have shaped American life in the new millennium.
Music has been a central element of bringing New Orleans back. After the flood, I went to see James Andrews play a show with a lot of traditional New Orleans music. Towards the end of his set, he played your song “St. Thomas.” It was an amazing moment because it really brought home the connection between New Orleans and the Caribbean.
There’s definitely a connection between New Orleans and the Caribbean. There was a guy who played conga drums with me at one time, Bill Summers. He told me New Orleans is really a Caribbean city. I remember one of the times I played there, I have some Caribbean ancestry and I played a calypso and the people understood it and related to it and created the kind of musical experience that went deeper than the surface. It’s the kind of experience that we try to achieve all the time. Every job is special. Every job gives you the opportunity to do some good for the planet, especially if the people are responding to the spirit of the music you’re playing because music is a spiritual force. I remember that very well, how heartwarming it was that the audience responded to one of my Caribbean pieces. People relate to my Caribbean music all over the world but I notice something especially in New Orleans, the people there seem to have a deeper understanding of it.
When you grew up in Harlem on Sugar Hill, did you meet any musicians from New Orleans who’d moved to New York?
One of my best friends—he wasn’t a musician but just a kid I grew up with—his father was from New Orleans. At the time I grew up, everyone wanted to establish that they were New Yorkers; they didn’t talk about where they came from too much. They all thought of themselves as Harlemites. There must have been some of them who came from New Orleans. They just didn’t talk about it.
In the past decade, New Orleans and New York have a connection from two massive tragedies, first when New York was attacked on 9/11 in 2001 and then when New Orleans was inundated in 2005. I understand you lost your home on 9/11. You played a concert right after that, known as The 9/11 Concert.
A lot of people lost their lives in the flood and a lot of people died on 9/11. I’ve never thought of it that way, but yes, those were both terrible tragedies.
My favorite song from the 9/11 concert is “Global Warming.” When the congas come in on that song I get goose bumps.
People say about that song, “Gee, it sounds festive. It doesn’t sound like a tragedy.” But life is festive. Life isn’t all disaster. It’s all the same, really. When you get that deep into life, you realize that tragedy and comedy are the two sides of the mask. It’s all the same. I definitely had that in mind.
The thing about that night is that everybody was so shaken by what had happened. Not just the musicians but the audience as well; we were all in another world. I can’t pinpoint what went on that night because I was still trying to cope with the enormity of what had just happened. It was mind-boggling. I wouldn’t have played the concert had it not been for my wife. She was up in Columbia County when it happened and I was in our apartment in New York. When I got up to where she was, I was so discombobulated that I didn’t know where I was at. My legs were all rubbery after walking down 40 flights of stairs in the dark when we were evacuated, so I couldn’t even think about a concert. But my wife insisted that we do it.
Music is an amazing healing force. Its power really reveals itself in such moments.
I wouldn’t want to be in this world if there wasn’t music. Music is one thing that can make even atheists say maybe there is a god. This is a wonderful thing. Music is my life now. It’s always been, but now that I’m a widower and sort of a solitary soul on the planet, music is what it’s all about. That’s what keeps me alive.
What are you listening to now?
I don’t listen to a lot of music. I used to listen to a lot of music, but for some reason I just stopped listening. Of course I still hear music in certain places, but I stopped listening to it when I’m home and alone.
Of course when you play a festival like the Jazz and Heritage Festival it’s impossible not to hear music.
I do enjoy hearing people play live. I thought you meant do I listen to records. I don’t listen to recorded music, but I do enjoy hearing people play. I love that. I get a lot out of it myself. I’ve heard a lot about Trombone Shorty and I’d love to hear him. His reputation precedes him.
You leave a lot of space in your lineup to stretch out.
I need a lot of space. To be able to do what I do I need space, and that’s why I was able to come up with the trio things I did years ago. I played with great piano players and great guitarists, but I need to develop my own chord patterns in my own head and sometimes when you’re playing with a piano player, they dominate because of the weight of the instrument. A single-line player is forced to go wherever the piano or the guitar is going. So I want the freedom, I want to create my own chords, my own patterns and my own dreams. I found a guitar player, and I’m able to get him to play as sparse as possible. All these guys are very good musicians and a performance in New Orleans will be beneficial to my soul.
You’re releasing your next record around the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
9/11 was quite an experience for me. I learned so much. I remember when we were being evacuated, they wanted me to get on the evacuation bus. There were some old ladies that lived in that building, and they were sitting there very calmly and here I was all upset. I thought, “I should be ashamed of myself.” Then I noticed how everybody was so kind to each other around the time of 9/11. I knew it couldn’t last, and it was remarkable to see it. It was nice to speculate about what would happen if the world could be like that. Of course the world is not like that. The world is not supposed to be like that. But it was interesting seeing that. The other thing that I learned was that my possessions didn’t matter. I’d been living in that apartment for almost 30 years and I had a lot of books, clothes, musical instruments, and 90 percent of it was destroyed. I was really worried about it all, my wonderful books and my stage clothes. I lost all of that and I was really mad about it and then I came to realize “Wait a minute. Those are just material things. That’s not what life is about.” That was a big revelation for me.
This is a theme we hear from many New Orleans musicians who lost everything in the flood.
They came to the same revelations. Life is just a moment. We lose possessions. We also have to deal with the loss of family and friends. That too is something we have to get some kind of perspective on. Don’t you think so?
It’s really good that you’re bringing that perspective here to share.
I’m sure that I’m going to get more out of it than I’m bringing, so I’m very anxious to get there.