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American Routes Shortcuts: Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins
American Routes

In celebration of the long running New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, we feature Sonny Rollins, who has performed at the festival various times since 1977. The master tenor saxophonist has been at it over half a century. Sonny was born Walter Theodore Rollins in 1930 and grew up in Harlem.  His brother and sister were classically trained musicians, but Sonny turned to jazz early -- by his twenties he was playing tenor sax with Bud Powell, then Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. He has long traversed bebop and cool with a strong melodic sound, from sonic social statements to sweet remakes of popular songs.  Sonny absorbed it all in his youth – from the radio and movies, to music in his household.

Sonny Rollins: My mother had a lot of these Caribbean records, so I heard a lot of Caribbean records at home, but generally in the neighborhood, I heard more mainland jazz, you know, people like Fats Waller and so forth. I was born in Harlem proper, which was sort of the lowlands, and then we moved up on the hill which was sort of a upscale area, and all of the top people in the black community lived up there, W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, I used to see him. A lot of great jazz musicians, Duke Ellington lived nearby, and Coleman Hawkins, my idol on tenor saxophone, he lived right around the corner.

Nick Spitzer: What a neighborhood!

SR: It was fantastic, yeah it was fantastic.

NS: Well let’s talk about the frontier of bebop. You’re growing up through a moment when you’ve got Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, obviously Miles Davis and Monk. I’m looking at a recording, Bags’ Groove, with Miles Davis, and you’re there in 1954. I wondered about some of the songs of yours that came out of that recording session, ones that became other people’s standards, which is, you know puts you out front as a composer.

SR: Well the ones that I myself composed, “Doxy” and “Oleo” and “Airegin,” the things I did with Miles, I really can’t put too much credence in myself, I guess I have to consider myself a composer of sorts. But I’m a guy that takes a lot from other people, other places. Occasionally I can hear something I say, “Well gee, that sounds completely original,” but who knows, it probably isn’t, I probably heard that too when I was a kid. One of the things that I’m most proud of in my own life, that I was able to heed my own counsel. Even now, people say, “Why do you practice? You know everything,” you know, this kind of stuff. But I’m seeking something higher. So that’s why I practice, that’s for today, but in life I’m also seeking because I’ve been through a lot in my life. I was able to stop smoking and stop drinking, stop using drugs, all of those things were very important to me, and they showed me that there’s something inside, your inner voice, you have to listen to it. It’s in music, music is the same way, you know I get glimpses of it at a time and it’s beautiful.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at