Sonny Rollins on all that jazz

SONNY ROLLINS: 'When you're really improvising, you're not thinking at all. You're gone.'
SONNY ROLLINS: 'When you're really improvising, you're not thinking at all. You're gone.'

Now 83, jazz legend Sonny Rollins talks about times good and bad and why he never listens to his own music.

With a roar and a thump, the sky began to fall. It was September 11, 2001, and the first plane had just slammed into The World Trade Center in New York. Just a few blocks away, on the 40th floor of his apartment building, jazz pioneer Sonny Rollins, then 71, says it felt like the apocalypse had come early.

"We heard a huge ‘POW!', then we ran downstairs. We ran fast, too, because we thought that burning tower would fall right into our building. Then the second plane hit. I remember the air was swirling with ash and toxic gases, and terrified people were everywhere. At first, they ordered us back inside, then the National Guard evacuated us, and I got outta there."

And what did Rollins take with him when he was finally allowed to leave his home, unsure when or if he'd ever return? Important documents? Family photo albums? A fistful of his favourite LPs? No. Just the clothes on his back, and his beloved saxophone.

No surprises there. Now 83, Rollins' saxophone has been his constant companion through good times and bad since he was seven years old. Considered by many to be the world's greatest living jazz musician, he learned his chops alongside players who revolutionised the art form - Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Max Roach - struggling along the way with heroin addiction, and spells in rehab and prison.

A documentary on Rollins' remarkable life screens this week. Sonny Rollins: Beyond The Notes is a long-term labour of love for fellow musician Dick Fontaine, who first started following his musical hero around with a camera in the late sixties.

Back then, Rollins would take his horn into a secluded thicket of woods along the Hudson River and play beside the rushing water, or head up onto the walkway on Manhattan's Williamsburg Bridge, where he'd blow for hours against a backdrop of rushing trains, the girders shaking and clattering, the city spread out far below.

Fontaine went with him, capturing priceless footage of a jazz giant at the peak of his powers. The documentary intercuts this fascinating early material with concert footage from a 2011 all-star gig convened to mark Rollins' 80th birthday, with guest appearances from Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall and Roy Haynes.

The birthday show is something to behold, with Rollins seemingly undiminished by age, his solos still unfailingly lyrical and crackling with energy. There he is, a saxophone colossus, striding the stage in a baggy white shirt, a torrent of notes pouring from his horn, a joyous twinkle in his eyes, and atop his head, a radical gravity-defying hairstyle that looks half-Afro, half-Albert Einstein fright wig.

"Hey, at least I still got hair!" says Rollins through a burst of gravelly laughter. "But yes, that film covers a lot of ground. Some people might be amazed by those early shots, but practising on that bridge was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I loved it, because the trains could not see me, the cars could not see me, and very few people would walk over the bridge, so I was alone up there. I had the boats underneath me on the East River, and above me I had the sky. It was a beautiful, private place where I could play as long and loud as I wanted without someone banging on the wall of my apartment and telling me to knock it off."

Talking to him today, Rollins seems a calm, thoughtful soul, his voice so parched and wobbly, he sounds like an actor playing a kindly old grandfather. It's hard to imagine this is same man who made such intense and unpredictable music in his early years, and who makes it to this day when backed by the right band. Harder still to think that way back in 1950, this placid gentleman was banged up on Riker's Island for armed robbery, having resorted to crime to feed his heroin habit.

"Well, heroin was everywhere in the jazz world in those days. They were different times. Drinking and taking hard drugs are useful because they reduce stress and help centre your mind, but then you become dependent on these things, and your art suffers. The trick is to find a way to produce great art, and not kill yourself while you're doing it."

After several stints of court-directed rehab, Rollins found a less destructive form of stress relief, travelling to India in the early 70s to study yoga and meditation.

"My teacher over there pointed out that I was already meditating whenever I played my horn. Playing music was my way of shutting down conscious thought and getting to that higher place. Life is really difficult, as you know. Anyone who thinks life is a stroll in the park is deluding themselves.

''My music has allowed me to find a place of refuge - it allows me to get away from life for a moment. Really, jazz music is a kind of spontaneous composition, with all your accumulated joy and pain inside it. You go out there and let the music just come into you and flow out again. It's not about putting your ideas out there; you get out of the way and your subconscious takes over. When you're really improvising, you're not thinking at all. You're gone."

Many of Rollins' fellow jazz pioneers are gone for real. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Bud Powell. Billie Holiday. Charles Mingus. Thelonious Monk. Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Parker. The catalogue of the fallen is long, and many died well before their time.

"I miss them, too. They were all great friends and colleagues who had a gift, and they applied themselves to the furtherment of that gift so that they could tell their stories. Back then, a lot of people tried to deny the validity of jazz music, but these people did what they had to do, despite a lack of work and recognition. A lot of them suffered along the way, with drugs, alcohol, racism and personal problems of various kinds. I know - I was right there with them! But they made great art, and that art still stands."

Rollins has produced no shortage of great art himself. To hear his lava-flow solos streaming out over the hyperactive piano on Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners is to be struck dumb by his audacity and skill. And early solo albums such as Saxophone Colossus (1956), Freedom Suite (1958) and The Bridge (1962) continue to inspire and confound saxophone students to this day. Does Rollins ever listen to these extraordinary records himself?

"To be honest, no. I'm not a big fan of my own playing. When I come home at night, I don't kick back and put on some Sonny Rollins.

"Really, I'm never satisfied with what I sound like, which is why I'm always trying to get better. It's an ongoing quest, and I still learn things every time I play.

"Aging slows you down, of course. You can't do some of the things you could do when you were 25, but music is an area where experience makes up for a lot of what you might lose in the way of stamina. In the end, age just becomes another form of inspiration, because however long a musician might live, there's always new experiences for them to express."

Sonny Rollins: Beyond The Notes screens on Sky's Arts Channel on Friday, July 4 at 9.20pm.

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