Jazz Icon Sonny Rollins on the Difference Between Knowing and Believing
RealClearLife caught up with the world’s greatest improviser.
Sonny Rollins, now 87, accepts everything that has happened in his life with love and gratitude.
Stories of The Saxophone Colossus are legendary—from tales of him painting on a fake mustache to sneak into jazz clubs and catch Charlie Parker play to the oft-mythologized image of him practicing in solitude on The Williamsburg Bridge—and we’ll likely be discovering more for years to come.
Though Pulmonary fibrosis has left his lungs too scarred to play his horn, his life’s work will not be lost to any generational gap. Last year he donated his entire archives containing his writings on everything from improvisation to race relations, old newspaper clippings and personal ephemera to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. These artifacts from Rollins’ life will be right at home in the Harlem institution, just blocks from where he grew up, next to James Baldwin’s recently acquired archives and years of Black American history, from slave narratives to artwork from the Harlem Renaissance.
To commemorate Rollins’ seminal 1957 album, Way Out West, which receives a deluxe vinyl reissue this week, RealClearLife caught up with the world’s greatest improviser over the phone. Without ever dipping into sentiment or maudlin remembrance, he offered his thoughts on the power that spiritual thinking, and how when you’ve been around long enough you don’t just believe anymore—you know.
Thank you, because you’ve given a lot of yourself, your time, your generosity of remembrance to interviewers lately. And I also know you’ve dealt with a lot of bullsh-t from journalists over the years.
Sonny: [Laughs] Okay, you said it! I didn’t say it. Good, good. Well, I’m a performer, and therefore we subsist on media, on coverage. That’s about it. You try to take in your shots. You don’t always get good results from these people who write about you, but I guess it’s a good game.
How does it feel to be tethered to The Schomberg Collection forever now?
When I decided to give up my archives and they accepted them at the New York Public Library, I had somebody else, a fella that was an archivist. They went through all my stuff, they were here for a week. Down in my basement, up in my garage, everyplace. And I didn’t realize how much stuff I had. So they took a lot of stuff and I could finally get two cars in my garage. Now what that stuff is, that’s what I really don’t know.
You’re putting your story in their hands a bit.
Exactly. Well, what I think he did was just amass everything that was there, and then it might go to somebody else at the Schomburg. But [the archivist] cleaned me out, and then he’d come up and say, “Look at this, I found this, Sonny!” When these archives are finally displayed, I’ll be just as surprised as everyone else, because there’s stuff there that I had forgotten all about over the many years. I think it was from the ‘50s that they started.
We just covered an exhibit at the Rubin Museum about the second Buddha, Padmasambhava, whose disciples projected his treasure teachings into the future. They would hide his messages in art about him, scrolls and whatnot. So years after he wasn’t around anymore, people would be discovering his teachings.
I’ve been interested in these thoughts early on. I remember getting involved with the Rosicrucians, which is not Eastern, though they claim to be from way back. They’re a European mystical organization. That was my first attempt to understand and read some of this stuff. Then I went into Buddhism. But mainly, I study yoga, and consider myself a yogi. I’m in sympathy and empathy with a lot of Buddhist philosophy and thought, but I was never… because it’s really the same thing.
What I discovered it this, Joffe—that there’s only one truth. That’s all. And that goes to all human endeavors on this planet. There’s a lot of different sects, but the truth is the same. One of my favorite things I believe in is the Golden Rule, and recently somebody sent me something that goes like this—what you do not wish upon yourself, do not do to others. You know who said that? Confucius. It goes back forever. As long as human beings been out here, some people have seen the light, and that’s the truth. It’s one resolve down to one truth. So that’s where I’m at.
But I’m still studying, I’m still learning. I’m reading Swami Vivekananda now, who was a very wise man that was here in the States around the end of the 19th Century. You know, I’m on the wrong side of 87, and right now I’d rather give.
In giving, be it your time to me or your archives to the Schomburg, you don’t ever seem to be sentimental about your career. When recently asked about your playing alone on The Williamsburg Bridge, you resisted the bait to get sentimental. That was learning who you were for me as a kid because I watched The Simpsons and Bleeding Gums Murphy played on the Springfield Bridge, a story I soon found out was plucked directly out of your mythology. Few people have been able to assert themselves into our subconscious so directly, and that’s a gift, too. How do you do so without being overly sentimental about old memories and stories?
Life goes by so fast, and there’s so much to learn. As a musician, that takes most of your life, when you’re trying to learn to be a performer. It takes up a lot of your life. You really don’t have a lot of time to meditate and contemplate, things just happen. At this stage in my life, I don’t have to think too much about any of that stuff. But I did have to live more of a sentimental life when I had to think about making a new record, getting a magazine cover and stuff. That’s fine. This was my karmic journey, this was me. I was born Sonny Rollins to go through my karma and live the life that I’ve lived. I understand that now, and I accept everything, because I believe in karma, and I’m sure you do, too.
Well, you believe in reincarnation, too.
Have you thought about how you might exist in the air or the electrons of a next life?
No, I don’t think too much about that, because that’s not my business. If I’m gonna waste my time on Earth thinking about what I’m gonna come back as, a man or an animal, that’s wasting my time on Earth. And it’s short. Life is short. We don’t have a lot of time out here. My time out here has to be The Golden Rule, I know what I’m supposed to do now. I have to be a kind person, I have to give more than take, and that’s hard in this world.
By the way, I don’t believe in reincarnation, I accept reincarnation. I don’t believe, I know. That’s a better way to put it. I often wish I’d said that when I’ve talked to people. Do you get my mind there?
Totally. Your spiritual sojourn was so individual and different from Trane’s, and it affected your music in different ways. How did your time in India contribute to that?
I never had a good answer for that. While I was there, I definitely heard music. I heard some people playing in the hills there, and I went to hear a concert by this fellow Bismillah Khan, who plays the shehnai. But music was not in my mind when I went to India. I went to India to try and get a general understanding of what life is about and what I am here for. I don’t know if my music might have been affected by that or not.
But I was a very spiritual child. This is where karma comes in. I was always a good person, but I didn’t always live a good life. I had to live my life because it was my karma, but I always felt, even as a young child, that there was something bigger existing inside me and in reality. I just had to go through my life, which was pretty up and down, but I don’t know if my music even expressed what my thoughts were. I’m not sure about that.
What about these great prolific periods in your career, these leaps where you accomplished a whole lot very quickly? We’re supposed to be talking about Way Out West because this 60th anniversary is coming up. And in 1957, you recorded so much—obviously the legendary [Village] Vanguard set, but Way Out West to Freedom Suite just a year later seems like such a trip.
When I did Way Out West, it just solidified the trio format that I had been working on in one way or another a lot of my life. That was a big trio record—saxophone, drums and bass.
Yeah, that was one of the records that solidified it as a Sonny Rollins trademark, if you will.
I love how you’re holding the saxophone like a gun.
Well, as a boy, I was a big fan of cowboy movies. I’d go to all of these. I could name all the guys we used to see—Buck Jones is my favorite, Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hicok—I was a big fan of these cowboy guys. And they even had black cowboy movies. When I had the opportunity to play out there in California, that was the first time I’d been out there, California was such a different place from New York. I was captivated by that. That and the idea of my looking like a cowboy all gelled together.
Yet like a year later, it sounds like racism and civil rights are at the front of your mind on Freedom Suite.
Well, the thing is, Joffe, as a kid, my grandmother was an activist. She was a member of Marcus Garvey’s group. Her name was Miriam Hansen. And she used to take me as a boy, three, four, years old, marching up and down Lenox Avenue in Harlem for civil rights. Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Dubois, these amazing people, we all used to march against the lynchings going on in the South.
Your grandmother passed that year, in 1957, the same year you made Way Out West. And then a year later, you made Freedom Suite. It all seems connected for some reason.
Well, it probably is, because that was me. I always tell people, I don’t care what denomination you are, nobody wants to be a slave. Every person should realize it, and it’s as simple as that.
You named “St. Thomas” after her, too, right?
St. Thomas was where my mother and grandmother were born, in the Virgin Islands. It’s all a part, a jigsaw puzzle that you have to fit together.
Or have an archivist fit together for you.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, precisely.
At the Kennedy Center Honors, you accepted the award but told the broadcast that you wanted it for all the unknown players who you said deserve the award so much more than you. You said that your hope was for jazz to stay alive and fresh in the hands of young people. It’s almost seven years after that ceremony and jazz has since into many other genres and sounds outside of black culture. The core collective of Kamasi [Washington], [Robert] Glasper and Thundercat seems to be responsible for much of it by borrowing from the spiritual future eras of you and Trane and Bird. Do you feel that democratization of jazz in the more musical mainstream?
Sure I do. And all the people you named, those guys are good, good, good musicians. Now the marketplace is something else. That may put you someplace and call it ‘hip’, ‘smooth’ or ‘cool’. But those guys are great, and I’m very happy of that legacy. Jazz has established itself as a legitimate, strong, demanding voice all over the world. It’s all good. I believe in the universal spirit, something good and positive that is there. It’s just up to us human beings to get it.
Isn’t that why people meditate, to break free from the thinking that time moves on a linear trajectory? To understand how past, present, and future could all be talking together once we become aware, hip, enlightened, once we take more responsibility over the consequences and ripples of our actions?
I agree. We’re here on our trip already, unraveling our karma or getting more karma, and it’s all meant to be. It’s up to us to get that knowledge. It might take a trillion lives, I don’t know how many lives it will take to get to that universe of spirit. That’s another thing that’s not my business.
I know you can’t play right now because of your respiratory issues, and that you’re also still composing in your mind. Are you doing anything with those ideas?
I’m not writing them down, but they are in my head 24/7.
You said you don’t remember the entirety of the archives, but the New York Times reported that one of the documents had some writing of yours about what you perceived to be wrong with the jazz industry. Any idea what that was?
Well, I don’t know what the paper said, but I know what I felt. The industry, of course, was a commercial thing, and that’s always a problem with art and commerce. That’s the problem— there are great artists who have trouble putting bread on the table. It was the same thing. Plus, I didn’t like the fact that we had to work in places that sold alcohol, a lot of cigarettes, the whole nightclub nexus up in Harlem.
You’d worked so hard to get yourself clean, and then still had to return to that scene.
Yes, I did. But that’s okay, that was my karma. I recognize it, I spoke about it, so I’m proud of that. I accept that.
The intersection of art and commerce, and the boundary between the two feels thinner than ever these days. Especially since Internet music became a thing 10-15 years ago. How can we keep the records, the art, the writings, and the stories that we know we want to remember for future generations sacred and alive in a time when everything is designed to make our attention spans so short? How can we slow down?
I’m glad you realize it’s about slowing down. So knowing that, how we preserve it doesn’t matter. As long as you know that you’re doing something good, that the music is good, that people appreciate it. Artists don’t have an easy time in this world. Even Johann Sebastian Bach used to play for a keg of beer. He’d compose something and perform, then get a nice big keg of beer. So it’s never been easy.
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