Sonny Rollins

Biography

Sonny Rollins, who was born in 1930 in a cosmopolitan and fairly affluent section of Harlem nicknamed Sugar Hill, is these days routinely hailed as the greatest living tenor saxophonist, but this isn't going far enough. Rollins is the greatest living jazz improviser, and if we redefine virtuosity to include improvisational cunning as well as instrumental finesse, he may be the greatest virtuoso ever produced by jazz.

Rollins's list of associates from his recording debut in 1949 to his first sabbatical ten years later is impressive: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, and Max Roach, for starters. But this sort of cross-referencing hardly conveys Rollins's true significance.

Unlike Parker, Louis Armstrong, or Ornette Coleman, Rollins didn't alter the rhythmic syntax of jazz. Unlike Davis, he has never been a reliable bellwether of new trends. Although a number of his tunes have become jam-session standbys, he has never been a composer on the grand scale of a Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus, or even one on the deceptively minor scale of Monk. Yet when conjuring up an image of the quintessential jazz musician — one who realizes that improvisation is a gamble requiring putting oneself on the line number after number and night after night — as often as not, it is Rollins many of us picture, because no other instrumentalist better epitomizes the tightrope walk between spontaneity and organization implicit in taking an improvised solo.

He is a notorious perfectionist who is rarely satisfied with his work even under the most inspired of circumstances. In a famous 1958 essay called "Sonny Rollins and the Art of Thematic Improvisation," the critic and composer Gunther Schuller praised Rollins for proving, among other things, that "well-timed silence can become part of a musical phrase." As a corollary, one might add that Rollins's two sabbaticals from recording and public performance — the first for a period of almost three years beginning in 1959, just as his career was taking off, and the second, lasting about as long, some ten years later — have played as large a part as his solos in defining his mystique.

More than thirty years later, Rollins is still setting a standard few improvisers will ever match.

Francis Davis

Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Sonny Rollins

Unlike Parker, Louis Armstrong, or Ornette Coleman, Rollins didn't alter the rhythmic syntax of jazz. Unlike Davis, he has never been a reliable bellwether of new trends. Although a number of his tunes have become jam-session standbys, he has never been a composer on the grand scale of a Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus, or even one on the deceptively minor scale of Monk. Yet when conjuring up an image of the quintessential jazz musician — one who realizes that improvisation is a gamble requiring putting oneself on the line number after number and night after night — as often as not, it is Rollins many of us picture, because no other instrumentalist better epitomizes the tightrope walk between spontaneity and organization implicit in taking an improvised solo.

He is a notorious perfectionist who is rarely satisfied with his work even under the most inspired of circumstances. In a famous 1958 essay called "Sonny Rollins and the Art of Thematic Improvisation," the critic and composer Gunther Schuller praised Rollins for proving, among other things, that "well-timed silence can become part of a musical phrase." As a corollary, one might add that Rollins's two sabbaticals from recording and public performance — the first for a period of almost three years beginning in 1959, just as his career was taking off, and the second, lasting about as long, some ten years later — have played as large a part as his solos in defining his mystique.

More than thirty years later, Rollins is still setting a standard few improvisers will ever match.

Francis Davis

Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Sonny Rollins