If you happened to be gazing idly from a window of New York City’s J train crossing the East River on the Williamsburg Bridge, most days between the summer of 1959 and the autumn of 1961, you might have glimpsed a lone saxophonist huddled into a cranny of the gigantic steel skeleton.
Travellers on the footway might have got close to the sound of him, too: an astonishing tumult of fast tumbling runs seeming to echo the chatter of the wheels on the subway tracks, honking low-tone exclamations exchanged with the hoots of the riverboats, snatches of blues, pop hits, classical motifs, calypsos. Few witnesses to those torrential monologues will have shrugged him off as just another busker; this was an intuitive master of his instrument who, for some reason, had chosen to tell this multitude of stories to the sky instead of a rapt roomful of fans.
“What made me withdraw and go to the bridge was how I felt about my own playing,” reflects that saxophonist today, 91-year-old Sonny Rollins. “I knew I was dissatisfied.”
He climbed the steep iron steps within two blocks of the apartment he shared with his wife, Lucille, at 400 Grand Street in Manhattan, and was thrilled by the space, light and noisy solitude they led to. Rollins was 28 and already one of the undisputed giants of the subtle and sophisticated modern-jazz advances known as bebop that had taken off in the 40s – even though Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were close on his heels with radical new approaches to how melody, harmony and rhythm could dance spontaneously together.
Between 1956 and 1958, after a series of brilliant small-band albums including Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West, Rollins was acclaimed by the New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett as “possibly the most incisive and influential jazz instrumentalist since Charlie Parker”, while the jazz/classical musicologist Gunther Schuller wrote that the thematic fertility and coherence of the young genius’s off-the-cuff improvisations “held together as perfect compositions”.
In the summer of 1959, though, Rollins disappeared from the radar and stayed off it for the next two years – instead playing the saxophone on the bridge day and night, rain or shine, in solitary sessions of sometimes 15 hours or more. This month is the 60th anniversary of his return to the recording studio, when he entered RCA Victor’s Studio B in New York on 30 January 1962 with a classy rhythm section and an even classier frontline partner in Jim Hall – one of the subtlest jazz guitarists of the era. That January session, and another a fortnight later, produced Rollins’ eagerly awaited comeback album, The Bridge.
Down the phone from his home in upstate New York, Rollins sounds as sprightly as he has in the handful of conversations we have had down the years – always curious, sharp of memory and generous about everyone who makes music. He hasn’t played the saxophone since 2014, due to a respiratory condition. But memories of the long days and changing seasons on the bridge are vivid, as are the reasons that propelled him there, when logic suggested staying in the public eye.
“I was getting a lot of publicity for my work at that time, but I wasn’t satisfying my own requirements for what I wanted to do musically,” he says. One of his neighbours at the time was an expectant mother, so “there was an immediate reason, too: it was difficult to practise a loud horn like the tenor saxophone in my apartment without disturbing somebody”.
Rollins had withdrawn from jazz before, in the early 50s, when heroin addiction had taken him into a stretch of hard-labour rehab at the Lexington Narcotics Farm in Kentucky. In 1956, the year after he got clean, the exultant Saxophone Colossus session emerged. So Rollins understood the liberating potential of focused, relentless hard work, away from gigging and hanging out. But he also knew how fresh and different the new music of Coltrane, Coleman and Davis was sounding by 1959 (the year in which those three made the groundbreaking albums Giant Steps, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Kind of Blue) and felt he needed to provide answers of his own.
Did he worry about the disappointment his withdrawal might bring to his fans? “Am I playing music for other people, you mean?” Rollins inquires. “Yes I am, in a way. But I’m playing for myself. I have to sound good. I don’t want to make my public feel I’m great if I don’t feel like that. Also, I’ve always loved practising – as much as I did performing. Wherever I was, on tour or whatever, I always wanted to find some place to practise, because that’s in my DNA, to keep improving myself.”
Every scrap of music Rollins heard from his youth in jazz-steeped Harlem onwards seemed to get stored in the random access memory of his mind, to be inverted and reshuffled on the fly in performance. His neighbourhood friend Thelonious Monk would smuggle him underage into clubs, he would pass the world-famous Cotton Club on his walk to school, and he would internalise it all, plus snatches of his siblings’ classical practice, jukebox hits and more. Reappraising and digging into all that material in his head, away from the pressures of gigging and travel, seems to have been a trigger for Rollins ascending to the bridge.
“I just happened to be out walking and I saw some steps and I thought: let’s see what’s up there,” Rollins says. “And when I got up to the top, I just saw all this fantastic open space. No one was up there. It was busy, sure – the subway trains and cars were going over and the boats going underneath – but there weren’t many people walking on it in those days; it’s much busier now. There were a lot of pillars and abutments back then, where I could find spaces where people couldn’t see me, though they could hear me. The only people who could see me were the few who were walking across the bridge. And not many of them would stop to talk. I guess they mostly thought: who’s that crazy guy?”
Presumably calls of nature and inhospitable weather must have intervened now and then? “Well, I would play for a long time every day, often 14 or 15 hours. Of course, sometimes I’d come down to go to the bathroom, or I’d go to a bar I liked where I might have a cognac, but then I’d go right back up. If it was cold, I’d play with gloves on; that was not a problem.
“It was so wonderful to be so close to the sky up there, any time of year. Maybe this might sound a little bit corny to people, but it was a spiritual feeling to me. Years later, I remember playing an open-air concert, somewhere in Buffalo or Maine, and I looked up at the sky and felt that communion with some kind of spiritual element. It felt great to me – that distance thing, reaching out to something beyond the people.”
Rollins felt ready to return to the stage in autumn 1961, concerned that Lucille was bearing the brunt of supporting them both in her secretarial job at New York University. When The Bridge came out the following year, it didn’t reveal the radically reinvented Rollins, possibly leaning toward free jazz, that some of his admirers were anticipating. But nonetheless, this was not the same Rollins as the ruggedly freewheeling one of three years earlier.
His own compositions, the staccato, exclamatory John S and the balefully stripped-down title track, mixed brittle short-note themes (resembling percussion patterns) with clusters of dense melody, opening out into improvisations that suggested his younger rival Coltrane’s Giant Steps had not gone unnoticed. But his handling of the 30s Billie Holiday ballad God Bless the Child harked back to the muscular lyricism of the tenor sax pioneer Coleman Hawkins, albeit with a characteristically Rollins-spiced sardonic bite. His tonal range seemed broader, his ear for telling detail sharper.
Rollins then made some uneven but intriguing recordings for the free-jazz-oriented label Impulse! in the mid-60s, before taking a second sabbatical in 1968-71 for philosophical study, Zen meditation and a retreat to a monastery in India. As he entered his 40s, the restless self-inquisitor then seemed ready to concede a middle ground between his own improvisational wilfulness and his audiences’ hopes for a catchy tune.
From the early 70s to his retirement in 2014, Rollins explored bop, swing, funk, Latin and Caribbean music, striding the world’s sold-out concert stages with “the greatest living improviser” emblazoned on the posters outside – a line endorsed by seamlessly flat-out, unaccompanied sax improvisations that would pull cheering crowds to their feet. No more than a handful of jazz musicians since the emergence of the genre in the early 20th century had enjoyed such acclaim.
Seemingly unstoppable, Rollins hurtled on into his 80s, but, although he endured the initial effects of the rare lung-scarring disease pulmonary fibrosis, he was finally forced to concede in 2014. I ask him if he had considered less full-on approaches to performance at that point. “In my case, it was that I couldn’t play at all,” he says. “Blowing the horn made me sick. Believe me, I tried to play for a long time before I realised I just couldn’t play any more.
“People suggested electric instruments, but I just wanted to blow into the horn the way Coleman Hawkins did, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young, all of these great people whose music still makes them feel alive to me, even though they’re not here in the flesh. And I had that for a good portion of my life and I have accepted it now. But at first I was very distraught. It took me quite a while to find a way where I wouldn’t end up in the insane asylum. Because all I ever wanted to do was play. It took me a while to find another reason for living, and I found it in meditation and eastern philosophies.”
Was the thought that he had given so many people pleasure, and inspired many fine musicians to play, a help in this search? “Well, if somebody has heard me playing and it gave them an inspiration to do something, then I’m happy about it for them,” Rollins says. “But I’m not happy about it for me, because I’ve always just been trying to get my act together, so to speak. You know what I mean? But, of course, I realised that I had to be grateful that I’ve had the opportunity of playing for a long time in some of the greatest music of my era, and that perhaps there are people whose playing I maybe inspired somehow, so I shouldn’t be mad at the world because I had to stop. So I was eventually able to deal with it, and my meditational practices and spiritual interests did help me not to feel sorry for myself.”
As we part, I ask a cheesy question I know that, as a believer in reincarnation, he will have been asked many times: does he want to come back as a musician in his next life? This occasions his deep, rumbling chuckle. “I try to envision the eternity of the universe,” Rollins says. “I guess that’s bigger than thinking of coming back as a musician again, maybe next time around just playing a little better. I think it’s that this life made me think more about what it means to be a human being, a good person. I was taught the golden rule as a boy: do unto others what you would want them to do unto you.
“I didn’t always do that when I was young. In the jazz world back then, Charlie Parker was into drugs – and a lot of people that were following him started to use drugs because he did. That was the worst thing that Charlie Parker felt about himself; it was what destroyed him. He was so torn up by all the young guys that were following him into using drugs. I know that, because I experienced it from him.
“But I think, while a lot of us did stupid things, once you’re playing music, there’s something special you’ve been given by the gods above, or whatever it is.” Like Rollins on that bridge, his peers also were playing to the sky. “I’ve heard people saying: ‘No, he’s not a good human being,’ about some of the musicians I’ve known, but I never found that. Every one of them – Monk, Miles, Coltrane – was good to me, and I realised that they were all spiritual people and great human beings.”