Sonny Rollins meets Gary Giddins
What a treat it was to see one of the finest music journalists around interviewing a living legend. It happened last night at the CUNY Graduate Center when author/writer Giddins spoke with sax-man Rollins about his life and his career.
It was a packed house and it was nice to see a mix of men and women though a little sad to see that there weren't many young bucks in the house and the crowd was heavily imbalanced racially (mostly white).
Nevertheless, to be in the presence of and hear the thoughts of an amazing, tireless musician whose career spans over half a century and how has shared the stage and studio with the likes of Monk, Bird and Miles among many others was a great thing to witness.
Here's some highlights, culled from the notes I jotted down.
EARLY INFLUENCES & STARTING OUT IN MUSIC
"My first idol was Fats Waller. I started out on piano and I eventually went to the saxophone and there, my idol was Louis Jordan. He was an entertainer and an instrumentalist. People usually remember him with his novelty songs but he was a great musician too. He had the heart and soul of R&B in him. Then I heard Coleman Hawkins' 'Body and Soul' and I was attracted to it because it was so intellectual- I wanted to be a learned person (like that).
THE DAWN OF BE-BOP
"Charlie Parker exemplified a big change for us but Hawkins was really as advanced as the music got. I followed Don Byas and bought his 78RPM for "How High the Moon." On the flip side was Parker's 'Koko'- it was kind of unusual to see another artist on a record like that. I had never heard him before and I thought it was kind of an extension of what Hawkins was doing.
IN WALKED BUD
Giddins: "When you recorded with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro (1949), were you intimidated by them?"
Rollins: "No, I wasn't. I had a sense of destiny but I knew I was in heavy company... Bud was like Beethoven- a mad genius. When Fats and I were playing, I made a mistake and Bud looked over at me with one of his stares... Needless to say, I never made that mistake again! But Bud wanted me there so I must have been OK. That band could play in any tempo, in any key. I wasn't as good as they were but they wanted me (there)."
Giddins: "In 1955, you went to Lexington, Kentucky..."
Rollins: "Yes, that was the Betty Ford clinic of that time. Writers, musicians who overindulged got medical care there. They had a four month program to ween you off drugs. I used to be really bad- people would see me coming and they would run away.
It was hard to get back into jazz after that and stay clean. I really struggled- my old friends were offering me stuff all the time. Then Max Roach and Clifford Brown needed a sax player so I joined in with them. That was a great period of my life. Brown was a beautiful individual and very nice. He didn't carouse- he had good manners and was very unassuming."
ROLLINS = HIS OWN TOUGHEST CRITIC
(Giddins played SR's version of "There's No Business Like Show Business" from 1955)
Rollins: "Listening to that was excrusiating to me- you always hear your mistakes."
Giddins: "I know that you decided not to release the recent Carnegie Hall show (Sept. 2007) that you did."
Rollins: "It was not quite what I wanted but there'll be more, I'm still alive! (applause). There'll be more and better."
Giddins: "You have a new project where Carl Smith is collecting your concerts and picking 1-2 songs from each show where you were happy with your playing."
Rollins: "Reasonably (happy)..."
ENTER THE TRANE
Giddins: "1956, May 24, you did the Tenor Madness album where you made session with John Coltrane, who was then unknown at the time."
Rollins: "In those days, there much more of a sense of fellowship among musicians- guys were tighter than they are now. Even then, I knew he was quite a formidable person."
Giddins: "In 1958, you did a ground-breaking political statement Freedom Suite and then in 1959, you retired for two years."
Rollins: "Yes, I always get asked about this... I've always tried to be a guy who wanted to improved himself. My name was getting big then and I had a trio with Elvin Jones, getting bassists here and there and we got Jimmy Garrison eventually. When I was playing then, I was disappointed with my work and felt unworthy. I got my education at the Apollo (Theater)- if they weren't satisfied, the audience would holler at you.
I always felt that there was a contract between me and the audience and I wanted to live up to that. So I just said to myself 'Wait a minute, this isn't going to work.' I've always had an inner (critic)... 'I don't wanna do it anymore,' I thought. I want to practice and go into the woodshed. I would practice at the (Williamburg) bridge, having the time of my life. When I returned, my confidence was there again. I recorded with Jim Hall then, who's now in NYU hospital- please send your thoughts and prayers to him there."
THE DAWN OF FREE JAZZ
"I head the avant garde but I did not consciously picked up on it- I was doing anything to keep myself on top."
CONCERT VS. STUDIO
"I've always felt a little restricted in the studio- when you could start overdubbing, I tried to do everything perfectly. I feel more at peace and more of myself in a live situation, especially if it's outdoors. Playing live... you can just forget everything. You can't think and play at the same time. The music is going by so fast, if you stop to think, the time has passed. I keep mind blank and just let the music play me... You just let the music come. I have to think to try to do that. I'm just playing stream of conscious."
INNER CRITIC, PART II
Giddins: "I want to play something, I hope it won't be excrusiating..."
Rollins: "It will be!"
(Giddins plays a recording of Sonny live in Kansas City in 1985. As Giddins notes, the song "has no name--it was a completely spontaneous performance." The unaccompanied song is beautiful, funny, lyrical, lively, playful. It's a stunning display- there are bits of "The Marriage of Figaro," horse race music, "Pop Goes the Weasal," "A Tisket A Tasket," funeral marches plus choppy notes, honking and SR going up and down scale as he almost accompanies himself)
Rollins: "I can do better than that! I'm gonna do better than that!"
FREE JAZZ, PART II
"I had known Don Cherry, before he came to NYC, when he was playing on the West Coast with Ornette. (Albert) Ayler was great-he had fire and dedication in his playing. He didn't get the recognition he should have. He was a nice guy.
I didn't want to do away with chord changes (like Ornette) but I don't feel that I've gotten to the point yet (where I can discount that). I still practice every day... (this) still may be a work in progress."
(At this point, Giddins turned the mike over to the audience for questions)
Q: What films influenced you and could you talk about doing the soundtrack for Alfie?
"Growing up, we only had motion pictures and radio. I saw Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong in movies. I liked Jerome Kern's songs and the Swing Time movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
I was playing in a London club and the producer from Alfie stopped by and said that he would like me to do the music for the film because my playing sounded like the main character. After I saw the character... I wondered if it was a compliment. The film was already shot and we just played music over it. I'd like to do that again but it shouldn't just be music accompanying films though- film should accompany music too. Like Bette Davis' The Letter. There's a fantastic movie and it couldn't be done without music."
Q: (for Giddins) How do you distinguish a musician as a genius?
Rollins: "I never called myself a genius so we'll take that off the table!"
Giddins: "I think it's having no precedent and a presenting a new way of thinking."
Q: What do you think of the idea of classicism?
Rollins: " I think that if they (musicians) have the dedication, then they should do it!"
Q: Talk about your parents and music and growing up in Harlem.
"Harlem in the 30's was a vibrant place. Harlem was a place everyone from downtown wanted to go to- it was a mecca. There was lots of music played in my house, like (Fat Waller's) "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." I haven't been to Harlem in 10 years, sad to say.
Q: Is there anyone you'd like play with that you haven't already and are there any recent musicians that you admire?
"I haven't gotten out to listen to musicians recently. I don't go to bed thinking 'Gee, I'd like to play with...'"
Q: How did yoga and spirituality effect your music?
"I don't know how it might have effected my music- that's for other people to decide. It changed me as a person though and it gave me a more informed view of life. I wanted to be healthy and not be like Lester Young- I loved him but I was not into his habits that destroyed him physically.
I don't want to be destitute and have people do benefits for me."
At that point, I had to leave a little early so I missed the last two questions but hopefully, you got the gist of it and enjoyed some words of wisdom from a master.