Aiden Levy’s “Saxophone Colossus” is an engrossing portrait of jazz musician Sonny Rollins. Rollins, now 92, stopped performing a decade ago after being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, but his legacy and influence lives on. The book’s title was taken from Rollins’ breakthrough 1956 LP that defined his artistry as one of the most innovative jazz musicians of the 20th century.
Levy interviewed 200 people, including family members, friends, colleagues, and Rollins himself describing his life, in and out of music. And is completely forthcoming about his ups and downs as an artist. no need to embellish with jazz lore, the plain facts are compelling enough. Levy is a meticulous researcher, and an accomplished sax player himself has the technical skill to write about the instrument.
Rollins’ parents Valborg and Walter Rollins were from the Virgin Islands, had two children Gloria, and a son Valdemar. The Rollins had relatives in Harlem and in 1929 they moved there. A year later Sonny was born. His father was a chief steward in U.S. Navy frequently stationed away from home.
Sonny’s mother made sure he was exposed to Harlem’s vibrant arts and music scenes and bought him a saxophone when he was 13 and paid for his lessons Rollins would practice hours (in his closet, no less) and decades later he would turn a Caribbean calypso song his mother sang him into his jazz hit ‘St. Thomas’ in honor of his family’s island heritage.
In his teens Sonny would find out where jazz musicians lived in Harlem and just show up at their door. He recalls Coleman Hawkins gave him exercises with books on his stomach for breathing exercises to center his breath control from the diaphragm. When asked what Bud Powell taught him, Rollins said didn’t teach him anything “but I learned everything from him.”
As the big-band dance band era was breaking up and ‘bebop’ became the main jazz scene in New York. Rollins was just 16 at the time was right in the middle of it and being recognized by major jazz for his raw virtuosity. He put together his first band in high school with Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, Arthur Taylor, Andy Kirk, calling themselves The Counts of Bop and started to play semi-professionally in dance halls and at socials.
Meanwhile, heroin was the drug of choice among jazz musicians, many bought into the myth that it unlocked something in their playing. It was readily available and cheap. Even though Charlie Parker and other famous jazz musicians warned of its dangers, the young players ended up trying it , including Rollins and his Bop bandmates, and they were all ended up hooked.
Even though Miles Davis’s Prestige record producer signed Rollins at age 21, when he was on the’ session personnel on Davis’s LP ‘Dig’ which got some negative press at the time, but now is considered a jazz classic. Davis and Sonny were performing nonstop, but all the money they were making was going to drugs.
Rollins talks about a period where he was so lost that he was performing every night, and meantime becoming a skilled pickpocket. Rollins is very candid about his years of drug addiction and desperate behavior that gave him a bad reputation with other musicians, threatened his career, and eventually landed him at Rikers Prison for carrying a concealed weapon, nabbed with two of his friends were stopped by police on a bungled burglary attempt. Eventually Rollins checked himself into a detox program in Kentucky’s Lexington State Facility.
After he detoxed and was released from rehab, Davis wanted him to join his quintet in New York but knew he would be too tempted to start using again. The alternative was touring with Charlie Parker’s quartet in Chicago.
Rollins was at the height of his touring success, playing clean, coming off the road after a year to play Carnegie Hall, when he got word the day of that performance that his mother had died. And after just a year of marriage with Dawn Finney, an 18-year-old college student and model who had appeared in Jet magazine, they divorced, amicably after just a year.
At age 29, at the height of his initial success, Rollins went on an unplanned two- year hiatus on a lifelong search for something more meaningful- personally and artistically. Instead of gigging, Rollins was practicing his scales, concepts, and techniques nonstop on the desecrated walkway over the Williamsburg Bridge communing with the sky and the noise for the El tracks and truck horns below him while played his sax as loud as he could in search of what he called ‘the perfect chord.”
He stopped using heroin, practice daily yoga, and became a weightlifter and he even cut off his phone (and not for the last time), telling friends who wanted to reach him to send a telegram. He was unsatisfied with his playing and annoyed at all of the praise, feeling that he was unworthy and had nothing to do with his artistic goals and the industry.
Rollins met Lucille in Chicago and they had a serious relationship, broke up, got back together, and married.. And Lucille ended up managing his career. They stayed married until her death in 2007.
Of the new jazz music era, Levy quotes him as recalling the hardbop era having, …” a freeing aspect about it, a dignity. It appeared at the time as if the music stood for more.”
Levy chronicles Rollins’ performances in the clubs, concert halls, festivals, rehearsals, studios along with the musicians’ private struggle in a tough business of commercial exploitation, financial insecurity, racial discrimination, and other industry abuses, including producers claiming song writing credit from musicians.
Rollins landed a contract with a multi-album contract deal with RCA Records that included a hefty advance.. His recordings from this era included ‘Way Out West,’ ‘Tenor Madness’ with John Coltrane, the seminal live recording ‘A Night At the Village Vanguard’ and the landmark ‘Freedom Suite’ with drummer Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford, an artistic response to being discriminated against after he tried to rent apartment in New York’s Lower East Side and being denied, even though he was by then an artistically and financially successful musician.
As Levy chronicles, Rollins was routinely negative about his own performances, in his endless quest for musical perfection. And he would intermittently go off by himself without warning. In one instance, disappearing after a tour in Japan without letting anyone know that he was in an ashram in India studying yoga, to enhance his breath control and as a way of life more than an exercise ritual.
He sought spiritual guidance, he became a weightlifter, he was exacting with his constant rotation of musicians in search of ‘the sound.’ His colleagues had to send him telegrams as he refused to have a phone. He wrote letters to Lucille daily when he was on the road. Abstained from smoking and drinking. Was taking classes in composition and anthropology. Was available for social justice causes, and in fact more and more was a jazz music social activist.
Throughout his life he continued to have dental problems requiring surgery, he played in pain often, sometime his gums bled, but he let it sideline him as little as possible. But he could disappear from the jazz scene without warning. In one instance, disappearing after a tour in Japan without letting anyone know that he was in an ashram in India studying yoga, to enhance his breath control and as a way of life more than an exercise ritual. And he took an extended sabbatical from performing from 1968 to 1971, then came roaring back with brilliant collaborations with the new roster of jazz vanguards.
Sonny and Lucille decided to give their relationship another chance and they reunited after he returned from an extensive tour. Lucille moved back to NY, became his manager and they eventually built their own studio and produced their own albums. Lucille protected every aspect of Sonny’s professional and personal life, until her sudden death in 2007.
Rollins would routinely change bandmates for particular gigs. He rarely explained himself other than it wasn’t working out. Later he would rehire them. those getting the boot, mostly didn’t hold it against Rollins, always respecting his reasons.
The book is full his interaction with jazz stars from the post-WWII era and beyond, but, admirably Levy doesn’t ignore the roster of musicians not as well-known but were important to Sonny’s development as a musician. Kendrick Scott, for instance, who Sonny dubbed OneNote- because of his of breathless playing and asked him to show him his circular breathing technique, which Sonny came to master.
The book is packed with quotes by musicians praising Rollins ‘artistry, generosity, and professionalism, connected to particular performances or recording sessions for the record. And in the final chapter, the praise cloys a bit. But, for all intents, Levy’s crafts a masterful portrait of the man, the music and his times.