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There's an agonizing scene in Saxophone Colossus, the 1986 documentary film about jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The tenor man is playing an outdoor gig in New York in which, in the course of three minutes of unaccompanied soloing, he quotes from "A Tisket, A Tasket," "Over the Rainbow" and "The Man on the Flying Trapeze." Rollins then startles the audience, band and film crew by jumping off the stage, midsolo.
Lost by his leap, the jerky, searching camera finds the sax man lying on his back, having broken his heel in the fall. The crowd is quiet, waiting for Rollins to ask for help. Instead, calling only on his inner strengths, Rollins, still flat on his back, tears into the opening notes of the next song. It's as though the few seconds of excruciating silence were all he needed to rejuvenate himself.
Sonny Rollins has a long history of recharging in silence. One of the most famous tales in all of jazz history concerns the two years Rollins spent in self-imposed seclusion, practicing alone on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. Whether he's blowing in public or meditating in private, Rollins' life in jazz has always been a uniquely private journey.
"I'd rather not talk about these things too much," Rollins said last week, by telephone from his apartment in Manhattan. "The subject makes me a little bit self-conscious. I think about my spirituality in more of a personal way. As a rule, I try not to make too much of a show of it, you know?"
What's made the shy Rollins one of the most imposing figures in jazz is his unparalleled ability at improvisation. Rollins is so spontaneously creative, he once filled the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for a concert advertised as having no band or songs. The 1985 concert, released on disc as The Solo Album, is a flood of bite-size melodies and odd song quotations held together with a rhythmic sense so strong the listener soon forgets what's missing. For comparison's sake, imagine standing in front of a crowd and attempting to hold its interest with a semilogical progression of witty ideas and famous quotes, strung together on the spot. Sonny Rollins can do that with a saxophone.
While other jazz improvisers merely noodle and toy with the possibilities of a song's structure, Rollins fills solos with eccentric ideas and quotes from some very unjazzish songs, then drenches it all in his trademark rough and confident tone. So personalized is his style that dedicated fans can recognize his playing in only a few notes.
Not only has Rollins' playing-in-tongues style catapulted him miles beyond the senseless honkers and noodlers of jazz, it has been a major part of his spiritual quest.
"I've always tried to explain the importance of the present moment, that improvising is something that happens instantaneously, and that I don't really plan for it," says Rollins.
"Improvising is the essence of jazz, I believe. When I'm at my peak, something is coming into my mind rather than going out of it."
Rollins admits that trying to explain the transcendence of such moments to, say, a Baptist choir director would require "a lot of time to clear away all of their misconceptions about what the music is trying to say." Not so in India or Japan--two places Rollins has visited to pursue his spiritual potential. Both are filled with meditative disciplines emphasizing the need to exist in the present rather than to pursue the future or to live in the past. That rigid Baptist is likely to overlook Rollins' be-here-now playing and hear only a godless, rather than ungodly, form of musicianship.
"Too many people are conditioned to think that jazz is the devil's music," Rollins says. "In the early days, jazz got a bad name because it was played in clubs with whiskey and prostitutes."
Oddly, Rollins began his spiritual adventures because of a jazz man known as much for his debauchery as he was for his music--Charlie Parker.
Rollins grew up in a New York neighborhood that was blocks away from the jazz clubs of 52nd Street. By the time Rollins was a teen, Parker's uncanny ability to improvise at breakneck speed--and live at a similar pace--made him a spiritual as well as a musical influence on the young sax player.
"In yoga, they say any activity, if you're entirely into what you're doing, is a form of meditation," offers Rollins. "I saw that Charlie Parker was completely dedicated to what he was doing. He was beyond the material realm."
Rollins watched Parker leave the planet not only through the older player's otherworldly style of soloing, but also through his heroin addiction and his alcoholism. Despite being present in the club, a strung-out Parker would regularly miss gigs, having passed out underneath the stage.
"Even though Parker was living an unfortunate life, he was still a spiritual presence to me. It is in these contradictions," Rollins pauses, "that the truth is often found." At first, Rollins molded himself after the musical side of Parker's personality. Later, while immersed in unraveling Bird's intense improvisational magic, Rollins also followed Parker into heroin addiction.