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Despite playing in topnotch jazz bands led by drummer Art Blakey, pianist Bud Powell and trumpeter Miles Davis, Rollins decided the disadvantages of being an addict required him to take the first of several sabbaticals in 1954.
"It's just one of those things that you have to have the courage of your convictions to do," Rollins now says of his disappearing acts. "I never thought about whether or not I'd be able to reenter the music scene. I knew I'd face it if it came to that."
Rollins says he felt no animosity toward Parker for the negative half of Parker's influence.
"Parker felt very bad about his addictions and the fact that he was influencing a lot of younger musicians. He expressed that to me himself."
Ironically, the ailing Parker was the person who insisted that Rollins get medical help for his substance abuse. Rollins used the sabbatical to take Parker's advice, subjecting himself to a doctor's care and working as a janitor and a laborer in Chicago. Parker, unable to beat his own habits, died the next year.
Rollins returned to the jazz scene the year Parker died. Rollins quickly proved his newfound strength and direction by joining the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet, one of the most difficult and powerful of the hard-bop bands. Rollins also recorded what most consider his masterpiece, Saxophone Colossus.
By the late 50s, Rollins was back on top. Albums from that time, like Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard, remain classics. The critics loved him, as his string of music-magazine awards proved, and so did the jazz audiences that packed his club dates. But Sonny was blue, and blew off all career concerns by again retreating from the scene.
"I was always doing things for my improvement, for my betterment," he says. "I never worried about having to come back and start all over again. I was trying to improve my playing to my own satisfaction."
Rollins' 59-'61 absence from jazz was his most celebrated. Fans discovered that he was spending ten-hour stretches practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge, after finding the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges acoustically inferior. He also had his phone removed. It was even rumored that he'd taken a day job as a bank teller.
Rollins was so unconcerned about notoriety that the recording that heralded his return, appropriately titled The Bridge, was made only to raise money to cover a dental bill. The session remains one of the most famous of his career, revealing a refined rather than a revamped approach. In the 60s, Rollins found as much fame and popularity as he had in the previous decade. But just as the accolades were mounting, Rollins again dropped out. In the late 60s, he ventured off to India and Japan to pursue Eastern philosophies.
"I was on a quest. I was following something," Rollins says of his travels. "And, you know, something very interesting happened to me in India. While I was staying at an ashram there, I achieved a certain serenity. I saw that there is such a great difference--I guess you could say a vibration--between the East and the West. And when I came back to the States, for probably two or three weeks I was literally walking on air, I was so elevated and tranquil inside. "Eventually, I was drawn down to Earth," Rollins remembers. "Day by day, I could feel myself being drawn back into the world we're living in, back into the things we have to deal with."
The trip to the ashram was Rollins' last major disappearing act. He returned to touring and recording in 1972, and hasn't stopped since. Now 63, he remains an active, if low-key, part of the jazz scene, averaging an album every two years or so. His latest disc, Here's to the People, was released in 1991. Along with drummer Max Roach, Rollins is one of the last jazz giants left alive.
And now that his days of jumping off stages seem to be over, Rollins might actually stay that way. He admits that he had to walk out of a screening of Saxophone Colossus because seeing his heel snap again was too painful to watch. That impromptu stage dive was one of the few times, though, that Rollins has failed to land on his feet. The nimble sax man continues to explore both his music and his spirituality. According to Rollins, the object is to unite the two. Those lucky enough to catch him live may see for themselves proof of the transcendence he prefers not to talk of. Even the reticent Rollins will concede that, on certain nights, a lifetime of searching occasionally pays off. "Yeah," Rollins says reluctantly, "I remember many years ago, people would tell me, 'You and the horn are one.'