Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation

By Eric Nisenson
(St. Martin's Press)

About time a bio was written on Sonny Rollins, the last living jazz patriarch, who also met repeatedly with the author as the book was taking shape. Not that the saxman was pleased with the project, to which he admits he "reluctantly agreed, feeling that it would probably be written anyway." Unlike many old-time jazzniks, Rollins isn't guarded about the facts of his life; it's just that the detailed personal inquiries necessary to complete the project made him genuinely uncomfortable. Clichéd as it sounds, Rollins really wants the music to speak for itself. Lucky for us, he lost and Eric Nisenson won.

As is evident throughout Open Sky, Rollins is just as insightful when he lays down his horn as when serenading the crowds that first began taking notice of him during his days playing with Charlie Parker. Rollins blows so seductively that he's attracted audiences to concert-length solo saxophone improvisations. His diatribes, played with a gruff passion that's become his trademark, somehow convey a message far more descriptive than if there had been words in place of notes.

Nisenson spends a fair portion of the book pursuing the inspiration Rollins has found in Eastern philosophy -- not the Love Generation Maharishi nonsense the Beatles fell for, but an awareness of the detrimental effect of the pointless thoughts that clutter the mind most of the time. Meditation is typically the means used to attain the clarity required to live entirely in the moment. The ever-restless Rollins, though, had to find a different approach: "I find it very hard to just sit down and make myself still. Playing my horn is a form of meditation." Elsewhere he explains: "In music alone we see God free from all forms and thoughts . . . sound alone does not make any object appear before us." Could be that those solo sax concerts are meditative moments for his fans, too.

Nisenson's pursuit of the tenorman's spirituality shares space with recollections of Rollins' stylistic development and occasionally sordid past. How Rollins came to balance the influences of Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young lies only pages away from a tale about an armed robbery that earned him 10 months at Rikers Island, and how Parker was noticeably disappointed to discover that Rollins had become, as a result of his own poor example, a junkie.

The book's detailed descriptions of Rollins' musical advances thankfully avoid those obnoxious here's-the-music-notation illustrations that can suck the human element out of a biography. Rollins the stylist is never relegated, à la music class, to a single style. If you like this very accessible profile, check out Nisenson's exceptional critique of vapid instrumental pop masquerading as jazz, Blue: The Murder of Jazz.

 
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