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.
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.
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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.'