Sonny is born in New York. He starts on the alto sax at the age
of 11, and switches to tenor at 16; at his high school he plays
in the same groups as Art Taylor, Jacke McLean, Thelonious
Monk and Kenny Drew! He plays professionally at 17, and is
first recorded a year later with J.J.
Johnson and Bud Powell. In 1950
he plays with Tadd Dameron and Miles
Davis, and records with Davis from 1951 to 1954; his first
recording as a leader is in 1951.
withdraws from professional musical life, supposedly
unhappy with his performances. He practises on the Williamsburg
Bridge in New York.
Upon his musical return he forms a quintet with guitarist Jim
Hall. From 1962 Don Cherry (trumpet) and Billy Higgins (drums)
join his group and Sonny flirts with
free jazz. From 1963 he tours with
various personnel. In 1965 he writes the musical score for the
film Alfie. Again he retires, from 1968 to 1971 when he
studies in India and China.
Rollins is still performing today, seemingly with boundless energy
and appetite. He regularly performs in London, usually at the Barbican
Rollins moves to Chicago, and joins the Max
Roach/Clifford Brown group a year
later; he stays with this ensemble until 1957, a year after Clifford
Brown's death; this groups makes some fine recordings. In 1955
Rollins kicks his drug habit.
Sonny leads his own group, and his recordings
in this period are some of the finest in the history of jazz;
he is widely regarded as a major jazz star and perhaps the main
tenor voice of his day. Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West
and and Tenor Madness, to name but three, are records of
the highest merit.
Rollins returns to the musical fold in 1972. He tours mainly with
a quintet, often composed of younger players. He dabbles with electronic
backing and pseudo-rock forms. In 1978 he tours with McCoy Tyner
and the Milestone All Stars. He starts to play the soprano saxophone
in 1972, and the lyricon in 1979. By the
1980s Rollins has abandoned night club venues for performances in
concert halls and festivals only.
Rollins' main influence as a child was Coleman
Hawkins, later Charlie Parker and
Dexter Gordon, and the mantle of jazz
heritage sits easily upon him: "I like to think there is a
direct link between early jazz and jazz of any time."
Yet Rollins is, it seems, a stand-alone figure in the history of
jazz. He was part of the mainstream when he took to the jazz stage,
playing in bebop groups in his formative
years and truly coming of age in the mid-1950s with elements, at
least in his ensemble setting, of hard
bop. Yet Rollins has always chosen
his own course to steer by, and his playing has remained
consistently in his own style from his youth; if he has dabbled
with free jazz in the 1960s and fusion
in the 1970s, it was always an uncomfortable experience. In short,
Rollins remains his own man, and seems
an unwilling accomplice to any musical experience he can not claim
to be his own. Apart from a spell in the mid-1950s when
with Clifford Brown, likewise he has found it difficult to play
with other soloists, and his manner has been that of a wandering
troubadour. What Gunther Schuller referred to, when discussing the
track Blue 7 from the 1956 album Saxophone Colossus,
as a new method of 'thematic' improvisation, is in fact no more
than Sonny's insatiable lust for on-the-hoof
and extravagant improvising with great rhythmic freedom.
He truly rivals Parker in
this respect, and his solo performances, first caught
on record in 1957 with It Could Happen To You, are memorable
and breathtaking events, and any genre is fair game - calypso melodies
and cowboy themes sit happily next to Broadway standards. And if
he composed as a young man, Oleo and other tunes are now
part of the standard jazz repertoire, he rarely saw the need: improvisation,
at least for Rollins, is akin to composition.
Given this, and even though there have been fits and starts to his
career, the usual taunt - that he failed to live up to the enormous
promise of the cluster of truly great jazz recordings he made in
the mid- and late-1950s - is nonsense. Rollins has remained a figure
of iconic proportions throughout his career.