Sonny Rollins, Eighty-Six

At eighty-five, setting records straight (Pitchfork, April 2016, Hilton Als):

I read that one of the first experiences of music that you loved was a concert that Frank Sinatra gave when you were in high school where he spoke about racial tolerance.

I’d like to address that. From the time I was a child my grandmother was an activist. 

She was West Indian?  

Oh yeah. My grandfather, her husband, was from Haiti, but my grandmother was from St. Thomas. Anyway, when I was a little boy I used to walk in parades up and down Lenox Ave. We would be marching for W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson. I grew up with that. Through “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” Now fast forward to 1946, when they bussed us from where we lived on 175th Street. There was a new school opening up down in Italian Harlem, on 116th Street, off of the river. This was a new high school. We were met with a lot of hostility from the neighborhood. The people in the area figured it was some black kids coming into their neighborhood, and there were a lot of fights—people were throwing stuff out the windows as we were getting out. It was just a whole lot of violence. So Frank Sinatra came down to our school and did a concert. Naturally, he was an Italian hero. So he preached to the people that we shouldn’t fight with these kids, which was very helpful. Things straightened out after that. Now, I think that was great, but that was not my introduction to civil rights. I’ve been around it all my life. The wrong people have put on Wikipedia that Frank Sinatra came down, and it changed my life. That’s complete bullshit. And it’s very offensive.

It’s not giving credence to your family.  

We even had a Black Nationalist flag in the house. I didn’t need Frank Sinatra to wake me up to civil rights. I love Frank Sinatra’s music. He’s a great singer. I think what he did then was very admirable, but it’s not about him. To me, it’s about trying to make me look smaller and him bigger. It’s making me look like I didn’t know what civil rights was all about, which is ridiculous. All my music had this—I did the Freedom Suite in 1958. Before that I had done this song “The House I Live In” that was a civil rights song by Paul Robeson. Why did I do it? 
Because I was trying to get black consciousness into people. 

Sonny in 2009 (Bengt Nyman, Wikimedia Commons)

Nine Solos by Sonny Rollins (1951-63)

Happy birthday to Sonny Rollins! A confession: Sonny's playing has always been a long-term acquired taste for me. I never had that revelatory moment hearing Saxophone Colossus for the first time that many of my peers seemed to have; I just remember being bewildered by that raspy, shout-to-whisper-to-shout mercuriality of his sound, as well as the brusque, alternatively majestic and skittish quality to his phrasing. It was a lot to take in, perhaps too much for me at the time. 

In college, Miguel Zenón's first transcription assignment for me was "Come, Gone," a chordless romp through the changes of "After You've Gone" from Way Out West. It's the full package: elegant and muscular unaccompanied intro, variously dense and spacious phrases punctuated with impeccable rhythmic specificity, and truly marvelous, unceasing invention. I'm still working my way through Sonny's voluminous discography (as shown by these transcribed solos, I still have plenty of decades to go), but that's a great problem to have. 

I had the chance to catch up with Miguel recently over lunch, and, eventually and inevitably, the conversation came around to Sonny. 

"There's something about Sonny—it's hard to put my finger on it—but, for me, he's really still the guy. When he plays, it just feels so pure; it's really like the essence of jazz."