Excerpt from SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS: Booker Little & Sheet Music

 I'm thoroughly enjoying Adan Levy's immaculately detailed biography of Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (the extensive notes are available for download for free). One passage of many so far that caught my eye, ca. summer 1955 in Chicago:

At night, Sonny would practice in the basement of the Y, where they had a piano. One night, he heard someone playing a Clifford Brown record on repeat who turned out to be trumpeter Booker Little. [possibly Clifford Brown with Strings, per author note, which released that spring] "I was playing it over and over again, and I guess I was driving him mad, because he was trying to practice himself," Little recalled. At the time, Little was a seventeen-year-old sophomore at the Chicago Conservatory who had come from Memphis and was also living at the Y. Finally, Sonny decided to approach him. "He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was trying to learn the melody," Little said. "He told me that it was probably best that I go buy a sheet on it, because if I kept listening to the way he played it, it was going to rub off, and I was going to play it the same way. I never forgot what he said, though I did continue listening to Clifford Brown records." (193)

Learning the melody from the written version and avoiding learning it off the record? Perhaps sacrilegious today, but the logic makes sense, especially at a time when the music was newly minted and stylized, and when it was floating around in the general public consciousness and in mainstream media. Still, it's something I've thought about recently when I learned a tune from a particular recording, then only much later saw a lead sheet to discover some significant differences ("Stardust" comes to mind). Wisdom from Sonny!