Jazz Profiles from NPR
Sonny Rollins (70th Birthday Tribute)
Produced by Molly Murphy

Sonny Rollins  

This edition of Jazz Profiles salutes saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins, whose career-long penchant for exploration and innovation has resulted in some of jazz's most influential recordings, performances and collaborations.

Listen to saxophonists and composers Jimmy Heath, Steve Lacy, Jackie McLean, and drummer and composer Elvin Jones, talk about Sonny

Sonny Rollins was born in New York City, in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, on September 7, 1930. As a very young child, he tried his hand at piano, but switched to alto sax at age 11. Rollins became part of a Harlem-based nucleus of young musicians, which included drummer Art Taylor and pianist Kenny Drew, who were regularly called on to perform and record with larger lights.

At just 19, Sonny had spent several months rehearsing with Thelonious Monk and had already recorded with trombonist J. J. Johnson and trumpeter and pianist Bud Powell Monk. Alto saxophonist Louis Jordan and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins -- whose saxophone case the young Sonny would dutifully carry to and from gigs -- were key early influences for Sonny.

Listen to Sonny talk about the influence of Louis Jordan and Coleman Hawkins on his music

In 1951, Rollins began a professional and personal friendship with trumpeter Miles Davis, with whom he collaborated on the latter's Dig album. While Rollins' career track was on the rise, his personal life was sadly, slowly taken over by heroin, with his first drug possession arrest coming in 1950.

Listen to Sonny talk about his time in prison and how he battled with drug addictions

"I know that I'll never satisfy myself every night. I know that that's perhaps beyond reach. But, I'm trying to get my level up higher."

-- Sonny Rollins  

But Rollins fought back and successfully preserved his growing reputation in the mid-1950s as one of the jazz scene's most innovative improvisers. His resume included work with pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Clifford Brown. At the decade's end, Rollins and drummer Elvin Jones recorded the classic Night At The Village Vanguard album.

Listen to drummer Elvin Jones talk about the making of A Night at the Village Vanguard album

Williamsburg Bridge  

Rollins shocked the jazz world in 1959 when he took the first in a number of self-imposed exiles. During this hiatus, he practiced on New York's Williamsburg Bridge (left), and delved into a number of Eastern philosophies. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean often practiced with him on the Williamsburg Bridge.

Listen to alto saxophonist Jackie McLean recall practicing with Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge

His return in the 1960s saw intense creative development, especially in his growing string of landmark concert and studio efforts. Rollins became particularly celebrated for his live performances, well documented on collections like 1974's The Cutting Edge.

Rollins continues to perform and record, but he's increasingly drawn to the solitude found on his upstate New York farm, which he shares with his wife and manager, Lucille. Though he frequently notes that "It's four in the afternoon for me", age has only further sweetened Rollins' ever-soulful invention and sound.

Listen to Rollins reflect on his legendary career


View Sonny Rollins (70th Birthday Tribute) show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Sonny Rollins' 1956 album Saxophone Colossus

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Sonny Rollins' 1958 album Freedom Suite

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web feature on Sonny Rollins

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org