AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's not every day we get to talk to someone considered a living legend.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "THE BRIDGE")
CORNISH: Saxophonist Sonny Rollins qualifies. This song "The Bridge" is a masterpiece in a career that spans more than 60 years. After winning nearly every honor imaginable, including the Presidential Medal of Honor, he's now donated his archive to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Now, since this wasn't just any interview, we brought in the big guns, bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America Christian McBride.
SONNY ROLLINS: Hey, Christian McBride.
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: I miss you, Sonny. How are you?
ROLLINS: I'm hanging in there, man.
CORNISH: Christian and I spoke to Sonny Rollins about what's in those archives and about his childhood in Harlem, where Rollins first took up music at just 7 years old.
ROLLINS: When my mother got me a saxophone, of course, you know, I mean, this was Depression time. It took her a while to - for me to convince her that, yeah, I really want to play. Although I shouldn't say that. My mother gave me anything I wanted if she could. There's nothing like a mother's love. And anyway, she got me this used horn. So boy, I got this horn, man, and I went in the room and I shut the door and I was in heaven. I heard a lot of music around me when I was growing up, being born in Harlem. That's another significance of the Schomburg collection because Harlem was Harlem.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE")
ROLLINS: Back in the '30s when I grew up, Harlem was sort of the epicenter of - all of the black jazz kings resided up there.
CORNISH: So was it a matter of sneaking into those clubs?
ROLLINS: I finally did sneak into a club. We used to go down to 52nd Street. And I used to go hear Charlie Parker. But I had to put on - you know, we got this black stuff that women put on their eyebrows. You know, so...
MCBRIDE: Oh, to make a fake moustache?
ROLLINS: Right, make a fake moustache.
ROLLINS: And I said why - now, I don't know if I was fooling nobody, but they didn't - I don't think they cared too much. But they let us in. Yeah, 52nd Street, I used to go in there and have my fake moustache and go in there...
MCBRIDE: That's great.
ROLLINS: ...And listen to the great Charlie Parker.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE")
CORNISH: Now, Sonny Rollins, can you talk to us a little bit about what kind of papers you've turned over? Is there a particular item that you're really excited for scholars or people to see?
ROLLINS: Well, you know, I'm constantly trying to learn music and teach myself. So I had a lot of little notes to myself of patterns. There are some personal notes between me and my wife. There are a lot of personal things there. And when the truck pulled away from my home with all of that stuff, I felt, well, wait a minute. There I go. I'm going with that. Am I here? I don't know. It was a very interesting experience.
MCBRIDE: Mr. Rollins, I wanted to ask you about one of your many innovations. One of them is the piano-less trio, just the saxophone, bass, drums trio. How did that start?
ROLLINS: (Laughter) Well, OK, now you're going to get me in trouble now, Christian.
MCBRIDE: (Laughter) I didn't - I didn't...
ROLLINS: You're going to get me in trouble. Now, see...
MCBRIDE: Did somebody not show up for the gig or something? I'm sorry.
ROLLINS: No. See, I - the thing is this. I felt that I could concentrate on my own stream of thought better without a pianist. I just wanted to be - not be led. I mean, it's hard not to be led by a piano. But in my playing I always felt more free and able to go the places where my mind took me without having a piano say, well, here, man, go from this chord. Go to the fourth there. Go to the seventh there. Go - which is good. I mean, it's nothing wrong with that. But I felt freer. And when I have a great bass player like yourself and a great drummer, then that's all I need. I need the rhythm, and then the rest of it - I wanted to be free to hear whatever was there to be heard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "WAY OUT WEST")
CORNISH: You have lived long past many of the greats that you worked with, even the ones that came after you. What do you - what has that been like? I mean, what do you see your role as in terms of carrying forward some of these legacies?
ROLLINS: Well, I have been so fortunate. You know, I played with - oh, boy, you know, I played with Coleman Hawkins. I played with Leslie Young, Don Byas. I played with Dexter Gordon, Miles, Dizzy, Fats Navarro, one of our great trumpet players. When I look back on the people that I played with it's unbelievable. But it was such a great thing. And actually, you know, they are not physically here, true, but they are here.
See, I can wake up and think about Miles any day, any minute of the day. Oh, think about something he said. Think about something he played. Think about Monk. They are still here to me. All of them. All of them. And Christian knows what I'm talking about because if you hear the music that - you don't have to be there looking at somebody's body. His music is there all the time.
MCBRIDE: And it feeds the soul.
ROLLINS: It feeds the soul.
MCBRIDE: Mr. Rollins, I want to ask you, are we going to hear some new music from you soon?
ROLLINS: (Laughter) Well, Christian, I had a little health issue and it sort of got me away from playing. I mean, I had to go through quite a period of adjustment after I realized that I couldn't blow my horn anymore. But I went through it. And I hope - who knows? But I don't think I'll be able to play anymore. I don't know because my saxophone was so much an integral part of everything I thought about. And expressing sounds - it's difficult to do it on another instrument. But I don't know. I mean, who knows? Maybe I might start singing. Who knows? Watch out.
CORNISH: I would love that, yes (laughter).
MCBRIDE: Do it. Do it.
ROLLINS: Watch out. Watch out.
(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "ST. THOMAS")
CORNISH: Well, Sonny Rollins, thank you so much for speaking with us. It was fascinating learning about how you came up in Harlem and your music. It was - I'm looking forward to hearing more about these papers.
MCBRIDE: Mr. Rollins, on behalf of everyone on this planet who has heard your music, thank you.
ROLLINS: Thank you. Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "ST. THOMAS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.