Saxophonist Sonny Rollins Still Swinging Strong Saxophonist Sonny Rollins has outlasted many of the jazz greats he played with. At age 76, he's now jazz's elder statesman, crossing another milestone in his 65-year career with a new CD, Sonny, Please, a new record label and a Web site.
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Saxophonist Sonny Rollins Still Swinging Strong

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Saxophonist Sonny Rollins Still Swinging Strong

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins Still Swinging Strong

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In music, the word, legend, can be overused to describe anyone from Mozart to MC Hammer. But among living musicians, the word truly applies to Sonny Rollins. At the age of 76, he's one of the last of his generation. The tenor saxophonist who played with Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis - themselves legend - all of them now gone.

Sonny Rollins pushed himself and his music relentlessly to the point that he gave up performing in the early 1960s and became legendary for practicing alone on New York's Williamsburg Bridge. His compositions have become jazz standards and his music reached to a wide audience with the soundtrack of the film, "Alfie."

Sonny Rollins is simply one of the greatest and most acclaimed musicians in the history of jazz, and he's still working hard. He released his latest CD, "Sonny, Please," on his own label.

From New York, Howard Mandel has this profile.

HOWARD MANDEL: Sonny Rollins is an imposing 76-year-old who radiates vitality. His erect, expansive bearing, his shock of white hair and Old Testament beard, his large, strong features, and eyes that look like he's seen it all and accepts it all, all suggests a life of immense experience as does his music.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: But Sonny Rollins is much happier leading his band in concert performances and recordings than he is sitting for an interview, talking about himself.

Mr. SONNY ROLLINS (Jazz Artist): I'm a modest guy. You must remember that, Howard.

MANDEL: So let his fans, interviewed at the International Association of Jazz Education conference in January, sing his praises. Veteran producer George Avakian worked on many of Rollins' early 1960s classics including "The Bridge," the record which marked Rollins' return after a three-year retreat from the jazz scene.

Avakian recalls his first impressions of Sonny from a decade earlier.

Mr. GEORGE AVAKIAN (Producer): When I first heard Sonny, it must have been Monday night at Birdland or something like that when he was really soaring out. And then how - when he played with the Max Roach, Clifford Brown Quintet - that was when I really got to know he's such a great musician.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Joanne Brackeen, who established herself as one of the more progressive jazz pianists in the 1970s and '80s, cites Rollins' inimitable personality.

Ms. JOANNE BRACKEEN (Jazz Pianist): The sound is, I mean, it's, like, his sound, you know. You've got a sound that is him. And that's rare. You - just a couple of seconds and you know who that is. Not only who it is but kind of how he is.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: A leading saxophonist on the edge of jazz since the '90s, Greg Osby admires Rollins for his instrumental command and his freedom.

Mr. GREG OSBY (Jazz Saxophonist): Freedom in that his vast knowledge base gives him the ultimate freedom. Mr. Sonny Rollins has the ability to take charge of information and develop them. And he always leaves us, you know, something to be curious about and to look forward to.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: To reach that level, Rollins says he still does considerable preparation, whether he's working out standards or developing new material, he digs deeply into his sources and then lets go.

Mr. ROLLINS: Today, for instance, I've been doing this song. I practice it. I learn it. I learn the lyrics. I learn the words. I learn the harmony. I learned everything that is possible to learn about the physical piece of the composition or whatever it is and going at it. Then when I go on to concert stage(ph), I don't want to think about it. Then I try to let the music play me. When I'm playing completely spontaneous, there's something comes out from somewhere. That's my best work.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Some of Sonny Rollins' work today takes him away from spontaneity and into the business side of the music. Since the death, two years ago, of his wife Lucille, who's also his producer, agent and manager, he's taken more responsibilities himself, issuing "Sonny, Please" on his own label.

Mr. ROLLINS: That's a bad part about it. A corporate executive of a record company and then not a (unintelligible). No, I don't want to screw anybody, man.

MANDEL: Rollins thinks corporate culture and jazz don't mix.

Mr. ROLLINS: The corporate culture is anathema to jazz. We don't like cookie-cutter everything exactly the same way. We're about grace(ph) and thinking things at the moment like life is. Life changes every minute. I mean, a different sunset every night. I mean, that's what jazz is about.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Sonny Rollins has also launched his own Web site with MP3s from his album and video podcasts.

Mr. ROLLINS: Times are changing. Technology is changing. Companies are merging. Record stores are closing. I mean, all these things, we're right in the middle of a change. By having my own company, I'm fighting corporate in a sense but I'm also joining with the young kids that are using the new technology to listen to jazz, which is what we have to do.

MANDEL: You can see one of those fans on sonnyrollins.com. Makaila Gilbert(ph), a 13-year-old saxophonist from Tempe, Arizona, is featured on one of the podcasts, meeting with him backstage. She was introduced to his music at her grade school and has taken to Rollins as a hero and a model.

Ms. MAKAILA GILBERT (13-year-old Saxophonist, Tempe, Arizona): I joined the jazz band and we would, every Friday, listen to jazz music, just classic jazz. And I heard Sonny Rollins and I just loved it. I loved the way it sounded and I just - I wanted to play jazz instead of just music. That was as if we wanted to play.

MANDEL: Makaila sees nothing odd about being drawn to the music of someone whose background is so different from hers.

Ms. GILBERT: You know, I really don't think it matters. I just - it's the music that kind of brought us together. It wasn't the fact that I was white or that he was black, or that he was old and I was young. It was just - it was a music that we both loved.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Room")

MANDEL: Gilbert has been practicing Rollins' song "Blue Room."

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Room")

MANDEL: The young woman has the right idea, but a ways to go to come closer to her mentor.

(Soundbite of song "Blue Room")

MANDEL: It takes a lot of living to get that sound, which has earned Sonny Rollins' much acclaim. But he says, acclaim is not the point.

Mr. ROLLINS: All these phrases are nice. I appreciate them. But I don't go crazy about it because you have to do your work whether you get recognized or not, see? So if you're recognized, fine, but don't get too involved in recognition. The real deal is doing it as best you can do it and that's it. That's its own reward.

MANDEL: It's the kind of reward that serves Sonny Rollins and his listeners too.

For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's What I'm Saying")

SIMON: This song is "Here's What I'm Saying." And to hear more from the CD, you can go to our Web site, npr.org. And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Scott Simon.

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