Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins (born September 7, 1930 in New York City) is a Grammy-winning American jazz tenor saxophonist. Rollins is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. A number of his compositions, including "St. Thomas", "Oleo", "Doxy", and "Airegin", have become jazz standards.
While Rollins was born in New York City, his parents were born in the United States Virgin Islands. Rollins received his first saxophone at age 13.
Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high-school years, he played in a band with other future jazz legends Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor. He was first recorded in 1949 with Babs Gonzales ( J.J Johnson was the arranger of the group). In his recordings through 1954, he played with performers such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
In 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and given a sentence of three years. He spent 10 months in Rikers Island jail before he was released on parole. In 1952 he was arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using heroin. Rollins was assigned to the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, at the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While there he was a volunteer for then-experimental methadone therapy and was able to break his heroin habit. Rollins himself initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went on to greater success.
As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R&B sounds of performers like Louis Jordan, but soon became drawn into the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition. Joachim Berendt has described this tradition as sitting between the two poles of the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the light flexible phrasing of Lester Young, which did so much to inspire the fleet improvisation of be-bop in the 1950s.
Rollins began to make a name for himself in 1949 as he recorded with J.J Johnson and Bud Powell what would later be called "Hard Bop", with Miles Davis in 1951, with the Modern Jazz Quartet and with Thelonious Monk in 1953, but the breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions "Oleo" "Airegin" and "Doxy" with a quintet led by Davis. Rollins then joined the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet in 1955 (recordings made by this group have been released as Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street; Rollins also plays on half of More Study in Brown), and after Brown's death in 1956 worked mainly as a leader. By this time he had begun his contract with Prestige Records, which released some of his best-known albums, although during the later 1950s Rollins recorded for Blue Note, Riverside and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.
His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins and his favorite drummer Max Roach. This was Rollins' sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition "St. Thomas", a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number "Strode Rode", and "Moritat" (the Kurt Weill composition also known as "Mack the Knife").
In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Miles Davis' group – pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also in Davis' group.
At the end of the year Rollins recorded a set for Blue Note with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Gene Ramey on bass, and Rollins' long-term collaborator Max Roach on drums. This has been released as Sonny Rollins Volume One (the superstar session Volume Two recorded the following year has consistently outsold it).
In 1957 he pioneered the use of bass and drums (without piano) as accompaniment for his saxophone solos. This texture came to be known as "strolling". Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957) and A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957). Rollins uses the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section instrument during bass and drum solos. Way Out West was so named because it was recorded for a California-based record label (with L.A. stalwart drummer Shelly Manne), and because the record included country and western songs such as "Wagon Wheels" and "I'm an Old Cowhand". The Village Vanguard CD consists of two sets, a matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete LaRoca and then the evening set with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones.
By this time, Rollins had become well-known for taking relatively banal or unconventional material (such as "There's No Business Like Show Business" on Work Time, "I'm an Old Cowhand", and later "Sweet Leilani" on the Grammy-winning CD This Is What I Do) and turning it into a vehicle for improvisation.
1957's Newk's Time saw him working with a piano again, in this case Wynton Kelly, but one of the most highly-regarded tracks is a saxophone/drum duet, "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" with Philly Joe Jones. Also that year he recorded for Blue Note with a star-studded line-up of JJ Johnson on trombone, Horace Silver or Thelonious Monk on piano and drummer Art Blakey (released as Sonny Rollins Volume 2).
In 1958 Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums trio: The Freedom Suite. His original sleeve notes said, "How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity."
The title track is a 19-minute improvised bluesy suite, much of it interaction between Rollins' saxophone and the drums of Max Roach, some of it very tense. However the album was not all politics – the other side featured hard bop workouts of popular show tunes. The bassist was Oscar Pettiford. The LP was only briefly available in its original form, before the record company repackaged it as Shadow Waltz, the title of another piece on the record.
Finally in 1958 Rollins made one more studio album before taking a three-year break from recording. This was another session for Los Angeles based Contemporary Records and saw Rollins recording an esoteric mixture of tunes including "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" with a West Coast group made up of pianist Hampton Hawes, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Manne.
By 1959, Rollins was frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations and took the first – and most famous – of his musical sabbaticals. To spare a neighboring expectant mother the sound of his practice routine, Rollins ventured to the Williamsburg Bridge to practice.
Upon his return to the jazz scene in 1962 he named his "comeback" album The Bridge at the start of a contract with RCA Records, recorded with a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall and still no piano. The rhythm section was Ben Riley on drums and bassist Bob Cranshaw. This became one of Rollins' best-selling records.
The contract with RCA lasted until 1964 and saw Rollins remain one of the most adventurous musicians around. Each album he recorded differed radically from the previous one. Rollins explored Latin rhythms on What's New, tackled the avant-garde on Our Man in Jazz, and re-examined standards on Now's the Time.
He then provided the soundtrack to the 1966 version of Alfie. His 1965 residency at Ronnie Scott's legendary jazz club has recently emerged on CD as Live in London, a series of releases from the Harkit label; they offer a very different picture of his playing from the studio albums of the period. (These are unauthorized releases, and Rollins has responded by "bootlegging" them himself and releasing them on his website.)
Rollins took his most recent sabbatical to study yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophies. When he returned in 1972, it was clear that he had become enamored of R&B, pop, and funk rhythms. His bands throughout the 1970s and 1980s featured electric guitar, electric bass, and usually more pop- or funk-oriented drummers. For most of this period he recorded for Milestone Records and the compilation Silver City: A Celebration of 25 Years on Milestone contains a selection from these years. The 70s and 80s were not all disco though and it was during this period that Rollins' passion for unaccompanied saxophone solos came to the forefront. In 1985 he released The Solo Album.
In 1981, Rollins was asked to play uncredited on three tracks by The Rolling Stones for their album Tattoo You, including the single, "Waiting on a Friend".
In 1986 Documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge released a film titled Saxophone Colossus. It featured two Rollins performances: a quintet in upstate New York and his Concerto for Saxophone and Symphony in Japan.
Critics such as Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch have noted the disparity between Sonny Rollins the recording artist, and Sonny Rollins the concert artist. In a May 2005 New Yorker profile, Crouch wrote of Rollins the concert artist:
"Over and over, decade after decade, from the late seventies through the eighties and nineties, there he is, Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, playing somewhere in the world, some afternoon or some eight o'clock somewhere, pursuing the combination of emotion, memory, thought, and aesthetic design with a command that allows him to achieve spontaneous grandiloquence. With its brass body, its pearl-button keys, its mouthpiece, and its cane reed, the horn becomes the vessel for the epic of Rollins' talent and the undimmed power and lore of his jazz ancestors."
Rollins won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for This Is What I Do (2000). On September 11, 2001, the 71-year-old Rollins, who lived several blocks away, heard the World Trade Center collapse, and was forced to evacuate his apartment, with only his saxophone in hand. Although he was shaken, he traveled to Boston five days later to play a concert at the Berklee School of Music. The live recording of that performance was released on CD in 2005, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, which won the 2006 Grammy for Jazz Instrumental Solo for Sonny's performance of "Why Was I Born?". Rollins was presented with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004, but sadly that year also saw the death of his wife Lucille.
In 2006, Rollins went on to complete a Down Beat Readers Poll triple win for: "Jazzman of the Year", "#1 Tenor Sax Player", and "Recording of the Year" for the CD Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert). The band that year was led by his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and included bassist Bob Cranshaw, pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummer Perry Wilson.
After a highly successful Japanese tour Rollins returned to the recording studio for the first time in five years to record the Grammy-nominated CD Sonny, Please (2006). The CD title is derived from one of his late wife's favorite phrases. The album was released on Rollins' own label, Doxy Records, following his departure from Milestone Records after many years and was produced by Clifton Anderson. Rollins' band at this time, and on this album, included Bob Cranshaw, guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu.
Rollins performed at Carnegie Hall on September 18, 2007, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his first performance there. Appearing with him were Clifton Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Kimati Dinizulu (percussion), Roy Haynes (drums) and Christian McBride (bass).
September 25, 2009, Rollins performed to a packed crowd at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The personnel was similar to the Carnegie Hall performance; Clifton Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Kobie Watkins, drums, Sammy Figueroa (percussion).
On June 27, 2010, Rollins played at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montreal's Place-des-Arts for the 31st annual Montreal Jazz Festival, accompanied by, among others, Bob Cranshaw and Russell Malone. Prior to this show, he received the Miles Davis Award.
Sonny Rollins (Nueva York, 7 de septiembre de 1930) es un saxofonista (tenor) y compositor estadounidense de jazz.
Junto con Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young y John Coltrane, está considerado uno de los grandes saxofonistas tenores de la historia del jazz. Sus estilos son el bop y el hard bop, aunque se ha aproximado en varias ocasiones al free jazz en la estela de las innovaciones de Ornette Coleman, contando en ocasiones con la colaboración del cornetista de este, Don Cherry.
En su estilo siempre se ha notado la presencia de Coleman Hawkins, por su sonido denso y voluminoso, y de Charlie Parker, por la libertad de improvisación. Por lo demás, es frecuente su recurso al folclore (el Caribe, los calipsos...), su exposición reiterada de temas, su prolongación de las introducciones, su tendencia a la cita musical (himnos, canciones infantiles...),
Comenzó como intérprete de piano, para luego centrarse en el saxo, primero en el alto y luego ya permanentemente en el tenor a partir de 1946. Tras realizar su grabación de debut con Babs Gonzales en 1949, Rollins logró un gran éxito con sus grabaciones con J. J. Johnson y Bud Powell ese mismo año; la última sesión le hizo tocar junto a Fats Navarro. El talento como saxofonista de Rollins fue evidente desde sus comienzos, y así consiguió tocar con Miles Davis en 1951 y con Thelonious Monk. Tras un periodo de retiro, Rollins se unió al Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet a finales de 1955, continuando tras la muerte de Brown hasta 1957. Desde ese momento, desempeñó funciones de líder en sus grupos.
Sus grabaciones para Prestige Records, Blue Note Records, Contemporary y Riverside Records durante los años cincuenta le llevaron a ser aclamado como el mejor saxofonista tenor de la época, al menos hasta la irrupción en escena de John Coltrane. Se retiró de nuevo entre 1959 y 1961 (época en que se hizo mítica su estampa de intérprete solitario sobre el puente de Williamsburg) y regresó con un cuarteto que incluía a Jim Hall, hasta que en 1968 decidió retirarse de nuevo.
Con su regreso en 1971, Sonny Rollins se mostró más abierto a las influencias de los ritmos del R&B y de la música pop.
Cuatro de sus composiciones, "St. Thomas", "Oleo", "Doxy", y "Airegin" están considerados estándares de jazz.