Sonny Rollins: Living the Grace and Mystery of Jazz

written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column

People often ask me what it’s like to work with Sonny Rollins: what he’s like, what he practices, if he hangs out with the band, et cetera. Well, forget all that. My relationship with Mr. Rollins has been so important to me on so many levels that to approach it so trivially in writing would be disrespectful. He has been mentor (musical and otherwise), colleague and friend to me and I have always treasured this relationship and my good fortune of being able to work with this jazz master. Here are some thoughts, memories and observations that I’ve taken away.

One of the earliest lessons I learned from Sonny, and the one that most influenced me, is that jazz is an honorable and estimable life journey. What I mean by that is, those of us who choose (and are fortunate enough!) to play jazz music for a living, must recognize it as a very respectable kind of work (if you can get it). Granted, until the 1980s, there were good reasons to have reservations about “the jazz life” and the sordid reputations of jazz musicians and the nightlife in which the music lived. Because for its first fifty years jazz existed and flourished in that environment, it remains difficult for some to imagine how it could possibly be a serious art form and profession. In the past, this attitude often resulted in second-class treatment of jazz musicians in every way imaginable. And although at times jazz and its musicians are still not treated optimally or equitably, the stature of jazz music and the conditions under which it operates are, on the whole, better than before. And more than ever, jazz music is viewed by the general public and its institutions as a creative and intellectual art deserving of credit and celebration as a cultural treasure. The varied environments it occupies and endowments that jazz receives reflect this evolved mindset. We musicians have our predecessors’ (like Sonny Rollins’) hard work, tolerance, strength and perseverance to thank for these advances.

By the time I began working with Sonny he was a jazz figure who by choice no longer played nightclubs. In my early years with him (the 1980s), we would occasionally play large supper-club or showcase-type venues like New York City’s Bottom Line (a venue akin to Martyrs or the Park West in Chicago), but mainly we played theaters, concert halls and open-air, festival stages. At that time, most often the ‘nightlife’ for us musicians consisted of transporting the band back to the hotel to rest for an early lobby-call the following day to go to the airport and off to the next city. During those years, I watched as we traveled the world in this respectable style that befitted how diligently Sonny had prepared and continued to practice his craft, and how seriously he took his art and his work. As a young jazz musician observing these things, I was inspired and emboldened.

Growing up in New York City, Sonny had access to musical icons and personalities that he could look to for inspiration and aspiration. I recall his stories about being a kid listening to Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Louis Jordan records; and sitting on the front steps of Hawkins’ Harlem apartment building waiting for the jazz star to come home so he could get his autograph and talk to him. Of course at that time Sonny probably didn’t suspect that he would one day play with his tenor saxophone idols and had no idea of the impact that he would ultimately have on jazz music and on the art of jazz saxophone playing. He just had a burning desire to play. Sonny was very fortunate to have been prepared to emerge in a place and time when, as before the swing era, the climate was right for musical contributions by him and his peers, a group of talented and creative young men, bursting with enthusiasm to musically express themselves. Their music was a reflection of the environment and the social conditions from which they came. These young men were ready to play active roles as virtuoso musicians as jazz music shifted away from the Swing Era and toward newer sensibilities.

By the time I became enamored with jazz it was 1975 and, according to some jazz purists, the greatest moments in the music had ended with the advent of jazz-rock-fusion and electric instruments. At the time I had no knowledge of this sentiment, but while listening to records from the 1940s to sixties and pining and dreaming about being involved with jazz music and connecting with some of the great musicians that I was hearing on these records, I did feel that maybe I’d been born in the wrong era. I wondered if, due to bad timing, I’d simply missed out.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the practice room. I learned that there were other forces at work directing the flow of my life. There was no logical reason why at sixteen years old, three or four years after picking up the guitar, I should be learning tunes and about playing jazz from Al Haig, one of Charlie Parker’s favorite pianists, especially not on his bandstand during performances! Playing Carnegie Hall with Sonny Rollins at sixteen was even more nuts. These and other moments served my intuition with subtle messages, and moved me further toward the direction of my dreams, showing me a different look at the relationship between possibility and reality. All I had then was talent, desire, an intense love of music, and a good work ethic and attitude. Apparently, the other details of who, what, when, where, how and why were not totally under my control. My hands were full with practicing anyway, so it was not hard for me to accept just pushing the pedal but not steering.

Now thirty years later, after having reconnected with my mentor and friend, I am at times almost more amazed than the first time around at the mystery of life. I continued along my musical path trying to keep the pilot light lit even through some extremely cold and windy Chicago winters. I met and played with many more great people in jazz, recorded, composed, educated (myself and others) and made a career for myself. When the opportunity came for us to play again I suspect that Sonny felt good about his earlier investment of time in me and about the chance to get further returns.

It has been real interesting for me to be able to reconnect with Sonny Rollins so intimately through music after so many years away. Now, after forming my own ideas, methodologies and opinions, I’ve had the opportunity to compare notes with him so to speak, both directly and indirectly, and to affirm some ideas at which I’ve arrived over the years, which has often been particularly gratifying.

It’s also an inspiration to see him, at seventy-seven years old, still practicing. I’ll call him sometimes and have to hold while he puts his horn down. He’s still, as he says, “a work in progress”, as are his ideas and desires about his musical presentation. He is mindful about not getting stuck in jazz’s past methodically and continues to reach toward what he is hearing for himself and his band to play. It’s pretty cool to be able to hear him now and to observe his playing – the changes he’s made, what’s remained, been added, deleted. It would have been so easy for him to have simply stopped at 1962, settling for what some fans still feel is his greatest period. He could still be playing the same things, the same way, and some would be happy, but not Sonny. While, because of his pedigree, he is a traditionalist in many ways, he knows like all of the music’s greats before him that jazz, like life, continues to change and move in one direction or another. Sonny Rollins has remained open to embracing the mystery and opting for forward motion in life and music.