Life Advice from Jazz Genius Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins is, by any reasonable estimation, a genius. He is jazz’s greatest living improviser, able to imbue his solos with wry humor, surprise, brilliant logical form and profound emotion. Time and time again, he created something miraculous out of thin air, and he did it until he could do it no longer. The 89-year-old played his last concert in 2012, and in 2014, he stopped playing saxophone altogether, a result of pulmonary fibrosis. That doesn’t mean we’ll never hear music from him again — Resonance Records will release a set of previously unissued performances this fall — but it does mean that Rollins’s colossal record as a musician is a thing of the past. I wanted to know how a musician whose playing was always attuned to the present has forged a new life in the shadow of that stark fact. “‘Happy’ is not the word,” said Rollins, seated on a couch under a large painting of Buddha at his rambling home in Woodstock, N.Y., “but I am the most content I’ve ever been. I have most things figured out.”

You never made any formal retirement announcement. Did you ever want to say goodbye to the people who made up your audience?  Well, no. The reason my retirement happened quietly was because my health problems were gradual. I didn’t expect them. I wasn’t quite sure that I would never be able to play again. It took me a while to realize, Hey, that’s gone now. But the people? I’m glad for their love but I don’t feel that I’m worthy of anyone saying, “Wow, Sonny!” And this is going to sound funny, but my highest place musically was not about playing for a crowd. I played a couple of concerts early on where I was out in the open in the afternoon. I was able to look up in the sky, and I felt a communication; I felt that I was part of something. Not the crowd. Something bigger.

Rollins at age 14 in Harlem. From Sonny Rollins

I only realized when I spoke to you a couple of years ago that you had to give up the saxophone. So much of your life had been about using music to fulfill your potential as a person. Now that you don’t play, is fulfillment still possible? When I had to stop playing it was quite traumatic. But I realized that instead of lamenting and crying, I should be grateful for the fact that I was able to do music all of my life. So I had that realization, plus my spiritual beliefs, which I’ve been cultivating for many years. All that work went into my accepting the fact that I couldn’t play my horn.

Tell me more about that work. I’m working toward why I’m here — what it’s all about. At this point in my life I’m — well, I don’t want to say satisfied, but I feel that I’m closer to an understanding. It’s always been my idea that the golden rule is a good thing, but I wasn’t quite able to understand if the golden rule was possible. If somebody is playing music and I’m playing music and we’re in a saxophone battle, I still have to play my best, regardless of the other guy. It has nothing to do with my trying to make him feel bad because playing music is for a higher cause. So I believe living by the golden rule is possible. Not only possible but the reason we’re here.

Were you playing for a higher cause on something like “The Serpent’s Tooth” with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis? In your solo you quoted the melody of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better). That wasn’t intended as a provocation? If I was so stupid to have to implied that, then I was ignorant. I was in Miles’s band at the time and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” was just one of the riffs that we played. It had nothing to do with my attitude about Charlie Parker. I would never say that to him. But I take your criticism. I might have been a foolish young boy playing that to his guru. If there was a little of that, it was sophomoric. I was ignorant. I am still ignorant about many things.

I also saw all these very detailed instructional notes you’d written about saxophone technique and harmony. Did you ever consider publishing any of it? I thought about doing things like that but my stuff is unorthodox. I once had a young guy that wanted to study with me. I said, No, man, go to Coltrane. Coltrane will get you on the right course with fingering and technique. All these things that I might have been writing, I didn’t feel they were applicable to other people. So I didn’t pursue them.

Have you made plans for what will happen with your unreleased recordings when you’re not around? After I get out of this planet I’m not going to have any say about what’s going on, so I’m not worried about that. And, boy, I agonize over my music; I won’t have to agonize about it anymore. Thank God.