When Sonny Gets Blue

One critic reduced the entire challenge of jazz criticism to this: How do you say Sonny Rollins is God ten different ways? At 67, the Harlem native still displays more reserves of breath – blowing endless choruses of jazz dialectics – than any sax player of any age. Even though he’s avoided New York jazz clubs for twenty years (“I wanted the jazz musician to be able to play concert halls,” he explains), there’s still an annual “Sonny Seance” that’s as much a part of summer in the city as Shakespeare in the Park or Con Ed in the apartment. This year, as in years past, an artist who could easily command $125 a head in Avery Fisher Hall will instead be giving it away – next door, at Damrosch Park, Saturday night at 8.

The city is full of Sonny Rollins monuments. There’s the block that inspired the 1966 classic East Broadway Run Down (“There was a loft on East Broadway that Bennie Maupin lived in. It was five or six walk-up flights, and it was like a marathon getting up there, man. So it was actually East Broadway Run Up“) and, of course, the Williamsburg Bridge, where Rollins took a two-year sabbatical and clandestinely practiced, eventually producing his legendary 1962 album The Bridge.

“I also examined the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge,” Rollins says, “but the walkways weren’t as good, and there wasn’t as much privacy.”

Rollins was then living in a walk-up apartment at Grand and Clinton Streets. “Nearly everything else around there has been torn down, but for some reason 400 Grand Street is still standing, although it doesn’t look like much,” he says. “A lot of people came to the apartment – Mingus, Coltrane, Monk.” It was Thelonious Monk who gave Rollins an early break as a teenager, an apprenticeship that left an indelible mark. “Monk was like my guru,” Rollins recalls. “Once he said that if it wasn’t for music, there wasn’t really anything else worthwhile in life. It’s borne out in my life.”

In truth, Rollins has found other things worthwhile as well. He is a spiritual pluralist, inspired by everything from the Jewish Cabala to the Indian Upanishads, and he has made many Eastern pilgrimages for solace. In jazz circles, he has long been famous as a musical swami, with his flowing robes and gnomic utterances. “Life is a vale of tears,” he pronounces. “It’s not happy.” Even his life? “Of course – I don’t think it’s meant to be happy. I remember Coltrane telling me that he wished he could have a more happy-go-lucky demeanor, like Dizzy Gillespie, but he said, ‘I’m just not like that.’ He was like a minister, you know.” Despite his melancholic world view, Rollins admits, “I’m probably more like Dizzy. When I was a kid, they used to call me Jester, because I was a bit of a jokester.”

Sometimes the most authentic expressions of joy come from those most intimately acquainted with suffering, and the jubilant Caribbean sway of “St. Thomas” – which he still plays after more than 40 years – will always be associated with him. Quite a contrast from a man who, in other moments, is preoccupied with apocalypse. “I read a lot of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti,” he says. “They’re all about the environment, this impending disaster we’re heading into. Right now, it’s like we’re on the Titanic, but everybody’s just watching Titanic.

Critics have carped about his insistent use of the electric bass or quibbled about some of his bandmates, but listening to Rollins on a good night, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could touch him on the bandstand. Be prepared for a generous helping of calypso numbers, complete with shimmying down the aisles atypical at a jazz concert. Likely to be missing, though, are Rollins’s Ornette Coleman-inspired free-jazz pieces from the mid-sixties (work, ironically, that performers at the Knitting Factory and Tonic – venues whose names draw a blank stare from Rollins when I first mention them – often pay homage to). But if he seems removed from New York’s underground music scene, he remains engaged with the aboveground issues that preoccupy him. His new album, Global Warming, fuses his musical euphoria with his political pessimism in songs like “Mother Nature’s Blues” and “Echo-Side Blue.”

Like the city he still loves, Rollins continues to seek the convergence of politics and art that dates from the civil-rights wake-up call of his “Freedom Suite” in 1958. The activist aspect of his music stretches back to his adolescence: “I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, on 116th and Pleasant Avenue. In 1946, it was a heavily Italian area. Here we were, these black kids who had to take a subway and a bus just to get there, and we were met with a great deal of hostility from these Italian kids. People would throw things out the window as we were trying to walk to school. And you know what? Frank Sinatra came down there and sang in our auditorium and told all the kids that we shouldn’t fight. Then Nat ‘King’ Cole came down. They eased all the tensions between the black and Italian kids. After that, things got better, and the rioting stopped.”

“We musicians need to be interested in something other than just getting a good reed,” he says; he’s as outspoken about toxic-waste dumps as he is about race. How does the mayor fare in Sonny’s Kind of Town? “I think Giuliani’s just another cheap politician,” says Rollins. “He thinks that if he cracks down on minorities, it’ll get him further up in the Republican Party. He also drives one of these gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, so you know that he has no environmental sense, and it’s a tip-off that he has no sense about anything. I give him some credit for the drop in the crime rate, but that doesn’t mean that I want to be harassed on the street because I’m black.”

Rollins isn’t on the street as much these days anyway, preferring to spend time on his farm in Germantown, where – clad in flowing white robes and trailing a hoary prophet’s beard – he scares up flocks of pheasants while wandering through the woods blowing his tenor. It may be the end of the world, but Sonny sounds just fine. He still has a place in TriBeCa and is still a fixture in town, if an increasingly reclusive one. “When I’m in the city, I like to rehearse with my band. I don’t go to restaurants that often; I haven’t been to the symphony or Broadway in years; I don’t go to clubs. Gee, I guess I’m a really interesting guy.”

When Sonny Gets Blue