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Home | MusicMakers | Sonny Rollins
Color: Red
Food: Cauliflower
Quote: It's All Good.
Season: N/A
Vacation Destination: Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
New York, New York
Interview Description:

Biography |

Interview Date: 12/3/2016

Jazz composer and saxophonist Sonny Rollins was born on September 7, 1930 in New York City. His parents, immigrants from the U.S. Virgin Islands, raised him in Manhattan’s central Harlem and Sugar Hill neighborhoods. Rollins received his first alto saxophone at seven years old, and by the time he enrolled at Edward W. Stitt Junior High School, had already been heavily influenced by saxophonist Charlie Parker. Rollins went on to switch to tenor saxophone, and gained a mentor in pianist Thelonious Monk.

Upon graduating, Rollins made his first recordings with Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, and Fats Navarro – sessions that were later considered seminal to the hard bop subgenre. He recorded with such jazz legends as Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. In 1954, Rollins played his compositions “Oleo,” “Airegin,” and “Doxy” on Miles Davis’ Bag’s Groove. All three compositions would become jazz standards. In 1955, Rollins entered the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, where he successfully underwent treatment for heroin addiction. He then moved to Chicago, slowly entering the jazz scene at Hyde Park’s Bee Hive club. When Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s band visited Chicago, Rollins was invited to join them, returning to New York City in the summer of 1956. After the tragic deaths of Brown and the band’s pianist in a car accident, Rollins left the band to lead his own group, recording the massively acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus. Saxophone Colossus included Rollin’s composition “St. Thomas,” based upon a calypso sung by his mother. In 1957, Rollins pioneered the use of bass and drums, without piano, as accompaniment for saxophone solos, a format later adopted by such band leaders as Lew Tabackin, Branford Marsalis, and Ornette Coleman. In 1958, he recorded Freedom Suite, another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums, which denounced the dehumanization of African Americans. The album was only briefly available before being repackaged by Riverside Records. Rollins continued to record prolifically until 1959, when he embarked upon his first musical sabbatical, spending two years practicing yoga and playing saxophone on the Williamsburg Bridge. In 1962, he released The Bridge, which was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, as well as five other albums. Rollins experimented with free jazz and noise on East Broadway Run Down, released in 1962. He took another hiatus from 1969 to 1971, travelling to Jamaica and to an ashram in Powai, India. Rollins then began recording more R&B and funk-oriented tracks with Milestone Records. He also became interested in unaccompanied saxophone, performing solo at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and on The Tonight Show. In 1998, Rollins, a dedicated environmental advocate, released Global Warming.

Rollins recorded over sixty albums. He received numerous awards and honors, including the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, and was the subject of many documentaries.

Rollins lives in Woodstock, New York.

Sonny Rollins was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 3, 2016.

Speaker Bureau Notes: