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Sonny Rollins – Tenor Saxophonist Biography

Tenor Saxophonist, Sonny Rollins is a true musician, a man who walked away from rising fame to practice alone atop an isolated bridge rather than letting his legend grow faster than his creativity. Rollins started as a piano player before being given his first saxophone at age 13. That first saxophone was an alto, a nod to saxophonist Louis Jordon. Rollins would switch over to tenor at the age of 16, inspired by his idol Coleman Hawkins. By the time he was 20, Rollins was playing with the legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Other notable musicians that Sonny had played and recorded with by then include Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Babs Gonzales and Bud Powell.

Between 1956 and 1958 Rollins released a string of recordings that would earn him a reputation as one of the most talented and innovative saxophonists in the jazz world. The first track on the 1956 album Sonny Rollins Plus Four, Valse Hot, was one of the first jazz songs to play bop in 3/4 time. His widely acclaimed album ‘Saxophone Colossus’ exposed fans to Rollins’ first foray into calypso inspired playing on his arrangement of the traditional song St. Thomas. In 1957, after a string of problems with incompatible pianists, Rollins released the album Way Out West, which featured Rollins’ saxophone stylings backed only by a drummer and bassist.

By 1959, Rollins had become a huge star; rather than believing his own hype, Sonny took a hiatus from music to insure that his musicianship grew proportionately to his fame. In his own words, “I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way. I wasn’t going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down.” While on this hiatus Rollins had a hard time finding someplace to practice with the frequency that he wanted. He was conscious of other peoples feelings and didn’t want to bother his neighbors with the constant sound of his playing. One day while walking around town, Rollins happened across the Williamsburg Bridge. He noticed that there was very little traffic on the bridge, and that it was long enough that he could practice in relative isolation. Sonny spent many hours practicing on that bridge, and would allude to that fact when he recorded his next album.

Rollins’ return to music would come in 1962 with the release of the The Bridge. His live shows during this time would become known for their long improvised solos, combining Rollins’ impressive knowledge of popular songs with his amazing improvisational skills. By the mid sixties Sonny Rollins would play with his idol, Coleman Hawkins. Other noteworthy collaborators during this time include Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and Jim Hall. Sonny took another break from music in 1966 after becoming frustrated with the music business and getting into eastern religions. During this next break, he spent some time in a monastery in India.

After his return in 1972, the impressive list of musicians with which Rollins’ played grew to include names like Tommy Flanagan, Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and McCoy Tyner. He won his first Grammy for his 2000 release This is What I Do and his second for 2004’s Without a Song.

Sonny plays a Selmer Mark VI saxophone with Rigotti reeds on an Otto Link or Berg Larsen mouthpiece.

He lists his main influences as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan and Fats Waller.

– Neal Battaglia

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