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Sonny Rollins: Jazz Legend Saluted at Kennedy Center Honors, Awarded National Medal of Arts by President

Sonny Rollins
15 December 2011

Photo: Michael Jackson

From New York’s smoke-filled clubs to the national stage, legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ fire still burns as he recently received top awards under the brightest of spotlights.

“Getting that National Medal of Arts award from President Obama was a very important moment for me, but I felt it was more about the art form of Jazz being recognized. I think the genre has been under-appreciated in America, but I feel it has now made a significant impact,” said Rollins. 

Rollins was presented the National Medal of Arts in 2010 and was formally recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Rollins left the mark of a trailblazer of jazz, nurturing the vibrant New York scene with luminaries like Charlie Parker.

“My first job as a musician was on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx when I was 13. Clubs were really hopping,” said Rollins.

He has lived in Germantown, New York since 1972, but only full-time since 2001.

“I was in the city during 9/11. My wife and I had a place only 6 blocks from the towers. We left because of the contamination after the buildings collapsed,” he said.

Rollins spoke fondly of his old neighborhood and recalled Jazz’s New York City roots, as well as the resistance artists faced as they struggled to make the art form into a legitimately recognized genre.

“My idol was Charlie Parker and he was the Bebop prophet. At that time, the political part of Jazz, people did not respect it and did not accept it as a legit form of music. People tried to halt its development.”

Rollins stated that the growing Jazz scene certainly had its share of danger, including substance abuse.

“Nobody ever told me to use drugs, but us younger guys at that time had witnessed Parker doing drugs. We all thought if he was doing it, it was ok. A lot of lives and careers got wasted from it,” he said.

Ironically, Rollins credits Parker for helping him conquer substance abuse.

“I was recording with Charlie in 1953 and I told him I wasn’t using anymore. After I saw the look on his face when someone told him I was still on the hard stuff, it was very tragic and it was then that the light bulb went off in my head. Charlie was really against people using drugs and he didn’t want any of the young guys following him,” reflected Rollins.

To capitalize on his desire and willingness to accept treatment, Rollins checked into New York’s Lexington treatment facility in 1954.

“Back then, there really weren’t many choices for treatment. Part of what makes treatment important is being treated like a patient and not a criminal because in doing so, you just reinforce part of the person’s problem and that’s no good. I really think Lexington was the pre-cursor to the Betty Ford Clinic. I worked at my treatment and was there for over 4 months and I haven’t used heroin since.”

Successfully completing treatment was only the beginning for Rollins, as temptation soon stepped out from the shadows.

“I came out and I had to go back on the music scene. My life was there, in the clubs, but I had to go out to Chicago. I worked menial jobs until I thought I was strong enough to go back into clubs. People asked me to get high with them. It was the biggest prize fight of my career. I escaped, but I would go home with my hands shaking and sweating. It got a little easier each time I went back, but as things are in life, nothing is easy.”

Author James Baldwin wrote Sonny’s Blues in 1957, a short story depicting a Jazz musician estranged from his brother due to substance abuse. The powerful story, among other themes highlighted the important role music played while easing an individual’s suffering. Despite the title, Sonny Rollins has not been definitively linked to the story, though the time frame did coincide with his fight for sobriety.

Rollins stated that many creative people have struggled with substance abuse, but clarified the cliché of musicians believing they play better while under the influence.

“You can feel you’re in the zone but it’s all artificial. I never fell into the trap of feeling I played better while using. I stopped doing everything in the 80s. I used to drink a little before going on, or smoke pot but I stopped for my lungs because it was detrimental. I realized doing that was going down old roads.”   

A self-imposed exile in 1959 came during the height of Rollins’ career, but he stated its importance was immeasurable.

“I took a break because I felt I wasn’t playing as well as I could. I had a lot of people praising me and I felt I wasn’t able to live up to it. I have pride in what I do. You have to have strength with your convictions. When I came back from hiatus, people said I didn’t sound any different. That did not matter to me because I did learn something whether or not they heard it. I listened to my inner voice and that was the main thing,” said Rollins.

Three years later, Rollins released one of his most critically praised records, The Bridge. Capitalizing on his new found clarity, Rollins continued collaborating with musicians and transcending barriers. It is noted that he worked with the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You, playing three un-credited tracks on the record.

“While doing that recording I was aware that we were crossing some bridges and I always hoped it would bear fruit and bridge differences.”

According to Rollins, Mick Jagger had seen him play a set and drummer Charlie Watts was an avid Jazz fan.

“I was playing in London at the time and the group was looking for a saxophonist and my name came up. It was such an experiment for me at the time. My wife was a fan of them and really urged me to do it,” laughed Rollins.

Tattoo You was well-received and Rollins viewed the opportunity as a big success.

“That record was made in England, so I did not record with the entire group. I got to work very closely with Mick Jagger and he was a nice fellow. It was a really good experience for me,” said Rollins.

Whatever genre a musician may play, Rollins firmly believes that music is the universal language.

“It really rises above all the foolishness and politics of the world. For me, there’s the idea that anyone can enjoy music, no matter what may seemingly stand in the way.”

Rollins continues to embrace yoga and eastern philosophies as a means to reconnect with himself and have a broader, more universal understanding of the world. Music has undeniably aided him during tough times, but he credits yoga and philosophy for strengthening his spirit.

“Originally, it was my quest to find out about life and make myself a stronger person. When I first got into it way back in 1957, I was reading a lot about Buddhism. I worked to make myself a better human being.”

As a renowned Jazz musician, Rollins’ path to greater self-worth and transcendence has been riddled with detours. His passion has spanned through decades of change, but his self-discovery continues to grow daily.

“You really have to work at things and let your inner voice develop. Sometimes, it can take a lifetime,” said Rollins.