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Sonny Rollins' worthy legacy

Sax legend continues to raise the image of jazz

In 1959, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, one of jazz music's brightest young stars, dropped out of the music business for two years ... to practice. Such a decision seems unfathomable in the show-me-the-money context of modern entertainment, but it makes perfect sense in terms of the objectives that have guided Rollins' musical quest for more than half a century.
"My goal was not to be famous. I was relatively famous, but that had nothing to do with it," recalls Rollins, 70. "I was always trying to be worthy, rather than being famous."
Rollins returned to the jazz scene in 1961 after a sabbatical in which he frequently practiced on New York's Williamsburg Bridge, near his Lower East Side home at the time.
"I've always had a deep respect for the music and for what I'm trying to do," Rollins explains. "I felt that I was being heralded beyond my abilities, so the way I handled that was to break out of the music business for a while and just go someplace and practice my horn, study, gain extra proficiency and come back."
Born in 1930, raised in Harlem, Rollins grew up in a jazz hotbed. Drawing early inspiration from tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, by age 25 he had already recorded with Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson, to name a few. From 1955-57, Rollins was a member of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. In 1957, he began recording as a bandleader and won the Down Beat magazine Critics' Poll as New Star of the tenor saxophone.
As one of the survivors of that era, Rollins willingly embraces a duty to carry on the collective reputation of his famous peers and to present it to a new generation of listeners.
"I feel that I represent, in a way, the whole period. I feel an obligation to sound good not only for myself, but to let people get a glimpse of the wonderful stuff that was happening [in the '40s and '50s]," Rollins says.
"It's a load to do it — an added incentive to try to always have a good performance."
The enduring sense of loyalty that Rollins maintains for his colleagues of that era stems from a common objective they shared — "a larger purpose" — in his words, of which music itself was only the core.
"We formed a bond because the music we were playing was on the outside of society, and we had to face a lot of resistance from the larger culture," Rollins says. "When jazz musicians started playing modern jazz in the '40s, we made a break from the tradition of entertainer/musician. We had to try to maintain a certain dignity. We had a struggle on our hands to try and change society's view of how a jazz musician should appear."
Despite his substantial accomplishments, Rollins considers himself a musical work-in-progress, striving to strengthen a musical message that he hopes will reach audiences on both emotional and intellectual levels. He continues to tour (though playing only 35 to 40 gigs a year) and has a new album, This Is What I Do, due next month on the Milestone label.
Rollins' musical legacy is assured. However, he hopes to be remembered not just for the music he's made, but for his commitment to the field of jazz.
"My dedication to the music, that's what I'm proud of — the fact that I tried to have a career which was not geared toward making a lot of money. I turned down a lot of things that I thought were not good for the image of jazz," he says. "I tried to raise the image of jazz through my own conduct."
For example, like many of his peers, Rollins had a drug problem in the mid-'50s. However, he "was able to cut it loose, and make a statement about it and try to live a drug-free existence and be a person in the field [of jazz] who people could be proud of," he explains. "A lot of [jazz musicians] have had a lot of trouble. They got defeated by things like drugs and alcohol. I have experienced all these things, but I tried to overcome them and be an exemplary person. I'd like to be known for that. I hope I might be a model in that area for some of the younger people."
Sonny Rollins performs at the Variety Playhouse on Fri., Oct. 6 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 404-521-1786 or visit www.variety-playhouse.com.
Take Five is a monthly column on jazz and related subjects. Forward jazz news and info to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156, or e-mail loafingjazz@aol.com.