Sonny Rollins: A Birthday Tribute
Tuesday was Sonny Rollins’ 78th birthday. Happy Birthday, Newk.
First time I saw Sonny was in the early 1970s at the Village Vanguard. Sonny wasn’t playing live when I first got into jazz. He was in one of his several retirements. I’d go to clubs in the city and see Bill Evans and Monk and Roland Kirk and Elvin Jones and Jim Hall and they were all great. But Sonny was my hero, and he was the one I was aching to see in person.
So I was quaking with excitement that first gig at the Vanguard, a dark, rainy, gloomy Tuesday night. Who knew what to expect? Each previous time had Sonny retired he had come back with a different sound and approach. Had he been practicing again on the Williamsburg Bridge? Would he be playing bop? Avant-garde? I was standing in line on Seventh Avenue with my friend Dan Axelrod. I turned to Dan and said: “I hope he’s still playing straight-ahead, not any of that far-out Pharaoh Sanders shit.” The guy behind me chuckled. It was Pharoah Sanders.
Sanders was not the only famous musician at the Vanguard that night. There were several of them: Jim Hall, Roland Kirk, others. All there to see what Sonny was up to. And Sonny did not disappoint. He was truly inspired that evening, playing with a big smile on his face, taking these incredibly long and complicated and quote-filled cadenzas on every ballad. I still remember most of the set: Green Dolphin Street, Three Little Words, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, It’s Easy to Remember, St. Thomas.
Fast forward a couple of years. Sonny is still playing clubs in New York, but the excitement has waned. On Fridays and Saturdays there is always a full house, but not so during the week. I know this because I went every night, wherever he played. I remember a couple of nights in particular at the old Half Note in midtown. Sonny was playing the same sets night after night. His playing was usually inspired, but not always. Sometimes he’d forget what song came next: We’d call it out for him. We felt that being there each night, supporting him, would keep up his spirits and his energy. One night, as the club was closing, we asked Sonny if he needed a ride home. No thanks, he said, and then he asked: “Why are you here every night?”
“Sonny, you’re the greatest,” we said.
He smiled and shook his head: “No, no, no,” he said. “What about Trane and Pres and Hawk?”
He meant it. He was truly humble.
My favorite night of all was the night when there were only eight people in the club lingering for the last set on a Wednesday night. There was Dan and me, and another table, three black couples, a family it seemed, perhaps parents and their adult children and spouses. They were extremely well dressed and proclaimed that they hadn’t been out to see good live jazz in years. Well, Sonny put on a display of sax playing for the eight of us that was unlike anything I’ve heard before or since. If these people hadn’t been out to see good live jazz in years, they were going to get the show of a lifetime. And it was. The eight of us were all standing, egging Sonny on, whooping and hollering and cheering and shouting. I remember Bob Cranshaw on bass just cracking up. And Walter Davis on piano. I got the feeling Sonny much preferred this to a concert or jazz festival.
I continue to see Sonny’s concerts when I can, Tanglewood a couple of years ago, Carnegie Hall last year. And even now, at 78, he never fails to put on a good show. But, for me, nothing will ever top that first night at the Vanguard and that night a few years later at the Half Note with an audience of eight privileged individuals, one of whom just happened to be me.