PERUGIA, Italy -
Sonny Rollins held or, it sometimes seemed, was held by a
press conference during the Umbria Jazz Festival. No fan of the
conferential format, he had obviously resolved to be patient with
Asked how he feels about the growing
number of jazz festivals, he answered with the evident: ''They are
putting a lot of musicians to work. This is a good thing.''
was one of the monsters, a quick-witted player with big ears and
sturdy roots. More than a spinner of tales, he was an inventor of
improvisational language. His robust sound is an immediately
recognizable franchise. History, however, has at least temporarily
passed him by. You can sense an underlying bitterness along with his
considerable intelligence and deep-felt spirituality (he studied in
India and Japan for three years).
He adjusted his dark
glasses, reflected for a beat, and added: ''We try and make it easier
for our children so they won't have to pay the dues we did. This may
hurt them in the long run. It has occurred to me that maybe young
people are not suffering enough. Don't get me wrong, I'm just saying
you reap what you sow. There are so many distractions - Internet,
video games, CD-ROM, TV. It's become easier to escape responsibility.
As you may have guessed, I'm an anti-technology person.'' He drained a
glass of water and said: ''So shoot me.''
He lives with his
wife on an isolated farm in upstate New York. Most days he retires to
his studio to practice, compose and meditate while she handles the
business and the necessities of life. He limits his appearances; this
concert in Perugia was rather an event. He and his wife remained
mostly in their hotel room, though, relying on room service. From what
he said and the way he said it, it would seem that he is more
concerned with being in touch with himself than with contemporary
music or events.
''Too self-critical'' to listen to his own
albums, in recent years he hasn't listened to much music by others
either: ''There's so much music in my mind, there's no room for more.
I'm trying to create my own music.''
Asked about whether he
often thinks about death, the 65-year-old ''Saxophone Colossus'' said
he believes in reincarnation. He is trying to live a better life this
time around. ''Death is easy,'' he said. ''Living is hard.''
on the subject, he cited the fabled 1950s quartet with Max Roach,
Clifford Brown and Richie Powell (Bud's brother) and said he had been
''terribly shattered'' when Richie Powell and Brown were killed in a
car crash. He has summoned Brown's spirit for inspiration ever since.
In high school he rehearsed with Thelonious Monk after class, and he
played with Miles Davis while still in his teens. He summons their
''I think about these people all the time. Since
I was blessed to have played with them, and since I am one of the few
players from that era remaining, I feel a responsibility to keep my
music on as high a level as possible in their honor. So I have an
added burden. I must represent them as well as myself.''
now and then,'' he said, he dreams about John Coltrane, which is
interesting because, while not exactly competitors, they were rivals.
Saxophonists felt somehow obliged to make a choice between them, to
sound like one or the other; like the choice between Coleman Hawkins
and Lester Young in the '30s.
Folklore has it that Lester
''defeated'' Hawkins in a cutting contest during a jam session in
Kansas City. True or not, after that Lester became the prime influence
on the following generations (Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Branford
Marsalis). One of the few successors to have successfully tamed and
knit Hawkins's full tone, breathy vibrato and songlike phrases into
bebop, Rollins suffered a similar ''defeat'' after recording the
classic ''Tenor Madness'' with Coltrane in 1956 (their only track
together). Of course all of this is oversimplified. But still.
''sheets of sound'' were more modern, free-wheeling and seductive.
Rollins continued to develop, restructure and recapitulate themes -
very 19th century and very hard to do, like some sort of improvised
sonata form. At the same time, as his luck would have it, there was a
general decline of melody in popular music. Rock songs were often mere
riffs; Miles Davis pared melodies down to three or four notes; melody
played no part whatsoever in rap. Sound-bit listeners did not have the
patience to wait for melody to recapitulate.
And somewhere along the line, Rollins lost his consistency. Now
he'll do what Sonny Rollins used to do, but often overdo it. His
melodic fragments can be more fragmented then melodic. Still capable
of producing goose-bumps, he can no longer be relied on for it. On
stage in Umbria, for example, he took the audience on a tour of
Calypso hell in the eye of a hurricane of self-parody on his hit ''St.
Thomas'' before reaching full prime-time stride on ''Long Ago And Far
Meanwhile, back at the conference. Instead of replying ''none
of your business,'' he decided to deal with a question about his
political preferences; about Bob Dole passing up the opportunity to
address the NAACP:
''The problem is beyond racism. It's
consumerism. We are destroying our planet to acquire more material
goods. Racism is part of this - more goods for me, less for you. And
as a black person, racism affects me personally. But consumerism
affects my descendents and the entire planet.
are only concerned with immediate growth and profit. I don't think
I'll vote this year. This business about the lesser of two evils is
out of date. I don't want to vote for the evil of two lessers. I'll
make my contribution with music. I think it is possible for jazz to
reach people on a deeper level than entertainment. We should work to
make it more than merely diversionary.''
He finally snapped
in response to a question about O.J. Simpson: ''What does that have to
do with anything?''