Rollins is a major figure, and this is a major work. Aidan Levy’s comprehensive book is required reading.

Written by Aidan Levy

Published by Hachette Books

ISBN-10 ‏ :0306902796

ISBN-13 ‏ :978-0306902796

784 pages

The good test of a jazz biography: does it send you back to the music?  This one does.

Aidan Levy has assembled a remarkable account of the life of Sonny Rollins: all the life, the music and the turmoil.  To authenticate it all Levy has interviewed Rollins on numerous occasions.  Levy was one of the first to examine the Rollins’ archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Rollins had amassed a vast resource that he gave to the Center.  Levy in addition consulted the Max Roach archive housed at the Library of Congress. Levy was invited to examine the Carl Smith collection. Carl Smith is an archivist founder of an audio company. Smith has spent his life collating the greatest collection of live recordings of Sonny Rollins in the world.

Although Rollins was born in Harlem, Levy sketches in the family background in the Caribbean.  Rollins used the musical forms of that area for the rest of his life: ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’, ‘Brownskin Girl’, and, ‘St. Thomas’. One aspect of Rollins’ life is how he coped with the vagaries of the jazz life.  Levy doesn’t shy away from the harsh facts: Rollins had many years when he was very poor and was in conflict with the justice system.  The incarceration in Rikers Island is recounted unflinchingly.  The descriptions of the rich cultural life in Harlem in the, 30s, 40s and 50s are invaluable. Rollins’ story is peopled with Bud Powell. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker.

The book seeks out the private aspects and the reflective life that was so important to Rollins. it appears that the time spent on his sabbatical at the Williamsburg Bridge (1959 to 1961) where Rollins went to practise was longer than anyone had heard about before:  he was there sometimes for 15 hours in a day. On the sabbatical, over weeks, Rollins worked hard it was a time to reflect.  He would just disappear and disconnect the phone and took time to reassess.  Levy visits the place where Rollins practised.  Rollins used some of the metal work of the bridge in order to do physical exercises because Rollins believes firmly in the links between mind and body. Rollins too had a restless mind and he sought out books on eastern mysticism, science and history.

Demolition of commonly held beliefs is a very useful tool for a biographer.  Levy does not believe that Rollins’ retreat or sabbatical in 1959 was because of the emergence of Coltrane. Levy produces much evidence to support the view that there was mutual respect between the two men.

Sonny’s perfectionism and, a persistent inferiority complex, meant that recording was difficult, traumatic, for him. Levy suggests that some of his problems were intensified by a review that he received from Gunther Schuller about ‘Blue 7’ from the album ‘Saxophone Colossus’. Schuller admired the construction of the solo He compared ‘Sonny to “Mozart, Shakespeare, Rembrandt…” and concluded Sonny’s thematic approach was ultimately more significant than Charlie Parker’s or Lester Young’s’. Rollins was intimidated by the scholarly review.  With Rollins it was a feeling that lasted most of his life and led to many recordings not receiving his approval.

The first visit to Ronnie Scott’s in 1965 is covered in some detail.  It was an engagement that is almost mythologised so it is good to have an objective account even one that will do little to counter the myths. Sonny encountered a rhythm section led by Stan Tracey.  Rick Laird remembered: ‘Sonny called one tune and then played it for ninety minutes straight that afternoon— “Prelude to a Kiss”—at different tempos, changing keys on a whim’.  ‘Later in the run, on at least one night, Sonny emerged from a London taxi, bell held high, and strode across the street and down into the club playing. On another, he led the crowd out of Ronnie’s and onto Gerrard Street in a spontaneous conga line.’ Later, on that trip, Sonny set up writing the music for ‘Alfie’.

Coleman Hawkins was an artist that Rollins admired greatly.  Eventually they played on the same stage at Newport in 1963.  Rollins was so in awe of the older man that he was uncertain how to play.  The two men eventually recorded in the studio.  Rollins had just won the Downbeat poll so his fee for the recording was much higher than Hawkins, more intimidation for Rollins.  Levy describes in detail how the recording was created.

Levy acknowledges the importance of Lucille Rollins who fiercely guarded and guided, Sonny’s life. Levy charts their life together in detail.  Lucille was resolute in ensuring that Rollins was treated as an artist.  She rationed his appearances so that he had time to rest and reflect.  ‘In addition to managing bookings, arranging tour itineraries, and serving as road manager, Lucille looked after Sonny’s health, reputation, and their finances with a forensic eye for detail.’ When she discovered that Carl Smith was secretly recording all Rollins’ concerts, she was angry and absolutely forbade further recordings and would not tolerate the issuing of Smith’s archive.  However, after Lucille’s death, critic Stanley Crouch persuaded Rollins to listen to the recordings and eventually a number of albums were assembled and released under the heading of the Road Shows.

At the time of writing Rollins is in retirement occasionally commenting like a wise elder on the current scene.  Now, we are left with the recordings and the sound that Ken Hyder described as:  ‘The tone—as big, wide and fiery as a blast furnace; the dramatic cliff-hanging sense of timing; and the almost sardonic—but never sentimental—treatment of ballads, which would surely be doomed to corny failure under others’. Who else but Rollins would have chosen to improvise on ‘Dearly Beloved’, ‘Someday I’ll Find You’, ‘We Kiss In A Shadow’, ‘To A Wild Rose’, ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’?

Rollins is a major figure, and this is a major work. Aidan Levy’s comprehensive book is required reading. He lets Rollins speak for himself and he captures the honesty and complexity of the man, as well as the humanity and the vulnerability.

Reviewed by Jack Kenny