This is a startling book, an uneven book, but eventually a rewarding read.

Edited by Sam V.H. Reese

New York Review Books

152 pages

ISBN 978-1-68137-826-8

Rollins is an intriguing man and this book with its mosaic of thoughts and ideas will only deepen understanding and appreciation of this crucial improviser.

Reviewing a book that is full of aphorisms, notes, almost a stream of consciousness is a little like listening to a Rollins’ solo moving from profundity to the mundane to Incisive motifs. This is a startling book, an uneven book, but eventually a rewarding read.

Sam V.H. Reese, who has edited the book down from the large tranche of material that Sonny Rollins gave to the New York Public Library, is knowledgeable about Rollins’ life and work. He has written a long introduction. However, you cannot get away from the thought that the text is Reese’s version of the notes, Reese’s preoccupations. You can read what is here but you do not have access to the thoughts that Reese has judged not germane to the picture Reese was trying to create. Nevertheless, we have to be grateful.

We have access to the thoughts of one of the most important jazz soloists of the latter part of the 20th century. That is special, unique. We can read Duke Ellington’s ‘Music Is My Mistress’, largely produced by Stanley Dance which obscures more than it reveals about Ellington in Dance’s perfumed prose. If you dig down through the expletives and ego you can gain some insight about Miles Davis from Quincy Troupe’s biography. Mingus’ book is suffused with anger and little about music. Art and Laurie Pepper’s book details suffering. Charlie Parker did not commit pen to paper unfortunately.

The aphorisms have literary precedent: the Thoughts of Pascal, The Aristos of John Fowles, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. There is a profundity in the brevity of the comments. His new mantra, ‘It’s all good.’ Musicians are mentioned, ‘Coleman Hawkins, my musical idol more than a great tenor saxophonist’. Rollins goes on to extol Hawkins’ virtues, his dignity.

There is nothing like this Rollins book in the history of jazz. Sensationalism is avoided. These are thoughts set down at the time, not recollected later: thoughts as raw as an improvisation, no second thoughts, no revisions, no evasions.

The book is in four sections 1959 to 1961 The Bridge Years: 1961 to 1963 Fantastic Saxophone: 1963 to 1973 What I Am: 1979 to 2010 Legacy.

Rollins, unsurprisingly, writes a great deal about music in general, about the mechanics of playing the saxophone. He has an exalted view of the instrument. He knows that it was dismissed and often denigrated by the classical world. but Rollins knows its beauty. He writes about the ‘Tabernacle of Music’ and the pure music that an improviser can reach.

Some of what Rollins writes is mundane, he worries about fleas on cats, he asks his wife to buy some chickpeas, he worries constantly about smoking. He berates his band for not always playing for him.

Rollins’ keen intelligence and intense self-reflection is obvious. Part of his mystique stems from his sabbaticals, the withdrawals from playing. Rollins realised that what he needed to do was not just more playing in solitude. He looked at research into philosophy, religion, politics. His playing has revealed multiple influences, his reading was just as wide. In 1959 he was dissatisfied not just with himself but with the world of jazz. He went on to seek ‘master ship’ something that he hoped to achieve through reflection, study and self-criticism’.

Throughout, Rollins expresses a belief that music can break down racial barriers. He writes to politicians: President Clinton, Michelle Obama with his concern about music education.

At one point Rollins considers creating a book for saxophone players but eventually decides that his methods were too unorthodox.

Rollins’ interest in religion permeates the book. His first trip to Japan was important, he was inspired by a blend of Zen and yoga. Rosicrucianism and the Bhagavad Gita feature in his thoughts. Like Sun Ra, Rollins was intrigued by African aesthetics.

One of the strange aspects of the writing is that occasionally Rollins stands apart, to look at himself and talks about himself as if he was observing himself.

The later notes become much more political, more pessimistic. The writings move from the personal to the global. Rollins was aware of ecology. He writes: ‘In my view the American society has been a curse. to mankind and the planet.’ “We can only hope that other nations never achieve our standard of living. If they did the world would become a desert! Economically America is the bane not the hope of the world. Since the planet isfinite as we expand our economy, we make it less likely that less developed nations can expand theirs’.

Above all there is jazz. Writing to the magazine ‘Jazz Japan’ Rollins comments:

‘Jazz is life shown thru music.

Jazz is life in musical form.

Jazz is the musical expression of life.

As we know life changes every second. Each snowflake that falls is different. Every sunrise is different. Every sunset is different. The clouds in the sky are never the same – always changing. Jazz mimics life. Real jazz music is changing from note to note. When I play my horn, I can never play the same note in the same way twice. Just like life. Every moment is a new beginning. Even if I am playing the same song it’s different each time I play it. That’s why they call Jazz the music of surprise, the greatest and most challenging music in the world. if it’s good jazz it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s exciting It’s the music of the heavens. It’s called jazz.’

You don’t read a book like this from end to end. You sample pages or thoughts and reflect. If there is anything to learn, it is about honesty.

You can also read our review of “Freedom Weaver: The 1959 European Tour Recordings” here.