December 9, 2017

IN SERVICE (profanity alert):

Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins on Retiring His Sax, His Legacy, and the Secret to Life (David Marchese, 12/06/17, Vulture)

Sonny Rollins is, inarguably, on any short list of greatest living American musicians. So vast, intelligent, and witty is his improvisational skill, and so satisfying the sheer, sensuous life force of his saxophone playing. And though the 87-year-old has very likely blown his last note in public -- a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis has made that a near-certainty -- he's left behind a 66-year-long trail of joyous, searching recordings and live performances. If you've got a heart, Sonny Rollins's music can touch it. That's what I think; he disagrees. "I dedicated my life to my music," says Rollins without regret, speaking on the phone from his home in upstate New York, "and I never got it to where I wanted it be."

Rollins has been feeling autumnal these days, partly because he recently donated his massive personal archives to New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and partly because he had to put down his horn. (The memory of his beloved wife, Lucille, who passed away in 2004, also hangs heavy.) "When you're on the wrong side of 87," says Rollins, "there's all sorts of things happening to you, and they all make you look back at the life you've lived." He gives a short, rasping laugh. "But I've been lucky, haven't I?" [...]

So if not through your music, how have you been able to give? 

By being a nice person. By going by the golden rule: Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. Trying to observe that rule, trying to be kind, not trying to hurt anybody's feelings. It's just about thinking of others, and how you can do something for them. I'm okay. I'm not worrying about the ending. I've gotten so much in my life, so much love -- more from the public than I probably deserve. My life now is about what I can do for others. That's what life means. That's what it should always mean.

You mentioned that in your moments of reflection, you think about what you have and haven't achieved musically. In both categories, what stands out? 

Achievements -- I don't know. The thing about me is that I was always practicing my instrument. I knew that's what I had to do to improve. Here's an incident I remember: I was playing in Munich and we had a nice concert that night, which is not always the case. During the concert, I'd been trying to work on some musical passages, and after it was over, when everybody was leaving, I was in my dressing room trying to work out this little passage. Everyone was leaving and I'm this little room playing. See? I knew what I had to do to get better. My thing, my burden, in my life was that I had to stop blowing my horn, so I never got to the musical place I wanted to get to. That was my bĂȘte noire -- what does that mean?

Do musical ideas still pop into your head?

Oh god, always. I can't get rid of them. It's just a little trial that I have to endure. I still finger my horn, too. I deal with it. It's all good, man. It's all good.

When you say you were trying to get to a certain place with your music, can you explain what that place was? Are you talking about getting technically better on your instrument? Or was it about getting better at conveying emotion? 

I wanted to be able to play anything that I thought of, and that required a certain level of technical facility. I wanted to have a general, comfortable feeling that whatever it was I wanted to do on my horn -- bang -- I'd be able to do it.

So the desire to keep improving wasn't about the emotion that the technical facility was presumably in service of?

I leave the emotion to the higher powers. The emotion is the spiritual part of music -- of everything -- and trying to understand where that comes from or how to achieve that would be like trying to understand God. When I was playing, I just wanted to get the technical part as best I could and leave the other part to the universal spirit. If I'd do my part, the universe would do its part. That's also one of the things I've come to understand about life: I have to do my part in every aspect of my life. If I'm trying to be a good person, I've got to do the work to be that. I don't think any honest person is egotistical enough to feel that they've got every aspect of their life under control. But everyone has the capacity to work on those things, whether it's getting mad too fast or getting better at your horn. If you seriously try to correct your faults, then the universe will do its part, it will take you in. The universe is good, David. I believe that. The universe is good, and it's there for us to realize it.

Posted by at December 9, 2017 7:55 AM