September 25, 2019


Sonny and Trane - Tenor Madness 

September is the birthday month for the two undisputed kings of the tenor sax, John Coltrane (9/23/26) and Sonny Rollins (9/7/30).  Sonny and Trane had different personalities, came from different backgrounds, had very different sounds and took their music in different directions.  One died young (Coltrane in 1967, just short of his 41st birthday), while the other is still with us (Sonny is no longer playing, but the World's Greatest Living Jazz Musician just celebrated his 89th).  So it wasn't until I started working on this post that I had ever stopped to consider how much they had in common.  Both started out on the alto sax before moving to tenor.  On their way up, they both played in bands led by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.  Rollins bloomed earlier - he had known Monk since he was a teenager, started playing with him in his early 20's and considered him one of the great influences on his music; he was playing with Miles in his early 20's.  Coltrane was about 27 when he first joined Miles, and then after a transformative 6-month stint with Monk in 1957, returned to Miles' band and played on Davis' Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time.  Although both were known primarily as instrumentalists, they each also composed some of the best-known and most-played jazz tunes (St. Thomas, Oleo, Doxy, Pent-Up House and Airegin for Rollins; Moment's Notice, Lazy Bird, Giant Steps and Naima for Trane).  They were modernists - sometimes crossing into the avant garde - who had great success recording Broadway show tunes and pop songs (an edited version of Coltrane's recording of My Favorite Things made the pop charts in 1961); Rollins has had a lifelong fascination with the movie and popular songs he heard as a kid and made great art even from novelties like I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande).  Both were heroin addicts who kicked their habits (Coltrane going cold turkey on his own, Sonny by getting into a Federal rehab clinic). And, notwithstanding dozens of great albums, each man has one that stands above the rest: Coltrane's Giant Steps and Rollins' Saxophone Colossus.

Remarkably, these 2 friendly rivals only recorded together once, in 1956 when Coltrane stopped by a Rollins recording and was convinced to sit in on one song, Tenor Madness.

Happy birthday, Sonny.  Happy birthday, John.

Posted by at September 25, 2019 11:10 AM