April 5, 2023


Bridging the gap--from Sonny Rollins to Kendrick LamarThe work of the jazz biographer is getting more and more difficult. But we still need it--and them--to help us understand today's culture (Philip Clark, April 5, 2023, Prospect)

By contrast, Levy's subject--the revered tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins--is still living and, although now 92 and retired from performing since 2014, has much to contribute. But this doesn't mean that Rollins lacks enigma. Why did he, at the height of his powers, temporarily stop performing in public in 1959 and, for two years, practise his instrument underneath Williamsburg Bridge, often for 15 hours a day? 

Another question that has long intrigued me is explicitly musical. Whereas Rollins's close friend John Coltrane moved towards a music of ferocious, passionate freedom, Rollins was always slightly more... guarded. In this respect, the counterpoint with Ayler proves timely. The impact Coltrane's music made on the young Ayler was transformational, and it was Coltrane who arranged for Ayler to be signed to his record label, Impulse. Then the pupil became mentor, as Coltrane learned from Ayler's approach to free jazz, which led his drift away from jazz of regular pulse and recognisable harmonic patterns. 

Rollins, too, went through a period of letting free jazz--what they called at the time "The New Thing" or "Fire Music"--inform his work, but with one fundamental difference. Ayler's and Coltrane's later music shredded the rulebook as defiantly as James Joyce smashed conventional narrative form. But Rollins managed to subvert the same rules and embrace freedom while also remaining (generally) faithful to traditional ideas of song form, pulse and improvisation--which made him some sort of magician. How did he achieve that? 

Levy goes some way to answering that question, and many others, through sheer weight of research: his book sprawls over 725 pages and is so bulky that the source notes have been placed online. But, much like his previous book on Lou Reed, it's also compulsively readable, with a pacey narrative that belies its monumentalism. This is a very current jazz biography, perhaps even state of the art. It's certainly different from the ones I read when finding my feet in the mid-1980s. Back then, one would hear about historically crucial albums by Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk, but actually hearing those albums could be quite a different matter--especially if, like me, you lived outside of London, in a backwater in the northeast of England. I relied on biographies to effectively stand in for albums I assumed I'd never encounter. They just had to give me something; it almost didn't matter how much.

But now that every album you could reasonably hope to hear can be played at the click of a mouse, the jazz biography must shoulder different responsibilities. However well I knew the nuts-and-bolts of Rollins's music, Levy made me realise how little I knew about the man--and how much the musical minutiae were informed by his background and his political awakening as a teenager. You could be forgiven for thinking, from reading other histories, that all Rollins's experiences were framed by New York City. He was born in Harlem on 7th September 1930 and, during his childhood, pounded the same sidewalks as his musical heroes, who included Ellington and the tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. 

But circumstances could easily have been different. Rollins was born shortly after his family migrated to the city from the Caribbean island of St Croix. His grandfather Stedman (who was refused entry to the US) had been a singer on the island, specialising in an embryonic form of calypso called quelbe. All Rollins's siblings were born before his family made their move, and his family's cultural reference points were overwhelmingly Caribbean. And so that question I raised earlier, about Rollins's later instinct for musical freedom, starts to answer itself. His most famous compositions, such as "St Thomas" and "Don't Stop the Carnival", turned West Indian tunes into vehicles for improvisation without cluttering their crystalline forms with the harmonic obstacle courses typical of modern jazz. Rollins's compositions, perched in this fertile hinterland between the Caribbean and New York, mapped exactly on to his background.

Posted by at April 5, 2023 12:00 AM