An unvarnished insight into the mind of Sonny Rollins (Philip Clark, 3/17/24, the Spectator)

[A]s jazz was becoming increasingly conceptual, Rollins was concerned that too many musicians were neglecting the basics. His goal was not revolution — he was motivated to achieve complete technical “mastership.”

The extent to which Rollins obsessed over the tiniest of technical details on his saxophone runs through the book. One minuscule finger movement could be enough to alter the resonance of a particular note either radically or indeed so faintly you’d need the ears of a bat to perceive it — and Rollins was open to both. This extended to his pushing his instrument beyond where recognized technique could function, to a point where the instrument operated but only in theory. Experimenting with bouncing the same note between different octaves, he described “higher notes that I have not figured out yet,” then scheduled time to explore beyond where his instrument normally sounded. Perhaps he could locate those notes, perhaps he couldn’t, but it was the endeavor that mattered.

Early in the book another theme emerges: his regret at the lowly lot of the jazz musician. All these decades later, figures like Rollins and Coltrane have become icons, but back in the day “the working conditions of many great jazz musicians are very, very far… below par!” he mourns. Making transcendent art in nightclubs, which were operated largely by shady characters “closely associated with underworld elements,” created inescapable tensions between goals of artistic purity and the brutal economic truth that jazz clubs, for the mob, were all about making money, exercising control and selling drugs.

Rollins’s high ideals rubbed uncomfortably against reality. Jazz, he explains, is “the music of America created by Americans for the edification of all of mankind.” As with many musicians, including Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, the word “jazz” became a bugbear to him, a label used, often cynically, to hold the ambitions of black musicians at bay, to retain them as “entertainers” — to put clear boundaries between black culture and the great Western tradition of Bach and Beethoven.

Rollins is clear that “mustn’t we start speaking of MUSIC and not jazz.” This music was “All American.” And although it’s of black origin, care must be taken “not to synonymize Negro and Jazz and not depict Jazz as a Negro product.” As Rollins unpicks the techniques of Indian music, you realize how deeply he believed that jazz also needed to reach out beyond America itself.