The photos of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and other musicians lining the walls of Sonny Rollins' cottage studio resemble a jazz hall of fame. But for the tenor saxophonist the pictures are reminders of departed friends and mentors with whom he once shared a bandstand.
As one of the last surviving giants of jazz's golden era from the late 1940s to the early '60s, Rollins is dedicated to carrying on their tradition and not leaving his audiences disappointed.
"When I do a concert it weighs heavily on me that I have to reach the people" said Rollins. "It's got to be on the level of what I feel is legitimate Sonny Rollins and legitimate jazz as best it can be played."
At age 76, Rollins continues to take on new challenges. His latest CD, the Grammy-nominated "Sonny, Please," his first studio recording in five years, was released on his new Doxy label, named after a composition he recorded with Davis in 1954.
"Sonny, Please" — the title takes its name from a phrase his late wife Lucille used whenever she'd get exasperated with him — is a mix of originals and standards weaving together threads running through Rollins' career.
The festive jazz calypso "Park Palace Parade," named after a Harlem dance hall where he heard Caribbean musicians as a child, reflects his West Indies heritage. His most popular tune, "St. Thomas," based on a traditional calypso tune his mother sang to him, was introduced on his breakthrough 1956 album "Saxophone Colossus."
On the blues "Remembering Tommy," Rollins honors the late pianist Tommy Flanagan, a favorite accompanist on many albums, including "Saxophone Colossus."
Among jazz saxophone greats
A glance at the photos in his studio, a short walk from his 19th century farm house, prompts the observation that Rollins might be one of the only saxophonists around today who played with the other tenor saxophonists most influential in making it the signature instrument in modern jazz: Coleman Hawkins, whose recording of "Body and Soul" inspired the teenage Rollins to play tenor sax; Lester Young; Ben Webster; and his close friend John Coltrane, who was a little-known sideman when Rollins invited him to engage in an energetic duel on the title track of the 1956 album "Tenor Madness."
Rollins pauses, twirls some strands of his silvery beard in his long fingers, and then with his characteristic self-effacing humor remarks, "You just put a thought in my head. I should be playing better than I'm playing now after having played with all of these guys. ... I better get back to practice."
Such comments might surprise Rollins' fans, who regard him as the greatest living jazz improviser. But it's Rollins' intense self-criticism — he finds it "excruciating" to listen to past recordings because he'll constantly detect flaws in his playing — that drives him to practice daily and helps explain why he remains a vibrant force on today's jazz scene.
What Rollins is striving for are those rare moments when he feels like he's playing at his optimum creative level.
"It's sort of like an out-of-body experience," he explained. "My mind is blank. ... When I feel I'm really on it ... I'm just standing there and I could almost look down at myself."
Last year, Rollins was voted jazz artist of the year and top tenor saxophonist in both the Downbeat and Jazz Times magazine readers' polls. His influence has been deeply felt by such successors as tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who credits Rollins with giving him the confidence to play long extended solos.
"Sonny just has a lot of joyous passion in his music," said Lovano. "He's always searching and trying to be a better person and a deeper musician and ... for me that's been a guiding light in my development."
‘Music is my mistress’
Despite his worldwide renown, Rollins prefers the quiet life. Since his wife's death, he has lived alone on his farm about 130 miles north of New York City, which the couple bought in the early '70s.
"I like solitude really. I like to practice, I like to read. ... Music is my life. As Duke Ellington said, ‘Music is my mistress,'" observed Rollins.
Rollins describes recent years as "a period of transition" for him in which he's had to cope with many changes.
On September 11, 2001, Rollins was in his high-rise studio apartment when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center just six blocks away. He waited until the next morning for the National Guard to evacuate him, carrying his saxophone down nearly 40 flights of stairs.
"It was just like a World War II movie of the London blitzkrieg days. ... I was sort of in semi-shock," said Rollins.
At his wife's urging, he kept a commitment to play a Boston concert on Sept. 15. "I think she felt it would be important to do that concert at that time. ... The music was very calming ... in the sense that it was healing."
A tape of that concert made by a long-time Rollins fan was released by Milestone in 2005 as "Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert." Rollins won a Grammy for best jazz instrumental solo on the fast-paced burner "Why Was I Born?"
His wife's death in November 2004 ended what Rollins describes as an "idyllic" relationship going back nearly 50 years. Lucille Rollins had also been his manager, handling tasks such as booking concerts and selecting tracks for his records, that Rollins found unpleasant. Rollins now relies on a "consortium" of long-time associates to handle these tasks.
A technophobe at heart, Rollins doesn't own a cellphone or use his wife's computer, which has remained covered since her death. Yet in September 2005, the saxophonist at the urging of his nephew, trombonist Clifton Anderson, launched his own Web site, whose offerings include podcasts and MP3 files, because he believes jazz is "a positive force" that should be better disseminated.
Last year, Rollins launched Doxy Records, ending a 35-year relationship with Fantasy/Milestone. With the record industry in decline, friends advised that he could probably do better putting out his own releases. Rollins plans to record a new album in the fall, but also is girding himself to listen to a treasure trove of private concert recordings to find material worth releasing.
But Rollins can face these challenges with the self-assurance that comes with having survived even greater hardships. In the early 1950s, he was on a fast track to oblivion: he was addicted to heroin, spent time in prison, and smoked and drank too much.
He credits bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, who never overcame his own addictions and died at age 34 in 1955, with helping turn his life around by pulling him aside at a 1953 recording session and urging him to quit heroin. He left New York to kick his drug habit, returning to take a spot in the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet in 1955-56 before making his mark as a bandleader.
"I began to have a deeper philosophy of what life was about. ...," said Rollins, who turned to the Rosicrucians, yoga, Sufism and Zen Buddhism. "From that point on is when my consciousness awoke. ... I'm careful about what I eat. I finally stopped smoking some years ago. ... I used to drink a little before I went on the bandstand ... but I stopped that, that was my last vice."
Asked about his legacy, Rollins does not talk about his classic recordings or influence as a saxophonist, but instead mentions his two self-imposed sabbaticals when he quit performing for years at a time, and, after a period of introspective soul-searching, returned creatively reinvigorated.
During the first sabbatical from 1959-62 Rollins would practice for hours nightly on the Williamsburg Bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn to avoid disturbing his neighbors. The second in the late 1960's found him traveling to Buddhist temples in Japan and an ashram in India to study yoga.
"The thing that I am most proud of in my career is that fact that I was able to see beyond being popular and all that stuff ... and do what my inner self told me to do ... because I'm serious about music and played with all these guys," said Rollins.
"If young musicians can realize that that will help them stick by their ideals with music ... So that is my legacy ... it's what keeps me going."