Sonny Rollins
Photo by John Abbott

Sonny Rollins: “I’m part of the universal spirit”

Short Profile

Name: Walter Theodore Rollins
DOB: 7 September 1930
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Occupation: Musician, saxophonist

Mr. Rollins, as one of jazz music’s most important figures, do you ever think about the legacy you’re leaving behind?

I wonder what my legacy is; I still don't know how people think of me, or how they'll think of me after I’m no longer on this planet. I have no idea. The good thing I know is that I have been associated with great people: Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, JJ Johnson. People of that ilk. And therefore, my legacy, I think will have something to do with them.

But surely you consider yourself to be one of the greats as well, no?

No, I don't consider myself to be one of them… I’m a very self-effacing person. You know, the thing is with music, you never get to the place you want to get. And until I had to stop playing some years ago, I was always practicing, I was always trying to get better, I was always trying to get to that next level. And I never got there! Sometimes I felt like I was getting there, but it was sort of an elusive dream somewhat. I don't want to think of myself as “one of” anything. I do, of course, think that my music will inspire people, maybe even some up-and-coming musicians in some kind of way.

“When you play, you have a high esteem for what you’re doing. It’s serious, and it means something. And when people listen to you, that’s when the universality comes in.”

Does this idea of legacy mean something different, or perhaps something more significant, for a black artist?

Well, I got involved with the equality movement when I was very young. I had a grandmother who was a real activist, and she used to take me marching up and down parades in Harlem when I was a little child. So I got acquainted with the struggle of equality, and not wanting to be treated like an animal, wanting to be treated like a human being. So I've always been like that. And I know that WEB Dubois, a very famous black author and thinker, once said that if a person reaches any level of success in the world, he should always give back and try to help the group that he represents in some positive way. And I think that makes sense. One of the songs that I played in 1958 called “The Freedom Suite,” became very popular, especially with black artists, because it opened the portals for them to express their music and yes, their civil rights feelings, too.

Who were the artists who opened those portals for you, personally?

I’ll tell you what. I was born in New York and I was around all sorts of wonderful music… When I was young I had a lot of idols: Louis Jordan, Coleman Hawkins. Fats Waller was one of the first artists who really shined a light in my eyes. When I heard Fats Waller, I said, “Wow, this is what the world is all about.” I had a lot of people I looked up to, who I tried to emulate and who inspired me.

You’ve often talked about needing “a reason” to play and make music. Has your reason changed or evolved since those early days of emulating your idols?

You know, I was very fortunate. I had a talent. You see, music is a gift that’s given to you. I don’t care how much you love music, you have to be able to play it if you’re going to be a musician. And I just had that gift, so it was wonderful to be able to play. Those influences I just mentioned, they were the reason when I first started to play, but later on it was just being involved with all of these great people… We made people happy with our music! You know, jazz might not be as popular these days, people listen to all kinds of world music, hip hop… But all of it has the same spirit, which propels all of us.

Apparently during your earlier days, you would often get this feeling like you were part of something truly universal.

The thing is that when you play, you have a high esteem for what you’re doing. It's serious, and it means something. And when people listen to you, that’s when the universality comes in. Because it’s more than just you liking it, it’s other people liking it. I'm part of the universal spirit.

What about if no one hears you playing? If you’re just making music alone in your bedroom, are you still part of the universal spirit then?

Oh, you can play to one person, you can play to yourself! Fine! Because it’s all within, it’s within me, that’s where it is. It’s within us. If we become popular in the world, great, but we are still human beings. The only creation we have is the universal essence — call it whatever you want, call it God, call it Allah… Whatever people try to find something to describe that essence which is the basis for why we’re here. So, no, you don’t have to have a big crowd! Play alone and try to reach out, try to make something that’s beautiful, even if nobody else likes it, so what? You’ve made yourself happy, you’re communicating with a higher level of humanity…

Sonny Rollins' The Freedom Suite, 1958.

It sounds like music is almost a kind of spirituality for you.

Well, let me ask you, what do you mean, when you say spirituality?

You mentioned this feeling of communicating with a higher power — but I know you also practice yoga and meditation. I would consider those to be spiritual activities.

Absolutely! I don’t want to call it spirituality, I’ll call it it — and I do get glimpses of it when I’m playing, and that shows me the strength and power of music. That’s the universal essence.

How do you stay connected to that spiritual part of yourself now that, as you mentioned, you’re no longer able to play music?

Well, I'm doing a lot of reading. As you said, I do yoga, the kind of yoga which is a way of living, similar to Buddhism. I do a lot of studying. Basically, I try to live it. Reading books is fine, but I try to live, I try to be a person that observes the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I try to live like that. I try to without being jealous, envious. I try to live without hating. My life has been dedicated, as I've gotten older, not just to music, but to morality, kindness, to not wanting to hurt people. That's part of the music, really, because the people that played this music were all very good people. So I want to think of myself in those terms.

You’d rather be remembered as a good human being than as a good musician.

I hope so, yes! The thing is that my spiritual leanings don’t accept what we would call life and death… We don’t believe in that. There is no end! There is no dying. We’re here forever! Even though your body turns to dust like everything else in this world, your soul is going to continue on. Even though I’m not able to perform music anymore, I’m still here as a human being, my soul will still be here when I’m gone — so every day I’m trying to be a good human being. And I guess whatever I accomplish in that sense will turn into the legacy of Sonny Rollins.