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Check into your favorite jazz club near closing time and savor how loose the atmosphere
is. The final hour on a Saturday night has always been my favorite time, because that's
when the musicians who have finished their gigs in other clubs walk in with their axes
and, if the act on the bandstand is cool about it -- and each one usually is -- the
sitting-in and the cutting contests begin.
It's a great music lesson, as a rule, even if you're not a musician. You can get the
feeling that a lot of style is being worked out right before your ears, as though you were
the invisible spectator of a drill conducted by a spectral music teacher. And out of it
The capacity for thrill depends on many factors, of course, including the hipness of the
audience, the compatibility of the musicianly minds, the prowess of each performer on the
bandstand. And that means that each has labored in the solitude of his own studio to gain
mastery of his instrument.
There are legendary stories of John Coltrane's falling asleep next to his saxophone after
having played a gig and then gone home to practice more scales. The same stories circulate
about Jimi Hendrix, who carried his guitar everywhere he went. In each case, the artist's
technique, his very style, depended upon that time of solitude to whet the edge of his
None has been so public about his dedication to solitude than Theodore Walter Rollins,
known professionally as "Sonny" and intimately as "Newk."
Despite a solid reputation that began in the late 1940s, Rollins has never rested in his
quest for sharpening his musical blade. In fact, he is well-known for taking himself out
of the touring and recording schedules upon which he relies for a living in order to go to
the woodshed -- or, more accurately in his case, one of the many bridges that surround
Manhattan -- in order to practice as though he were a novice.
That's an admirable trait, and it shows in his work. Rollins has a grand sense of
interpolation -- that is, the borrowing of a phrase from a familiar melody and inserting
it into the tune at hand -- and his harmonic faculties don't fail him, even as he dissects
the chords behind a melody and chooses to work only the high notes in them.
The result is the musical equivalent of the barnstorming pilot who maneuvers his plane in
unexpected and thrilling ways -- frightening one time, stupefying another and never
executing the same move twice.
In 1989, I caught him at an outdoor festival on the shores of Lake Erie and, as I recall,
the first tune lasted about 15 minutes -- and that was before he played a five-minute
cadenza. As the crowd was going wild after he finished, my wife turned to me and said,
"I think he's very good. But he doesn't know when to quit." That lovely lady and
I aren't married anymore, but I don't blame Sonny for that.
Recommended listening: "Way Out West" [Contemporary, 1957]; "Newk's
Time," [Blue Note, 1957]; "Don't Stop The Carnival" [Milestone, 1978]; and
"East Broadway Run Down," [MCA, 1966]. These are, of course, personal favorites,
but any Rollins will do, even when he is inconsistent in his approach.
Tonally, there is a difference between early and late Rollins, but he is so malleable an
artist that, even as I write, I think of him sitting leaning against a walkway beam on the
Brooklyn Bridge, working out his next move. And when he makes that move, I'll be glad to
hear it. .