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Sonny Rollins: The Colossus Speaks 

One of America's greatest musical treasures reflects on jazz, and the good life

Thursday, Aug 5 2010
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I learned jazz as a little boy. My guess is that I was about 2 or 3 years old when I heard people like Fats Waller and jazz bands on the radio. They'd be broadcast from the Apollo Theater and around the country with other guys, but it was basically Fats I listened to. He was also from Harlem. I was born there, and I gleaned a lot from there. It was in the air somehow. There was so much jazz in that community it rubbed off on me. That's how I became attracted to jazz.

Over time I kept at it and got involved with mentors. When I realized I wanted to play sax, Louis Jordan became my idol. He had a popular rhythm and blues band at the time, and although I used other shoulders to stand on to learn, Fats and Louis were the ones who introduced me to the sound of jazz.

The people I came up around didn't have the contrast in life we have today. They lived in a very negative world and had to make their music despite that negativity. Hopefully things are better today, but jazz has always been a sort of stepchild. Musicians have had to steel themselves against the indignities I'm sure they get by playing jazz.

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But we all got through it. The next generations, they'll get through it too. It's a part of life. We all have personal battles, these everyday little battles. This is what makes the difference between life and death. Whatever it is, a person should have the inner strength to overcome anything that's out in the world. Jazz musicians have been suffering for a long time, and life is about suffering, so there's a correlation there.

To me, music is like a neutral force. It has nothing to do with the style of music. This is where the individual comes in. If you're trying to be a certain kind of person, the music should express that and they should go together, they have to go together. I've had a sense of wanting to be positive in my approach to life despite this.

I've played everywhere over the years, and a long time ago I decided jazz should leave the confines of clubs. I made a career decision some years ago to not play in clubs anymore and only do concerts. Plus, I thought maybe jazz would be more appreciated and accepted by the American public if it was seen more in concert halls than nightclub atmospheres.

Regardless, a lot of people still look down on jazz, although not as much as before. The American people have become much more educated about jazz, making it possible to have jazz in concert halls and universities. There's more respect for it as an art form. It's native born, and there's always a tendency to not appreciate things that are right in front of you.

But we all need hope that it's changing, for our biggest challenge in life is life. The rest of life, or since I'm still alive, I have to work at and survive out here in that negative world. It's about staying positive, taking care of my health, eating right, and having a moral center. Trying to live like that is a challenge because you're going up against forces that are out there.

However, I'd like to see people feel more optimistic so young musicians can come along and feel they have a platform. Be encouraging. They should feel optimism around them.

It's good to be encouraged and to know your music means something. Maybe, when people listen to me — at least I've been told this by my fans — what I play gets them through the drudgery of their everyday life. This is wonderful and helps me realize I'm not playing for my own edification, as in vanity. This is important to me. They say it's a positive affirmation and hopefully something not negative in a very negative world. At least some people do.

I'd like that to be more, of course. I'd like to reach more with the jazz message of love, affirmation, and goodwill. I'd like to be the person who spreads that message, but I can only take credit for improving upon my gift as I'm woefully inefficient in some things. Of course, I tried to develop it. What I try in my everyday writing, practicing, is endless. I haven't felt I've accomplished ... well, I'm sure I've accomplished something, but I don't feel I've established my musical legacy yet. That's why I practice and I'm still in the middle of it.

I haven't done what I was put here to do.

I'm still improving myself to be a better and more realized person.

I just want to do more, and hopefully with jazz I can do a little more to affect the world, but I realize I'm not going to turn the tides. It's extremely difficult to get more converts to jazz. But as far as doing something with the human condition by way of jazz, it's a losing proposition. So I have to do more. I don't think I've done everything I can do.

I'm practicing and hearing music in my mind that I want to bring out, and if it does any worldwide good, great. My life is consumed by this. All I can hope for is that somebody will always get something out of my music and that it's never just for myself, otherwise what's the point? If it's for yourself, then it hasn't served or had a purpose. This purpose is my reason for living. I'm just trying to be a better person. It's what we all have to do as long as we're alive.

Reprinted from the book The New Face of Jazz, by Cicily Janus. Copyright © 2010 by Cicily Janus. Photographs copyright © 2010 by Ned Radinsky. Published by Watson Guptill, a division of Random House Inc.

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