WHILE ADMIRING SOME OLD album covers, I decide that I like Tom Hannan’s artwork on Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins (Prestige, 1953) enough that I should search online poster shops for a print, something suitable for hanging in my new one-room palace. It doesn’t take long to find an affordable 16-inch version in a simple black frame, and just as I’m about to place my order, an e-mail arrives from my friend Greg. Greg’s e-mail contains the phrase, “the finest insanity, loss and mortality.”
It triggers something.
CNN WAS BROADCASTING the live evacuation of residential buildings at the periphery of the World Trade Center rubble on September 12, 2001. It was dark outside, but it might not have been night. The news crew had occupied one of the idling buses and was interviewing whoever would face its hot lights. One by one, victims formed words — some easily, some with difficulty — revealing anything and speculating as to their prospects: This is all I have. Too dangerous to stay. Wherever I go, this goes with me.
Not being interviewed but seated beside someone who was, an elderly man with a silver beard and dark glasses hugged a tenor saxophone case to his chest. He stayed in frame the whole time, paying little attention to the camera. He appeared deep in thought.
And I thought, Man — that guy looks like Sonny Rollins. He must not be, though, because if he were, CNN’s Celebriscan 5000T would have detected him by now, and an executive would’ve notified a producer to notify the camera operator to aim at the fame.
So then it wasn’t Sonny Rollins. Until someone said something like, “You guys should be talking to him,” and gestured toward the man with the sax. “That’s Sonny Rollins — one of the top jazz saxophonists in the world!”
The camera operator panned back and forth. He seemed to be awaiting instructions.
THE NEXT DAY, or the day after, I saw Greg at work and asked him if he’d seen what I’d seen. No. Or if he’d heard about it. No. Greg is, among many fine things, a jazz aficionado and critic. If the real Sonny Rollins had been evacuated, Greg would’ve been notified by now. I figured.
“Are you sure it was him?” Greg asked.
“No. I have a small television screen. But the guy on the bus seemed sure.”
Online searches turned up no solid evidence, and within a month or so I’d forgotten all about it and was investing 100 percent of my time into freaking out about 9/11, a state of mind which was then, in the nascent aftermath of the attacks, quite popular.
And it took almost six years for the combination of Greg’s “finest insanity, loss and mortality” e-mail and the pursuit of Tom Hannan’s Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins artwork to remind me of this state of mind in such a way that I could finally resolve the Rollins investigation.
Yes, it was Sonny Rollins. Dozens of major magazines and media conglomerates cited Rollins’ evacuation and accidental appearance on cable news. And I found an edited transcript from CNN:
JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wednesday night, the mixture of dust and smoke became unbearable — in the minds of the authorities at least who decided to evacuate people living in apartments near the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center.
CADUCO (ph): I want to go back. They said, “No can go back anymore no more.” So I no have clothes, I no have medicine, nothing.
BELLINI: What kind of medicine do you need?
CADUCO: I think I have cancer. I take it for cancer.
BELLINI: Caduco and her neighbors had no choice in the matter. Evacuation notice came suddenly. The buses were already waiting downstairs. When Caduco was told to leave her apartment, she didn’t quite get it. So that’s why she took nothing with her. Most of her neighbors took the first things that came to mind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wherever I go, this goes with me.
BELLINI: Wherever you go, this goes with you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That’s Sonny Rollins, one of the top jazz saxophonists in the world.
BELLINI (on camera): These residents of 310 Greenwich Street found out just moments ago that they’re getting on the bus for the location of the shelter they’re being taken to. What happens when they get there, they have no idea. (voice-over): Caduco says she has no family. She’ll try to contact a friend later tonight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello. I’m just as afraid as you are.
AS I READ THE TRANSCRIPT, I recalled that two things seemed equally important on 9/12: One, that the news crew shut the fuck up, get off the bus and let these people go through their misery without being gawked at. And two, that I be allowed to gawk at them. And I recalled fantasizing that after the crew left, Sonny Rollins — if it really was him — would take out his horn and play for his comrades as they rolled slowly uptown to safety.
Reality: Three days after he was evacuated, eight days after his 71st birthday, Rollins drove up to Boston with his band to play a concert at the Berklee Performance Center, a recording of which was released four years later on Milestone as Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. Down Beat’s Annual Readers Poll voted it Best Jazz Album of 2005. And Rollins, who’d received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2004, received another Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo for his performance on Without a Song’s “Why Was I Born?”
“We have to try to keep the music alive, some kind of way,” Rollins tells the audience during the band introductions on Without a Song. “Maybe music can help. I don’t know. But we have to try something…”
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