Why Jazz Musicians Are So Revered

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The first cold front of the year is on the way and that means it is almost time to break out the jazz. When it gets cool outside, that is my cue to start listening to jazz music. It just seems so appropriate in cold weather.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to see this story re-printed in the Chronicle today about jazz legend, Sonny Rollins. It not only demonstrates the tremendous intellegence of Rollins, but the utter coolness of jazz musicians in general.

Rollins rarely does interviews, especially one’s this extensive in Q&A format. Enjoy!

Saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins follows wherever the music leads
Knight Ridder Tribune

Sonny Rollins is widely regarded as our greatest living jazz musician. Even at 75, with dental problems taking a toll on the once-pinpoint accuracy of his articulation, he can summon the powers of Zeus. On a good night he won’t make you see God so much as convince you he is one.

He has been a force in jazz since 1949, working or recording with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and nearly every other post war giant. Along with John Coltrane, he is the most influential tenor saxophonist of the modern era, and a huge chunk of his discography is as important to jazz as scripture is to theology. Yet there is nothing pedantic about Rollins’ radiance. He is as inviting to newcomers as to the cognoscenti.

As critic Francis Davis once put it, “When conjuring up an image of the quintessential jazzman – heroic, inspired, mystical, obsessed – as often as not, it is Rollins we picture, because no other jazz instrumentalist better epitomizes the lonely tightrope walk between spontaneity and organization implicit in an improvised solo.”

Rollins gives few interviews, but he graciously spent more than an hour on the phone recently talking about his creative process, practice habits and stylistic traits.

Q: A friend of mine met you once in a music store in Boston around 1963. He remembers two things clearly. First, you were buying a guitar string to attach from the neck to the bell of your horn. Second, you told him to play as much as possible – anywhere – and that you’d play on the street if there were no clubs. What was the point of the guitar string and would you, literally, play on the street?

A: I was just experimenting with the concept of the guitar string. I never got it to work like I hoped, so I abandoned it. I was thinking about plucking it at propitious times as accompaniment to my horn playing.

I might not be playing on the street, but I’d be playing in private in my own garret someplace. Playing on the street might entail the trappings of a professional performance, but I would definitely be playing all the time. It’s where I find a certain meditative value to my everyday existence. It’s my way of meditating or praying.

Q: How much do you practice?

A: It’s a little difficult these days because of the encroachments of age, dental problems and all that. So I can’t practice as much as I would like. If I’m in the house and for some reason I don’t get around to playing for two or three days because of a physical problem, I begin to physically feel ill. I used to play all day, more than eight hours. Now If I get in two hours a day, I feel reasonably satisfied.

Q: What do you practice?

A: I’m sort of a stream-of-consciousness player. When I was a boy, I used to play and not have anything planned, and I would just be in the house playing for hours and hours. So I just start out playing. I do have projects I work on – various chord patterns and such. Right now I’m working on a way to have the same facility in, for instance, the key of A major that I might have in C major. I’m trying to find a method to hear the saxophone and intervals in all the keys and be able to play anything in any key.

I have sheaves of manuscripts and I work off of those; I’m constantly writing down music – walking through airports or somewhere and something comes to my mind. So I’ve got my pad and I refer to that as often as it takes to get these things in my head. If you can go through the patterns, you alleviate the mechanics of playing the horn.

Q: Will you practice playing a tune for 20 or 30 minutes?

A: I might if I’m trying to learn a tune. I try to find the dead spots, where I’m not exactly getting what’s going on, and play them over and over until I can remove them. I practice so that I don’t have to practice when I’m playing. So when I’m on the bandstand, I don’t have to think. I can just let the song play itself and let the elements that come to bear on improvisation take over.

Q: Describe the difference between the way you feel on a good night or a bad night.

A: I hate to think about when I’m having a good night because then you’re giving me a trauma. (Laughs.) I’m getting to be professional enough that I can sort of overcome the bad nights because it can give you a negative view of your own performance and you can make it worse. I try to avoid thinking about having a bad night, even when I’m having a bad night.

On a good night, everything just happens and you don’t have to think about it. Things come into my head easier. If I’m having a bad night, I find myself thinking too much. You’re not supposed to think. There’s no time. If I have to think of an idea and then play it, by that time the moment has passed and it’s stale. If I’m thinking too much, I know I’ve got to change course.

Q: That’s the great struggle of improvisation: the complex interplay of the conscious and unconscious minds.

A: It is complicated but you can will yourself to do it. I just try and act the other way and get to that other side of the mind where I just let things happen.

Q: It used to be that if you weren’t having a good night, the entire creative mechanism would appear to shut down. Are you better able to work through those periods?

A: Yeah, that’s about it. I’m able to work through it better.

Q : Let’s talk about the origins of your style: First, the incredible rhythmic looseness and variety in your phrasing.

A: When we were coming up we listened to all of our idols – Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We slowed down the vinyl records to hear what they were doing. I did my homework. But I remember an incident where I was with one of my peers in this little band we had.

We were playing a song and I started to solo and then he got mad and said, “Uh, oh! There he goes again!” Because I was beginning to play against the time but still, of course, within the time. I guess I was beginning to perfect a way of playing time with more elasticity. I didn’t particularly work on it. It was how my playing matured.

Q: What is the source of your penchant for thematic improvising and melodic paraphrase?

A: I think the fact that I’m more of a linear player rather than a vertical player. Playing themes and developing them was natural to my style from the get-go. I didn’t work on it. I think of melody as the prime basic improvising tool or method.

I never think about rhythm. Rhythm just comes to me. It’s something that’s so intrinsic in the whole process that I never even think about it.

Q: There’s also so much humor in your improvising – musical jokes, the way you play an idea and repeat it with a nutty twist, the way you use melodic or rhythmic rhymes.

A: Well, when I was a little boy my friends used to call me the jester because I used to be a guy who was always playing jokes. It’s possible that carried over into my improvising.

Q: How much of an impact did working with Thelonious Monk have, given the humor in his music and his use of melodic variation to organize solos?

A: I don’t know. I was playing with Monk when I was in high school so maybe there’s something to that. But it might be too facile a way to explain my playing. Without denying anything I got from Monk, I would want a caveat that everything might not be that simple.

Q: Are you still having fun?

A: Yeah, but I don’t like the characterization of ‘having fun’ because I sort of have a Buddhist view of life. Life is not necessarily to have fun. If you mean, “Am I enjoying the challenge?” Then, yes. But if having fun denotes using drugs or eating a lot of ice cream or gambling, then no.

I have fun because I realize what a tremendous privilege life is and what a tremendous opportunity we have to clean up our karma. I always have fun when I’m practicing my horn. Performing is a little bit different because I’ve got a lot of responsibility because I’m so well known.

Q: Would the ultimate for you be if you could practice and play without having to concern yourself with a career?

A: That would definitely be the most fun with one caveat. When you’re performing, it raises the level of what you’re doing. I can learn so much during an hour performance – things that you might not get to by practicing at home for six months because there’s such an intensity of concentration.

But other than that, if there’s such a place as heaven, where I could be like one of those angels playing their harps, I’d just be playing my saxophone.

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