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Sonny Rollins: The jazz legend who’s still blowing

Rollins is the only tenor saxophone player of his generation to live past 1970.

Sonny Rollins is the last jazz legend standing, said Martin Gayford in the London Telegraph. Rollins has long been regarded as one of the greatest tenor saxophone players in history, alongside John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young—but he’s the only one of his generation to live past 1970. Born into a middle-class family in Harlem in 1930, he’s entirely self-taught on the sax, having learned by practicing in a closet. “I’d just go in there and play, and stuff would come to me,” he says.

Soon he was playing for his idol, Charlie Parker. “I remember the first time I was with Bird, a friend said, ‘Hey, Sonny, play something for Bird!’ Bird listened and said, ‘Hey, man, that’s me!’” But like Parker, Rollins became addicted to heroin. To get money for drugs, he took up armed robbery; he served time in prison, and for a while his career seemed over. “I was really a despicable character who would do anything to get money for drugs. When people saw me coming down the street, they’d cross to get out of my way. I alienated everybody except my mother.”

But where other jazz greats succumbed to the drug, Rollins quit heroin in 1953 and has been clean ever since. He recently turned 80, and still plays for hours a day, just for his own pleasure. “I just let whatever it is come. The music forms itself,” he says. “You have to play from inside. That’s real jazz!”

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