Feature

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!”

Recommended

Why thousands of Haitians arrived in Texas on Mexican Independence Day
Haitian migrants at southern border
Haitian migrants

Why thousands of Haitians arrived in Texas on Mexican Independence Day

Taliban official says executions will return
A Taliban official in front of a flag.
today's taliban

Taliban official says executions will return

DHS says it 'is not and will not send' Haitian migrants to Guantanamo Bay
Haitian migrants at southern border
Haitian migrants

DHS says it 'is not and will not send' Haitian migrants to Guantanamo Bay

Kabul's holdover mayor says he finds Taliban 'more tolerant'
Taliban fighters.
afghanistan

Kabul's holdover mayor says he finds Taliban 'more tolerant'

Most Popular

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness
Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman
Last Night on Late Night

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights
Editorial Cartoon.
Feature

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights

Democrats are governing like Republicans
A donkey.
Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III

Democrats are governing like Republicans