Without a doubt one of the true giants of jazz tenor saxophone is Sonny Rollins. Born in Harlem, New York in 1930 Sonny began studying piano and alto saxophone
at age 11. When Sonny turned 16 he switched to tenor saxophone in order to emulate one of his idols, the great Coleman Hawkins, who lived in his neighborhood. Thus began the development of one of the most unique and influential voices in jazz saxophone history.
Sonny grew up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem surrounded by many jazz greats. Thelonius Monk took an interest in this young saxophonist and became his mentor. In 1948 at the age of 18 Sonny made his recording debut with Babs Gonzalez. Because of his immense talent he soon began working with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Way Out West
In 1957 Sonny became the first known jazz musician to feature a trio without a piano. The trio which consisted of tenor saxophone, bass and drums displayed Sonny's ability to outline the harmony of a song while using his varied rhythmic lines. The first album recorded with this format was Way Out West which was recorded when Sonny made his first trip out west with the Max Roach Quintet.
Both the bassist, Ray Brown and the drummer, Shelly Manne were also in Los Angeles with the groups they were currently working with. Because of the busy schedule of all three musicians the recording session for this fantastic album started at 3 a.m. These three musicians had never worked with one another before but managed to record a classic jazz album in one session.
In the summer of 1959, at the height of his popularity, Sonny began his first and most famous sabbatical from performing and recording music. He had become dissatisfied with his own playing and with the hype surrounding his place among the jazz giants. During this 2 year period Sonny would spend his nights practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge on the Lower East Side of Manhattan so as not to disturb his neighbors. In the winter of 1962 he returned to the studio to his next album entitled The Bridge.
80 Years and Counting
On September 7, 2010 Sonny turned 80 years old and is still blowing strong. On December 2, 2009 I had the pleasure of seeing this saxophone giant perform once again at the Kennedy center in Washington D.C. I had seen him many times before, but on this night on truly magical connection was made between the artist and the audience. If you are a jazz fan and have never seen Sonny play live then you owe it to yourself even if you have to travel to do it.
Blow Sonny blow.
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