About a year ago I got to interview Sonny Rollins. You would think after two decades of interviewing music legends and other illuminaries I would have a certain savvy about me--and you would be wrong. I get extremely nervous the bigger an artist is--before talking to Sonny Rollins I asked a jazz friend what I should avoid mentioning--his response was to avoid talking about jazz.
This proved eaiser then you would think as my knowledge of jazz is limited to a mushroom trip listening to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Alice Coltrane's Om Supreme back-to-back. And yet, talking to Sonny was like talking to the grandfather I never knew--he was deep, wide and funny.
The biggest white guy snafu was when I sent him a picture to sign. Another friend of mine had a uncle who was a famous Bay Area jazz photographer and he volunteered a stunning black and white of a young Rollins to get signed. When it arrived back, Sonny had autographed it and dedicated it to Dexter Gordon. This seemed galant and a bit odd, but what the hell Sonny Rollins is 82 and he can do as he pleases. A week or two went by and my buddy called me and let me know we had actually sent Sonny a picture of Dexter Gordon.
DNA: This is DNA with the Good Times in Santa Cruz
SONNY ROLLINS: Oh, yes, Hello.
How you doing man?
Fine thank you.
Thank you for taking a little time out of your day to chat with me for a short while
How are you feeling today?
I’m feeling well!
Very good. You excited about coming out for the Monterey Jazz Festival?
Well it’s always an event I look forward to—whenever I play I struggle on the part of myself to create a good musical experience. That’s always there, never the less. But the opportunity to come back to Monterey is always a challenge that I hope to meet in some degree.
Is it true that after so many years you approach every performance as a struggle? Has it ever been easy to play?
No it’s never easy. Sometimes the results are easy when, you know, turn out extraordinarily well. Sometimes you cannot determine how these things happen. We’re subject to the elements and all the things that make a good night happen—and who knows why, because we try our best. We never know so it’s never a sure thing. At least not for me because I’m always trying to improve myself and the musical experience—it’s never taken for granted, like “Oh, it’s gonna be a great gig in Monterey.” It’s always a challenge to satisfy the people and satisfy myself.
Do you like to surround yourself with other musicians who have the same philosophy? Surely, there are some people you end up playing with who feel that a gig is a gig and don’t try to challenge themselves or the audience.
I can’t surround myself with people—this is a personal philosophy that I cannot expect any other guys to have. I cannot determine that, I just look for a certain musical level that they need to have and do what I need them to do on a professional level. It’s a philosophical way of thinking and playing and I don’t require that from members of the band.
I think of somebody like Chuck Berry who just requires the band to know his songs and be prepared to play them in any key at any tempo without any improvising. Of course, rock is a different world than jazz, yes?
Yes, because improvising is what jazz is all about. I wouldn’t say there is a higher of lower level between rock and jazz, it’s just different. In jazz you have to be ready to improvise—it’s completely in sub-conscious levels—so you never know. When I play I try to reach a subconscious level, I don’t want to play on a conscious level—I want to be letting the music play itself. I certainly admire people like Chuck Berry and what they do.
Do you use the new media, like the internet to research new information or check out new players on the scene?
I enjoy seeing music. I don’t listen to music at home. I haven’t for a long time. But I do enjoy seeing people perform. At home, for some reason I don’t listen to any music and I haven’t figured out why I haven’t done that for many years.
Do you have a stereo—could that be it?
I got the whole thing. At one point in my life, of course I listened to stacks and stacks of my idols. Maybe I just don’t want to listen to anything too different than my own sound. I’m not sure if that’s why I don’t listen to other peoples stuff, I love other peoples stuff. It’s great to listen to people who have something to say—it inspires me, really.
Who amongst the latest wave of jazz greats do you like to hear?
My last concert that I did with people that I admire a great deal were Ornette Coleman, Roy Hargrove, Jim Hall and Christian McBride a great great talent and Roy Haynes. I like those guys and the younger guys like James Carter, Joshua Redman, Ron Holloway plays a more contemporary sound. I have come across people like Wynton Marsalis and really like them. I don’t live in the city so I’m kind of isolated in a sense.
Where do you live?
Upstate New York.
My whole family is from Newark, New Jersey. I spent half my life there and half my life here in California. It’s a different energy on the East Coast.
Which is preferable?
Neither is better or worse. I love both of them at different times. I’ve been listening to your recording from the Beacon Theatre that you just mentioned and particularly enjoying the tracks with you and Ornette Coleman. Having not shared time together in 60 years, was that particaulary exciting that you were going to be playing together?
It was nice. We had never played together live before. We did play together back in Malibu, California in the mid-50’s on the beach, but never onstage. Back then I used to play all the time. Ornette came out with me one night. My thing was I like to play with the elements, the ocean and all that. I used to go with Don Sherry, the trumpet player and we’d go in the park and play. Part of it was that outdoors you can play as loud as you like and you won’t have anyone throwing bottles at you.
I hope you don’t find this to be a superficial question, but as I look at pictures of your over the years, you have always have some great hair styles. A friend of mine sent me a picture of you and Coleman Hawkins and you have a Mohawk. Did you have a friend that gave Mohawks?
One of my fans was a native American guy, you know, so during that period I began to read some literature about native Americans—I used that hairstyle as a tribute to them.
Were you more self-conscious as younger man about the way you looked onstage? Do you struggle with what you’re going to wear to a performance these days—or as is?
Sure, sure. I came up at a time when the musicians were really well dressed—sharp suits and everything. I was inculcated into that at an early age. And then times changed and guys were getting onstage in jeans and sneakers—and I went through that change as well. I still want to be presentable onstage. I don’t go onstage without any thought. I realize I’m onstage and know people are looking at me. At this age I don’t strive to be the dandy that I used to be. Now I wear things where comfort comes first but it’s not like I dress when I get a cup of coffee.
It does seem to me that in the first half of the 20th century there was a greater sense of style in fashion, in automobiles and that people knew what “looking good” meant. Do you feel we have peaked? That we had our golden era and nowadays everything harkens back to another day? Do you feel that jazz peaked at a certain time, or that it constantly evolves?
I feel that there was a golden age of jazz, probably that ended in mid-century. I don’t mean that was the end for jazz, just that it was a particularly fruitful period. It’s natural that it would subside in a way and I’m sure that things could pick up again and there will be another great age. Things change and the music has to be open to change, but I think that jazz is an opening of music. The question is what is jazz? Is it a singer in a café with a piano trio—no, jazz is the spirit in music, the spirit of freedom. And that will always be here. What we call the classical period can be seen in the photograph by Art Kane—of course Miles and Coltrane are not there—they were working and everyone else was available. It was those guys that made a big impact. Jazz is such an unpredictable form, it’s a spirit. So when you say jazz, I don’t know how to respond—because I don’t know what you mean by that.
Here we are in 2011. People are trying to push Obama out of office, wild rhetoric that would have seemed at home 60 years ago is once again strong and loud—politically there is a movement to make one gigantic step backwards. Now would be a good time for the kind of jazz or rock and roll or any kind of music that focuses on the freeing of the spirit to take the stage. Finding the commonwealth of humanity is noble pursuit but it is not everyone’s pursuit. Your personal philosophy is something unique to you, but I wish we could instill it in more people.
Even in the age where you might have felt that everything was progressing in a good way, whether you might believe in it or not—they were always countervailing forces. Just like the movement in jazz goes up and then down and then up—it’s the nature of life on this planet. Sure they are things that are against jazz but there will be an era where people embrace more freedom. Jazz is freedom, it’s the unexpected, it’s not always doing the same thing. Yes, there are rules but trying to correlate that with political movements. . .Look there movements in jazz, styles come and go.
You’re a great inspiration and I wish you good health and safe travels.
That’s very kind of you. You have really asked some provocative questions. But I would say don’t feel despondent. People will, of course, feel down and then feel up, but that’s the world. The world is like that. Water, waves that go up and down—we are part of the physical world. It’s the way it is. It’s never hopeless, and it’s never hopeful, it’s just always changing. We don’t know why we are here and nobody knows where we came from on this planet—but one thing is that it’s not all good and it’s not all bad—so it must be that there a philosophy that we have to take out of that. Everybody isn’t a good person and everybody isn’t a bad person and that’s just the way it is.
I do stand-up comedy, that’s my passion, and I’ll listen to your music before I go onstage to try and bring my brain around to place that isn’t fixated on absolutes, so I can reach people with being funny and some element of truth, or at least honesty. Thank you for those words.
My contact, Terri, is so excited about how you got this DNA as a name. She told me to ask you, but how can I ask a question like that?
You wouldn’t be the first person to ask, Sonny.
It’s the initials of my given name and when I started doing comedy in 1990, I knew I had to have a funny name so I legally changed it to DNA. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m getting married and my fiancée and I are in negotiation about what her name will be. She doesn’t want to be known as Mrs. DNA. So she’s taking the A and adding it to her last name which is Perry. So she will be Mrs. Perry-A.
Oh, that’s a good one. You have to use that in your act!