New York confuses people with its aesthetic reputation. A lot gets lost in translation. Take, for instance, the history of jazz. The great migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the Cotton Club, Birdland-all familiar, all major, yet all still only parts of a much bigger musical picture. Sonny Rollins may be the most significant performer in American music today because he represents such an enormous chunk of New York City’s extraordinary musical history. Existing as a veritable polyglot, and speaking a language all his own, Rollins is the genius loci of Manhattan music, and has been for more than 50 years. Developing in a music scene that began in the 18th century as a hotbed for European classical and opera, Rollins has known a New York that still always had room for sea chanteys, spirituals, and broadsides to be sung in its streets. Musically inclined people of African descent from all over the Diaspora arrived in New York for generations, including Rollins’s own parents. The great tenor saxophonist, who was the child of emigrants from the U.S. Virgin Islands, was born in Harlem on September 7, 1930-smack in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance : and the Great Depression.
Recently I had a chance to speak with Rollins, who is, at 78, commonly considered “the greatest living improviser.” He also has a new album, titled Road Shows, Volume 1 and will be appearing on Monday, April 27, at Campbell Hall.
What do you remember about the Harlem of your youth? I remember a group of like-minded boys such as Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, Arthur Taylor, and myself living up there [in Harlem], and growing up with iconic musical figures in our midst. As children, we would see them in their everyday life. I’m talking about Coleman and Erskine Hawkins, Andy Kirk, and of course Duke Ellington. Being a jazz musician at that time was just the thing to be. It looked like a good life in every way. Seeing these elegant men with their beautiful women, and making art-who could resist that?
- When: Monday, April 27, 2009, 8 p.m.
- Where: UCSB Campbell Hall, 574 Mesa Rd., Santa Barbara, CA
- Cost: $20 - $55
- Age limit: All ages
When did you start going down to the clubs on 52nd St.? As a young teenager, I would put on a moustache with eyebrow pencil to try to look older just so that I could go to Birdland. But you know that the people who ran those clubs weren’t worried about letting underage musicians in. We just hung by the bar and listened, and these men were unscrupulous. We were the least of their worries.
Who did you see at Birdland when you were sporting that eyebrow pencil moustache? Charlie Parker, mostly. By 1944 Bird had broken through. His influence was everywhere. You had to go see him. And the war wasn’t even over.
Tell me about the impact of World War II on your community. I think that the wartime was actually good in the sense that people began to practice thrift. There was rationing for everything. We saved tin foil, along with pork fat, chicken fat-any kind of grease. Even in good times, I think that people benefit from that attitude of thrift. It’s human nature though, because once things get easy, people cease to develop.
What things besides jazz influenced you as a young musician? My mother took me to the Broadway shows, and to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in Harlem. I saw The Pirates of Penzance when I was very small. It was performed outdoors in Harlem in Colonial Park, and that really impressed me. My older brother studied violin, my older sister sang. My parents were educated, and they wanted us to have that. We spent time at the Light Operetta at City Center. That theater is still there. As a result, my repertoire has always included pieces from the standard American songbook, show tunes, and things from the radio and movies.