The Highest We Can Go
Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins Comes to UCSB’s Campbell
By Charles Donelan
Tenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins
will play Campbell Hall on Sunday, October 22. His latest album,
and his first studio recording in five years, Sonny, Please, is
available now as a digital download on his Web site, sonnyrollins.com, and is forthcoming
with Universal on iTunes and as a traditional CD. Rollins spoke
with me recently from his home in New York.
You’ve been called the greatest living improviser. How
important is improvisation to you? Improvisation is
everything to me. It’s the zenith of jazz as an art form. I respect
composing and arranging — they’re the ways music is presented, and
they make improvisation possible. But the truly meaningful
solo — deep, honest, and in the moment — that is the highest we can
go. (Pause.) Oh god, that is going to sound so
I think it’s okay coming from you. Thanks; I
just heard myself for a second there, you know?
Is improvisation important outside of music?
Outside of music? You would have to delineate the areas you are
In politics things don’t always go as planned, so you
have to improvise. In romance, it’s never by the book.
That’s true. You do have to be able to think on your feet in
love — you’ve got that right. (Laughs.) Politics though, I’d hate
to compare music to politics; that’s a painful comparison.
Agreed. Do you consider yourself a political
person? Very! I am a very political person and always have
been. My grandmother was quite the activist, and we all had it. It
was handed down. I am a part of it — the whole civil rights
era — and it is a part of me. (Pause.) But am I political today in
that same way? Maybe not. It has changed; politics have become more
spiritual and philosophical for me. I now see politics from a
larger perspective, as evidence of a particular moment in the
evolution of human life on this earth. It doesn’t really work, the
political process right now, but you can watch it and you can learn
Are there memories that inspire you? Are there
moments that you go back to for inspiration? I’ve been very
fortunate in my career, and I have had a lot of great moments,
especially because I have worked with so many great musicians. But
this question, it’s interesting, because for me, when I draw on my
life for inspiration — which I always do — I really try to draw on
the whole thing, every time. It’s not specific, but it could be,
because literally everything is in it. I believe that I am capable
of drawing on my whole life when I perform because I know that it
is who I am, and when I think of it, that’s just what it
is — everything. This question’s related to another one I get all
What’s that? Oh, people ask me what I think
about when I play. I tell them, “nothing.” It’s like I make my mind
blank. If I have done my homework and got that down, the music can
play itself. It should be going by too fast for me to think about
it. I learn it, practice it, and analyze it, but the rest I have to
leave to the moment. It’s like I don’t want to think about it at
I see. Does that make for any pressure? Oh yes,
I can get quite nervous before a show. Especially the big outdoor
shows I do every summer in Manhattan. It’s beyond gratifying that
so many people come out, but those are tough. My own expectations
for myself are high, and I don’t want to let down all those people.
It puts a burden on me. I need it to be special, so I put a lot
into making it go right.
I know those shows. They’re usually at Damrosch Park,
near the Lincoln Center, right? You know those shows?
Yes, I have been to quite a few. It seems like everyone
in New York City shows up for those shows. That’s
great — you’re making my night. I did one this year, on August
For a lot of people, those shows are the first stop on a
pretty wild night. It’s kind of a tradition — to go to the free
Sonny Rollins concert and then stay out all night. So don’t be too
worried about an overly critical audience there. That’s
too good. I see what you’re saying — folks going out afterward.
Yes, they do. That does make it a bit better,
knowing that. (Laughs.)
Do you listen to contemporary music at all? I
really don’t. Music is so intense and so constant in my mind that I
can’t relax with the radio on. I would be up all night with these
tunes in my head. Music is always running in my head, and at this
point I prefer to keep the music I love and that I am working on in
Will we ever see another age of heroic popular
instrumentalists like we did when you and Miles Davis and John
Coltrane were in your primes? Well, what you are really
asking is will we ever have another golden age of jazz, to which I
would say, jazz is eternal.
I agree, and jazz is everywhere these days, but not
quite in the same way as in the 1950s and ’60s. Well,
okay, there was actually a golden age of jazz, or maybe even more
than one. I’ll grant you that. But still, jazz is always
contemporary. That’s its essence. Jazz is as fresh as the next
morning. How did you get the title for the new record,
Sonny, Please? It’s the name of one of the songs.
Sometimes I work on songs for a while before they get titles.
They’re established as tunes, but they don’t have names yet. This
one was going on namelessly a little longer than most, and I was
kind of obsessing about it, brainstorming all these names, and none
of them really fit. Finally, my wife just got fed up with it and
said, “Sonny, please!” (Laughs.) And I said, you know, that’s a
good title. And she just looked at me, but I used it.
I thought it was something to do with your
wife. Oh, yes.
Thank you, Sonny. It has been great fun talking with
you. Thank you. I enjoyed it, too.
4•1•1 Sonny Rollins plays UCSB’s
Campbell Hall on Sunday, October 22 at 7 p.m. For tickets, call
893-3535 or go to www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.