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Artist Profile: Saxophonist Sonny Rollins

By

Born:

September 7, 1930 in Harlem, New York City

Full Name:

Theodore Walter Rollins

Famous Compositons:

  • "St. Thomas"
  • "Oleo"
  • "Pent Up House"
  • "Airegin"
  • "Tenor Madness"
Son of Harlem

Born in Harlem to parents who had emigrated from the Virgin Islands, Sonny Rollins was steeped in the sounds of swing and the burgeoning bebop style. By the time he was 19, he had recorded with trombonist J.J. Johnson and pianist Bud Powell. Soon he was one of the most sought after saxophonists in New York, and could be heard playing with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

Saxophone Collossus

Rollins developed a bold and quirky melodic style, informed by the idiosyncrasies of two of the most prominent saxophonists at the time, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. In the mid 1950s, influenced heavily by the rapid technique of Charlie Parker, Rollins hit his stride as an artist. In 1956 he recorded two seminal albums: Saxophone Colossus, which features the calypso-inspired tune "St. Thomas," and Tenor Madness, on whose title track, a driving blues, Rollins trades choruses with John Coltrane.

The following year, Rollins became the first saxophonist to record in a trio setting, with drums and bass but no piano or guitar. In 1957 he released both Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard with a trio, and coined a sound that contemporary saxophonists such as Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett have since fervently explored.

The Bridge

By the end of the 1950s however, Rollins was feeling pressured by promoters, and frustrated by his own playing. In 1959 he took a sabbatical from gigging and recording, and devoted his time to practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. When he returned to the music business in 1963, he named his comeback album The Bridge.

Living Legend

Since the 1960s, Rollins has maintained a steady performance career, although one that is marked by soul searching and artistic reinvention. While seeking enlightenment through the study of yoga and Eastern philosophies, Rollins has turned to R&B and funk for inspiration, and began delving into completely improvised solo saxophone performances.

To this day, approaching age 80, Sonny Rollins has firmly established himself as a jazz master who is still evolving, and still playing to packed houses.

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