Monday, February 20, 2012

My Interview with Sonny Rollins, 2002

It was 2002. I was working as the staff writer for the BlueStone Press, a small but excellent newspaper in Ulster County, in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region of upstate New York. A giant of the music world was coming to play a show at Bellayre Mountain. I landed the chance to interview him, as well as see the show for free. Here is the interview as it appeared in the paper that week....
Theodore “ Sonny” Rollins is one of the giants of the jazz world. A genius on the tenor sax, and an unequaled master of improvisation, he has played with all of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century and beyond, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and more. Throughout his long career, he has had periods where he would seem to disappear from the music scene altogether, while he was taking little sabbaticals to get his life and his music together.. He will be appearing at the Belleayre Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 24 at 8 PM. It will almost be a hometown concert for him. Born in New York City almost 72 years ago, for the last 30 plus years he has called Germantown, in Columbia County, home. The BlueStone Press had the rare opportunity to have a chat with this music legend. BSP: Why Germantown? It is like one of your sabbaticals? Well, we’ve been here for almost thirty-two years...we like the less commercial aspects of it. Yes, it’s like a constant sabbatical up here. It’s a little less commercial over here (than in Ulster County) it’s a little more rural. BSP: You seem to be a guy who works at his craft. What percent of your music is work, and what percent is sheer skill? Well, skill and work are sort of the same have to work to acquire skill. BSP: Are you a baseball fan? I’m reminded of Pete Rose, who was never a really gifted player, but he worked all the time at it. I’m a big baseball fan. In my case I would say I was more of a gifted guy. I had to work hard at the other parts of music. Unlike Pete Rose, I was gifted but I had to work on all of the...there are a lot of other things that are involved in music than what appears on the surface. There are a lot of fundamentals and a lot of skills that you have to develop, especially in the type of music I play, which is not quite like folk music. In folk music you can be gifted and that’s it. In this kind of music, which is very difficult music to play you have to have some kind of skills as well as being gifted. I’m gifted in that I could always play music and I had a natural ear for music and all that, but I had to apply myself and study the rudiments of music. So it’s a little different than Pete Rose in that extent. BSP: In the jazz world today, who impresses you, or who do you like to work with? Well I usually work with my own band but there are a lot of young guys coming up who are good and there’s a lot of people like David Ware on saxophone, and Kenny Garrett and I like James Carter, and...I used to say people like Roy Hargrove and Branford Marsalis, but these guys are getting to be veterans now, so I can’t call them young guys anymore, but the main point that I’d like to make in response to your question is that there are always young people coming up who like jazz and who relate to jazz. What is needed is the opportunity to make a living playing jazz and for jazz to be accepted as something you can be proud of doing and all that. In other words, there’s a societal lack of appreciation for jazz. BSP: It seems like more people are appreciating it now. Did you see the Ken Burns Jazz documentary on PBS? I heard about it, but I didn’t see it. BSP: So you have no real opinion of that? Well I sort of have an opinion of it because a lot of people I know saw it. I’m not going to nit-pick about it... its probably good because it introduced people to jazz and to that extent it was probably okay, I guess. I didn’t see it. I sort of made sure I didn’t see it. From what I understand there was some quibble about some people that were deleted or weren’t included. But in general, any kind of publicity for jazz is welcome. So therefore I have no problem with it, and I’m glad it aired. BSP: Well, and this is good for jazz too, he made the claim that the most influential musician in history was Louis Armstrong. Do you agree? Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. The only doubt is that people didn’t know it already. People in the music field knew that Louis Armstrong was the most influential guy. BSP: Would you put someone like Bob Dylan on that level? Well, I would put Bob Dylan not quite on that level. Bob Dylan, to me, is a great popularizer, a great artist, a great folk artist, and a great artist in that sense, but the reason why I wouldn’t put Bob Dylan on the same level as Louis Armstrong is because Bob Dylan in a way is doing Woody Guthrie...later phases of Woody Guthrie...his voice is a little weathered by age and everything. That’s really what Bob Dylan is doing...not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Louis Armstrong was an original, so people came from Louis Armstrong, whereas Bob Dylan, people come from him too, but he’s not a complete original. I don’t mean to sound like I’m putting down Bob Dylan, because I think he’s wonderful. In that sense, I don’t think he’s Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong has had people following him all over the world. Louis Armstrong has influenced the direction of music to a much greater extent. For one thing, jazz is a much more universal type of music than folk is and even in that sense you can say that...not to minimize Dylan...I think he’s great. I’m not a big fan of his... I certainly realize that a lot of people like him and he’s done a lot of good work, and more power to him. I am not in the business of putting down anybody. He’s done a lot of great work and has gotten a lot of accolades for what he’s done. BSP: Critic Dave Marsh once said that Dylan’s biggest contribution wasn’t his songwriting but his voice, which changed the idea of what a singing voice could be. Agree? Yeah, probably so, but you could say the same thing about Louis Armstrong. He changed not only the way a voice could sound but also the styling of singing. BSP: Do you still enjoy performing? I enjoy performing a great deal. It’s something that’s sort of indispensable to me. BSP: Does it ever seem like a job? No. It’s never seemed like a job. I mean sometimes there’s periods when I‘ve run up against a brick wall as far as being able to come up with creative ideas and new things like that. But those periods passed. It’s never a job...the most I could say in that regard or in that sense is that it’s a challenge. Definitely a challenge to be involved with music but no, it’s never at all a job. It’s a sacred calling, as a matter of fact. BSP: Back to Dylan a bit...Dylan and others have said that the music, the words, don’t come from them–it comes from someplace else–they just kind of channel it. Do you feel that way? Definitely! No doubt about it. In fact, when I’m playing at my best, when people really praise my work... I know when I’m playing good... I’m the first one to know if I’m playing good or not. I’m my first critic. When I’m playing at my best, the music is just playing through me, I’m sort of just standing up there and the music is just coming through me, like I’m a vessel. A lot of people ask me this about do you improvise and what do you think about? And I tell them, Look, when I’m really at my best and I’m really improvising great, my mind is completely blank. I’m not thinking about anything...the music is just playing itself. This itself is a spiritual thing...people are afraid of the word spiritual, but this is it---this is why music is a spiritual endeavor. BSP: What can we expect at Belleayre on the 24th? Well, I wish I could answer that question. What you can expect is that I, and hopefully my group, will be trying hard to create the transcendental moment. We’ll be trying to do that. Jazz is the music of instant’s something that you can’t say, “Oh, I’m gonna do this, or that...” No, the music has to take you. I don’t know what I’m gonna be doing, but I’m gonna be trying to reach that point of transcendence. BSP: One last question---any tips for aspiring young jazz musicians? If you want to play jazz music, you have to consider it’s a calling...that you’ve got to be very gifted is number one, but you’ve got to get skilled at it. Also, you have to dedicate your life to it because, also getting back to part of our earlier conversation, jazz is not necessarily going to afford you a nice income, a nice life and a lot of publicity, you’re not going to be famous. You know, this is the way it is, so you have to resign yourself to the fact that you may not be famous. If you love jazz music, you think you have a talent for it and you want to do that for your life, then go for it, but don’t expect anything from it, because you may not get anything from it like a great rock star might get, or a great hip hop star or whatever the current popular thing is, you’re not gonna get that. So if you don’t mind devoting your life to something because you love it, then that’s for you. But these are big questions. Young people write me all the time and say, oh, I love jazz, and I always tell them good, if you love it, good, you can go into it but don’t expect to be a big famous star. If you are, great! If at the end of your life you’re’re not.... BSP: Sonny Rollins? ...Oh, my, you’re very funny this morning. But, yeah, okay, you know what I mean. I might be famous to an extent, but you’re not really, who should I say... BSP: Did you say that YOU are famous to an extent? Yeah... BSP: Mr. Rollins, all the stuff I’ve been reading, and I’m not a jazz guy myself, and I know about you, but in almost everything I read in getting ready for this interview, the words “greatest living jazz musician” kept coming up, so that must count for something. Well, that stuff, that’s opinion, BSP: Well, its an awful lot of people’s opinion… Well, that’s okay. I accept that and I think its nice, and you know, its okay, but you know, to be a great musician you have to keep working. That’s why I practice every day. There’s never a day when I’m not practicing. BSP: How long? Well, I used to practice over ten hours, but you know years ago I practiced more than that sometimes but unfortunately the exigencies of age and so on have intruded as they will come to everyone’s life, so maybe if I can get a good three hours in I’ll be very happy. For me that’s not a lot because I ‘m coming down from when I used to play all day long, but if I can get two or three hours in then I feel that I have gotten some work in. And I’ve gotta do that to keep keep my lip up. You’ve got to practice.

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