The 2007 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the American tenor saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins, one of the most powerful and personal voices in jazz for more than 50 years. Sonny Rollins has elevated the unaccompanied solo to the highest artistic level – all characterised by a distinctive and powerful sound, irresistible swing and an individual musical sense of humour. He is still active and the greatest remaining master from one of jazz’s seminal eras.
Growing up in New York
Theodore Walter Rollins was born on September 7, 1930 in New York City. He grew up in Harlem, not far from the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theater and the doorsteps of his idol, Coleman Hawkins. He had an older brother who played the violin.
At age nine he took up piano lessons, but discontinued them and took up alto saxophone in high school. His early musical inspirations were Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. With the alto saxophone it was Louis Jordan. At sixteen he switched to tenor, trying to emulate Hawkins. He also fell under the spell of the musical revolution that surrounded him in the mid to late ’40s, Bebop.
Young and eager
Sonny Rollins began to follow Charlie Parker and soon came under the wing of Thelonius Monk, who became his musical mentor and guru.
Living in Sugar Hill, his neighbourhood musical peers included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor, who would become celebrated jazz musicians. But Sonny was first out of them, working and recording with Babs Gonzalez, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Miles Davis before he turned twenty.
“People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thing – he was close. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh ideas.
Miles Davis, Autobiography“
Sonny Rollins made his first recording with Babs Gonzalez in 1949 at age 18. His first composition “Audubon” was recorded later that year by J.J. Johnson. He also recorded with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro – what would later be called “hard bop”. Rollins recorded with Miles in 1951, with the Modern Jazz Quartet and Thelonius Monk in 1953. His breakthrough came in 1954 with his compositions “Oleo”, “Airegin” and “Doxy”, recorded by a quintet led by Davis.
In late 1955, Sonny Rollins joined the famous ensemble of Max Roach and Clifford Brown. He then formed his own pianoless trio, doing recorded sessions at the Village Vanguard. Now, he was a musical leader. His trademark was a caustic, often humorous style of melodic invention. He had a command of everything from the most arcane ballads to calypsos.
In 1956 he began a series of landmark recordings issued under his own name: Sonny Rollins Plus 4, Tenor Madness, Saxophone Colossus, Rollins Plays for Bird, Sonny Rollins Vol 1 and 2 and Way Out West. The song “Valse Hot” introduced the practice of playing bop in 3/4. “St. Thomas”, his most famous song, initiated his exploration of calypso patterns. “Blue 7” demonstrated a new manner of thematic improvisations. Way Out West (1957) was the first album with a trio without piano.
In 1958 he recorded The Freedom Suite, which foreshadowed the political stances taken in jazz in the 1960s.
In 1959, frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations, Sonny Rollins took his first sabbatical and was away from the music scene for more than two years: “I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way.” At this point he lived in Manhattan’s Lower East side. To spare a neighbouring expectant mother the sound, he used to practice on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge. Hence the title of his comeback album; The Bridge in 1962, which was a great success.
The period between 1962 and ’66 saw Sonny Rollins returning to action and striking productive relationships with Jim Hall, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and his idol Coleman Hawkins. Yet, he grew dissatisfied with the music business once again and started another sabbatical in ’66.
During his second sabbatical, Sonny Rollins studied yoga, meditation and Eastern philosophies. He returned in 1972, signed a contract with Milestone Records that would last for 25 years, and started to record and tour with a renewed sense of vigor and pride. By now his wife Lucille was his business manager. He put out a string of successful records in the ‘70s and ‘80s that bridged the gap between the contemporary and fusion jazz. Merging jazz with calypso, light funk and post-bop, his career not only was revived, but thrived from then onward. He developed further his unaccompanied saxophone solos and played uncredited on The Rolling Stones album Tattoo You in 1981.
Music critic Stanley Crouch wrote about Sonny Rollins, the concert artist: “Over and over, decade after decade, from the late seventies through the eighties and nineties, there he is, Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, playing somewhere in the world, some afternoon or some eight o’clock somewhere, pursuing the combination of emotion, memory, thought, and aesthetic design with a command that allows him to achieve spontaneous grandiloquence.
With its brass body, its pearl-button keys, its mouthpiece and its cane reed, the horn becomes the vessel for the epic of Rollins’ talent and the undimmed power and lore of his jazz ancestors”. The New Yorker, 2005.
Sonny Rollins won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000) and his second for 2004’s Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert) in the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo category – for “Why Was I Born”. He was elected to the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1973. Besides the Polar Music Prize in 2007, he has been awarded the Austrian Cross of honour for Science and art, First Class (2009). In 2011 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in a White House Ceremony.
Since 2006, Rollins has been releasing his music on his own label, Doxy Records – so far Sonny, Please (2006), Road Shows, Vol. 1 (2008) and Road Shows, Vol. 2 (2011), that contains several tracks from his September 2010 80th birthday concert in New York.
Stockholm May 2007
Viktoria Tolstoy, Jonas Kullhammar Quartet, Lennart Åberg and Bobo Stenson celebrated Sonny Rollins by interpreting his music in the Stockholm Concert Hall.