Twice a week in the early 1980s, I hosted a program called The Sound of Jazz on WDST Radio (Betty MacDonald created the show and hosted it three other evenings). On my nights, the Sonny Rollins piece “Harlem Boys” was the introductory theme. Two evenings each week it came rolling out of the radio: the immensely distinctive tenor sax, the huge tone blowing an R&B-inflected jazz tune that put me – and, I hoped, the listeners – in the right place to enter a music world that Sonny Rollins, along with a few other giants, stood astride. To Betty’s and my surprise, it turned out that Sonny himself was a listener from his home in Germantown, and one beautiful night, a live guest on the show.
Ah, but that was 30-some-odd years ago. Sonny was mid-career at that point, a big name in jazz with some legendary recordings (Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness with John Coltrane, Way out West) along with his innovative solo saxophone explorations; he had composed tunes that have become jazz standards, like “Oleo” and “St. Thomas”; had a distinctive lore surrounding him, like the true tale of him practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge; was noted for playing in the early days in bebop in the late 1940s, of playing with Monk and Miles Davis, Bud Powell and J. J. Johnson before the age of 20.
Still to come at that time were continuing world travel on grand concert stages, and Grammy Awards in 2000 and 2004; a NARAS Lifetime Achievement award in 2004; his June 2006 induction into the International Academy of Achievement; being awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, in November 2009; election in 2010 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; that same year, being named the first jazz composer to become an Edward MacDowell Medalist; and in 2011, receiving the Medal of Arts from president Barack Obama in a White House ceremony: the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence.
But for Sonny Rollins, now 83 and living in Woodstock, it has really always just been about music. As he struggles with health issues that are keeping him from playing his beloved saxophone – for the time being, he hopes – he stays active, working on putting together a new recording, Volume 3 of his Road Shows: live recordings of octogenarian performances that stand tall in his immense body of work that includes more than 90 albums.
We spoke at his house before he appears at the Woodstock Film Festival where there will be a screening of Dick Fontaine’s feature documentary Sonny Rollins: Beyond the Notes at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 2 at the Woodstock Playhouse. Fontaine and Sonny will be present to partake in a question-and-answer session following the screening, and the J. D. Allen Trio will celebrate his music and presence with a live performance.