By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
Celebrated tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is nearly 88 years old, and he believes that there is sound evidence, which is supported by his spirituality and resounding birth—which was surprisingly accompanied by the Sunday bells ringing at two Harlem churches—that he is a Yogi who could enjoy life physically well into his hundreds.
According to a new tell-all biography called “Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a Riff,” written by Hugh Wyatt, Rollins could be seen as a beacon of longevity and spiritual awakening. We learn that Rollins had many setbacks, but he also had a multitude of triumphs, while using so-called sabbaticals to free himself of addictions and cleanse his mind and body.
Often referred to as “Saxophone Colossus,” Rollins is frequently described as one of the last remaining Jazz giants—celebrated within the ranks of pioneers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker [Bird].
History has shown so far that few African-American musicians have been able to break barriers and transcend boundaries like Rollins, who was raised in Harlem and who still lives in the area. Ironically, Rollins is even more popular in Europe and Asia than he is in the United States.
He spent his youth hustling and fighting on the streets of Harlem, but over time he shifted gears and developed the reputation of being “the world’s greatest living Jazz musician,” as well as a revered sage-like figure. But did Rollins deserve such lofty titles? This book attempts to answer this question. Former New York Daily News reporter/editor/columnist Wyatt has been friends with Rollins for more than a half century, and he offers a unique insight into the musician’s personal and professional life.
Rollins was merely a teen when he started playing the saxophone, and he idolized Bird and the other musicians of the Jazz and later Bebop eras. His fascination with Bird wasn’t just one of great admiration. Rollins felt that Bird was the epitome of a great saxophonist—but Rollins wanted to play better than Bird.
Indeed Rollins’ journey wasn’t always a smooth one. His problems with drug addiction and the law are revealed. In 1949, the book states that “he had become a full-fledged junkie,” and he nearly overdosed in an upstairs room at Minton’s Jazz Club in Harlem. Wyatt believes that due to Rollins’ unrelenting quest to best Bird, Rollins must have been thinking: “If I die, I’ll never be as good as Bird.” He could feel himself slipping down the tile wall behind him. “Get up. If you don’t get up, you’ll die.”
Rollins’ early days were anything but pretty. In 1955, he was strung out and spent time in a Kentucky rehab facility. This was after he did time at Rikers Island in the early 50s for his involvement in an attempted armed robbery of a store—when he and a friend were trying to get money for drugs. However, Rollins will tell you that he got high to meditate and “get deeper into himself.” “Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a Riff” suggests that, although musicians felt that doing drugs would make them perform better and they believed that Bird’s drug use improved his saxophone playing. Bird set the record straight by saying that heroin wasn’t the source of his [Bird’s] expertise on the saxophone, but his delivery was due to his dedication and constant practice.
In any case, the vibe that Bird and others, including Thelonious Monk, Buddy Powell and Art Blakey, were giving out during the 40s was much respected and envied by the mainstream public. “Many whites were so enamored of Bebop at the time that they wanted to be Black themselves,” said noted author Norman Mailer. “For the first time, I saw young and even some older whites not only trying to emulate the Black musicians, but they were dressing and acting like them.”
During the years 1959 through 1961, Rollins literally “took it to the bridge,” practicing his saxophone and delving deeper into his spirituality on New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge. He went into a self-imposed isolation to work on his music and to meditate. “At the time, I just wanted someplace to practice. I walked up there and saw this empty space,” he said. “I walked across the bridge, and I said, ‘Damn, I could come up here, and there’s hardly anybody who would be walking across here.’ So that’s how the whole thing started.”
Throughout the years, Rollins has embraced yoga, Buddhism, Ancient Egyptian magic, Rosicrucianism and other mystical religions and practices—as well as Christianity. These practices have helped him quit a drug habit; he has been clean for more than six decades, and his clean living and meditation rituals have also afforded him a nearly immaculate body. When he was 52, he had a medical emergency and, according to the book, physicians thought that his was a body of an 18 year old. An excerpt from the book: “His exceptional healthiness was yet another reason fans around the world regarded him as a superior creature—a man who had not only risen to the level of being the number-one Jazz saxophonist, but someone who may have mastered some of the secrets of aging and other enigmas of the universe.”
Rollins has a vast song catalogue, which includes his solo album “The Bridge,” which was recorded after his time away on the Williamsburg Bridge. However, his greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, would be when President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2010. Wyatt covers Rollins’ musical career both as a solo artist and his associations and band memberships with other musicians, as well as the entire Bebop, post Bebop and hard Bop musical genres, among others. We read about Rollins being a bit of a womanizer, but his heart belonged to his wife of 39 years, Lucille Pearson, who is described as a “white, plain Jane country girl from Kansas City.”
This is a fascinating book for both jazz lovers and those who are interested in reading about this legendary artist. It is available now. For more information, visit Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0998121924) or Barnes and Noble (https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/sonny-rollins-hugh-wyatt/1129198129?ean=9780998121925).