Driving up to Harlem a few weeks ago, Sonny Rollins was being hard on himself. "The last time I performed at the Beacon Theater 15 years ago, I wasn't happy with how I played," he said, looking out the passenger-seat window. "I'm excited to get a chance to redeem myself. After all, it's my birthday concert, right?"
Saxophone icon and Harlem native Sonny Rollins will celebrate his 80th birthday with a Sept. 10 concert at the Beacon Theatre.
Indeed it is. Mr. Rollins turns 80 on Sept. 7, and will mark the occasion with a performance at the Beacon Theater on Sept. 10. "Sonny Rollins@80" will include guitarist Jim Hall, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Christian McBride and other special guests.
Given the pending milestones, I had suggested to Mr. Rollins that we revisit the Harlem of his youth from the comfort of a Lincoln Town Car. The point was to see the turf that helped shape him as an artist. He agreed.
Mr. Rollins remains one of the best-known and most influential jazz musicians performing today. He began his recording career in 1949, and during the 1950s developed a new introspective, expressionistic style on the saxophone that changed the landscape of jazz.
"Oh wow, I was born there, in my grandmother's house," Mr. Rollins said as the car stopped at 121 W. 137th St. The address now is an empty lot—the space occupied by a small park. "Well, at least there's a garden there. My sister told me the Sunday I was born, the bells in the two nearby churches were ringing."
During the 1930s, Mr. Rollins spent many afternoons at the nearby Odeon (on 145th Street) and Roosevelt (Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.) movie theaters, watching Westerns. "The screen cowboys taught me about fairness, justice and improvising when you're alone," he said, laughing.
As the car turned right on Lenox Avenue, Mr. Rollins looked back searching for P.S. 89, his old grade school at 135th Street. But it's gone, too. "At the Elks Rendezvous Lounge across from the school," he recalled, "I used to stare at Louis Jordan's photo outside, looking at his shiny new Zephyr alto saxophone. He was a big inspiration."
Heading north to Sugar Hill, where his family moved in 1939, Mr. Rollins talked about his parents: "My father was a stern, disciplined guy who was a chief petty officer at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. I'd take the train down to visit him in the summers, and he'd put me to work. My mother was an emotional, sensitive person who exposed us to the arts early."
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