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“Stanley Crouch, a cultural critic whose contrarian and trenchant writings exploring music, politics, race and literature made him a prominent and often controversial figure in American arts and letters, died Sept. 16 at a New York hospital. He was 74.
Mr. Crouch was an actor, playwright, jazz drummer and college professor — without benefit of a college degree — before he emerged in the late 1970s as one of the country’s most original, contentious and (sometimes literally) combative writers.
He was a bare-knuckled literary provocateur — erudite, fearless, sometimes reckless, in the view of his critics — while reveling in his often truculent takedowns, often of works by other African American artists and intellectuals.
Mr. Crouch was a passionate champion of jazz as perhaps the pinnacle of artistic expression in this country and was just as ardent in denouncing rap music as “either an infantile self-celebration or anarchic glamorization of criminal behavior.”
His bold declarations escalated to a fistfight with another writer at the Village Voice, prompting Mr. Crouch’s firing from the weekly newspaper in 1988, reportedly after similar bullying incidents.
He also wrote for the New York Daily News, the Root, the Daily Beast and the New Republic, among other outlets, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He published a novel and an acclaimed biography of saxophonist Charlie Parker and published learned essays on writers Thomas Mann, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow.
After leading an avant-garde group as a drummer in his earlier years, Mr. Crouch became a jazz classicist over time and was a close friend and intellectual mentor of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, with whom he helped launch Jazz at Lincoln Center, a performance venue and influential jazz repertory group.
Together, Mr. Crouch and Marsalis were the standard-bearers of a 1980s movement that rejected electronic jazz fusion and called for a return to the musical traditions embodied by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and other jazz innovators. Mr. Crouch was a featured commentator in Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary series on jazz in 2000 and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2019.
He praised the beauty of trumpeter Miles Davis’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, but when Davis adopted a rock-influenced style in the 1970s, Mr. Crouch condemned the move as a betrayal of near-apocalyptic dimensions. He called it “perhaps the essential failure of contemporary Negro culture: its mock-democratic idea that the elites, too, should like it down in the gutter.”
“Gone is the elegant and exigent Afro-American authenticity of the likes of Ellington, at ease in the alley as well as the palace,” Mr. Crouch wrote in a memorable 1990 essay in the New Republic, “replaced by a youth culture vulgarity that vandalizes the sweep and substance of Afro-American life.”
He applied his aesthetic views more broadly to social concerns and what he saw as a widespread acceptance of loutish behavior and underachievement.
“The cult of ethnic authenticity often mistakes the lowest common denominator for an ideal,” he wrote in the essay on Davis. “In this climate, obnoxious, vulgar, and anti-social behavior has been confused with black authenticity.”
Mr. Crouch — who preferred the terms Negro, Black American and Afro-American to “African American” — was just as harsh toward other revered Black artists. When Toni Morrison received the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, he did not join in the ovation.
“She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity,” he told The Washington Post. “ ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings.”
In essays and interviews, Mr. Crouch called filmmaker Spike Lee “a middle-class would-be street Negro,” whose films reflected “fantasy” versions of Black communities and “the fundamental shallowness that you get from a propagandist.”
Mr. Crouch believed that the civil rights movement was aspiring to a “complex vision of universal humanism” and cultural understanding before it was “hijacked by radicals.” He called Malcolm X the “chief black heckler of the civil rights movement” and was withering toward Louis Farrakhan, dismissing the Nation of Islam leader as “our most highly respected racist and all-purpose lunatic.”
Even when onetime friends deserted him, Mr. Crouch did not moderate his outspoken views.
“I admire the brother’s candor,” writer and scholar Cornel West told the New Yorker in 1995, “but his abrasive style is so alienating that it tends to reinforce the polarization. The low points, like the attacks on Toni Morrison, gain more attention. His brilliant jazz criticism is overshadowed.”
Others said Mr. Crouch was nothing more than a clever mouthpiece for White conservatives, particularly when he complained of crime-ridden neighborhoods and “a cult of victimization.”
“I’ve been applauded by black bus drivers, subway drivers, mechanics, various people who have come up to me and said, ‘I’m sure glad somebody is saying it,’ ” Mr. Crouch told the New York Times in 1993. “That’s enough for me. I don’t care what some trickle-down Negro Marxist says.”
In the 1960s, when Mr. Crouch came of age, he was part of the emerging Black Arts movement, championed by poet and activist Amiri Baraka. It was a sometimes militant effort to create art, music and political strength within the African American community, separate from the dominant White culture.
Mr. Crouch joined a Los Angeles theatrical group led by Jayne Cortez, a major figure in the Black Arts movement, and wrote defiant poetry and plays. By the early 1970s, he was growing disaffected with the black nationalist movement.
“Race pride is something that I’m not unacquainted with,” he told Newsday in 1990. “But that’s different from racism, and a lot of people in the cultural nationalist movement are hard-core anti-white racists. And to me, racism is antithetical to the Afro-American tradition.”
Mr. Crouch became increasingly drawn to the writings of Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” a landmark novel about African American life, and especially Albert Murray. Murray was a novelist and essayist, and his 1970 book “The Omni-Americans” used jazz to demonstrate how African American achievement is at the heart of American civilization.“
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Saxophonist, attorney and great saxophonist Drake Colley told me saxophonist Richie Cole died today. He was a wonderful player. I used to see home perform with Eddie Jefferson at the Tin Palace on the Bowery in NYC. Richie Cole Group - Live At The Village Vanguard
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Wallace Roney, Intrepid Jazz Trumpeter, Dies From COVID-19 Complications At 59 : NPR
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"McCoy Tyner, Jazz Piano Powerhouse, Is Dead at 81
By Ben RatliffMarch 6, 2020, 4:32 p.m. ET
Mr. Tyner, who first attracted wide notice as a member of John Coltrane’s groundbreaking quartet, influenced virtually every pianist in jazz.
McCoy Tyner, a cornerstone of John Coltrane’s groundbreaking 1960s quartet and one of the most influential pianists in jazz history, died on Friday at his home in northern New Jersey. He was 81.
His nephew Colby Tyner confirmed the death. No other details were provided.
Along with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and only a few others, Mr. Tyner was one of the main expressways of modern jazz piano. Nearly every jazz pianist since Mr. Tyner’s years with Coltrane has had to learn his lessons, whether they ultimately discarded them or not.
Mr. Tyner’s manner was modest, but his sound was rich, percussive and serious, his lyrical improvisations centered by powerful left-hand chords marking the first beat of the bar and the tonal center of the music.
That sound helped create the atmosphere of Coltrane’s music and, to some extent, all jazz in the 1960s. (When you are thinking of Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” or “A Love Supreme,” you may be thinking of the sound of Mr. Tyner almost as much as that of Coltrane’s saxophone.)
To a great extent he was a grounding force for Coltrane. In a 1961 interview, about a year and a half after hiring Mr. Tyner, Coltrane said: “My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them. He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.”
Mr. Tyner did not find immediate success after leaving Coltrane in 1965. But within a decade his fame had caught up with his influence, and he remained one of the leading bandleaders in jazz as well as one of the most revered pianists for the rest of his life.
Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 11, 1938, to Jarvis and Beatrice (Stephenson) Tyner, both natives of North Carolina. His father sang in a church quartet and worked for a company that made medicated cream; his mother was a beautician. Mr. Tyner started taking piano lessons at 13, and a year later his mother bought him his first piano, setting it up in her beauty shop.
He grew up during a spectacular period for jazz in Philadelphia. Among the local musicians who would go on to national prominence were the organist Jimmy Smith, the trumpeter Lee Morgan and the pianists Red Garland, Kenny Barron, Ray Bryant and Richie Powell, who lived in an apartment around the corner from the Tyner family house, and whose brother was the pianist Bud Powell, Mr. Tyner’s idol. (Mr. Tyner recalled that once, as a teenager, while practicing in the beauty shop, he looked out the window and saw Powell listening; he eventually invited the master inside to play.)
While still in high school Mr. Tyner began taking music theory lessons at the Granoff School of Music. At 16 he was playing professionally, with a rhythm-and-blues band, at house parties around Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Mr. Tyner was in a band led by the trumpeter Cal Massey in 1957 when he met Coltrane at a Philadelphia club called the Red Rooster. At the time, Coltrane, who grew up in Philadelphia but had left in 1955 to join Miles Davis’s quintet, was back in town, between tenures with the Davis band.
The two musicians struck up a friendship. Coltrane was living at his mother’s house, and Mr. Tyner would visit him there to sit on the porch and talk. He would later say that Coltrane was something of an older brother to him.
Like Coltrane, Mr. Tyner was a religious seeker: Raised Christian, he became a Muslim at 18. “My faith,” he said to the journalist Nat Hentoff, “teaches peacefulness, love of God and the unity of mankind.” He added, “This message of unity has been the most important thing in my life, and naturally, it’s affected my music.”
In 1958, Coltrane recorded one of Mr. Tyner’s compositions, “The Believer.” There was an understanding between them that when Coltrane was ready to lead his own group, he would hire Mr. Tyner as his pianist.
For a while Mr. Tyner worked with the Jazztet, a hard-bop sextet led by the saxophonist Benny Golson and the trumpeter Art Farmer. He made his recording debut with the group on the album “Meet the Jazztet” in 1960.
Coltrane did eventually form his own quartet, which opened a long engagement at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan in May 1960, but with Steve Kuhn as the pianist. A month later, halfway through the engagement, Coltrane made good on his promise, replacing Mr. Kuhn with Mr. Tyner.
That October, Mr. Tyner made its first recordings with Coltrane, participating in sessions for Atlantic Records that produced much of the material for the albums “My Favorite Things,” “Coltrane Jazz,” “Coltrane’s Sound” and “Coltrane Plays the Blues.”
Mr. Tyner was 21 when he joined the Coltrane quartet. He would remain — along with the drummer Elvin Jones and, beginning in 1962, the bassist Jimmy Garrison — for the next five years. Through his work with the group, which came to be known as the “classic” Coltrane quartet, he became one of the most widely imitated pianists in jazz.
The percussiveness of his playing may have had to do with the fact that Mr. Tyner took conga lessons as a teenager from the percussionist Garvin Masseaux, and learned informally from the Ghanaian visual artist, singer and instrumentalist Saka Acquaye, who was studying at the time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Harmonically, his sound was strongly defined by his use of modes — the old scales that governed a fair amount of the music Mr. Tyner played during his time with Coltrane — and by his chord voicings. He often used intervals of fourths, creating open-sounding chords that created more space for improvisers.
“What you don’t play is sometimes as important as what you do play,” he told his fellow pianist Marian McPartland in an NPR interview. “I would leave space, which wouldn’t identify the chord so definitely to the point that it inhibited your other voicings.”
The Coltrane quartet worked constantly through 1965, reaching one high-water mark for jazz after another on albums like “A Love Supreme,” “Crescent,” “Coltrane Live at Birdland,” “Ballads” and “Impressions,” all recorded for the Impulse label.
Between tours, Mr. Tyner stayed busy in the recording studios. He made his own records, for Impulse, including the acclaimed “Reaching Fourth.” He also recorded as a sideman, particularly after 1963; among the albums he recorded with other leaders’ bands were minor classics of the era like Joe Henderson’s “Page One,” Wayne Shorter’s “Juju,” Grant Green’s “Matador” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Stick-Up!,” all for Blue Note.
When Coltrane began to expand his musical vision to include extra horns and percussionists, Mr. Tyner quit the group, at the end of 1965, complaining that the music had grown so loud and unwieldy that he could not hear the piano anymore. He was a member of the drummer Art Blakey’s touring band in 1966 and 1967; otherwise he was a freelancer, living with his wife and three children in Queens.
Mr. Tyner’s survivors include his wife, Aisha Tyner; his son, Nurudeen, who is known as Deen; his brother, Jarvis; his sister, Gwendolyn-Yvette Tyner; and three grandchildren.
Just before Coltrane’s death in 1967, Mr. Tyner signed to Blue Note. He quickly delivered “The Real McCoy,” one of his strongest albums, which included his compositions “Passion Dance,” “Search for Peace” and “Blues on the Corner,” all of which he later revisited on record and kept in his live repertoire.
He stayed with Blue Note for five years, starting with a fairly familiar quartet sound and progressing to larger ensembles, but these were temporary bands assembled for recording sessions, not working groups. It was a lean time for jazz, and for Mr. Tyner. He was not performing much and, he later said, had considered applying for a license to drive a cab.
He moved to the Milestone label in 1972, an association that continued until 1981 and that brought him a higher profile and much more success. In those years he worked steadily with his own band, including at various times the saxophonists Azar Lawrence and Sonny Fortune and the drummers Alphonse Mouzon and Eric Gravatt.
His Milestone albums with his working group included “Enlightenment” (1973), recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which introduced one of his signature compositions, the majestic “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” He also recorded for the label with strings, voices, a big band and guest sidemen including the drummers Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette.
Mr. Tyner did not use electric piano or synthesizers, or play with rock and disco backbeats, as many of the best jazz musicians did at the time; owning one of the strongest and most recognizable keyboard sounds in jazz, he was committed to acoustic instrumentation. His experiments outside the piano ran toward the koto, as heard on the 1972 album “Sahara,” and harpsichord and celeste, on “Trident” (1975).
In 1984, he formed two new working bands: a trio, with the bassist Avery Sharpe and the drummer Aaron Scott, and the McCoy Tyner Big Band. His recordings with the big band included “The Turning Point” (1991) and “Journey” (1993), which earned him two of his five Grammy Awards. He also toured and made one album with the nine-piece McCoy Tyner Latin All-Stars.
He was signed in 1995 to the reactivated Impulse label, and in 1999 to Telarc. From the mid-’90s on he tended to concentrate on small-band and solo recordings.
In 2002, Mr. Tyner was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, one of the highest honors for a jazz musician in the United States.
He resisted analyzing or theorizing about his own work. He tended to talk more in terms of learning and life experience.
“To me,” he told Mr. Hentoff, “living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life.
“I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can’t predict what kinds of experiences I’m going to have, I can’t predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.”
McCoy Tyner, Jazz Piano Powerhouse, Is Dead at 81 - The New York Times
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
"Sonny Rollins is, by any reasonable estimation, a genius. He is jazz’s greatest living improviser, able to imbue his solos with wry humor, surprise, brilliant logical form and profound emotion. Time and time again, he created something miraculous out of thin air, and he did it until he could do it no longer. The 89-year-old played his last concert in 2012, and in 2014, he stopped playing saxophone altogether, a result of pulmonary fibrosis. That doesn’t mean we’ll never hear music from him again — Resonance Records will release a set of previously unissued performances this fall — but it does mean that Rollins’s colossal record as a musician is a thing of the past. I wanted to know how a musician whose playing was always attuned to the present has forged a new life in the shadow of that stark fact. “‘Happy’ is not the word,” said Rollins, seated on a couch under a large painting of Buddha at his rambling home in Woodstock, N.Y., “but I am the most content I’ve ever been. I have most things figured out.”
You never made any formal retirement announcement. Did you ever want to say goodbye to the people who made up your audience? Well, no. The reason my retirement happened quietly was because my health problems were gradual. I didn’t expect them. I wasn’t quite sure that I would never be able to play again. It took me a while to realize, Hey, that’s gone now. But the people? I’m glad for their love but I don’t feel that I’m worthy of anyone saying, “Wow, Sonny!” And this is going to sound funny, but my highest place musically was not about playing for a crowd. I played a couple of concerts early on where I was out in the open in the afternoon. I was able to look up in the sky, and I felt a communication; I felt that I was part of something. Not the crowd. Something bigger.
I only realized when I spoke to you a couple of years ago that you had to give up the saxophone. So much of your life had been about using music to fulfill your potential as a person. Now that you don’t play, is fulfillment still possible? When I had to stop playing it was quite traumatic. But I realized that instead of lamenting and crying, I should be grateful for the fact that I was able to do music all of my life. So I had that realization, plus my spiritual beliefs, which I’ve been cultivating for many years. All that work went into my accepting the fact that I couldn’t play my horn.
Tell me more about that work. I’m working toward why I’m here — what it’s all about. At this point in my life I’m — well, I don’t want to say satisfied, but I feel that I’m closer to an understanding. It’s always been my idea that the golden rule is a good thing, but I wasn’t quite able to understand if the golden rule was possible. If somebody is playing music and I’m playing music and we’re in a saxophone battle, I still have to play my best, regardless of the other guy. It has nothing to do with my trying to make him feel bad because playing music is for a higher cause. So I believe living by the golden rule is possible. Not only possible but the reason we’re here.
Were you playing for a higher cause on something like “The Serpent’s Tooth” with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis? In your solo you quoted the melody of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” That wasn’t intended as a provocation? If I was so stupid to have to implied that, then I was ignorant. I was in Miles’s band at the time and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” was just one of the riffs that we played. It had nothing to do with my attitude about Charlie Parker. I would never say that to him. But I take your criticism. I might have been a foolish young boy playing that to his guru. If there was a little of that, it was sophomoric. I was ignorant. I am still ignorant about many things.
Rollins, right, and Miles Davis at the New York Jazz Festival in 1957. Bob Parent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I’m also thinking about when you played with John Coltrane on “Tenor Madness.” There’s a part of that performance where you guys were trading fours and he played a lick and in response you played the same lick but with the notes reversed. That wasn’t meant as one-upmanship? David, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this to many people. When I played with Coltrane, I had the impression — and back then it was true — that I was much more popular than him. I remember what Kamasi Washington said about “Tenor Madness”: “Sonny, you weren’t even really playing.” I wasn’t really playing. Coltrane was playing. I was only playing halfway, because I thought that I was the guy and that Coltrane was this young whippersnapper. That was my mind-set. It was immature.
So you were holding back to show your status? Exactly. I don’t want people to think that I’m saying, “Oh, wow, I could have played much better,” but that’s the story of “Tenor Madness.” My attitude on it wasn’t right.
I was poking around in your papers, and I saw a performance note you wrote for Elvin Jones that I thought was interesting. You wrote that when you were playing rubato on a certain song, he shouldn’t look in any direction but yours. Why not? I would’ve said that to him because when I’m playing rubato, which would mean when I’m playing solo, that presents a perfect opportunity for somebody to relax: OK, Sonny’s playing by himself so let me wipe my head or drink water. I wanted the band to be all together even when I was playing by myself because we were all still in the song. People would take their concentration away. I didn’t want that.
I also saw all these very detailed instructional notes you’d written about saxophone technique and harmony. Did you ever consider publishing any of it? I thought about doing things like that but my stuff is unorthodox. I once had a young guy that wanted to study with me. I said, No, man, go to Coltrane. Coltrane will get you on the right course with fingering and technique. All these things that I might have been writing, I didn’t feel they were applicable to other people. So I didn’t pursue them.
One of the most inspiring things about your playing was how alive you were to the possibilities of a given musical moment. Did that openness translate to your life? That’s a very profound question. I can look back and say, “Gee, that was a good solo,” but I don’t know if it had anything to do with a spiritual or ethical thing. I did some bad things when I was playing my horn. We all knew Charlie Parker was using drugs, and we said, “Wow, I’m going to use drugs if I’m going to end up playing like that.” That got a lot of guys using drugs and stealing and whatever else drugs made you do. I know great musicians that weren’t trying to be good people. A lot of people wouldn’t think Miles was a very spiritual person — though to me he was — and Coltrane was a very spiritual individual. Does that have to do with their music? Possibly. I don’t want to say that there’s no connection between the way you behave and your music. But it’s something which I haven’t been able to figure out.
Do you think music has an ethical component? I can hear music that elevates me, but on the other hand there’s martial music that’s made to make people go to war. So music is neutral. It has nothing to do with ethics. Music is not on the same level as trying to understand life. We’re here for 80-something years. One lifetime is not enough to get it right. I’ll be back in another body. I’m not interested in trying to get that technical about that because I don’t need to know. What I need to know is that being a person who understands that giving is better than getting is the proper way to live. Live your life now in a positive way. Help people if you can. Don’t hurt people. That works perfectly for me, man.
Are you ready for your incarnation in this life to be over? You mean do I feel ready to die? Dying, it’s funny. Everybody is afraid to die because it’s the unknown. But my mother died. My father died. My brother died. My sister died. My uncle died. My grandmother died. They’re all great people. If they can die then why can’t I die? I’m better than they are? It’s ridiculous to feel, Oh, gee, I shouldn’t die. My body is going to turn into dust. But my soul will live forever.
Is there anything you’ll miss about this life? No. There’s a big picture, which is the afterlife, and this life is a little picture. There’s also karma: What you do, you’re going to get it back. So this life is a trip, man, and you’ve got to go through it. I know I’ve done a lot of stupid things and hurt people. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I’m paying for, and I’m trying to get good karma by not trying to hurt somebody or doing things for my own pleasure or aggrandizement.
Does believing in the transience of life mean you’re not nostalgic for jazz’s past? Or your own life in jazz? Wayne Shorter’s still here, but Miles is not here. Max Roach is not here. Trane is not here. Monk is not here. Do I feel nostalgic about that? No. These guys are alive to me. I hear their music. OK, Charlie Parker is not in his body, but everything about Charlie Parker is here to me in spirit. Any time of day, any time of night, I might think of Miles, and the spirit is there. Occasionally I go, Gee, I can’t hang out with Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown after a gig. I think about that, but it’s receding. Those guys — I don’t worry about them not being here in the flesh. I’m not going to be in the flesh, either. You’re not going to be in the flesh, either, David. So what? It’s OK.
Rollins recording at the the Radio House in Copenhagen in 1968. Jan Persson/Getty Images
This is slightly random, but I’ve never seen you talk in much detail about when you played on a Rolling Stones album. How was trying to fit into their music? Mick Jagger, I don’t think he understood what I was doing, and I didn’t understand what he was doing. My wife was the one that persuaded me to do that recording. I said: “Man, the Rolling Stones. I don’t want to do any record with the Rolling Stones.” I’d considered them — and it’s faulty — not on the level of jazz. But my wife said, “No, no, you must do it.” So I said, “OK, let me see if I can relate to what they are doing; let me see if I can make it sound as good as possible.”
Could you? Not really. I know they’re a very popular rock band, but they were derivative of a lot of black bands, right? Isn’t that what they do?
Well, yeah. Right. It might be wrong for me to feel that way because I do like a lot of white artists. I like the Beatles. Paul McCartney is a good tunesmith. But the Rolling Stones, I didn’t relate to them because I thought they were just derivative of black blues. I do remember once I was in the supermarket up in Hudson, New York, and they were playing Top 40 records. I heard this song and thought, Who’s that guy? His playing struck a chord in me. Then I said, “Wait a minute, that’s me!” It was my playing on one of those Rolling Stones records.
Something I’ve heard musicians talk about is losing their sense of self when they’re playing, and how that’s when the best improvisations can happen. What does that say about the true nature of the self? It says that there are divine moments in this world. This world is not what it’s cracked up to be. This world is just a place to pay off our karma. That’s all. There’s something huge happening, and it’s a matter of feeling. It’s different than having book knowledge. The thing I’m talking about is more like intuition. Something is there. I’ve had experiences which have allowed me to know that.
Experiences that happened while you were playing? I’ll tell you one. I was in France playing at a place called Marciac. I was staying at a hotel a little ways out in the country. I liked to stay at nice hotels. The band stayed at another hotel, and if they could afford it, they could stay at this hotel; I’m not trying to be above them. Anyway, the night before the concert I lost my partial. I needed it to play. I was very concerned. I didn’t know what to do. I called up the front desk. I said: “Listen, I have a dental partial, which I misplaced. Can you please look through the garbage and find if it’s there?” They said, “We’ll look and see.” So while I was searching, I looked up and I saw a vision of what was like a window opening horizontally. It opened just a bit and there was something I saw; colors behind that little opening. It was such a revelation. I said, “Wow, what was that?” Then I looked down on the floor and there was my partial. I can’t say, “Oh, man, therefore there’s a God.” It’s not about that. But this happened to me and for months, even years, the feeling coming out of my body — I was elevated.
So you took this vision as a confirmation of the existence of something greater? You could call it a confirmation. That was a beautiful thing that happened to me. Something else happened a long time before that, David. When I was about 9 years old I was living up on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. I used to live on the block between 150th and 155th Street. It was one long block of houses and there was a shortcut there from St. Nicholas Place to Edgecombe Avenue. People would walk through the shortcut to get to the subway. So one day I went up on the roof, and there was part of the roof, the mortar, that was loose. I thought it would be a great idea if I dropped the loose part down and scared somebody walking through the shortcut. So I did that and when I dropped it I realized, If this hits somebody, they’re dead — and there was a guy walking through the shortcut. I prayed like I never prayed before. I asked God, Please don’t let it hit this guy. I prayed and I prayed and it didn’t hit him. Somebody could say, “Sonny, you were lucky.” Maybe so. But I knew that I was communicating with something greater and it worked in my favor.
Rollins waiting backstage at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in California in 1979.
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images
Rollins waiting backstage at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in California in 1979. Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images
This is a crazy thing to bring up but lately I’ve been listening to your music and associating it with the pharaoh Akhenaten. Maybe it’s just because I wanted to see the Met’s production of Philip Glass’s opera about him and everything has gotten jumbled in my mind. But let me just throw it out there: Is Akhenaten significant to you in any way? Oh, very much so. Years ago, I began reading about Egypt. Akhenaten went against the old order. He was a break from some of the other Egyptian theology. He was a maverick, and I felt sympathetic to that. Akhenaten was a guy that influenced me a lot to be serious.
I’m glad my shot in the dark wasn’t useless. No, not at all. I was very much into Egyptology. That was another thing to learn about life, and learning about Akhenaten’s seriousness is another reason why, in a sense, I hate this world. It’s so inconsequential. Sure, there might be a good movie or this or that but we don’t have time for it. Instead we have to try to get some wisdom.
Does that mean your music was inconsequential too? I didn’t say everything was inconsequential. I can listen to some beautiful music, I can see a beautiful painting, and I wouldn’t dare to say they’re inconsequential. But the majority of what you see out here is inconsequential. Eating ice cream, wanting to have sex with some broad — Oh boy, she’s beautiful and all that stuff — the seven deadly sins. You have to get above that. Because if you don’t do it in this life, it’s like what the guy said in the commercial: “Pay me now or pay me later.”
Have you made plans for what will happen with your unreleased recordings when you’re not around? After I get out of this planet I’m not going to have any say about what’s going on, so I’m not worried about that. And, boy, I agonize over my music; I won’t have to agonize about it anymore. Thank God.
Do you play any other instruments now that you don’t play the horn? The communion I had with my horn, the things I tried to do, I can’t get otherwise. I do have a Fender Rhodes piano upstairs. In fact, I think I should get a piano, a real piano, and play around. I’d probably get something out of it. But it’s not like it would be a continuation of where I was at with my horn. I feel like that thing is broken.
Is your relationship with silence different these days? That’s an excellent question. I used to look at TV a lot. Then I realized, this is very negative. Images and lies and bad for your eyes: I made sure that mantra got in my head, and I stopped looking at TV. I do listen to the radio. I’m trying to get away from that. Silence to me is meditative. To get into that silent space is a huge thing. But even today I’ve had the radio on so much. It’s something I’m working on.
Do you ever get lonely up here in Woodstock? On occasion. Fortunately not too often. I like being alone, actually. I have my yoga books. I have my Buddha books. I have a lot of spiritual material that I need to get with. At my age, all my friends are gone. At one time I began to lament that and then I said, “No, this is good that I have nobody to call and waste time talking.” Every now and then I do go, “Yeah, man, I’m lonely, let me call somebody up,” but to me that’s a weakness. I have to deal with myself. That’s what it gets down to for each of us. Understanding is up to you. It’s up to me. There’s no escape. I got pains and aches all over but spiritually, man, I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I’m on the right course.
David Marchese is a staff writer and the Talk columnist for the magazine."
The Jazz Icon Sonny Rollins Knows Life Is a Solo Trip - The New York Times