He's one of the last of the titans who came of age when bebop was young, and he still pursues music with a young convert's passion. At 77, Sonny Rollins is busy establishing his own record label and Web site, and, most importantly, taking stages to defend his title as one of the greatest improvisers alive. He recently spoke to Metro Times on topics ranging from hanging out with Lester Young to why he started his Doxy label.
On his recent Carnegie Hall concert (marking the 50th anniversary of his debut there), which is to be released on his Doxy label as a DVD later this year and as a CD in the spring of 2008:
Producing the concert was something that was more important to me than anything else. The hip-hop guys started doing this shit a long time ago. They sell their own records; it's time for jazz people to get control over their own thing. The record companies treat jazz musicians like shit. Cats are downloading music now. Record stores are closing up. So the point was not to get a deal with some record company. That's yesterday. A lot of my young fans never even bought one of my CDs. They get their music from downloads. When my contact was up with Fantasy Records a couple years ago, I had a chance to start a label. I said, why not?
On not signing other artists to Doxy:
The average guy that tries that ends up with musicians coming at them with a knife. I don't want to mess with musicians' royalties. This is strictly for my stuff.
On artists he'd like to record with:
I think about musicians like James Carter and Joshua Redman. But they are getting older now. You know, turning into older players. I'm sure there are younger people coming up I could learn something from. You can get something from everybody. That is how I approach it. I'm a person who has been fortunate enough to learn from some master musicians.
On learning from Monk, Miles, etc.:
I was really closely associated with Thelonious Monk. Monk was about 13 years older than me, a little more experienced than me in everything. He looked at me as a contemporary, which was amazing. I learned a lot from Miles and Coleman Hawkins, the father of the tenor saxophone. And don't let me forget the great Lester Young. I had a chance to play with him.
I got to know Lester Young on a personal level, which was really a beautiful experience. Lester used to have this room at the Alvin Hotel across the street from Birdland. We used to be up in Prez's room. You know, he would have his gin, and we would talk about his career and the things that went against him because of his color. I said to myself that I don't want to end up like Prez, drinking, you know, and have people taking advantage of me. Not being able to take care of my affairs.
I was determined to do a lot of positive things in life because of being around Lester. I learned life isn't just about music, that you really have to know what to do when you are off that bandstand. It's not just about being a gifted artist. It's also about being a person that stands up.
One of the things that I always liked about Coleman Hawkins, when he came in a club he was always dressed sharp, and he carried himself with dignity, you dig? That was the image I wanted to express as a black person. That was my aspiration. I was going to try to be an elegant person also.
I always accept the awards on behalf of all of the musicians who taught me who never got awards. It's good to be recognized, but I don't worry about awards. After I get an award, I still go home and practice.
Well, I can't chill out because I don't have enough money to. I have to take care of myself out here. So I can't chill. You have seen some young cats that act like they're old; they don't have any energy or ambition. I guess people would say that I'm old. But I don't feel 77. I mean, mentally, you know.
Sonny Rollins performs at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13, at Music Hall, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit; 313-887-8501. His Web site is sonnyrollins.com.
Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz and hopes to be young at 77. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org