Author Aidan Levy has written a new biography of legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, whose career spans seven decades from the Charlie Parker era to the present day. Levy will discuss his work this week at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem. The event is being presented by the Piedmont Jazz Alliance.
The book is titled Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins. Levy says his primary responsibility was to tell an accurate story, and to do so, he conducted more than 200 interviews. He leaned on the voices of family members, friends, and musical collaborators — Jimmy Heath, Miles Davis, Sheila Jordan — to paint a clear portrait of Rollins in their own words.
Levy’s own fascination with Rollins began as a young budding saxophonist himself.
"I suppose to some extent maybe that started when I was about 11 years old and heard Sonny Rollins for the first time," says Levy. "And I was so struck by what I heard, the inventiveness of his ideas and the depth of his sound."
Levy says that sound and his entire approach to improvisation began grabbing the attention of jazz legends like Charlie Parker while Rollins was still in his teens. Starting in the late 1940s, Sonny began making a name for himself and influenced not only his peers, but then eventually subsequent generations of saxophonists.
One aspect of his playing that became widely influential was what came to be known as thematic improvisation — rather than improvising freely over a given chord, Rollins would instead create a countermelody on the spot with his own recurring themes and motives.
Rollins also broke new ground by eliminating chordal instruments altogether.
"He played without a piano or a guitar, just with a bass and drums in the trio setting, which is like flying without a net," says Levy. "And this has become a yardstick for improvising musicians since Sonny began doing it."
Levy spent many hours speaking with Rollins, getting a better understanding of the 92-year-old’s mindset.
"He's just such a deeply spiritual person, and such a deep thinker, and also a voracious reader," he says. "So, I was always inspired by how spiritually engaged he was, how intellectually curious he remains, how much he's still reading about environmentalism, which is a cause that he's been a part of, for decades now."
Levy was also struck by the work ethic that he says Rollins brings to everything he does, pouring tens of thousands of hours into his craft year after year. He says that level of dedication — pushing himself to get to that next level — may be best personified in Rollins’ break from performing in 1959.
"Which became known as this legendary bridge sabbatical when he vanished and was practicing every day on the Williamsburg Bridge when he was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan," says Levy. "He was practicing up there for up to 16 hours a day. And when he wasn't practicing, he was doing chin-ups out on the bridge abutment."
Getting a deeper sense of the man, Levy discovered that Rollins’ political engagement dates back to early childhood, inherited from a deeply political immediate family, and a grandmother who was a follower of Marcus Garvey. That same grandmother took Sonny Rollins to the Sanctified Church, exposing him to Gospel music at a young age, which he pursued periodically for decades afterwards.
He became a trailblazer in maintaining a clean and healthy lifestyle, giving up smoking to protect his breathing, focusing on physical fitness, and studying yoga, all beginning in the 1950s. He traveled to India and Japan where he continued his study of Eastern religion.
Levy says when it comes to the long arc of jazz history — from early New Orleans jazz, to swing, be-bop, avant-garde, and beyond — Sonny Rollins always looks beyond category.
"He saw a direct line from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman in that they both exemplified a kind of freedom in sound even though some might hear this couldn’t be more different," he says. "Sonny heard the same kernel, and the same kind of inventiveness, the same improvisatory spirit that he really has always exemplified in his own music."
Aidan Levy's talk at Bookmarks begins at 6:30pm on Friday, February 24.