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Crouch on Rollins

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From the New Yorker online ...

The Jazz Giant

Issue of 2005-05-09

Posted 2005-05-02

This week in the magazine, Stanley Crouch writes about the jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who, at seventy-four, is in the sixth decade of his remarkable career. Here, Crouch discusses Rollins, jazz, and improvisation with Ben Greenman.

BEN GREENMAN: Where does Sonny Rollins rank in the jazz pantheon?

STANLEY CROUCH: No. 1, along with Roy Haynes and Hank Jones.

BG:You open your article by saying that a Sonny Rollins concert is a drastically hit-or-miss proposition. Is it hard for him to approach each show as an entirely new experience?

SC:Improvisation is about a new experience, a new way of hearing something, a different perspective, a reimagining. That’s how the music works. And Sonny Rollins is almost always remarkable, which makes him a phenomenon. His is the sort of talent that we have almost no ability to address in this time, because musical performance and musical skill have dropped to such a low level. Rollins is a vital artist of this moment, but he is also a summation of all of the victories of American performance in the twentieth century. Like Armstrong, he is jazz, and jazz added a new level of performance sophistication to Western music. That addition is about all of the ways of creating order within, almost always, a harmonic structure, which is what separates it from so-called “world music,” which is never about harmony of any substance or swing. That is a Western invention and addition to music. Swing is an addition to the rhythm of the world.

BG:In his less focussed performances, Rollins sometimes switches into calypso mode. Caribbean rhythms have always been important to his music; are there other jazz players who put lots of island music into their playing?

SC:No, but there has always been a tendency to make use of what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge”—music from the islands, or South America, or the Iberian Peninsula, transformed to fit the Western Hemisphere.

BG:At one point, Freddie Hubbard says that one of the main differences between John Coltrane and Rollins was that Coltrane took a very analytical approach to harmony, whereas Rollins was more spontaneous. Rollins and Coltrane recorded together only once, on “Tenor Madness,” in the mid-fifties. Did their approaches mesh in an interesting and exciting way?

SC:It was O.K. I was never that impressed by “Tenor Madness.” It’s too bad they didn’t get together and do an entire album, maybe with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. That would have put something on all of us.

BG:How hard has it been for Rollins to outlive most of the other jazz luminaries of the fifties and sixties?

SC:Well, Sonny Rollins is one of the brightest lights in the history of the music; his talent is up there next to that of Armstrong, Young, and Parker. He is a true natural and a great synthesizer. In improvising, he does the same thing that Ellington did when composing: he reinvents the entire tradition, because he understands all of the differences and all of the connections.

BG:Are there younger players who have the same kind of power as Rollins, or has jazz changed in ways that make this unlikely?

SC:I think that Branford Marsalis has the talent to expand upon Rollins and become a master of intimidating quality.

BG:Much of your article discusses the mercurial nature of Rollins’s live performances, and the problem of capturing him on a studio recording. Is this problem less acute for other jazz artists?

SC:Perhaps, yes. Sonny seems less confident about recordings than other musicians are. He more or less slid into the problem. But he seems more capable of living with a memory of a great performance than he does with the artifact of a recording.

BG:Has Rollins ever been a big commercial success? Has most of his earnings come from live performance?

SC:I think his 1966 recording of “Alfie” was a jazz hit, which means it sold a lot for a jazz record but might not have done much to shake up his record label. When Rollins was a master at full strength, as a man in his middle thirties, there was not much big money to be made in jazz, unless one was lucky, the way John Coltrane was with “My Favorite Things,” or had the power of a big label behind him, the way Miles Davis did at Columbia. He now says that there was not a lot of work to be had in the sixties; I saw him often and he seemed to be doing well enough, although we didn’t talk about his finances.

BG:Most jazz novices own “Saxophone Colossus” and “Way Out West.” What other records are essential for understanding and enjoying Rollins?

SC:“The Bridge,” “Our Man in Jazz,” “The Standard Sonny Rollins,” “Alfie,” and “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” which contains the masterpiece “Silver City” and his mostly solo version of “Autumn Nocturne,” which many writers like.

BG:Rollins has retreated from studio recording and live performance a few times in his career. How has this affected his work?

SC:He always returned to the scene a better player. I think Sonny Rollins is a contemplative man, and he sometimes needed to get out of the rat race of touring, the smoke-filled rooms, the temptations of drug abuse, and all of the elements that made working in those little clubs as abominable as the intimate setting could be beautiful on a good night. As a health-conscious man, Sonny Rollins also was able to recharge, work out, do his yoga, and come back in championship form.

BG:If, as you say, an artist like Rollins “has realized his talent almost exclusively on the bandstand,” does this mean that most of his performances will be lost to history?

SC:Not at all. The collector Carl Smith has more than three hundred bootleg performances, stretching back to Rollins playing an alto in a music store in 1949. Someday they will all be out. Hopefully, Sonny himself will benefit as much as possible.

BG:You mention that Milestone Records is releasing one of the recordings that Smith has collected. With the way the record industry is changing—decreased sales for all genres, and an increase in online downloadable music—will there come a day when there’s a huge online archive of Rollins’s recordings available for posterity?

SC:Why not? We know what will happen. If it all appears online, the writers will go through them and, eventually, there will be the hundred best, followed by the fifty best, followed by the twenty-five best, followed by the ten best. You know how the public is. With so many choices, it wants someone to tell it which are the best, so that time and money can be saved. At some point, the relationship of quality to money becomes the issue. Perhaps, in some utopian time, the availability of quality will be the central issue. But, then, no one can imagine that. It sounds too much like heaven.

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So is the upcoming Boston 2001 release (Without A Song) on Milestone from a "bootleg" tape or is there another that we haven't heard about yet?

Mike

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Even when Crouch expounds about how important a musician Rollins has been, mentioning him in the same breath as Armstrong or Parker, he can't help but kiss Marsalis butt, in this case brother Branford:

SC:I think that Branford Marsalis has the talent to expand upon Rollins and become a master of intimidating quality.

Ridiculous. Branford has been around now for more than 20 years. If he had the "talent to expand" as SC states, it would have been done by now. IMO, one could have a supremely respectable jazz collection and not have anything by Branford. I really don't wish to denigrate Branford - I do own a couple of his CDs - but really.....

Second, it is mentioned later in the article about how the many private recordings of Rollins might one day surface commercially. If this were to be done legitimately, it would take the cooperation of Rollins, an unlikely prospect IMO. I was fortunate to meet Rollins on a couple of occasions. When I was re-introduced to him by a mutual friend backstage at a concert in Purchase, NY, some 20 years ago, my friend cautioned me NOT to mention that I owned scores of private tapes of Rollins as that would quite likely incur his displeasure. I heeded that advice as it would have crushed me then, as well as now, to anger an artist who has given me such incalculable pleasure over the years, the many times I have seen him perform as well as the recordings I have listened to time and time again.

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That addition is about all of the ways of creating order within, almost always, a harmonic structure, which is what separates it from so-called “world music,” which is never about harmony of any substance or swing. That is a Western invention and addition to music. Swing is an addition to the rhythm of the world.

More ideological posturing. I think he simply means for "world music" to be code for "what Dave Douglas and his ilk are doing". But I love it that a diss of traditional African musics is implicit in his "informed opinion". Luckily, his interviewer then throws him this bone...

In his less focussed performances, Rollins sometimes switches into calypso mode...

Yuck.

Edited by Joe

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Carl Smith lives around here (Portland, Maine) and actually wrote a good book on Bud Powell a few years back.

Sonny is an interesting guy. I've met and interviewed him twice, and both times it was a bit like pulling teeth, though he was polite - he only got animated when I happened to land on a subject that really interested him - and these were, as I recall:

1) the time during his youth that he went to what people have, later, referred to as "socialist summer camps" - summer camps organized by left wing political groups to integrate white and black youth -

2) The subject of saxophpones, which brands he liked to play, and which were hard to play in tune -

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Even when Crouch expounds about how important a musician Rollins has been, mentioning him in the same breath as Armstrong or Parker, he can't help but kiss Marsalis butt, in this case brother Branford:

SC:I think that Branford Marsalis has the talent to expand upon Rollins and become a master of intimidating quality.

Ridiculous. Branford has been around now for more than 20 years. If he had the "talent to expand" as SC states, it would have been done by now. IMO, one could have a supremely respectable jazz collection and not have anything by Branford. I really don't wish to denigrate Branford - I do own a couple of his CDs - but really.....

Agreed. It's a shame that the New Yorker can't print those :rolleyes: icons, because this part of the interview deserved at least 5 or 6.

Guy

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There's only two words in that entire interview worth remembering - "Carl Smith".

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BG:Has Rollins ever been a big commercial success? Has most of his earnings come from live performance?

When Sonny Rollins signed with RCA back in 1961, it was for a figure that was considered to be pretty substantial at the time (can't recall the actual amount). I don't believe that "Alfie" was any more of a "hit" than a number of other Rollins LP's; it appears that Mr. Crouch is talking through his hat again.

And as for the Marsalis reference, I'm with you Marty!!!

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Here's the lowdown on the RCA deal, reported in db 3/1/62 p.10:

=========

Sonny Rollins, fresh from retirement, much romanced by record companies, has signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor. Company executive George Avakian made Victor's position clear, concise, and cheery by outlining a company program built around Rollins, Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello (both signed exclusively to Victor beyond records they will make with Dave Brubeck for Columbia). Also on the Victor list is the Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake Duo, part of what Avakian calls "an expansion into untried jazz talent" and which he said he feels will be made possible because the initial "big-name talent" will establish a Victor jazz line capable of supporting young jazz musicians and capable of cutting through the "overabundance of poor records swamping the market."

Behind that news: the Rollins contract is said to guarantee him $90,000 over a 2 1/2-year period for five albums. Any additional albums made for Victor during that time call for a $10,000 guarantee for each. Veteran record men, nonveterans too, estimate that Victor must sell 40,000 of each Rollins record (or 200,000 all told) to break even on this contract. In effect, since all companies measure money carefully, the fact of the money, and the projected fact of sales (Rollins' biggest seller thus far is a Prestige 25,000 winner) assures Victor's new interest in jazz, quickly building because it cannot bide.

==========

Mike

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And that was when 90K was a lot of money...

I've head talk that the size of the contract messed w/Sonny's head, that it caused him to put a lot of pressure on himself to somehow "deliver the goods". Don't know if that's true, though.

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And that was when 90K was a lot of money...

I've head talk that the size of the contract messed w/Sonny's head, that it caused him to put a lot of pressure on himself to somehow "deliver the goods". Don't know if that's true, though.

Lots of "projecting" here Jim.

Sonny caved into "career pressures" before the RCA contract.

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That's just what I've heard, all of it idle chit-chat. Read somewhere where somebody (Herbie, maybe?) said that the reason Sonny spent so much time in the RCA studios was trying to come up with a "perfect" record that would earn back the advance, or something like that. Kinda makes sense, what with his "old-fashioned" work ethic (which must have at times created conflicts with his quixotic creative nature), but like I said, ultimately just chit-chat.

What kind of career-pressures are you referring to, Chuck? Sonny seems to have been "aware" of his "image" for quite a while, and not always for the better.

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How much money was Coltrane offered for signing with Impulse! right about that time?

Also, around that time, in terms of recognition and popularity who was more of a "brand name", Trane or Sonny? My take - Sonny, simply because he was in the limelight longer, but I could be wrong.

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But Coltrane had "My Favorite Things" on Atlantic - I can't think of any Rollins performance that was that kind of hit.

Mike

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But Coltrane had "My Favorite Things" on Atlantic - I can't think of any Rollins performance that was that kind of hit.

Mike

Mike, what about all of the Saxophone Colossus? That should've been a major hit, I would imagine.

I wonder what were Sonny's and Trane's best-selling albums [when Trane was still alive, that is].

I wouldn't dare and guess, but if I had to I'd say My Favorite Things [or Soultrane] and the Colossus.

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I don't think Saxophone Colossus was a hit, in any sense, as great as it was.

One of the most insightful things about Sonny was told to me by Jamil Nasser. Jamil said that Sonny, who had been the tenor saxopohone king, was really thrown by Coltrane's rising star, and that this really caused Sonny to drift and experiment in a lot of not-always constructive, but sometimes interesting, ways (funny haircuts, playing on the bridge...). Paul Bley has always felt that Sonny, in trying to be "contemporary," erred in not always sticking to what he did best, which was playing from the Standard jazz repertoire (and he did use more open forms with Don Cherry) - Sonny definitely had some artistic confusion; I saw him, in about 1969, do a Town Hall Concert with about 20 bassists and himself - it was a disaster from the git-go, and Sonny just kind of disappeared from the stage in the middle of it. Personally, much as I idolize him, I think his drifting has continued with his groups from the 1970s on - loud, cluttered rhythm sections, mistaken by Sonny for au courance, great playing buried in poor sideman choices - but that's just my opinion - whenever I've seen Sonny over those years, I've always had to try and filter out everything but him - and there's not a single recording of his, post-1970, that I EVER listen to - I can't stand the little microphone he uses, and it just all sounds so frustratingly close but no cigar -

Edited by AllenLowe

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An excerpt from the intro to my book, which suffers a bit from being pliched out of its context but which touches on what Allen just said and perhaps also on what Chuck said before about "career pressures":

"The rich complexity of Rollins’s musical thought, and his ability to at once dramatize and ironically comment upon virtually any emotional impulse that came to mind, led him to express multiple points of view--one could even say summon up multiple selves or characters--within a single solo. This was, however, not an approach that Rollins could sustain during the 1960s, in the face of rapid stylistic change in the surrounding jazz landscape. Responding to those changes in his own work, as he did quite strikingly up to a point, also meant that the broadly shared musical-emotional language of romantic sign and sentiment that had so deeply stirred Rollins’s own sentiments and wit was now becoming historical. It was a language that could still be referred to and played off of, but for him apparently not with sufficient immediacy."

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Pliched? Sounds like it would be useful word, but I meant to type "plucked."

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Here's info on Coltrane's contract with Impulse, from Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme, p. 50 -

=============

Even before the full impact of "My Favorite Things" had been felt, ABC executives had bowed to [Creed] Taylor's wishes, loosened the purse strings, and bought out Coltrane's contract. As Atlantic had done to Prestige, so a deep-pocketed label poached one of Atlantic's top jazz artists. The saxophonist now merited a $10,000 advance for one year, with two-year options that soon rose to a $20,000 annual advance.

=============

I agree with Allen that as a "hit", Saxophone Colossus was nowhere near My Favorite Things (which was even a 45 single). Perhaps Colossus was the 25,000 seller mentioned in the db article.

From J.C. Thomas's book Chasin' The Trane, p.133 -

=============

[...] My Favorite Things was in the record stores and on the radio stations within months; it sold more than 50,000 copies during its first year of release. For a jazz album to do better than 5,000, or twice that at most, is roughly equivalent to a million-seller by the Rolling Stones.

=============

In Musician 7/87, Peter Watrous mentioned that "My Favorite Things went gold and Newsweek covered Coltrane's week-long stay in July [1961] at the Village Vanguard."

However, in checking the RIAA database, the only Coltrane records listed are Blue Train and A Love Supreme, both gold.

Mike

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I'm surprised that Blue Train seems to have sold better than My Favorite Things, at least based on what Mike found.

Were there any other titles from the Alfred Lion era that sold more than Blue Train? Perhaps Song For My Father or the Sidewinder?

Bertrand.

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However, in checking the RIAA database, the only Coltrane records listed are Blue Train and A Love Supreme, both gold.

And I'd bet that these are long term sales figures. Each of these records has achieved the status of an acknowledged classic, which has helped their continued sales over the years.

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No reason to use the RIAA database as proof of anything. The only info they have is stuff sent by the record companies and that is spotty at best.

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hey, my first CD has sold about 14 copies, one for each year since it was issued - there's nothing like a long shelf life -

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No reason to use the RIAA database as proof of anything. The only info they have is stuff sent by the record companies and that is spotty at best.

You said it, Chuck.

Some albums are released with different titles, even different labels over the years, so there are jazz albums that never were given precious metal certification yet have cumulative sales that exceed the RIAA's requirements. I believe Stan Getz's "Long Island Sound" is one such a release.

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