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Sonny Rollins: Last of the Mohicans

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Considered by many to be the most proficient improviser in jazz history, Sonny Rollins is the last remaining true jazz giant of his era. A contemporary of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown and Thelonious Monk, Rollins performed with all of these luminaries whilst shaping his own legendary career as a bandleader.

Sonny Rollins was born in Harlem in 1930. By the 40s, Harlem was the nucleus of a new movement in jazz called bebop. An adventurous style of improvising pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, bebop was in many ways a reaction against the predictable dance band music that was popular at the time. As a young saxophonist, Rollins quickly became one of the bebop elite, recording with innovators such as Miles Davis, Bud Powell and JJ Johnson—all before turning twenty.

During the 1950s, Rollins’ stature in the jazz world increased dramatically. He was regarded as the epitome of jazz saxophone at the time, and was dubbed the “Saxophone Colossus.” Many of his recordings from the era, including Tenor Madness, Sonny Rollins Plus Four, Way Out West and Saxophone Colossus are considered essentials by both jazz aficionados and casual listeners.

During the 1960s and 70s, Rollins took a number of highly-publicized sabbaticals from the performance scene, withdrawing to spend time practicing. He famously spent fifteen-hour days on the Williamsburg bridge, serenading New York’s East River. He has always returned to the stage, and even still maintains an impressive touring schedule at the ripe age of eighty.

Sonny Rollins is known for his rich tenor sound, his rhythmic drive and his affinity for singable melodies. As a composer, Rollins has contributed to the jazz canon with such standards as “Oleo” and “Doxy.” As an improviser, Sonny’s solos seem to have a logic and natural development to them that, to my ear, has not been equaled by any other modern musician. Listen to his solos on “St. Thomas” from Saxophone Colossus or “Without a Song” from The Bridge. You can hear both on YouTube, although I have a hunch that if you check them out you might end up buying the albums…

When Sonny Rollins’ kicks off the Jazz Festival this June, it will be an incredible, and for many of us a once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to see this amazing musician do what he does best. And because of the nature of improvised music, Sonny’s performance will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him too—that’s really something to look forward to!

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