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The consensus about Sonny Rollins is such that it’s not even a matter of opinion anymore: The man is an Olympian in the world of jazz, its mightiest saxophone player who’s on the very short list of the greatest improvisers in its history. At 81, he’s slowed down his touring schedule considerably—-although “slow” is not the word anyone who’s seen him onstage recently would ever think to use. Ahead of his Monday night concert at the Kennedy Center, Rollins talked with Washington City Paper about remaining humble, practicing and composing, and the perks of working in Washington.
Washington City Paper: What a big year you’ve had, particularly on Washington, D.C.’s terms. Has it changed how you feel about coming to Washington?
Sonny Rollins: It’s interesting you should ask, since I’m coming down for the concert next week. It’s a regular concert—-it’s sort of anticlimactic. Lately I only come to Washington to get honored, and it’s just a little concert! [laughs.]
WCP: You’re rather famously humble, though; how do you maintain that humility in the face of such huge honors?
SR: Well, it’s really easy because I really believe it. I’ve been around great people, I’ve listened to great music, and I’m a self-educated person who’s read a lot about different individuals that I consider great. So I certainly don’t have any notions of grandeur about myself.
WCP: It’s just everyone else who has notions of grandeur about you?
SR: Well, I don’t know that. You must never think that everybody loves you, because if you think that you may be rudely awakened. You have to know yourself: Am I being worthy? Am I doing the best that I can do? Am I really trying to be the best I can be in my profession? That’s what you have to do, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. People are fickle, too; they might love you today and hate you tomorrow. My business is what I’m doing as a musician, and that’s all that I’m concerned with.
WCP: As you get older, is it harder to keep up that energy, the drive it takes to push yourself?
SR: It’s not that hard, because I don’t work every night. I’m very careful about my itinerary. I only work so many months out of the year, starting around March or April, and we go to November. And when I do perform I have days off the day before and the day after I perform, so I can rest up. So it’s not like I’m out there every night, wearing myself down physically at my age.
WCP: But you do still practice every day; you must have to deal with some of those physicalities then.
SR: Well, I do practice every day; I don’t practice as long as I used to, though. I used to practice all day with no time limit, but now if I can get two hours a day in, I feel I’ve had a long day of practicing. And practicing at home, of course, I can do it at my leisure, and I always do it in a very casual way. I always tell my students, don’t make it a chore to practice. Always have time to improvise; get your rudiments in and everything, but have fun with playing. This may be true with other musics too, but in jazz you mustn’t think of it as something you resist doing. You must be joyful; you must feel good about the opportunity to continue to practice.
WCP: Do you compose in practicing?
SR: I do compose that way. But these days, it’s usually when I’m away from music that ideas come to me. I often compose when I’m walking through the airport, or the grocery store. Some thought will come to my mind. I always have manuscript paper at the ready. But I don’t always go by that; for instance, a few weeks ago, I woke up in the morning with a song running through my head, an original tune. I had to go to the store, and I had it in my head while I’m driving to the store, about 15 miles. I had it completely worked out, the chords and everything, in my head—and I didn’t stop to write it down. When I got home, there was somebody there working on my property and I talked to him—and bang! It was gone. Completely out of my head. I’m still kicking myself over that.
WCP: Talk about your relationship with Bob Cranshaw. It’s not often you find two people who’ve worked together for 50 years.
SR: I guess that’s true. Bob has played with a lot of other people; he’s been with me off and on, not steady. He’s been doing other things and I’ve been doing other things. But it has been about fifty years.
WCP: Are you and he very close?
SR: No! [laughs.] We’re OK. We’re friends; I know his family and everything, and he knows my family, sure. But we wouldn’t seek each other out in private to associate with.
WCP: Do you have any particular thoughts or memories about performing in Washington over the years?
SR: Well, Washington’s a very interesting city. I began playing there with Miles Davis, when I was in Miles’ band, and then when I was in Max Roach and Clifford Brown’s band. Then when I had my own groups, of course. There’s one thing about Washington that—I don’t know if you’re going to put this in your story or not, but I’ll relate it to you anyway. There are certain towns that traveling musicians look at, as far as the opposite sex is concerned; we look at them as bountiful. And Washington was always one of those towns. Someplace you looked forward to! At my age, though, that’s more memories than anything else. [laughs]
WCP: Anything you’d like to add?
SR: Just that I am looking forward to coming and performing for my audience in Washington. I hope they’ll feel good about it. I never feel good about it; very seldom do I feel good about it. But I hope that I can have a successful enough concert that they can feel something positive about it.
WCP: You don’t feel good? Do you mean you come off the stage thinking you should have been better?
SR: Yeah, usually I could have been better.
WCP: That’s an incredibly high standard to hold yourself to.
SR: Well, this is what it’s all about. To me it’s a privilege to be able to play for people, and it’s important that I give the people everything that I can. So that’s always foremost in my mind, that we be able to pull that off.