THEODORE WALTER “SONNY” ROLLINS has been called jazz's greatest living improviser so many times it's become his virtual Homeric epithet. In 1959, musicologist Gunther Schuller wrote an essay using “Blue 7” from Rollins's Saxophone Colossus to explicate the saxophonist's thematic way of worrying at melodies to unfold variations, often so subtly that they recall the attack shared by his idols Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Ask any significant contemporary saxist, from Joshua Redman to Joe Lovano to Branford Marsalis, about influences; expect Rollins's name to be at or near the top of the list.
In concert—the only way to experience Rollins at his best—he stalks the stage wielding his tenor like it's a toy, twisting and turning down the corridors of his restless imagination with such fluency that he seems less a purely musical, and more a natural, phenomenon. His burred, fluid tone shifts as he ransacks his bottomless memory banks for quotes, fragments of tunes he can warp into the crucibles that are his solos. His love of pop culture, from cowboy movies to dancing, led him to annex to jazz styles like calypso, in his “St. Thomas,” and rework Tin Pan Alley schmaltz like “Toot Toot Tootsie.” At the time, few jazz artists aside from Miles Davis—Rollins's most frequent bandmate in the early 1950s—could touch that sort of vehicle without going soft. But that's Sonny Rollins—and so that's what you get. The integration of his personality, the focus on the flow of his jazz voice as it articulates the pools of his psyche, is what makes him so formidable, as a player and as a person. He is a nonpareil jazz existentialist.
The quick précis of his life and career runs like this: his mother was born in the Virgin Islands, but Sonny Rollins grew up in Harlem, alongside other jazz-musicians-to-be like Jackie McLean. His older brother and sister studied music and became classical professionals, but Sonny was drawn to jazz and the jazzy pop of the Swing Era. He met his bebop idols hanging out on the Harlem scene: Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell. And like the teenage McLean he worked with them, rehearsing with Monk: “He used to sneak me into bars after school.” In