Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music

By Gene Santoro | Go to book overview

5
Sonny Rollins

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

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Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Highway 61 Revisited - The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I: Avatars 5
  • 1: Louis Armstrong 7
  • 2: Woody Guthrie 17
  • Part II: The Postwar Jazz Era 31
  • 3: Mary Lou Williams 33
  • 4: Max Roach 37
  • 5: Sonny Rollins 49
  • 6: Chet Baker 64
  • 7: Miles Davis 68
  • 8: Herbie Hancock 80
  • Part III: Rebirth of the Blues 91
  • 9: The Gospel Highway 93
  • 10: Chess Records 99
  • 11: The Folk Revival 104
  • 12: Willie Nelson 119
  • 13: Lenny Bruce 124
  • 14: Sweet Soul Music 135
  • Part IV: In the Garage 151
  • 15: Bob Dylan 153
  • 16: Electric Blues Revival 171
  • 17: Buffalo Springfield 179
  • 18: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris 185
  • 19: The Grateful Dead 193
  • 20: The Band 204
  • 21: The Firesign Theatre 216
  • 22: Bruce Springsteen 223
  • 23: Tom Waits 235
  • Part V: Possible Futures 241
  • 24: Ken Burns, the Academy, and Jazz 243
  • 25: The Politics of Music Don Byron and Dave Douglas 257
  • 26: Cassandra Wilson 265
  • 27: Marty Ehrlich 278
  • 28: New Jazz Fusions 283
  • 29: Ani Difranco 297
  • Index 302
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