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Sonny Rollins

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Sonny Rollins will go down in history as not only the single most enduring tenor saxophonist of the bebop and hard bop eras, but also as one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time.
His fluid and harmonically innovative ideas, effortless manner, and easily identifiable and accessible sound have influenced generations of players. In addition, these skills have fueled the notion that mainstream jazz can be widely enjoyed, recognized, and proliferated. Rollins served early apprenticeships with Babs Gonzalez, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and Max Roach & Clifford Brown. His co-billing on a 1953 date with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and his recordings with Thelonious Monk, served to clue in the jazz establishment that a bright young star was in their midst who was not only a fine and remarkable soloist, but a supreme stylist. By the time 1956's classic Saxophone Colossus was issued, he was heralded as jazz's top tenorist. (The album was selected in 2017 for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant."). A year later when issuing the equally compelling Way Out West, and A Night at the Village Vanguard (two pioneering pianoless trio dates), he was regarded by critics in a class of his own -- a reputation he never relinquished. At the same time, Rollins also established himself as a noted composer. Several of his tunes -- "St. Thomas," "Oleo," "Doxy," "Pent-Up House," and "Airegin" -- have become jazz standards. Rollins' two "retirements" -- the first from the summer of 1959 through the end of 1961, when he practiced his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge, resulting in 1962's comeback album The Bridge -- and the second from 1969-1971, when he went on a spiritual sojourn in Jamaica and India -- only enhanced his abilities and reputation. In between, he issued three more influential albums: the soundtrack to the film Alfie, Sonny Rollins on Impulse!, and East Broadway Run Down. After returning the second time, the saxophonist had changed his style of play and, to a degree, his tone, which had become much more physical, soulful, and urgent, resulting in albums that reflected the influence of funk, pop, and R&B in his music as it met hard post-bop jazz -- as evidenced by the live date Don't Stop the Carnival in 1978. As one of jazz's elder statesmen in the '90s and early 21st centuries, he held an unbreakable connection between the music's historical lineage and modernity. Rollins continued to set the creative bar high: He won Grammys for 2000's This Is What I Do and 2005's Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, and a Lifetime Achievement Award. Rollins is such a cultural icon that he made an appearance on The Simpsons. He stopped performing in public in 2012 due to respiratory issues and was eventually forced to stop playing altogether.
Born Theodore Walter Rollins in New York City on September 7, 1930, he had an older brother who played violin. At age nine, he took up piano lessons but discontinued them, took up the alto saxophone in high school, and switched to tenor after high school, playing local engagements. In 1948 he recorded with vocalist Babs Gonzales, then Bud Powell and Fats Navarro, and his first composition, "Audubon," was recorded by J.J. Johnson. Soon thereafter, Rollins quickly made the rounds with groups led by Tadd Dameron, Chicago drummer Ike Day, and Miles Davis in 1951, followed by his own recordings with Kenny Drew, Kenny Dorham, and Thelonious Monk.
In 1956 Rollins made his biggest move, joining the famous ensemble of Max Roach & Clifford Brown, then formed his own legendary pianoless trio with bassist Wilbur Ware or Donald Bailey and drummer Elvin Jones or Pete La Roca in 1957, recording sessions at the Village Vanguard. Awards came from DownBeat and Playboy magazines, and recordings were made mainly for the Prestige and Riverside labels, but also for Verve, Blue Note, Columbia, and Contemporary Records -- all these factors coincided with Rollins' steadily rising star. Pivotal albums such as Tenor Madness (with John Coltrane), Saxophone Colossus (with longstanding partner Tommy Flanagan), and Way Out West (with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne), and collaborations with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Clark Terry, and Sonny Clark firmly established Rollins as a bona fide superstar. He also acquired the nickname "Newk" for his facial resemblance to Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe.
But between 1959 and 1961 he sought a less superficial, more spiritual path to the rat race of the times, visiting Japan and India, studying yoga and Zen. He left the music business until 1962, when he returned with the groundbreaking and in many ways, revolutionary recording The Bridge with guitarist Jim Hall for the RCA Victor/Bluebird label. Rollins struck up a working relationship with trumpeter Don Cherry; recorded a handful of innovative LPs for the RCA Victor, MGM/Metro Jazz, and Impulse! labels; made a record with his hero Coleman Hawkins, and left the scene again in 1968. By 1971, he'd come back with a renewed sense of vigor and pride and put out a string of successful records for the Milestone label that bridged the gap between the contemporary jazz and the fusion jazz of the time, the most memorable being his live date from the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival, The Cutting Edge. Merging jazz with calypso, light funk, and post-bop, Rollins' career was not only revived, but thrived from then onward. He was a member of the touring Milestone Jazz Stars in 1978 with McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter, and gained momentum as a touring headliner and festival showstopper.
His finest Milestone recordings of the second half of his career include Easy Living, Don't Stop the Carnival, G-Man, Old Flames, Plus Three, Global Warming, This Is What I Do, and Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. He has worked extensively with road and recording bands that have included electric bass guitarist Bob Cranshaw, trombonist Clifton Anderson, pianists Tommy Flanagan and Stephen Scott, keyboardist Mark Soskin, guitarists Bobby Broom and Jerome Harris, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummers Jack DeJohnette, Perry Wilson, Steve Jordan, and Al Foster. Rollins formed his own record label, Doxy, through which he issued Sonny, Please in 2006.
Into his eighth decade, Rollins continued to perform, and was documented on the three-volume Road Show series, also released on Doxy and Okeh. In 2010, Rollins was awarded the National Medal of Arts. The following year he was the subject of a documentary by Dick Fontaine, Beyond the Notes. Due to health problems, Rollins stopped playing in public in 2012. In 2016, the album Holding the Stage, a companion to the Roadshow series, appeared. The following year, Rollins made it known that he had been forced to stop playing altogether and expressed some disappointment that he had not achieved -- artistically -- all he wanted to. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi

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