The author of this Sonny Rollins bio promises us “A Journey into His World of Spirituality” — and that sets high expectations.
Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a Riff by Hugh Wyatt. Kamama Books, pages 304 pages, $19.99.
By Steve Provizer
Author Hugh Wyatt doesn’t hide his friendship with Sonny Rollins — Rollins is his daughter’s godfather — and he has chosen to write a spiritual biography of the saxophone great that comes perilously close to hagiography. The author says in the introduction that he doesn’t want to avoid the dark incidents in Sonny’s life and he doesn’t. However, whether describing Rollins’ involvement in heroin, his time in prison, or his difficulties with women, Wyatt’s framework and attitude regarding his subject is Sonny-as-spiritual guru.
If this was just a question of “tone,” of shading meaning, it would not be that important. But I am left with the feeling that he has not interviewed enough people and not given us a wide enough perspective about Rollins. I say this not because I’m interested in a hatchet job on Rollins. Far from it — I’m a great admirer of his playing and, listening to Rollins speak in videos over the last few years, I‘ve heard a man who speaks with great wisdom. But the author promises us “A Journey into His World of Spirituality” — and that sets high expectations.
It’s no easy matter to try and delineate the character of a man who grew up in the ’40s in a religious and political family on the tough streets of post-war Harlem. The winds blowing heroin into the lives of the jazz world were at gale force when Rollins started seriously playing in his late teens. Dope was ubiquitous and it seems as if non-users were in the minority. Never having read a biography of Rollins, I was glad to get a sense of that late-1940’s political and racial milieu and how easy it was for a jazz musician to run afoul of the law. Wyatt also fills in a lot about the various Muslim sects that were adopted by jazz musicians.
It was also interesting to hear how aggressive Rollins was — he was a feared boxer in the ‘hood — and how this same fierceness manifested in jam sessions. Wyatt imputes an almost furious competitiveness to Rollins. More eyewitness testimony — including from Rollins himself — would have been helpful to support this premise. Rollins is quoted throughout the book but, as Wyatt often tells us, he is a very private man and he doesn’t like to talk about many areas of his life. Sometimes Rollins’ quotations shed light — sometimes they are so general that they add little to our understanding.
Rollins’ seminal spiritual moment, The Bridge, is covered well here. Rollins’ two-year escape from the madness of the jazz life, practicing on the Manhattan Bridge, is the stuff of legend, as is his going to federal drug rehab in Lexington and quitting heroin. Interestingly, there are several allusions later in the book to Rollins again using, but no details are forthcoming.
Rollins’ relationships to women were many and complex. Rollins seems to have taken a fairly cavalier attitude toward women, but nary a disparaging word is heard from his ex-wives or girlfriends.
One interesting and important question taken up here is how and why jazz lost its black audience in the ’60. Wyatt’s notion is that, to some degree, the shift was economic — clubs were just too expensive — but mostly it was because jazz moved away from its roots in the black church. John Coltrane’s turn toward Eastern religion was a key element, he believes. Rollins also embraced a segment of what Wyatt says became “New Age” philosophy, but Rollins’ use of Indian or other world motifs was less direct than Coltrane’s. Wyatt’s premise here is difficult to sustain; generations of jazz musicians continue to say how important the black church is in their lives.
Wyatt makes a great deal throughout the book about how important it was for Rollins to be the #1 tenor man. He chose tenor saxophone because he wouldn’t have to compete with Charlie Parker on alto sax. This makes sense, but the author’s assertions about the musician’s competitiveness is not backed up by statements from Rollins or by other musicians. Much is made of the rivalry between Rollins and John Coltrane. Wyatt alludes several times to their playing on Tenor Madness, which he describes as “embarrassing” for Coltrane. He insists that Sonny whupped his ass. But there’s something suspect about Wyatt’s evaluation of Coltrane: “While Coltrane was a heroin addict during his creation of A Love Supreme and other ‘sacred’ recordings, his connection to the black Christian church was stronger than ever.” Coltrane was not an addict when he made A Love Supreme, his connection to the black Christian church was probably weaker than ever, and putting ‘sacred’ in quotes betrays the author’s negative attitude about what Coltrane was trying to do.
Wyatt proclaims several times that Coltrane dislodged Rollins from “the top of the heap.” “It is no exaggeration to say that,” he writes, “as a result of Coltrane’s popularity bump, Sonny Rollins was running scared in the mid-60’s.” There are no quotes from Rollins or anyone else to back up the idea that Rollins felt this way. I’ve heard Rollins only say good things about Coltrane; that he respected him and thought highly of him as a person.
There’s bit of the “you shall have no false idols before thee” quality about Wyatt when talking about Trane and Rollins; there’s only room for one hero in his pantheon. This is consistent with the way Wyatt deals with the rough patches in Rollins’ life. He tells you what happened, but always couches it in language reminding us how spiritually grounded Rollins was.
On top of this, the book didn’t go through through a rigorous editing process. Stories or points of information are often repeated several times. Also, the chronological structure is very fragmented. Wyatt is not definitive on when Sonny became “a certified junkie.” It is not made clear when Sonny played piano, alto, and tenor and I don’t understand why relationships with certain women are talked about at certain times and not at others, well past the point in the book when the relevant time period is discussed.
There are other details about the music that jazz people might take issue with. Wyatt describes Post Bop or Hard Bop in one sentence as being “smoother” than bebop, then says “the once free-wheeling solos grew tighter and fiercer, bubbling with anger…” He says “bebop was largely a black jazz concoction (which) many whites found difficult to play” and singles out Stan Getz and, especially Zoot Sims, as exceptions. I love Zoot, but it seems an odd choice.
Rollins was a seeker. There’s no question about that. His family background was religious and he took an early interest in alternative spiritual and religious paths. He read widely, was a yoga and Advaita Vendanta practitioner, a Rosicrucian — at least to some extent — who moved toward organic food later in life and clearly held a universalist, tolerant view of all approaches toward spiritual development.
Beyond this, Wyatt seems to believe in other occult powers accruing to Rollins. Can he really levitate? Rollins does have “an hypnotic effect on his audience,” but Wyatt clearly implies more than a metaphor when he writes this. He describes Rollins’ family seeing him filled with light. Rollins’ most well-defined “occult” experience occurred in 2012, when he looked up and saw what he called a “veil.” “The veil was covering this world. But what happened was that veil parted just a little bit…and behind it I saw this [vision], which was like a different world — some people would say heaven — or whatever.” Clearly it was an important revelation for Rollins, but he soft-pedals such experiences while Wyatt seems to be a true (and unquestioning) believer.
Still, Wyatt has written an interesting history of Rollins’ spiritual life, albeit more as an acolyte than as a disinterested chronicler. His point of view shapes the information he gives us — it would be good to have a wider variety of voices tell Rollins’ story. What Wyatt does well is fill in some lesser-known aspects of Rollins’ narrative, limning an especially vivid sense of the drug and religio-spiritual lives of jazz, focusing on the late ’40s to the ’60s. From “certified thug” to wise elder, Wyatt gives us a sense of the epic outer and inner lives of Sonny Rollins.
Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010.