Rollins and Rivers: Full Lives
Kevin Whitehead

Jimmy Heath 2018 on Sonny Rollins: “He set the pace for rhythmic playing ... His rhythmic concept and his sense of humor, his intensity, his sound, his romantic touch ... he has all the expressions of life.” The rhythmic swagger was evident by 1951 when Sonny began recording as leader: hear “Mambo Bounce,” hinting at calypsos to come. From the mid-1950s to 1967 Rollins had an acetylene hot streak. In tune or pointedly out, his tenor sound was thrilling: tender and garish by turns, or at once. He wrote good catchy melodies, as for Freedom Suite. Consider the underappreciated 1957 gem “Way Out West,” 20-bar horseback lope that hits all 12 notes (but isn’t 12-tone), capped by a Bing Crosby quote (“Swinging on a Star”). It wasn’t the only masterpiece on the album of the same name. He had a half century of work still in front of him.

The paving-stone size of Aiden Levy’s Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins (Hachette) makes its own statement: this is what a major culture figure deserves. The main text is 715 pages; via the publisher’s site one may download a 416-page PDF of footnotes, out-takes, and subterranean discussion which rarely drifts into the too-marginal, although the bridesmaids’ dresses at Sonny’s brother’s wedding are described.

Like other biographers Levy gears up slowly, tracing family histories; Sonny’s West Indian roots are crucial to his lilt, and it’s good to get it all straight. We get a lot about his Navy father’s bullshit Annapolis court-martial for fraternizing with white friends, underscoring the institutional racism Rollins and his mates faced daily. Things pick up quickly, as we turn to the music. You get it all: first steps, early bands and recordings, the personal associations behind various oddball tunes he’d record, often emblems of his childhood. We get idol Hawkins, mentor Monk, fellow traveler McLean, Max and Clifford, how the late 1950s West Coast dates came together, his sour relationship with Impulse, and pretty much everything you’d want to know about sabbaticals and time spent practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge and in other outdoor locales.

Levy obviously earned Rollins’ trust – the notes cite some two dozen interviews or conversations, mostly post-2017, and he interviewed multiple colleagues (like Heath). Rollins’ cooperation made it possible – but then he’s long been very good about accommodating and being open with interviewers (even a late-period skeptic like me). Levy earns the reader’s confidence as well, despite occasional clinkers. He refers to any tune with rhythm changes as “a rhythm changes” by analogy with “a blues,” an uncommon term (though Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack used it, hyphenated). Any book this crammed with facts will mangle a few. The gaffes are mostly immaterial, if signaling the limits of the author’s knowledge. Chicago’s Green Mill turns up on the South Side; Art Blakey’s an expatriate; Dutch jazz fans wonder if (already fearsome) 1967 Han Bennink was up to playing with Rollins; Jos van Heuverzwijn (from whom Sonny bought a horn) was “known as one of the leading tenor saxophonists in the Netherlands.” He was not.

A long book allows for a luxurious detail. For the album Sonny Meets Hawk the contract called for Rollins to get $15,000, and his boyhood idol $1,250 – though it appears Sonny topped Hawkins off with $750 of his own. We get the story behind a much-circulated board tape in which a surly Freddie Hubbard invites a disenchanted audience to “kiss my black ass” (Graz 1966, with Max Roach, opening for Rollins). Saxophone Colossus does what the best biographies do: Gives you enough information to pursue your own lines of inquiry (which helps when the author leaves them unexplored). No matter how you read Rollins the artist, no matter which phase you favor, there are dozens of quotes, biographical tidbits, and anecdotes to chew over. No short bio would find room to mention Sonny’s devotion to radio comics Bob and Ray, with their absurd dialogues and ability to deploy multiple voices and characters in short order. Folks have long remarked on something analogous happening in Rollins solos. Sonny told David S. Ware, when they practiced together, “sometimes I can stand back and observe myself playing, in the moment.” To Levy: sometimes on stage “I actually see myself from above.” Misha Mengelberg wrote of an Amsterdam concert where Rollins would play a phrase, then reply to it, as if in dialogue, while also seeming to stand apart from both roles – as if one Rollins were playing on the bridge, and another under the bridge answered him, as a third eavesdropped from a boat nearby. (For the record, Jackie McLean reports some Rollins-tugboat dialogues conducted from the Williamsburg Bridge.)

Levy touches on that unself-conscious versus conscious duality but doesn’t play it up. With so many facts to relay, larger contours of a career may get lost. The last couple of hundred pages deal with Sonny from the 1970s on, after his second sabbatical. (I think of this period as his career’s second half, but it’s lopsided: about 40 years versus the first 25.) The Milestone-and-beyond years get fewer pages, but Levy doesn’t race through them like an early Armstrong biographer on the All-Stars era. The author’s down-in-the-weeds discussion of myriad comings and goings in Sonny’s later bands makes you realize it was all crazier than you thought – so many musicians involved. But the change was more profound than the move to electric bass.

Earlier Rollins bands were interactive and inspired him. Think of the drummers. Shelly Manne’s woodblocks put the spurs to “I’m an Old Cowhand,” and Rollins didn’t ignore La Roca, Elvin, Klook or Bennink. But post-1970, it’s all about the star out front and the band back by the curtain; the endless personnel churn confirmed every side person’s dispensability, no matter how distinguished. (And raise the suspicion he didn’t want them too organized.) We hear the same tales repeated. It was going great till the one time I had a conflict and that was it. Or, just when things got really good, the calls stopped. Rollins told George Cables, when I go outside the changes, don’t follow me – just stick to the tune. Some pianists he liked ‘cause they also knew a million songs, but he didn’t use them long. Per Cables, he didn’t always want to be followed. Live, skipping from one standard to another was meant to keep him, band, and listeners on their toes, but he might flit from one to anther so quickly, no one could grab on. Pianist Michael Wolff on the best nights: “It felt like he didn’t even really need the band. Like here’s the band, and there’s Sonny.” Recording with the Rolling Stones, having Grover Washington guest in concert: Rollins says plainly he wants to attract a younger audience. Such sound business decisions promote the brand. (He and wife Lucille were firmly in charge.) As he asked rhetorically in 1969, if I don’t hold out for my price now, when will I ever get it?

Levy: “The backlash was largely a response to Sonny’s perceived embrace of fusion and ... electric instruments.” That was a problem, and some side folk fell short, but that “largely” obscures an issue the biographer addresses only obliquely: profound changes in Rollins’ sound and solo style. That once gloriously pliable tone was now brittle, braying and pie-tin metallic, his solos more groove oriented and riffier, making less dramatic use of space. His yakkety new style is undeniably infectiously jubilant – but a long way from the Schuller-dissected complexities of “Blue Seven.”

How to account for the change in timbre? Levy isn’t one to discuss reeds and mouthpieces. He does refer several times mostly in passing to ongoing dental woes. Rollins had extensive work in 1971. Levy devotes one sentence to a subsequent change in embouchure making his sound “throatier, but still unmistakably Sonny.” It may be relevant that Rollins in India on his second sabbatical in 1968 dug double-reed/shenai player Ustad Bismillah Khan, with his striking nasal timbre, sometimes hypnotic repetitions and intensely rhythmic attack. (And a few years later Sonny got into bagpiper Rufus Harley – melodies that go around and around.) Other saxophonists notice the change; young Eddie Daniels, sitting in at the Vanguard, plays Sonny’s old sound back to him, hoping he’ll take a hint. (On a couple tracks on 1993’s Falling in Love with Jazz, Branford Marsalis sounds more like vintage Sonny than Sonny does.)

Several critics I like and respect are staunch champions of latter-day Rollins, so the problem is probably mine (and, gasp, Leonard Feather’s). Still, defenders often have a loftier opinion of the music than Sonny does. Gary Giddins reviewing the concert that became the flitter’s holiday The Solo Album: “Even when he’s off, he’s on.” Rollins’ own reaction: “It wasn’t my best.” The 1996 anthology Silver City was designed to demonstrate the Milestone period was every bit as great as the earlier. Listen to its two discs back-to-back with, say, Way Out West and Saxophone Colossus, and decide for yourself.


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September 25th will mark the 100th birthday of Sam Rivers, accompanied, we hope, by an appropriate level of hoopla for another jazz original. Sam said in 1981 that after he debuted on record with Miles in Tokyo in 1964, folks listened trying to hear what he got from Coltrane and/or Rollins. Sam who sounds like neither dismissed their influence: “I had already been a professional musician for 20 years ... I had been creating my own style well before my recording debut.” He never was easy to categorize. Who else played with Billie Holiday, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, and Zamfir?

If Saxophone Colossus is a paving stone, Rick Lopez’s The Sam Rivers Sessionography: A Work in Progress (The Vortex) is a big-city phone book, six-and-a-half pounds, emboss-printed on heavy glossy paper, sturdily bound, and abundantly illustrated with photos, posters, tear sheets, magazine and album covers, and reproductions of Jeff Schlanger paintings: a day-by-day accounting of gigs, recordings and other activities, laid out in easily graspable form, interspersed with excerpts from historic (print or radio) interviews with Sam and accomplices, or Lopez’s own side folk interviews (often conducted with accomplice Ed Hazell, who’s writing a book on Studio Rivbea). In effect Lopez gathers the materials for an exhaustive biography, but leaves it to the reader to assemble the final picture in mind. As crazy-quilt method, it works rather well – you learn to speed-read tour itineraries – though one occasionally wishes for more information about how certain record dates and sideman appearances came about.

Lopez’s William Parker Sessionography surprised a few people on arrival in 2014. Didn’t his Sam Rivers obsession keep him busy enough? The original Rivers Sessionography went online in 1997, and soon became an essential and celebrated resource for anyone hoping to comprehend Sam’s rich and varied career, as multi-instrumentalist, composer, improviser and leader of big and small bands who also (with wife Beatrice) ran legendary New York early-1970s performance space Studio Rivbea. Rivers approved, gave Rick his blessing: Give him whatever he wants.

The scrolling document kept growing, as Lopez uncovered more information and tested twice-told tales; informants stepped forward, maybe even tracked down leads on their own. A later version is still up at, but the book supersedes it. Lopez says of his subject early on, “I do not see him as the kind of guy (and neither will you after working your way through this text) who is going to do anything else but play every single chance that he gets.” To wit: July 3, 1973, a Rivers trio (Richard Davis, Norman Connors) plays an afternoon show for the Newport Jazz Festival; that evening Sam’s at the Apollo Theater with the Jazz Opera Ensemble (aka the Afro-American Singing Theatre, whose productions include “singing/acting improvisations on consumer problems for Harlem housewives”). On the 4th, he, Connors, and Cecil McBee record Streams at Montreux; the 5th, back in New York, they play two sets (the second very late) at Studio Rivbea: five shows, three days, two continents.

The man kept busy off stage. He composed every day, on paper. He learned to sew and made his own clothes. He trained musicians (such as Steve Coleman) as he rehearsed them in his music. He taught on campuses. And ran a venue. In all that he depended on his wife Beatrice to keep the wheels turning. Rick Lopez writes Rivbea as RivBea, in tribute to her work running that space, and Sam’s career; she was a sounding board, and a second set of ears at rehearsals. When Bea died in 2005, their daughter Monique Williams instantly dropped everything to start looking after her dad, his business and his archive. The Rivers women get their due here.

Lopez like Levy layers in so much information, readers can make their own connections. I was struck by the consistency of Sam’s ideas about composing for big band, though the sound of his orchestral music evolved between 1974’s Crystals and the Florida band he led for two decades starting in 1991 – what well-paid local theme-park musicians did for kicks (and for free). We hear about Sam’s methods from many members of Orlando’s Rivbea Orchestra, especially longtime rhythm tandem (and members of the longest running Rivers trio) Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole. By 1972, Sam was already complaining about big bands where players stood idle during solos. Six years later he’d tell a Washington Post writer he thought of every part in a big band chart as a solo line. The final band expanded on those ideas.

Also in the 1970s: so many, many trio combinations. We think of Rivers/Holland/Altschul touring between 1974 and 1978 as the archetype, the one treated to a grand (2007) reunion, but when Sam started with trios in 1971, McBee and Connors were his steadiest partners, and bassists Hakim Jami, Richard Davis, Arild Andersen, and Wayne Dockery and drummers Clifford Jarvis, Warren Smith, and Jerome Cooper passed through before Holland and Altschul stabilized. Rivers made so many outstanding records in the 1970s, it can be hard to remember them all; when’s the last time you heard Contrasts on ECM? (You’re welcome.)

Aiden Levy is an academically-trained professional biographer. (Previous subject: Lou Reed.) Rick Lopez here describes himself (as of 2011, at least) as a part-time school bus driver. His dogged Rivers surveillance (in progress) is a model of independent scholarship, and reading The Sam Rivers Sessionography is a highly immersive experience. It’s in a limited edition of 724 copies. Don’t snooze on it if you’re just going to kick yourself later.


© 2023 Kevin Whitehead


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