At age 70, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins remains at the top of his game. Rollins made his recording debut in 1949 with singer Babs Gonzales. During a brief period of intense self-evaluation in the late 1950s, Sonny took time off to practice alone on the Willamsburgh Bridge in New York City. Critics say when he re-emerged he was better than ever.
One of Miles Davis' favorite stories was how Sonny Rollins got the nickname "Newk." Davis recalled taking a taxi with Rollins in Chicago, and the cabdriver turning to Sonny and saying "You're Don Newcombe." From then on, musicians and fans called him "Newk" because of his resemblance to major league baseball player Don Newcombe.
"Newk" Rollins was born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, just around the corner from the famed Savoy Ballroom, and down the street from the Apollo Theatre. He studied piano and alto saxophone, but switched to tenor sax when he was 16. By age 20, Rollins had already played in bands with Miles Davis, Bud Powell and J.J. Johnson. He also performed with jazz greats Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Sonny became an established soloist in the 1950s, winning a Down Beat magazine poll for New Star of the Tenor Saxophone in 1957.
Rollins' star still burns bright. In a recent cover story in Down Beat, writer Ted Panken wrote "Sonny Rollins executes the impossible, shaping poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night."
Night after night, for two years, in a secret alcove on a bridge connecting Delancey Street in lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Rollins, then 29, practiced the fundamentals of his saxophone. His self-imposed exile meant no recording or concert dates for over two years. In the late 1960s, he took another extended leave of absence to study Buddhism that he continues to practice today.
"Did You See Harold Vick?," is one of three originals from Sonny's new CD "This Is What I Do," with Clifton Anderson on trombone, Stephen Scott on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Perry Wilson on drums.
Sonny will be on tour in the U.S. all this month before leaving for concerts in London, Paris, Cologne, Basil and Stuttgart.