Jazz: Linking Sonny and "the Bridge" for posterity
- The New Yorker
Between 1953 and 1959, the jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins released twenty-one full-length albums. This kind of prolificacy seems absurd now, during an era in which new musical material is meted out on a preordained, market-friendly schedule—a few weeks of recording, a year or two of touring, a cashed paycheck, repeat. But music rushed out of Rollins, like an overfed river. Miles Davis described Rollins’s output circa 1954 as “something else. Brilliant.” In his book “Black Music,” the critic and poet Amiri Baraka—then writing as LeRoi Jones—called his music “staggering.” Baraka suggested that Rollins, along with John Coltrane and the pianist Cecil Taylor, was doing the necessary work “to propose jazz again as the freest of Western music.”
Then, in 1959, Rollins stopped. He was twenty-eight years old. According to “Who Is Sonny Rollins,” a short BBC documentary from 1968, Rollins—who had been addicted to heroin in the late nineteen-forties and early fifties but sweated it out at the Lexington Narcotics Farm, a combination federal prison and rehabilitation facility, in Lexington, Kentucky—was exhausted by what he understood as a culture of nonstop degradation. Unsavory promoters, seedy clubs, “the whiskey.” I imagine he’d simply grown desperate for something less decadent and wayward—a self-imposed hiatus from a life style that he knew could devastate him. These moments of reckoning—in which something that once felt exciting begins to seem noxious, mephitic, dangerous—are important to heed. (I think of Bob Dylan, leaving Juárez in the rain: “I’m going back to New York City,” he sang. “I do believe I’ve had enough.”)
In 1961, a story by Ralph Berton appeared in Metronome, a trade rag that turned into a serious jazz magazine under the editorship of Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov. (Miles Davis suggested that Feather and Ulanov were the only white writers in New York who understood bebop: “The rest of them white motherfucking critics hated what we were doing,” he wrote.) Berton had come across Rollins playing atop the Williamsburg Bridge, which crosses the East River and connects North Brooklyn to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He filed a short dispatch about the encounter. In an effort to keep Rollins’s practice space private, Berton changed the location to the Brooklyn Bridge, and gave Rollins the somewhat ridiculous sobriquet “Buster Jones”:
Almost every day between the summer of 1959 and the end of 1961, Rollins—who was born in Harlem, and at the time lived in an apartment at 400 Grand Street, just a few blocks from the entrance to the bridge—walked out and stationed himself adjacent to the subway tracks, playing as cars full of commuters rattled past. Though Rollins has said that he tried to conceal himself (“I used to blow my horn back at the boats when the boats would blow. All of that was great. I was in a place where nobody could see me,” he told the Washington Post, in 2011), it remains strangely thrilling to me that, in 1960, a person could have looked up from her book at the exact right moment and glimpsed some bit of Rollins, hunched and ecstatic, huffing into his tenor saxophone.
In “Who Is Sonny Rollins,” he speaks a little about the atmosphere: “Usually, I don’t pay too much attention to the trains—I’m usually absorbed in what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m sure subconsciously I change what I’m playing to blend with the sound of the train,” he admitted. “It all has its effect.” He also spoke about solitude—what it offered him. “Eventually I want to communicate, but it might take being alone to communicate.”
Rollins’s wife, Lucille, supported them by working as a secretary in the physics department at New York University. Rollins was practicing yoga and reading spiritual texts—books about Buddhism, Sufism, and especially Rosicrucianism, a complicated belief system based on esoteric manifestos devised by a secret brotherhood of alchemists and sages. He maintains that his time on the bridge was about musical expansion, exclusively; Rollins had mastered the reigning form, but he sensed that the entire landscape was about to shift. “These young guys like Ornette Coleman and Coltrane were coming up. I told myself, ‘Sonny, you better get your shit together, because these cats have something to say,’
In 1962, Rollins released an album called “The Bridge,” effectively ending his three-year recording furlough. While he was away, the musical landscape had transformed. Coleman and others had continued to popularize so-called free jazz, a confrontational, instinctive response to bebop and modal jazz. Free jazz has a different relationship to tempo and fixed chord changes; it can be electrifying to listen to, or it can feel as if you have accidentally tripped some sort of alarm. Rollins, at least, was not yet interested in adopting the wildness of the avant-garde. “The Bridge” is, by most accountings, a conservative record for its moment. Stanley Crouch, writing in this magazine, suggested that, in 1962, Rollins was seen as “a standard-bearer of convention, and perhaps as the only one who could save jazz.” He wore tuxedos and tailored suits, and kept his dark hair short. In photographs from this period, he looks serious, athletic. His eyes are like still water.
From midway across the bridge, gazing out at Wallabout Bay, near Corlears Hook—a jut of land once infamous for its streetwalkers, now obscured by shoreline landfill—you can feel something like expansiveness, a sense of air and space. In 1959, there would have been significantly less foot traffic atop the bridge. It must have felt like a sanctuary.
Looking at any city this way, but especially at one you live in—hovering above it, adjacent but removed—can feel like an out-of-body experience, the way people who get very close to death often talk about staring back at their own bulk from a curious remove. I asked Caltabiano if he thought he could hear the bridge on Rollins’s records from 1962 on. I wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by the question—whether I was inquiring about a rhythmic influence or a spiritual one, some kind of widening or diffusion. Rollins would release several dozen more albums, including some (like “Our Man in Jazz,” from 1962, which he recorded with members of Ornette Coleman’s band) that still feel searching, revelatory, new.
Caltabiano was wearing sunglasses, but I saw his forehead loosen a little. “This is about freedom,” he said, gesturing around. The wind blew. Growth, change, self-preservation. I understood what he meant.