With more than 50 years in jazz, Theodore "Sonny" Rollins' towering achievements on the tenor saxophone are many, and he continues to be one of the most exciting and fiery players in concert. Inspired by the example of his brother's pursuit of music, Rollins began piano lessons at age nine. At 14 he picked up the alto saxophone, and switched to the tenor two years later. Soon he was playing dances in a band of youngsters in his New York community, which included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor. Rollins' first recording was made alongside the bop singer Babs Gonzales in 1949. Later that year he played at sessions with J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell, recording his song "Audubon" with Johnson.
In the 1950s, Rollins began by serving as a sideman on sessions with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Farmer, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. In late 1955, while living in Chicago, he began one of his most fruitful band affiliations when he stood in for Harold Land in the superb Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet at the Bee Hive club. He remained a regular member until Brown's tragic June 1956 death from an auto accident.
Rollins continued to record, mainly for Prestige, where his output was some of the finest music recorded in the mid-1950s on any label. Among the highlights during this period were Tenor Madness, which included an encounter with John Coltrane; Saxophone Colossus, a sparkling album that introduced his most noted composition, "St. Thomas," which honored his parents' Virgin Islands roots; and Way Out West, which took seemingly mundane songs like "I'm an Old Cowhand" and spun them out with extraordinary improvisations.
By 1959, Rollins had grown impatient with the vagaries of the jazz scene and took a hiatus. He would often practice his horn deep into the night on the upper reaches of the Williamsburg Bridge, which crosses the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In 1961 he returned to the scene, refreshed and playing better than ever. He made a series of recordings for the RCA label with musicians such as Jim Hall, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Herbie Hancock, and also began his long-term employment of bassist Bob Cranshaw.
In London in 1966, he composed and recorded a soundtrack album for the film Alfie for the Impulse! label, which brought him some popularity beyond jazz audiences. By 1968 Rollins again required a break from the scene, returning in 1971. He has been playing and growing ever since, working almost exclusively on concert stages. Rollins' recordings have continued to reflect his interest in Caribbean rhythms, particularly the calypso. In 2010, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
A Night at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, 1957
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