Documentary about the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins, built around his 80th birthday concert, where he is joined by the likes of Roy Haynes, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman.
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In 1948, a brilliant young musician left high school in Harlem
and made his first record.
By 1959, he had become one of the two or three most original
and influential musicians in jazz.
Sonny Rollins was 29 years old
and, at the height of his career, he quit.
Two years later, a story circulated about the sound of a lonely saxophone
high above the traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge.
I've seen a lot of great musicians, you know,
that never really had a chance to really express themselves, you know.
It was always kept into the small area of the club
and with the club goes the whisky, the, er, you know,
the degrading things, so to speak,
so that, er, it kills off a lot of people.
It kills off a lot of people.
You can blow your horn,
and if you get great on it, you'll live a good life, so to speak,
you know, and the public don't really give a damn as long as you sound good.
They don't care what you do.
You can use drugs, you can do anything you want,
as long as you sound good when you get up on the stand, well...
..I don't know if it's worth that to me.
When I first went away and went on the bridge,
at that point, I was making pretty good money
and I was, you know, doing OK...
..but, you know, it wasn't enough. I mean, it wasn't it at all for me.
In 1967, as a young film-maker, I followed this extraordinary man,
still rejecting stereotype and compromise,
back onto the bridge to make a film about his continuing search
for new meaning in his music and his life.
In 2010, after 40 more years
of his quest to be understood through his music,
he gathered together some of the jazz legends
who had accompanied him on his journey,
including Roy Haynes, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman
in a historic celebration of his 80th birthday
and the history of his music.
He's just an important man in American culture and history.
You could argue he's the greatest living jazz musician.
You would think that
you're going to hear something you've heard 30 years ago,
and he will bring something completely different.
Every show is unique, every moment is unique.
Nothing about him is canned.
There's something about him that's sort of spiritual.
# Da-da-da, da-da-da! # I love it, I love it.
There's something that, er, transcends the everyday.
He progressively gives you something to aspire to.
-And you can tell that he's still enjoying it.
-Sonny is a monster.
I am amazed that at 80 he still has it.
He's doing his thing, he's doing it better than most people I know.
It's just... It's fabulous and he's still getting a kick out of it too.
There aren't many legendary figures of his stature,
so you guys are really lucky
-to be getting to hear him.
Sonny actually embodies what jazz really is,
because jazz is really about making the present work
and meeting it face to face and doing something with it,
and that is what jazz is actually about.
It's about summoning the power of the present.
I played a concert with Sonny in 1958 or '59.
I said, "Oh, shit,
"did I make a mistake?"
you know, "I don't know whether
"I'm ready for Sonny Rollins."
I never forget this the promoter came to us and said,
you know, "Is Sonny here?"
And we had hadn't seen Sonny,
we didn't know whether he was there or not.
It was like he picked his moment to go
and he tore it up.
We'd been together since that and it's been almost 50 years, I guess.
It's a rapport, I feel things that he's going to do.
I'd like to really create every night differently.
It depends a lot on the musicians,
cos a lot of people feel,
"Gee, you should be able to control everything,
"cos you're Sonny and you should be able to..."
but that's not what jazz...
Jazz is communicable thing,
so you've got to sort of make it up as you go, you know.
I met Sonny 30 years ago,
so...I don't know if even Sonny knows this story.
I was working in a record store in the Village, here in New York...
..and he was recording in front of me
at Electric Lady Studio...
..and the guy runs out,
and he says, "You're Sammy Figueroa." I said, "Yeah."
He says, "Listen, can you come across the street?"
And I said, "Yeah."
And my boss says to me, "You're taking too long. What are you doing?"
I said, "Nothing. Just walking around."
Well, he fired me...
that day, but I did join Sonny's band.
When somebody stares at you with a sax two inches away,
you've got to come up with something.
It's all part of this, er...
this wonderful dance that happens when you're playing jazz.
It's about the moment -
what's out there, what can you pull from the air?
You put a little bit of rhythm, harmony, excitement, eloquence...
You put all that recipe and then your palate goes nuts.
He's the greatest culinary musician I've ever seen in my life!
Watching Sonny sometimes on stage,
and I know some of the guys in the band who are younger don't hear it,
Sonny will go through the history of the saxophone,
and what he comes up with and I hear it
and inside I'm laughing...is all I can do not to laugh out loud,
and he could do that within one tune.
It takes you to a higher level of consciousness
where he comes from,
but after you leave, you go, "What...what just happened?
"What the hell just happened?"
"It doesn't matter what happened, it happened."
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Every time you finish playing, and I shake my head
and say, "Damn, how can he do it?"
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Ladies and gentlemen, now we're going to bring
some of the greatest people that are performing jazz,
our world music - jazz, THE music,
the king of all music...
..the umbrella under which all other musics exist.
APPLAUSE AND CHEERING
And we have with us one of the young new outstanding people -
he's really came up in the tradition of Ray Brown and all these people,
the great Oscar Pettiford and all of these great people,
and he's here with us
as bassist here and his name is Christian McBride.
'It's sort of the catch-22 in jazz.'
To be a great jazz musician,
you have to learn everything you can possibly learn,
and then forget it.
'Sonny has always been about progressing.'
He certainly is very nostalgic.
He loves to talk about, er, his early days in Harlem,
but he never lets that...
that's never like an ankle bracelet for him.
Yeah, I was born in Harlem.
You know, I was very fortunate to be born into that music scene up there,
you know, it was a great, great scene -
there was music all around me, you know,
hearing a lot of jazz and gospel.
My mother came from St Thomas.
She used to take me to some of these calypso dances and stuff,
you know, that's one of the musics we heard.
-THE YOUNGER SONNY:
-Duke Ellington lived on my block at one time.
Of course, he was always going and coming.
My family insisted that I play the piano.
I was more interested in playing ball in the streets, you know,
so they gave up on me as far as that was concerned.
-THE OLDER SONNY:
-One of the tenement houses we lived in used to be
an after-hours joint and everybody...Fats Waller and everybody played there,
and then Fats Waller used to play right across the street from where we lived.
# To say that things are jumpin'
# Leaves not a single doubt
# Watch all these cats watch everything
# When you hear somebody shout
# This joint is jumpin' Really jumpin'
# Come in, cats, and check your hat
# And I mean this joint is jumpin'... #
And around that time, I was going to an elementary school in 135th Street
and right across the street was a nightclub,
and, er, in the window was a picture of Louis Jordan
and here he was with this beautiful shiny sax, you know,
he had, like, a Zephyr, a King Zephyr,
so I began letting my mother know that I'd like a saxophone.
I had one cousin, we went to his house and then, er...
he had this saxophone under the bed.
She said, "Oh, well, Sonny likes saxophones."
So he said, "Oh, yeah," so he went in the bedroom and he pulled out this case, you know,
and here was this beautiful, gleaming gold horn, you know.
And the velvet... dark velvet case,
and that was it for me.
I can still go to a music store and just watch saxophones
and just look at 'em in the window.
SHOP BELL TINGS
The saxophone you liked best of all was the oldest one I had.
Oh, yeah. It was lovely.
-It was the first one you had as a boy.
-This is it.
-Maybe I'll take it back from you.
-You can you give me a good price on it?
So I finally convinced my mother to buy me a saxophone, you know,
and in those days, it was sort of the Depression days,
so it wasn't easy for her to do...
and then I began to get teachers,
but then the main bulk of my work
was done at home in my closet,
you know, I would go in the closet
and practise and I'd be in there for hours and hours and hours, you know.
I had one neighbour that was very good, you know,
and he would always say,
"Stay in this, Sonny, keep it up,"
and, "Boy, I heard you today.
"Keep playing," you know.
And we have also one of the all-time great drummers
in the history of our jazz music.
Er, he came tonight unannounced and his name is Roy Haynes.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
'Sonny knew some people that I knew.
'I saw him one night'
and he was standing in front of this restaurant
and I said, "What's up?
He said, "I had a little gig,"
and I said, "Oh, this guy is big-time."
I said that to myself, of course, you know.
Late on, I start hearing... you know, hearing his name.
He was a great player already.
We started out playing in my own little kid bands, you know.
We had a lot of guys that really came out, you know,
which were people like Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew.
But, er, we played for dances, mostly it was dances.
And there were always a coterie of, er, jazz fans,
who would sort of come up towards the grandstand and listen
to the music, you know,
and get excited about what the guys were playing,
but it started out for us playing for people dancing.
So I used to go to Minton's Playhouse, the jam sessions,
and a guy heard me one night -
he said, "Well, look, Sonny, you sound a good kid,
"you come up and play in-between these stars.
"You play intermission while they're on their breaks,"
so I said, "Oh, wow, great!"
That's when Miles heard me, you know, cos Miles said, "Oh, man!" you know,
"What are you doing? Who are you playing with?
"I want you to play with me. I want you to play with my band," you know.
I said, "Wow! OK, man," you know.
In those days, we used to go to the movies every week -
that was the big thing.
I used to hear a lot of these songs -
things like Jerome Kern, who was one of my favourite American composers.
# A fine romance
# My good fellow
# You take romance
# I'll take Jello... #
I remember hearing Swing Time. It had some great tunes in there -
A Fine Romance - a lot of these songs stayed with me, really.
They stuck in my mind,
you know, so I never just approach it as a melody without the words.
It helped me to interpret a song, knowing the words, you know.
# With no insults and all morals... #
When I went to the movie house,
Coleman Hawkins was sitting up in the front of the theatre,
right in the front seats, you know - course, he was my idol.
Coleman lived very close.
In fact, all of the prominent black people in the community
lived in that area, it was called Sugar Hill.
It was sort of the area where all of the well-to-do people lived.
There is a true story about my going to Coleman Hawkins' doorstep
when I was I was a kid with this 8x10 photo, you know,
waiting for him to come home,
so that he would sign it.
I knew he lived in this building,
so I went by his house and waited for him to come home,
so then he came in.
I said, "Oh, Mr Hawk, would you sign this?"
And there was this great picture by a photographer, James J Kreigsmann.
You know, he signed it and everything.
I took it home and put it in my book, you know.
Then in the next few years, I began to rehearse with the great Thelonius Monk.
Monk was like, er, my guru.
When I began playing with Monk, I was still in high school...
..and we used to go to Monk's house after school...
..and he'd have this music, you know,
and the musicians were looking at the music and say, "Well, Monk,
"this isn't possible, you can't play this, nobody can do this, man.
"What are you talking about?"
But by the time the night was over, everybody was playing it.
I wanted to be like Monk.
I wanted to be a person that was into music only. That was all...
Monk always said that music is...
first, last and always music,
and that's how I felt, you know.
I've been extremely fortunate to play with these guys -
Roy Haynes and all these people.
You know, somebody you knew a long time ago and you still get together,
you know, that's something special.
Ever since I can remember, I was playing drums.
I was always looking for different approaches to the instrument,
and during that time, so-called bebop was right up my sleeve,
I was ready for that.
A lot of the older musicians, they would be hard on a drummer,
they would mess with your mind and one of the things they would say,
"A drummer is not supposed to break the rhythm."
He's supposed to, you know, just keep it going.
I was breaking the rhythm, but it was still swinging
and that was one of the main things that kept me on here,
being able to swing, give them that feeling.
# Ding-ding di-ding didi-ding. #
Papa Jo, Big Sid Catlett.
And I listened to all of those guys
and I still do a lot of that, not the way they did it exactly, but...
..it's still a swinging...
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Living in New York was exciting.
I used to hear some of the old-timers say, "I wouldn't leave Harlem to go to heaven."
It was like that, you know, even to go to 52nd Street
and see all the great players
that I had read about and heard their music
on 52nd Street was like a dream, man.
-I was among the people that used to go down to 52nd Street,
so Bird became a big idol
and we used to follow him around, you know, and, er...
he was really very tolerant of us
because you're just a bunch of kids, as a matter of fact.
The world of jazz and music...
People are not... doing it by themselves,
there's a higher force
that takes people and picks people
and says, "You are the one. You are the one."
I'm talking about Roy Hargrove.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
It's indescribable, what it is.
I mean, even when I went to the rehearsal, it just seemed like
I was in the presence of this, you know, grand deity, you know what I'm saying?
PLAYS THREE NOTES
It felt like I was in a room with God, you know,
but, you know, when you're in the presence of somebody like that,
you can't help but the knees buckle.
Something about the energy that he is projecting,
it inspires me to want to... to at least hold my own, you know what I'm saying?
In the beginning of my development, what kind of spurred me on
and what made me want to play
was the emotional quality that you can put through the music
and I believe in playing with as much feeling as possible.
You can play a lot of notes, but when you have the heart involved, people feel that.
My father was a music lover and he collected a lot of records.
When I was a kid, I'd just go through them and read them.
I was fascinated by the whole spectrum of them.
When I got old enough to try to pick up an instrument, I heard a band play at my school
and they were young kids, like nine, ten years old,
but they knew how to improvise something based on blues
and when I saw them doing that,
I was like, "OK, I want to do that too."
"That's my thing, I want to do that."
When I got into high school, my principal turned me on to Clifford Brown,
and that was it.
Once I heard Clifford, I felt like I was on the right path.
I was pretty much hooked at that point.
-THE YOUNGER SONNY:
-I had gotten also involved in the drug scene at that time.
We were following Bird, Charlie Parker, and thought that this was the right thing to do.
He impressed upon me the fact that
he really didn't want people following him in this way.
He was really upset that I was kind of messing him up by doing this.
This was one of the prime reasons
in helping me to get off of this horrible habit.
I was so anxious to show him, "Well, I got your message,"
but then he died.
-THE OLDER SONNY:
-I messed myself up there for a while,
had the wrong ideas about what it takes to play music
and I had just come out of the hospital and, er...
I was just getting myself strong...
to face the music scene with all of the pitfalls.
The guys were saying, "Oh, come on, Sonny. Come on with me, let's hang out," you know.
That's the real sort of... you know, the devil tempting you, you know.
That came by the club and that was a big test.
Now this was a club where Max Roach and Clifford Brown's group were becoming big.
I mean, I had tremendous respect for them.
At any rate, they needed a saxophone player
and that was the beginning of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band
and me as sideman.
There was a devastating thing for many reasons -
one being that Brownie was such a very warm, nice person,
you know, he was very level-headed person to be such a fine musician, you know.
He had a very, er, good influence on me,
cos I was kind of wild at that time,
so he was a personal loss as well as musical loss.
On the musical side, Brownie and I had just begun to play together as a two-horn group.
It takes a while.
We had just gotten to the point
where we were breathing exactly together,
Just noticed it happening.
That's the last job we played, prior to this crash.
It hasn't let me down. It's always going to be here,
because it's the foundation.
You learn how to improvise, then there's nothing you can't do.
If you can make music up on the spot, you don't have anything in your way.
It's deeper than words, you know what I'm saying?
-THE YOUNGER SONNY:
-What was beginning to happen to me
was that I was being expected to really deliver
great music all the time.
My name was bigger than I thought I could support with what I was doing.
I remember one particular job I had...
..when I felt I wasn't really playing well enough.
Everybody was really so excited to see me.
I really felt I let the people down.
I was really frustrated with myself, you know.
That was really the genesis of this thing on the bridge.
That's what really it was all about.
-THE OLDER SONNY:
-I was out walking two blocks from where I lived, actually.
And I looked up, and saw these steps going up.
I walked over the street, and walked up the steps,
and there was this beautiful, big expanse of bridge, you know.
Nobody up there.
-THE YOUNGER SONNY:
-Usually, I don't pay too much attention to the trains.
I'm usually absorbed in what I'm doing.
In a way, the atmospheric noise adds to your playing.
All these sounds,
because I'm sure that subconsciously I change what I'm playing
to blend with the sound of the train. It all has its effect.
-THE OLDER SONNY:
-It just was a perfect thing that happened.
Ladies and gentlemen, now we're going to bring to the stage
one of the finest guitar players.
A young gentleman I had the good fortune
of making some records with,
way back when I was a young boy.
All the guitar players really love Jim Hall.
I started getting notes in my mailbox from Sonny.
He said, "Dear Jim, I'd like to talk to you about music."
He came up to the apartment.
He said he wanted to have this quartet,
and he would like me to be involved in it.
After I came back from the bridge,
the guys were saying they didn't know what to expect from me,
since I'd been away.
I had the idea of having the space thing again.
Having enough space and still having the support.
We came on with that particular group,
which was sort of unusual.
And the sound was sort of different.
The freedom that he had when we started to play...
Sometimes, Sonny would be playing a solo and he'd play so strongly
we'd have to just stop, and let him explore the tune
by himself for a while. And then we'd go back into tempo.
He'd take a piece, a composition, say All The Things You Are,
and just take it apart.
Then put it back together again, and we'd start again.
I was always aware of how Sonny was really listening to what I did, too.
Occasionally, I'd play a phrase, and he'd imitate it, suddenly,
as a background, or something.
He listens incredibly well.
I can hear it on The Bridge CD.
I like The Bridge. I like what we were able to do.
It was my favourite.
Cos I watch Sonny and Jim Hall.
The way they react to each other.
The wit between the two.
Jim Hall's a very witty guy. Funny.
And he and Sonny, the interplay. I just sit and listen.
No matter how much you have in your head,
it has to fit into the moment going on around you.
He got me practising, I'll tell you that!
Sometimes, in those days, it was difficult to find a place
where we could have dinner together.
This was in the late '50s. 1960, maybe.
Any place down south, I would be the guy who went in to get coffee.
People would think I was the manager.
GUITAR SOLO ENDS AND SAXOPHONE RESUMES
I remember working at the Apollo Theatre with Sonny.
I was the only pale face in there, too.
Occasionally, people would say, "Play your solo, baby."
Sonny would say, "Don't let them get you."
I think he got some flak for hiring a white guy.
So, I really do feel that music has a way of bringing people
and thoughts together.
My dad's from Jamaica, and a lot of West Indians
really look up to Western films for inspiration.
When I looked at this, it reminded me of the stories my dad
would tell about all those guys from those Westerns,
who had these morals about, "If you do something to me,
"I'm going to take my gun, load it up,
and I'm going to go and get you.
"I'm going to smoke you out."
So, as you can see here, you have Sonny Rollins.
Instead of his Colt 45, he's going to smoke you out with a tenor saxophone.
So, when I saw this, it was just such a dangerous album.
I had to possess it.
I was 15 when I heard this record for the first time.
This is the record that made me want to be a jazz musician.
I don't just want to sound like Sonny Rollins,
I want to be inspired by him to sound like myself.
Back in the '50s, the Western gunslinger
was the way of projecting that sense of...
"..I am right. I know I'm right. There's an injustice,
"and this is how justice will be served."
He didn't conform at all.
He really found a way to make the music more than it is.
"America's deeply rooted in Negro culture.
"Its colloquialism, its humour, its music.
"How ironic that the Negro, who, more than any other people
"can claim America's culture as his own,
"is being persecuted and repressed,
"that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence,
"is being regarded with inhumanity."
Who wrote this?
HE wrote it!
He was too deep.
Well, Courtney Pine.
Very proud of you, man.
You're doing some important work there.
Well, it's your fault, you know!
I mean, I'm following you,
in the sense of knowing what you're doing,
so I hope you don't mind my saying that I'm proud of you.
-That means a lot to me.
-This is another saxophone player, Soweto Kinch.
-What's your name?
-My name's Soweto.
-I'm a big fan of your work.
-Fine. How you doing, man?
-Very blessed, after seeing that. It was like a sermon in saxophone.
-It's his first time.
-Well, did you get something?
A great deal.
I have one really pressing question to ask you.
This one is on my mind a lot.
I've been listening a lot to Freedom Suite.
And the liner notes you wrote back then in '57.
Did you think that playing acoustic jazz could really
change the way people live?
I'm not sure that I thought it might change.
I was saying something, getting it off of my chest.
I'm not sure that I was really thinking that it might
really do any good to change society.
I was kind of sceptical about that,
but, I felt good saying it.
I mean, I wanted to say it,
and people like WEB Du Bois, and all that said,
well, if you're in a position
to say something, just do it.
Which is OK, because I came up
in a very activist house.
We were following Paul Robeson and everybody, when I was a little boy.
So, that was natural for me to make that album, you know.
There's still a lot of racial problems in the States,
and I'm sure in other parts of the world. England, and other places.
But I think now we have to look at it
in even a bigger picture than that.
For me to say that, as a black person,
still I feel that there is a wider picture,
a planetary picture.
I mean, there's a lot of bad stuff going on.
So, my hope is that
at least, my hope, what I want to do. I want to try to play
a music which somehow can address some of these problems.
And not in a verbal way, a musical way.
We have that feeling that we can reach people
through that really mysterious sound of the horn
without the words.
The fundamental thing about the playing of music is
it introduces a performer into an interior universe
that plays totally by its own rules.
It is not difficult to understand
that Sonny Rollins would have a very deep spiritual...
relationship to music and a sense of spiritual quest.
Because somewhere a long the way, he probably will come upon something.
Ladies and gentlemen, somebody told me there's somebody
in the house
that is going to say happy birthday to me.
And he's someplace backstage, and he's got a horn.
And I wish he'd come out now.
I've talked to many musicians over the years.
Once they get to the point
where somebody truly starts to swing, right,
I try to get as close to that as I possibly can.
At that concert, so often...
..everybody who was up there was actually trying to get to that.
That made it different than just a virtuoso display
of, "I'm a star. And here I am, to polish my badge once more."
That wasn't what was going on. People came there to play,
because they were playing with Sonny Rollins.
You've got to go with him, because he was so powerful,
the only choice you've got to do is go his way.
I was backstage with Ornette Coleman.
I said, "He's been playing like that for two hours, with no break."
Ornette was 80, Sonny's 80.
I think that when you've played that long,
you can tell what you're about to step into.
I guess I was there playing,
because we have something in common, which is music.
Just the fact that he was there
says something about the camaraderie
between extremely high-quality musicians.
It's rarely replicated in other art forms.
And it never exceeds the way it comes off in jazz.
When you have people who have real feeling and respect for each other.
-I'm trying to find out who
I only know that I get up and breathe,
and do what I have to do,
and see if I can make what I didn't do yesterday better.
And it's still getting better.
When I went out to California with Max Roach, in 1956,
this was after Brownie had died.
That's when I met Ornette.
And Ornette and I used to go out and play by Malibu,
right by the ocean.
I used to love going out and playing
out in the open.
Any place where I'm playing up against the elements.
This, like the bridge, was such a beautiful place.
So, anyway, the sound of the surf and everything
was a perfect backdrop for practising.
In fact, I wanted to make a record out by the surf,
just playing with the surf coming in, you know.
We got to be good buddies.
When Ornette came to New York with his band,
I liked playing with them,
and I sort of liked the concept that they were using.
The music is in the air, and the music is every place.
You know, it doesn't have to begin and end.
I don't have anything that I'm concerned about
that is the past, or the future, or the present.
That's not something I want to major in.
I want to major in eternity.
ON FILM: I'm in love with eternity.
What I mean by that is that...
..I don't care about how many changes
that goes on, you know.
As longs as it keeps going on.
It's the first time you guys collaborated on stage?
On stage, yeah.
We used to practise together.
We never played together, you know.
That was your concert?
-It was my 80th birthday concert.
And you set that up, and everything?
-Yeah, I did it. I produced it.
I did everything. There was no corporate involvement...
Which there usually is, you know?
In all these shows in New York,
we didn't have any corporate sponsorship.
We did it, you know, just ourselves.
Most people think it can only happen with corporate money,
-or a label...
-There you go!
The music? OK, great.
But the message of trying to do things ourselves...
-Well, it was great hearing you tonight.
Next show will be better, but...
I promise that.
I'll begin to sing.
Well, it's an option.
But I promise that.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
2011 was the 82nd year in the extraordinary life of arguably the greatest saxophone player in the world, Sonny Rollins. Four decades ago, as a young filmmaker and aspiring musician, Dick Fontaine followed Rollins up onto the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan during one of his legendary escapes from the perils of 'the jazz life'. Today, still resisting stereotype and compromise, and revered by a new generation of young musicians, Rollins continues his single-minded search for meaning in his music and his life. Dick Fontaine's film is built around the explosive energy of Sonny's 80th Birthday Concert, where legendary figures Roy Haynes, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman join him to celebrate his journey so far, his music and its future for a new generation.