Sonny Rollins, one of jazzdom’s most proficient and legendary tenor saxophonists, may not be a household name, but millions will gather some sense of his legacy after viewing a recent broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors on CBS-TV.
Rollins, 81, shared the evening of tributes with Meryl Streep, Yo Yo Ma, Neil Diamond, and Barbara Cook, and each was celebrated by the appearances of notables in their respective fields of arts and entertainment.
And Bill Cosby’s hilarious introduction placed Rollins in a marvelous global context.
Among the musical giants performing for Rollins, who was born Theodore Walter in Harlem, were fellow saxophonists Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Joe Lovano. The rhythm section included bassist Christian McBride, drummer Jack DeJonnette, Jim Hall on guitar, with the inimitable Herbie Hancock at the piano.
Listening to his cohorts’ brilliant salutations brought nods of approval from Rollins and there were moments when he appeared to be practically salivating, eager to take to the stage and join them, particularly when the ensemble invoked his classic composition “St. Thomas.”
The brief retrospective of his productive life presented some evidence of his glorious career, but it was only a delightful tease, just a glimpse at the changes Rollins has played and fortunately endured, including a bout with drugs.
One thing of note was Rollins’ versatility, the ease and comfort through which he has expressed his singular genius no matter the changing styles and modes of jazz. Though bebop is his forte, he can still hold his own in the realm of the experimental avant garde, the old school swing, and whatever fresh wave of music emerges from the islands and South America.
Now a grey eminence, Rollins continues to maintain that sunny disposition, which may be the source of his nickname, though that may have been a sobriquet from his days coming of age on Sugar Hill in Harlem where everybody was blessed with a special handle.
A few old-timers may recall that it was Rollins’ who wrote the film score to “Alfie,” though the theme song was written by Burt Bacharach. He gave this haunting melody a lasting scintilla of blues that has been, and continues to be, part and parcel of the Rollins touch.
Yes, it was a memorable moment—with President Obama and First Lady Michelle sharing it—for the “saxophone colossus,” and he deserved every sweet and swinging moment, and the only thing missing was him on stage exchanging solos with his formidable comrades.