Then Sonny Rollins speaks, talking through his horn

This is from an unpublished piece I wrote back in 2005.

….So the extraordinary facility of his early years, the 15 notes per second on Saxophone Colossus that Greg Burk cited in the LA Weekly last week…well, that was what young brains can come up with.  Young brains, young fingers, young lungs…. And the later stuff, the intricacies of The Bridge…well, that was the result of thousands of hours of contemplative, strenuous wood shedding, blowing into the wind, over the blasts of steamships and the cacophony of New York traffic. And even later, as the sixties wore on and Sonny’s tone became more voice like, the Bach complexities replaced by runs that sounded like him talking, as if three little words that emanated from the bell of his horn were even truer than the words that came with his speech…well, that is the result of a lot of struggle, a lot of searching, of endlessly questioning everything as you do it…. I think that finally, perhaps, he got to some point where he felt his seeking was over.  All that Eastern religion, the stumping around India after wisdom, late nights thinking, blowing, thinking some more….it had all come to a result. A place. I wonder if you can hear it on East Broadway Rundown. That’s a ferocious twenty minute title track…beginning with a wild head of almost Tijuana Brass simplicity but at a hurricane tempo, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, fresh off the Trane, work up a savage rhythm, the bass pulsing, throbbing, Elvin locked in a monster polyrhythmic groove, and Freddie Hubbard and Sonny blat, howl and finally, shriek, and then push it on even further to these unearthly staccato squeals that swirl around Elvin and Garrison like the seagulls that used to scream and kite around Sonny out there on the Williamsburg Bridge. At last their cries fade and we are left with a moment of silence.

Then Sonny speaks, talking through his horn.  I don’t know what he is saying.  Perhaps he is talking with the gods, or Buddha, or some inner self, or to the Muse itself.  But it is there, a sentence or two of words that come out of his horn.  It is as if he has reached some stage, some state, a place that Trane never got to through all of his screaming.  That Ornette never even tried to get to because he didn’t believe in it.  That Bird never even knew existed.  If it did.  Or does.  But it did for Sonny.  Or so it seems to me.  There, in that studio, just shy of the twenty minute mark, Sonny reached Nirvana. Or Olympus.

Then again maybe not.  The mind can run riot when the music blares in the dark….


Sonny Rollins reaching.

Sonny Rollins, reaching.




On the Sunny Side of the Street

It happened again. I’m listening over and over to Dizzy Gillespie’s incredible take on Sunny Side of the Street. Sonny Stitt takes the first solo, then Diz, and then Sonny Rollins, copping his lines from Louis Armstrong’s classic solo on his thirties take on the tune. Listen and you can almost hear Louis’s bluesy trumpet…this is one of my favorite Sonny Rollins solos. Then comes the best part — Dizzy’s perfect vocal. When I sing this song to myself hoping no one can hear, it’s this one I try and sing. Hell, it even taught me how to write about jazz. If ya wanna write about jazz, I told myself, ya gotta write in jazz. Otherwise you’re just another rock critic. So I tried to write like Dizzy talks/sings the lyric here. His phrasing, his timing, the punctuation he drops like bombs bouncing off a bass drum. Because this is the shit, man. This is jazz, this is bebop, this is the attitude, this is a whole fucked up old world opening up wide and you walk right on through, doing your own thing. And that, people, is what makes cool so cool…the gold dust at your feet (a metaphorical gold dust, but gold dust none the less) and you’re on the sunny, not the shady, but the sunny side of the street.

If you can dig that..

“On The Sunny Side of The Street”
Dizzy Gillespie trumpet, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins saxes, Ray Bryant piano, Tommy Bryant bass, Charlie Parsip drums. Recorded in NYC, December 19, 1957.

Sonny Side Up

Sonny Side Up

Smooth jazz

Me and a couple guys like me drank all of Camper Van Beethoven’s beer once backstage, though we didn’t realize it. Dove into their deli plate as well, and took up all the room on their comfy sofas. They were too small and frail to say anything, though. They just stewed and stamped their little college rock feet. We pocketed what was left and split for crazier scenes. I never came into a situation as good again until the press room at the Playboy Jazz Festival. Free everything, barrels of it, replenished continuously. Loaves and fishes and water into wine. You’d hide in there during the inevitable smooth jazz sets, and no one stomped their feet, not ever, though Kenny G gamboled about back stage, smiling and laughing and chattering. I turned down the offer of an interview, afraid the old me would come out and I’d do something awful and be banished from the press room and all its riches forever. You see, I’d learned by then. The secret of being an aging punk rocker turned jazz critic was control. Some shit just gets on your nerves, but be nice. Broken bottles are not always the appropriate response. Nor a fuck you, poseur. I was polite and tried not to loom over anybody. Just outside the door Kenny G did his Latin set. I decided to watch. It was like Lawrence Welk doing Tito Puente. The hokiest thing ever.  He didn’t even need Lawrence’s bubble machine, he was so naturally bubbly. More than bubbly even, he was effervescent, like a diet Seven Up with extra saccharine. He gamboled across the stage in his perfect white running shoes. He took extended solos that burbled and peeped and twittered. The band rocked. El Manicero swung like a huero on a dance floor. The crowd loved it, dancing and cheering. I was seething. My brother said that’s enough and took me back to the press room. We missed last call. All I wanted was a Pepsi, I muttered, just one Pepsi. We went out to the car and sat in the stacked parking forever. Look at us, I said, a couple old punk rockers sitting in our car at a Kenny G show.  We flipped on the radio. It was Boney James. I hate this guy, I said. My brother fished a beer out of his pocket. Stole it, he said. Want one? It was still cold. Sonny Rollins came on the radio, blowing ferociously, and I turned it up loud as it would go. He blew and blew, Sonny Rollins did, crazy, angry, intense, and we drank our beer amid the din and all was good.

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins in a Mohawk, c. 1965