The Root Interview: Sonny Rollins

As he prepares for a rare live concert, the living legend riffs on the nature of jazz, his spiritual concerns and why it's important for young people to embrace the music.


Many say that Sonny Rollins is the greatest living jazz musician, period. Nominating someone else for that title would be difficult, considering that since the late 1940s, he has been putting his signature on the epidermis of jazz, swingin’ with Bird (Charlie Parker), Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Clark Terry, Roy Haynes, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie and a plethora of other musical giants. By the late ’50s, he and John Coltrane were defining the trajectory of jazz tenor sax for the decades that followed.

The Root spoke with Rollins by telephone in late August.

The Root: You’re celebrating your 80th birthday with a concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on Sept. 10. Among the special guests are Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride and Jim Hall, with whom you played and recorded back in the early ’60s. Why these gentlemen?

Sonny Rollins: Roy Hargrove is one of my favorite young trumpet players who I believe is walking in the footsteps of his and our ancestors in the music. Christian McBride, as you know, is the extremely talented bassist who represents the top of the line today. And guitarist Jim Hall is a fine artist in the tradition.

TR: My daughter Kaya is 14 years old. For her generation, what would you say is the importance of learning about and listening to jazz?

SR: We have to understand [that] we are Americans. Therefore we’re always under pressure to represent ourselves. I don’t care what kind of civil rights — a black president, black secretary [of state], doesn’t mean anything — we’re always a minority group in America. See? As such, what we have to validate ourselves is our history, our culture, what we have done over here, where we are citizens!

But besides that, they have to understand the cultural aspects of jazz. See, this is something that allowed us, allowed her, allowed you, allowed me, to be proud of something, man. See?

Some might say, oh, gee, I’m young and I’m gonna go with the style of my peers. OK. That’s fine. You know, I like all music. I’m educated enough to appreciate all kinds — hip-hop, everything. I like all of it.

But the point is that she has to understand that jazz is the umbrella for all the other black musics [in the U.S.].