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.

SR: [Deep laughter.] Well, I’ve had a long life. I’ve indulged in everything during my life. So when you talk to me, you’re talking to the voice of experience.

See, around the 1950s I began trying to better myself. I began reading a lot then. I started to realize that I had to do something with my life, with my body. You know, I’m here smokin’ and drinkin’, till I said, wait a minute. So I began getting into health foods, and began to understand that what you put in your mouth makes your mind operate correctly.

So in the ’50s I began to get more of a foothold on, what am I doing here? Life, what is it all about? So I began to think that way, and I really cultivated some of these good habits. So maybe that’s why I’m still around. I still do my yoga, I still practice my horn every day. And I’m still the same person, it’s just now I’m 80. [Belly laughter.]

TR: What would you say about the mental/intellectual side of the music?

SR: Oh, man, that’s everything. How can we deny the music of people like Scott Joplin? People talk about America. Look, man, I saw this movie one time — the cat says, well, during the first World War, the people in France thought the national anthem of America was the “St. Louis Blues”!

You know? That is America. I don’t want to say, oh, black is the only — no — but the black culture did bring jazz into being. So I’m not saying that nobody else can play jazz, no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that what we did is a result of, maybe, Africa being the first continent that every other race came from. So we do have this deep propensity for music. We got it and we made it into jazz, as well as other forms of the black Diaspora.

But jazz is my thing, and I think it’s the greatest music in the world. Jazz is the music of this planet, because jazz mimics nature. When you play jazz, real jazz, you don’t know what the next note is going to be.

TR: Yes, sir.

SR: The next note comes just like each day is different. Like this morning, it was cloudy and rainy; now the sun is out up here where I’m at. That’s jazz. It’s like nature. There’s no other music like it.

TR: When you equate jazz with nature, there’s also human nature, us being emotional beings. Talk about jazz and emotions, feelings.