Skip to page content

Sonny Rollins

About this Artist

Tenor saxophonist SONNY ROLLINS remains one of the few surviving icons from the golden era of jazz. Born in New York City on September 7, 1930, to music-loving parents of Caribbean ancestry, Rollins studied piano initially but soon turned to the alto saxophone, then moved to tenor at age 16. From 1949 through 1954 he recorded with J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, and others. Rollins' contemporaries at that time included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor. During the second half of the decade he introduced the now-classic tunes "Airegin," "Oleo," and "Blue 7" and the LPs Way Out West, Freedom Suite, Tenor Madness, and Saxophone Colossus, which stretched the boundaries of jazz and inspired the next generations of jazz musicians, including Ornette Coleman.

Beginning in 1959 Rollins took a now-famous sabbatical, during which he often was found practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York's Lower East Side. The Bridge launched a second period of prolific recording and experimentation. By decade's end Rollins took one final hiatus in Japan and India to study yoga and spiritual texts.

Rollins resurfaced in the early 1970s and has maintained a steady program of carefully chosen performances and recordings. Much as Dizzy Gillespie brought the backbeats of R&B and Afro-Cuban music to the harmonic complexity, rhythmic propulsion, and innovative melodic language of Charlie Parker; much as John Coltrane kept pushing the envelope of bop into transcendent new realms of self-expression; much as Miles Davis retained his singularity of expression through a series of stylistic changes - with nary a backwards glance - so Rollins, in his sixth decade in the profession, continues to reinvent himself. Recent recordings include Global Warning (1998) and This Is What I Do (2002), which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album by an Individual or Group. In 2004 Rollins was honored with Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award.