Sonny Rollins was born in New York City, in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, on September 7, 1930. As a very young child, he tried his hand at piano, but switched to alto sax at age 11. Rollins became part of a Harlem-based nucleus of young musicians, which included drummer Art Taylor and pianist Kenny Drew, who were regularly called on to perform and record with larger lights.
At just 19, Sonny had spent several months rehearsing with Thelonious Monk and had already recorded with trombonist J. J. Johnson and trumpeter and pianist Bud Powell Monk. Alto saxophonist Louis Jordan and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins — whose saxophone case the young Sonny would dutifully carry to and from gigs — were key early influences for Sonny.
In 1951, Rollins began a professional and personal friendship with trumpeter Miles Davis, with whom he collaborated on the latter’s Dig album. While Rollins’ career track was on the rise, his personal life was sadly, slowly taken over by heroin, with his first drug possession arrest coming in 1950.
But Rollins fought back and successfully preserved his growing reputation in the mid-1950s as one of the jazz scene’s most innovative improvisers. His resume included work with pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Clifford Brown. At the decade’s end, Rollins and drummer Elvin Jones recorded the classic Night At The Village Vanguard album.
Rollins shocked the jazz world in 1959 when he took the first in a number of self-imposed exiles. During this hiatus, he practiced on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge, and delved into a number of Eastern philosophies. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean often practiced with him on the Williamsburg Bridge.
His return in the 1960s saw intense creative development, especially in his growing string of landmark concert and studio efforts. Rollins became particularly celebrated for his live performances, well documented on collections like 1974’s The Cutting Edge.
Rollins continues to perform and record, but he’s increasingly drawn to the solitude found on his upstate New York farm, which he shares with his wife and manager, Lucille. Though he frequently notes that “It’s four in the afternoon for me”, age has only further sweetened Rollins’ ever-soulful invention and sound.