It’s 1942. Probably. That would make Rollins 11 years old, down from Harlem to spend the summer in Annapolis with his father, a chief petty officer in the Navy. It’s a gorgeous afternoon at Carr’s Beach — a segregated strip on the Severn River where black musicians regularly performed for black audiences. Rollins is listening carefully to Hawkins and his big band, an Alabama group whose work the kid knows well. But he’s got his eyes locked on Marjorie Brown, a woman he’s been following around town.
“They used to have people sitting on chairs on the stage, right next to the band,” Rollins says, flashing back seven decades. “Sure enough, when I went there that day, there was Marjorie Brown sitting next to the Erskine Hawkins band. The implications were that she was friendly with the band. So that crushed my heart, you know?”
No, not really. How does an 11-year-old fall in love with a woman 10 years his senior? Laughter peals over the telephone from Europe, where the 81-year-old has spent the past month on tour. “I was a mature 11,” he says.
Mature, precocious, cultured and determined. Aside from a few summers in Maryland, Rollins spent his childhood in Harlem, a cultural epicenter that would shape him into a jazz icon who would steer the trajectory of the genre and the concept of improvisation writ large. As Rollins looks back, the chapters of his life often slice into neat little halves — separate realities where he toggled between success and struggle, renown and solitude. He apprenticed with the bop gods (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis) while battling the dark forces of addiction. At his highest levels of acclaim, he took mysterious sabbaticals that felt like vanishing acts. Today, Rollins says he gets through “this world full of problems” by reaching for higher spiritual plateaus that he “can almost touch,” but never quite does.
His worlds started dividing during those formative Maryland summers. He remembers going to a movie theater in Annapolis to see “
Cabin in the Sky,” a musical whose title track Rollins still likes to perform today. Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington all starred in the film. So did Ford Lee Washington and John William Sublett, a duo Rollins had seen perform as Buck and Bubbles at the Apollo Theater back home.
In Annapolis, Rollins had to watch the film from the balcony. But he doesn’t remember feeling the ugly sting of segregation that day — only the magic he saw glimmering on screen. “A great experience,” he says. “And at the end of the picture, the guy woke up and realized it was all a dream.”
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In the 1958 essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” jazz writer and composer Gunther Schuller famously declared, “Today we have reached another juncture in the constant evolution of improvisation and the central figure of this present renewal is Sonny Rollins.” The world soon heard what Schuller was hearing. As Rollins searched for fresh melodic phrases in his solos, his playing became more untethered and more articulate, possessing the rhythm and authority of human speech. Since then, thousands of Smith-Corona ribbons and laptop batteries have died in the service of explaining its impact.